One quirk practiced each game at Raley Field is the designation of an opposing hitter as the so-called "K-man." In the event that he strikes out, fans in attendance may claim free food at another locale. So on days that he pitches at home, Dan Straily is usually a popular guy.
Such was the case Monday, when the dubious distinction fell to Vince Belnome of the Tucson Padres. Straily, the 23-year-old River Cats right-hander who leads all of baseball in strikeouts this season, got Belnome flailing at the fifth pitch of his first at-bat in the River Cats' 6-0 win.
Straily then struck out Jeremy Hermida and Anthony Contreras, all three of them left-handed hitters, all three going down swinging. In all, Straily retired nine hitters on strikes, giving him 171 this season in 132 1/3 innings between Double and Triple A.
Straily reportedly could be the next starter bound for Oakland. In attendance Monday was A's general manager Billy Beane, who said he preferred not to talk during the game. But Beane saw what everyone else did six shutout innings from Straily in which he allowed three hits and lowered his Triple-A ERA to 0.96.
"I didn't feel like I had my best anything out there," Straily said. "That's probably the first time in at least a month and a half where I haven't felt like I had one pitch I could go to anytime. But it's going to happen. It's just about making pitches when you have to."
The A's drafted Straily in the 24th round in 2009, and before this spring he hadn't pitched above High A. He began the season at Double-A Midland, where he was 3-4 with 108 strikeouts in 85 1/3 innings. Since arriving at Triple A in mid-June, he has been better 47 innings, 20 hits and five earned runs allowed, 63 strikeouts.
"I won't say he's a true power pitcher," said River Cats pitching coach Scott Emerson. "His velocity's 92, 93 on average. But he's got four good major league pitches that he mixes and throws at any time in the count.
"(Hitters) don't know what he's throwing. And that's the sign of a true pitcher, especially when you pitch against the same team twice. They can't sit around and single out one pitch to hit. They've got to think about all four."
The difference this year, Straily said, has been "fastball command and the changeup." Controlling his fastball has helped him get into more two-strike counts, he said, and into the variety of ways he can put hitters away, including a changeup that clicked last season after he "went through about 10 different grips in the last three years."
"Before it was kind of like, get to two strikes, probably going to throw a slider," Straily said. "And now it's kind of like, get to two strikes, am I going to try to elevate a fastball? Try to put one on the corner? Am I going to try to throw a changeup, or a slider?"
Straily said he doesn't go into every at-bat looking for a strikeout and is "more happy that my walks are staying down." But to have the most strikeouts the next closest names being major league stars Felix Hernandez (143), Justin Verlander (142) and Stephen Strasburg (140) in baseball?
"Definitely proud of it," he said. "I mean, I can tell you right now, I have 171."
During his first spring training with the A's in 2010, Straily said, the young pitchers got a talk from Dallas Braden. The left-hander, who would go on to throw a perfect game for Oakland that May, was also a 24th-round draft pick in 2004.
"Me being a 24th-rounder, him being a 24th-rounder, definitely I saw it was not an unattainable goal," Straily said. "I definitely carry a chip on my shoulder, but it doesn't matter.
"You've got to get in, and then once you get in, you've got to make the best of your opportunity. Once you're actually in the organization, it doesn't matter who you are."