From Capaha Field to the bigs: Palmer excels with Angels

Sunday, June 28, 2009
Angels starting pitcher Matt Palmer delivers a pitch against the Padres earlier this season. Palmer, a Caruthersville native, pitched for the Plaza Tire Capahas in 1998 and 1999. (MARK TERRILL ~ Associated Press)

Bolen remembers one of his former pitchers as a good guy.

Jess Bolen doesn't take a whole lot of credit for the success Matt Palmer is having during his rookie season in the major leagues.

But Bolen, the longtime Plaza Tire Capahas manager, is proud that he perhaps played a small role in Palmer's development.

Palmer spent two summers with the Capahas, in 1998 and 1999, when the Caruthersville native pitched for Three Rivers Community College before attending Missouri State. Now Palmer is 6-1 as a starter for the Los Angeles Angels.

"He got innings with us, he got to pitch," Bolen said. "You could feel you had something to do with it. Not much, but something."

Angels starting pitcher Matt Palmer delivers a pitch to the Giants during a game earlier this month. (JOSE SANCHEZ ~ Associated Press)

Palmer, scheduled to start today at Arizona, recalled his Capahas days fondly during a recent telephone interview and said his time with Cape Girardeau's summer baseball team served him well.

"It was a fun time, a time where I got to go up against some more experienced hitters," Palmer said. "It was a time for me to be able to play with guys I knew about but never got a chance to play with before. I got to learn from some older, more experienced players.

"We won a lot of games and I had a good time. Jess makes it enjoyable to play for him."

Bolen, who annually puts together a talent-rich roster, said he remembers Palmer not faring too well during his first season with the Capahas. Palmer primarily pitched out of the bullpen.

But Palmer was among the Capahas' top starters in his second and final summer with the team.

Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Matt Palmer throws against the Colorado Rockies in the first inning of a baseball game in Anaheim, Calif., Monday, June 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

"I remember a game out in Wichita [at the National Baseball Congress World Series], against Midlothian, Ill., which was always one of the top teams in the nation," Bolen said. "He really pitched well. We had a 16-inning game against them. He came on in the eighth inning and went the rest of the way. I think he threw like eight shutout innings before we lost it in the 16th."

Bolen described Palmer, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound right-hander, as "a high-tenacity type of pitcher for us. He could throw hard and he would knock you down. He just competed well and was a real hard worker.

"He was kind of an old-school type pitcher. Every time he walked out there, he was going to give you everything he had."

Besides Palmer's talent on the mound, Bolen said his personality and character also made a big impression.

"Matt is such a good guy. I really liked him. All the guys liked him," said Bolen, who has kept in touch with Palmer over the years. "It's unbelievable what he's doing now."

Angels starting pitcher Matt Palmer, right, talks to catcher Mike Napoli during Monday's game in Anaheim, Calif. (JAE HONG ~ Associated Press)

Unbelievable is an appropriate way to describe the season Palmer is having for the Angels.

Palmer admitted that sometimes even he has a hard time believing it, not because he didn't have faith in his ability but because he wondered if he ever would get the chance.

Following a strong career at Missouri State, Palmer was taken in the 31st round of the 2002 amateur draft by the San Francisco Giants.

Palmer progressed nicely through the Giants minor league system as he put up solid numbers at every level. Yet his first six professional seasons never resulted in a promotion to the majors.

"There were times I really got frustrated, but in certain organizations they really like power arms," said the 30-year-old Palmer, whose career minor league record is 41-36 with 34 saves and a 3.55 ERA. "That's what the Giants were. They wanted people throwing 94, 95 [mph]. That wasn't me. I didn't fit into their mode.

"But as long as you put up good numbers, they can't ignore you. That's what happened to me last year. Unfortunately things didn't go that well."

Palmer got his first taste of the big leagues late in 2008 when the Giants called him up from Class AAA. He struggled in three starts covering 12 2/3 innings, going 0-2 with an 8.53 ERA.

"It was disappointing that I didn't do better," Palmer said.

The Giants took Palmer off their 40-man roster in September, so when Palmer became eligible for free agency later in the year, he decided to seek a better opportunity. The Angels expressed serious interest.

"They were one of the teams I was hoping would ask for me," he said. "Even when I was in the minor leagues, I was always impressed with their organization. They were actually really high on me. As soon as I became a free agent, they really wanted me, so I signed."

Palmer said he holds no bitter feelings toward the Giants, who he faced for the first time June 17. Although Palmer didn't earn a decision, he pitched 6 1/3 strong innings during a 4-3 road win.

"When I went there and pitched, a lot of the coaches said they were really happy for me," Palmer said. "The general manager, he said they knew I could pitch, it was just a matter of getting an opportunity, so that was nice."

The opportunity didn't come right away this year, because Palmer started the season in Class AAA. He was called up in late April after several injuries to Los Angeles starters and the tragic death of Nick Adenhart, the organization's top pitching prospect.

Palmer immediately was inserted into the Angels' rotation and was an instant success. He pitched into the seventh inning in an 11-5 win over Detroit for his first major league victory.

Palmer's second big league win came against the Yankees in New York as he pitched 6 1/3 innings of three-hit, one-run ball.

"That was a thrill, pitching in New York against the Yankees," he said.

Palmer also allowed just one earned run in his next start and hasn't looked back. He won his first six decisions before stumbling a bit in his most recent outing, allowing a season-high six earned runs Monday at Colorado as he took his first loss of the year.

"The other night was frustrating, but overall things have gone real well," said Palmer, whose ERA is 4.70, although in five of his 10 starts he has allowed three earned runs or fewer. "Over the course of the whole year, I couldn't be happier.

"I'm supporting my family [he is married with three children] and, being around the game, I'm learning so much. I'm 30, but you never stop learning."

Palmer, technically a major league rookie even though he appeared in three games with the Giants last year, doesn't apologize for the circumstances that led to his first significant shot in the big leagues.

"In baseball, people are going to get hurt, things are going to happen," said Palmer, who has allowed 57 hits in 61 1/3 innings while striking out 40 and walking 27. "When you get the chance, you have to work hard and make the best of it.

"I got to know Nick Adenhart for a month at big league spring training. He was a great guy, always smiling, one of those guys everybody likes. He's gone, but he stays with us all the time. We've got a memorial out by the center-field wall at our stadium."

Palmer said his fastball would reach the 93 or 94 mph range when he pitched for the Capahas. He said he doesn't throw as hard these days, mostly by design.

"Back when I was with the Capahas, I was just a fastball, curveball guy with a changeup," he said. "Now as I've evolved into a starting pitcher, I try to stay around 88 to 90 and rely on my movement.

"I mainly use my two fastballs. I have a sinker and a cutter. It's a natural cutter, not something I try to throw. I use my two fastballs for both sides of the plate and I can drop my curveball in for a strike."

Although Palmer is thriving in the Angels' rotation, he knows that could end after the team's regular starters return from their injuries, whether it's this year or next season.

But Palmer, who pitched quite a bit in relief early in his minor-league career, believes he will be able to use the experience of both starting and relieving to his advantage.

"They know I can do both. That's the reason they signed me," said Palmer, who has made one relief appearance for the Angels. "They know I can handle long periods off and still be effective."

Palmer said he hopes to remain with the Angels for years to come, but even if that doesn't happen, he's confident there are plenty of major-league seasons in his future.

"It's a great organization from top to bottom and I would love for them to keep me," he said. "But if they don't want me, I would be willing to go somewhere else. The way I've pitched this year, I would think I could get on with somebody else."

No matter where the rest of Palmer's baseball career leads him, Bolen will remain a huge fan.

"We've had other guys play for us who made the major leagues," said Bolen, citing Cliff Politte and Kerry Robinson as most recent examples before Palmer. "It's always neat when that happens, especially a guy who has had the kind of success Matt has had this year.

"He's such a good guy and those are the kind of people you want to see do well, the kind of people you root for. Hopefully he's got a lot of successful years left in the big leagues."

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