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Wordekemper gets a taste of the big show

Thursday, May 8, 2008

It was just the slightest taste, but for Storm Lake's Eric Wordekemper, it has to be motivation that the dream he has worked toward for years is within long, strong right armslength.

In a split squad exhibition game this spring, the New York Yankees brought minor league prospect Wordekemper, the former St. Mary's star, in from their nearby AA club in Trenton, New Jersey to help pad out the bullpen. Wordekemper was put in the game against Tampa Bay late for a scoreless inning and a chance to pitch to big-show talent for a couple of batters.

"It was only one inning, but he was pretty excited about it," his father Dale said.

Such an opportunity once seemed pretty distant for Word, who bypassed his senior season at Creighton to enter the MLB draft in 2005, only to unexpectedly languish until the 46th round.

Wordekemper began to climb the ladder in the lower minors, but his hopes really took off when he agreed to set aside his status as a starter and begin working out of the bullpen.

Last season, playing in Tampa, he was named the Florida State League Pitcher of the Year with 33 saves and a 0.57 ERA in his first year as a closer - enough to capture plenty of attention from the big club.

Not satisfied, Wordekemper went to the Arizona Fall League, where he concentrated on further development of a split-finger fastball.

At St. Mary's, the all-around athlete competed in four years of varsity baseball and three years of basketball and track, and won the Bob Feller Award as a senior for "Pitcher of the Year" in Iowa after going 11-2 with three saves and 180 strikeouts with just 14 walks.

He made his professional debut with the Gulf Coast Yankees, was quickly promoted to the Statel Island Yankees, did a successful stint with Class-A Charleston, appeared in one game with Triple-A Columbus to retire all six batters he faced. His breakthrough came in Tampa, with one game played in Trenton last year. This season, he starts the campaign full time with the Yankees' Class AA Eastern League power, the Trenton (N.J.) Thunder.

With his 25th birthday still ahead of him this August, he's now tantilizingly close to the Bronx.

"There are a lot of good pitchers ahead of him in the Yankees organization, but he hopes that with a good year, he might get called up again at the end," Dale said.

The season is off to a mixed start for Word. On the plus side, he already has five saves and is averaging a strikeout an inning, one area the club wanted to see him improve.

But in an early outing, he got nailed in the left leg by a rocket line drive, and was just recovering from that when an outbreak of the flu struck the team and he was ordered to stay away from the ballpark for a week.

He returned to action Monday night with a couple of good innings at Erie, Penn.

His record stands at 1-1, with an ERA of 3.3 that he is determined to whittle down.

"His arm feels great, he's pitching either middle relief or as a closer depending on what is needed," said Dale, who plans to travel to Ohio to see his son play this weekend - that's as close as the Eastern League gets to Iowa.

"You can tell he's fired up, though he is a lot more patient about the process than his family is," Dale laughs. "He isn't the type to say a whole lot, and he doesn't get too worried about what is happening around him."

This will be a key season for Wordekemper, his fourth as a pro. While the Yankees hold rights to him for his first six years, after four years they must decide whether or not to put him on the 40-man "Protected List." If they do not, he could get picked up by another team.

That wouldn't necessarily be bad for the young pitcher. If another team were to take him, it would be possible for him to go to the major league club for a tryout.

"Often, the big club will choose to put guys they drafted in the first few rounds on the protected list, simply because they have more money tied up in them," Dale said.

The Wordekempers hope that their son will be signed to a regular minor league contract during this seaon to protect his future. As a late-round draftee, he remains at basically the minors minimum wage despite his considerable success, although the Yankees did choose to provide a bonus for his Pitcher of the Year status after last season.

The Eastern League means tougher competition, stocked with heavy major league prospects, and long bus rides to parks up and down the seaboard, but it is also one step closer to the dream.

"I'm pretty happy where I'm at," Eric tells his family.

Wordekemper remains close to his hometown and his alma mater, making appeareances here to help the Knights of Columbus raise funds for good causes, and presenting signed balls to youngsters who earned honors for good behavior at St. Mary's.

On his website, Word's words to live by are offered: "It's not who you are underneath, it's what you do that defines you!"

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