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Tulsa Drillers pitcher Eddie Butler's stock as one of baseball's top prospects soared even higher during Boston's run to the World Series title last October.
While phenom infielder Xander Bogaerts, the first player mentioned by President Barack Obama during the Red Sox's White House visit Tuesday, was enjoying a successful postseason, it was easy to flash back to last July's Futures Game. Butler, a few weeks before he moved up to join the Drillers, had his first big moment on the national stage as he struck out Bogaerts on three pitches.
Butler faced three hitters during a scoreless inning and was the only pitcher to retire Bogaerts, who singled in his two other at-bats.
"The game was a blur. It was so much fun, but it happened so quickly," Butler said. "It can be tough for a hitter in that game when there's a different pitcher every inning throwing 95 (mph)."
There has been much media speculation in Denver that Butler, who had the second-lowest ERA (1.80) in the minors last season, will be in the majors soon with the Colorado Rockies. On Thursday night, however, he is scheduled to be the Drillers' starting pitcher when they play host to the Corpus Christi Hooks in a Texas League season opener at 7:05 p.m. at ONEOK Field.
"You hear that whispering (about a call-up), but I try to block that out and focus on what's right in front of you," Butler said.
Butler, a Virginia native, was 1-0 with a 0.65 ERA in six starts for the Double-A Drillers last season after starting at low Single-A Asheville and then being promoted to high Single-A Modesto.
"During spring training he was the same as we saw last year he was overmatching and overwhelming hitters," Drillers manager Kevin Riggs said.
Butler, 22, has a fastball that can reach the high-90s (mph), plus a slider and a high-80s changeup that drops like a splitter. The right-hander used all three on Bogaerts, who fanned badly on the changeup that registered at 90 mph. ESPN analyst Rick Sutcliffe said the changeup had "filthy explosion" and that it "looked like a left-handed breaking ball it had so much late life."
This will not be the first 0pening-day assignment in pro baseball for the 2012 first-round draft choice from Radford University. Last April, he was masterful in Asheville's season opener as he allowed only one hit in 5 1/3 innings of a 3-0 victory over West Virginia. He walked one and struck out seven.
"It's definitely special to pitch in the opener," Butler said.
His Drillers batterymate, Tom Murphy, also had a big opener for Asheville a year ago with two hits, and Butler is very comfortable with him behind the plate.
"Whatever pitch I'm thinking I want to throw, he's also thinking that," Butler said. "It's like he's inside my head."
Butler had a 3.86 ERA in three major league appearances this spring with the Rockies.
"It was a great experience with the exposure to big league life," said Butler, who added that Rockies veterans such as LaTroy Hawkins, Michael Cuddyer and Rex Brothers were very helpful.
Butler's Drillers debut last year on Aug. 4 was much like his season debut at Asheville five shutout innings, no walks and six strikeouts against Northwest Arkansas. With Tulsa last season, he was limited to five innings in each start as the Rockies were concerned about his workload in his first full pro season.
"I've got free rein now to pitch later in games," Butler said. "I'm excited to be here and that the season is starting. We have good crowds almost every night and the crowds here love baseball."
Barry Lewis 918-581-8393
What: Texas League baseball, Tulsa vs. Corpus Christi Hooks
Where: ONEOK Field, 201 N. Elgin Ave.
When: 7:05 p.m.
Broadcast: KTBZ am1430
Probable pitchers: Corpus Christi — RHP Brady Rodgers (2013: 10-8, 5.38 ERA at Single-A Lancaster; 1-0, 0.00 ERA at Corpus Christi; 0-0, 1.80 ERA at Triple-A Oklahoma City); Tulsa — RHP Eddie Butler (2013: 1-0, 0.65 ERA at Tulsa; 3-4 2.39 ERA at Single-A Modesto; 5-1, 1.66 ERA at Single-A Asheville).
2013 season series: Tied 6-6
Promotions: Opening Night — Festivities begin at 6 p.m. with a parade that starts at OETA Tulsa (across from OSU-Tulsa) on Greenwood Avenue and concludes at 6:45 at the Oil Derrick Entrance on the corner of Archer Street and Elgin Avenue. Also before the game, the Ballpark Choir will perform the national anthem and the DrilVille Drummers will make their debut. All fans will receive a 2014 Drillers schedule magnet. Gates open at 5:30 p.m. Thirsty Thursday — Twelve-ounce servings of Bud and Bud Light and 16-ounce Pepsi servings will be on sale for $1 each.
On deck: Friday — vs. Corpus Christi, 7:05 p.m. (Fireworks, Rally Towels).
Leading off: Tyler Massey and Delta Cleary Jr. will likely be the Drillers' primary leadoff hitters this season. Tulsa has three catchers on its roster and will at times have all three in the lineup in games where the designated hitter is used, such as in the Corpus Christi series.
In the spring: The Drillers were 10-4 in spring training against other Double-A teams in Arizona. "We played very well and our pitching was very good," manager Kevin Riggs said. "We're going to be good on the mound and defensively. On offense, we're going to have to manufacture runs like we did last year, but hopefully a little better. We're going to play a very aggressive brand of baseball. The three E's are very big for me — energy, effort and enthusiasm."
Pitching pairs: Corpus Christi uses a tandem pitching approach as the Hooks have a rotation with four pairs of righties and lefties. Rodgers will be followed Thursday by lefty Colton Cain, who was 8-5 with a 3.90 ERA at Single-A Lancaster and Quad Cities last year.
Birthday time: Drillers catcher Tom Murphy turns 23 on Thursday.
Drillers season opener
Vs. Corpus Christi
7:05 p.m. Thursday
Radio: KTBZ am1430