Photo Credit: Yong Kim; Irvin pitching during Spring Training
By Matt Breen
ALLENTOWN — Cole Irvin can still hear the roar of the crowd from his major-league debut as he stepped in front of a full stadium for the first time.
He was nervous, the Phillies pitching prospect conceded, when he walked to the infield at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. But Irvin was not carrying a glove and he did not throw a pitch. Instead, he was in the majors as a teenage groundskeeper, pushing a broom around the dirt and freshening up the base paths between innings for the Los Angeles Angels.
"It was an experience," Irvin said.
Irvin spent parts of two seasons on the Angels grounds crew, racking up service hours for high school and receiving a taste of his big-league dreams.
The 24-year-old lefthander entered Thursday night's start for Lehigh Valley having given up just four earned runs in his last 28 2/3 innings and compiling a 2.50 ERA in his 13 starts this season at triple A. Irvin is pushing toward the major leagues and will be one of the first pitchers the Phillies call when a need arises. And he won't need his broom.
"It was a lot of fun," Irvin said. "I got to see a lot of things that added to my love of the game. Additionally, it just added to me wanting to be at the top level. You got to be in the front of the fans and feel the excitement. You would hear a roar and be like 'Wow, this is a different level.' You don't experience things like that. I'm thankful for everything I learned."
Irvin used to finish baseball practice at Servite High School in Anaheim, Calif., where he mowed the baseball field during his lunch break, before driving the six miles to Angel Stadium. He helped chalk the base lines, carry the hose that soaked the infield dirt, and prep the mound before the game. Irvin then hung out behind the centerfield wall with the grounds crew and finished his school work between innings.
And then every three innings, it was showtime. Irvin then grabbed his broom and headed to the infield.
"It helped me with being OK with being in front of a big crowd," Irvin said. "The players are out there trying to do their job, and you're behind them running with the broom, like 'No big deal. I'm in the center of attention.' And I'm trying to keep pace with the groundskeepers because they've been doing it forever."
Irvin reached triple A this season after making 24 starts last year between high-A Clearwater and double-A Reading. He is averaging just 2.1 walks per nine innings and sits atop the IronPigs rotation with righthander Enyel De Los Santos, who struggled Tuesday night for the first time this season. De Los Santos has a 1.63 ERA in 13 starts.
"I hope that day comes, but I can't be pressing or thinking about it too much," Irvin said. "To be honest, De Los Santos is having an incredible season and honestly I think he's in a position to be called up first. I honestly believe that. He's just unbelievable to watch night in and night out. I have the privilege to chart him, so I get to just see how well he pitches. He's done an incredible job so far, and I do hope he gets that call."
Irvin relied on his time with the Angels when he traveled to Colombia in the fall of his senior year of high school to pitch for Team USA. The stadiums were packed with impassioned fans, but Irvin stayed calm. He had heard that noise before.
He carried that with him to the University of Oregon, where he pitched in front of Pac-12 crowds before entering the Phillies minor-league system and beginning his climb back to the major leagues. Each stop gives Irvin a chance to seek out a new grounds crew as he tries to learn the ingredients each ballpark uses to build its mound. Every year is different, Irvin said. And he could soon have a new mound to inspect and a new grounds crew to meet. He won't need his broom when he reaches the majors again, but he'll be ready for the noise.