When Willie Blair, a soft-spoken right-hander who carries a drawl from a town of 5,500 in southeastern Kentucky, took the mound for the first time on June 12 against the Patriots in a Clark Griffith League baseball game, his Reston teammates and manager soon discovered his pitching was quite different from his unimposing disposition.
"In his first game," says Manager Chuck Faris, who has been with the team since it joined the league four years ago, "the first guy up hit a homer. He challenged him the next three times and struck him out three times."
"If anything," says catcher Scott Toelle, "he doesn't like to lose."
In 4 1/3 innings of relief that game, Blair struck out eight of the 13 hitters he faced. He also got the victory, one day after he arrived from Paintsville, Ky., and one-third of the way through the Clark Griffith season. "I was real tired from the car trip," he says in all seriousness.
Blair, who made all-Ohio Valley at Morehead State in Kentucky this spring, wanted to play in the prestigious Cape Cod League in New England, but a last-minute change on the roster left him with a 91 mph fast ball and a less-competitive summer league in his part of Kentucky.
As a result of connections and searching, Faris found Blair. Dan Smith, who was Blair's catcher at Morehead State, played for Reston in past summers. When the Los Angeles Dodgers made Smith the 35th choice in the amateur draft, Faris called to congratulate him. Meanwhile, he also asked Morehead State's manager, Steve Hamilton, a former pitcher for the Yankees and Senators, if he had another Kentuckian to send east.
"I asked the coach if he had a pitcher," says Faris. "Within an hour I had talked to Willie and he was ready to come."
Not long afterward, Blair packed his bags and moved in with his brother in Sterling.
Blair feels he couldn't have come at a better time for Reston (14-4), which is 5-1 in the second of three rounds in the league. The winner of each round will advance to the playoffs at the end of the season. His pitching record was 4-0 and he had struck out 54 batters in 30 innings -- with only seven walks -- entering last week's play.
"There are a lot of good pitchers on the team, but I think I've helped them out a lot," Blair says. "They were really having trouble winning games in the late innings."
"After he got here we went on a 10-game winning streak," says Faris. "From the day he made his first appearance and threw his pitches, you could see the team psychologically come around.
"It's a plus when you go into a game and know you have a stopper. We hadn't had one before."
Blair's statistics are eye-catching. Against Martz in his second game, he struck out five in three innings. In his next outing, in relief against the Rebels, he struck out three of the six hitters he faced.
Then came his first start against the Rangers, winners of the first round. He pitched a complete game, struck out 19, gave up three hits and walked one.
He won his third game in relief over the Patriots, then defeated the Rangers again. He struck out only 13 batters in that game.
Despite Blair's hard fast ball, Faris calls him a "pitcher" and Toelle says he has "finesse."
"He is not a thrower," says Faris, who is a part-time scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "He also has a very good slider and offspeed pitch . . . And a lot of poise."
Faris has managed several good pitchers with Reston, one of whom is Mitch McKelvey, now with the Pirates' Class AA team. Faris says McKelvey had the "best right arm I've seen," but "he wasn't the complete pitcher like Willie."
"I'm a pretty good judge of talent," says Faris. "I think Willie will get drafted after his senior year."
Blair seems to improve his pitching every year. Although his record his freshman year at Morehead State was 0-2, he made all-conference with a 6-3 record this spring. With Reston, he feels he is developing his game. "Before this summer, I always had control problems," he says. "I was getting myself in trouble with walks." Now, "I rely a lot on my control."
For Blair, the transition from small Kentucky town to the suburbs of the Nation's Capital has been typical. The names of the players around the league are still fuzzy ("There's this little guy with the Patriots, he's small, but he gives me a lot of problems"), and the reaction to his dialect ("They kind of make fun of the way ah talk") was expected. But the "players are all real nice. They really didn't know anything about me. They had never seen me pitch. After my first game, I guess they were all impressed."
Asked if he would ever leave Morehead State to play college ball in this area, he says, "I'm pretty much set down in Kentucky."