Minor league success doesn't guarantee a seamless transition to the Show. Just ask this tandem of top relief prospects who, for myriad reasons, haven't broken through.
It's tough to image a hungrier pair of pitchers in Clearwater than Scott Mathieson and Mike Zagurski, who shot up the ranks, received early calls to Philly in 2006 and 2007, respectively, then suffered devastating, career-derailing elbow injuries that required Tommy John surgery and set them back light years (in baseball years). The long road back led them to Triple-A Lehigh Valley last season, where they were as effective as anyone could have hoped. On the strength of his high-90s fastball, Mathieson saved 26 games and struck out 83 in 64 innings, while Zagurski, armed with a sneaky-quick heater, quietly ratcheted up 71 strikeouts in his 52 1-3 innings.
The journey didn't end there. They wish that it had.
They finally got another shot at the Show, but in just a handful of innings, they each managed to cast serious doubts about their ability to make the jump. Somehow, in just 1 2-3 innings, spanning one game in June and one in September, everyone in the house watched as Mathieson was taught the cruel lesson that Major League hitters can handle heat, especially when it's flat. As for Zagurski, the puffy lefty produced a seven-inning carbon copy of the control-challenged display fans remembered when he was in over his head in '07.
For Mathieson and Zagurski, the moment has arrived. The Phils are looking to fill at least two, possibly three, bullpen spots and the field is wide open for a change. The club thinks enough of Mathieson that they hired Hall of Fame reliever Bruce Sutter to teach him the splitter, which Mathieson will add to a repertoire that also includes a very secondary slider. With Zagurski, the question is how much does he trust himself to work a Major League hitter inside the zone. And can he outperform Antoino Bastardo, who is no lock, but has the slight edge in experience.
Fortunately, a young pitcher is virtually guaranteed at least one of the openings. Unfortunately, they'll need to make the most of every opportunity and their leash could be extremely short. That's the nature of the game, especially for a reliever ... and especially on a team as deep and competative as the Phillies.
It's a cruel business, a fact Mathieson and Zagurski know well.