KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Soon enough for Alex Meyer, in the event his potential is a promise and not a tease, walking on to a major league diamond will come to feel like a rote part of his profession. In the future, maybe 2014 or 2015, he could slide into the Washington Nationals rotation with Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, another homegrown pitcher with jet fuel in his right arm.
For now, Meyer is still 22, riding buses and making his way, all arms and legs and hope. When he ran onto the field at Kauffman Stadium on Sunday night at the Futures Game, Meyer looked at the packed house, announced as a 40,000-strong sellout, and the sight took his breath away.
“I was kind of in awe, just looking at the stands and all the people,” Meyer said. “It was cool. It was humbling.”
Meyer waited until the eighth inning to take his turn. In six pitches and two quick outs, Meyer showed a sellout crowd, a national television audience and a field full of the best prospects why he is considered the Nationals’ top pitching prospect.
His 6-foot-9 frame towered over everyone, three inches higher than the next-tallest pitcher at the game. He threw four fastballs; three hit 98 mph and the fourth zipped in at 99. He threw one work-in-progress change-up. He threw one slider, which curled into the dirt and induced the final swing and miss during a strikeout.
“I showed all three pitches,” Meyer said. “I showed them what I got.”
Meyer spoke with an earnest, aw-shucks smile for the duration of a postgame interview, as if he could still not get over the experience. His parents, girlfriend and extended family all traveled to watch in person, 14 people in all. When he came out of the game — which the USA won over the World, 17-5 — Meyer handed the ball to George Brett, the USA manager. “Good job, and go get in the dugout,” Brett told him.
“I can’t speak about how cool it was,” Meyer said.
The Nationals drafted Meyer, 22, out of Kentucky with the 23rd overall pick in 2011 and signed him with a $2 million bonus. At Class A Hagerstown, he has 98 strikeouts in 84 innings — 10.5 per nine — with 34 walks and a 3.32 ERA.
Meyer’s raw stuff may be too overpowering for his current level. Few hitters in the Class low-A South Atlantic League can catch up to his fastball, which without the adrenaline of Sunday’s event typically sits between 92 and 98. It would be easy for him to throw his wipeout slider out of the zone and let young, undisciplined batters chase it. The Nationals have instructed him to not take the easy strikeouts, and instead to focus on command, spotting his fastball on the corners of the strike zone and throwing his slider for strikes.
“He’s very cerebral,” Nationals director player development Doug Harris said. “He understands the importance of that.”
Said Meyer: “When I was in high school and the early parts of college, I thought I could go out there and just throw it by guys, and they would be scared and get out of the way. But you learn, especially in the minor leagues, it doesn’t matter how hard you’re throwing. They’re not getting out of the way. They’re going to dig in and take their cuts on you.”
The Nationals also want him to improve his ability to consistently repeat his delivery, which is more difficult for a 6-9 pitcher than one with average height — “there are a lot of moving parts there,” Harris said. Meyer has also been adding weight to his frame, and as he grows the rhythm of his motion does, too.
He may be outgrowing his current level. In his last nine starts, Meyer has a 2.17 ERA with 60 strikeouts and 20 walks in 452 / 3 innings. “It seems like he gets better each and every time out,” Harris said. Harris wouldn’t drop any hints about a possible promotion to Class A Potomac, though it could be coming soon.
“Every player is going to think about that, but that’s for Doug Harris and the general manager to think about,” Meyer said. “My job is to go out there and pitch. Those guys are the pros when it comes to that aspect of the game, so I’ll let them handle it.”
The Nationals are not worried about Meyer making on-field adjustments, or letting off-field distractions prevent his progress. “Tremendous kid,” Harris said. “He’s a sponge in all aspects of the game. Very good worker. He’s got a very interesting ceiling, and he’s got a lot of attributes that will allow him to reach that ceiling.”
The entire package convinced Major League Baseball to tab Meyer as the Nationals’ lone representative in the Futures Game. (Bryce Harper, by the way, would have been younger than all but three of the 49 players on the two rosters. He played last July. He will play on Tuesday night this year.) Meyer bided his time in the bullpen, which he had never done before in his career.
“You’re waiting and waiting and waiting, and your heart starts racing a little bit,” Meyer said. “The closer it gets, your adrenaline starts pumping. For the most part, I didn’t feel nervous. It was more excitement.”
Meyer finally emerged from the bullpen to start the eighth. He threw one pitch to the first batter he faced, Class A Red Sox prospect Xander Bogaerts, who rolled a grounder to shortstop. Even in one pitch, Bogaerts could grasp the challenge Meyer presents.
“It’s difficult, the way he aims it down,” Bogaerts said.
Meyer then fell behind Class A White Sox prospect Carlos Sanchez, 2-1, as he pushed wide the one change-up he threw. Earlier this year, Meyer began feeling great about his third pitch, but he lost the feel and has slowly been getting it back.
Against Sanchez, Meyer fought back and struck him out with a wicked 87-mph slider on a 2-2 count. Brett, the Hall of Famer and local hero, emerged from the dugout and came to take the ball from Meyer.
Meyer planned to spend the night with his family, and then head back to the Sally League. He will meet Hagerstown in Greensboro, N.C., out of the bright lights and back on his way to The Show, with one memory to carry along the way.
“It was awesome just running out on the field and seeing a major league stadium that’s pretty much packed,” Meyer said. “It was awesome.”