Ole Miss product Head finds new life as pitcher

By Jack Millikin, Herald staff writer June 29, 2011 

PASCO -- At 27 years old, Stephen Head had to come face-to-face with a cold, harsh reality.

Released by the Cleveland Indians organization in spring training 2010, he realized his chances of making the major leagues as a position player were slim.

Then the former Southeastern Conference Player of the Year found new life with the Tri-City Dust Devils as a pitcher.

With another shot at pro baseball hanging in the balance at an invite-only tryout in April, Head impressed Colorado Rockies scouts enough to get signed to a minor league contract.

"I was pitching for my life," Head told the Oxford (Miss.) Eagle after the Rockies' 35-man tryout in Scottsdale, Ariz. "If I didn't throw well in front of these guys, that may have been it."

The 6-foot-3 left-hander from Raymond, Miss., also got some help from a childhood friend, former Dust Devils outfielder Seth Smith, who saw that the only clothing Head had at the tryout was Indians and University of Mississippi gear. So Smith suited him up with some Rockies colors.

The former Ole Miss star had high expectations as the Indians' second-round draft pick in 2005. He showed a live bat through four years in Cleveland's system as an outfielder and first baseman, hitting 60 home runs with 285 RBIs, and topped out at Triple-A Columbus (Ohio) in 2009.

Now, it's his arm that finally might take him to the big leagues. He brings a solid repertoire of pitches -- a two- and four-seam fastball, a slider and a plus-changeup -- but his experience as a hitter and his intelligence could be his biggest advantage over other first-year pitchers.

"He's a smart guy, and he knows a lot about the game," Dust Devils pitching coach Dave Burba said. "What impresses me most is that he can rotate pitches. He doesn't have overpowering stuff, but he knows how to pitch. That's what makes him a step above -- that and a good angle and a great changeup."

So far, Head has proven he belongs. As a long reliever, Head is 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA in three games, striking out seven batters in six innings.

In his pro pitching debut June 19 in a 5-4 Dust Devils home win against Everett, Head gave up one hit in three innings and recorded five strikeouts.

"It was a pressure situation for my first professional outing, but I had pitched before in college," he said. "I wasn't nervous. I just wanted to make my pitches.

"To me, this was just another game, a different position and a little different job."

He allowed a hit to the first batter he faced, but he kept his composure and got the next hitter to ground into a double play.

"That's part of my game is getting ground balls," he said. "I threw a change that was off the end of the bat, and that's what you want. I look to get a guy on his front foot. Generally, when that happens, he'll chop it right into the ground."

Four days later, Head picked up his first pro win, tossing two hitless innings in a 7-2 victory at Boise.

"He was in extended (spring training) with us, and this is pretty much what he was doing in extended," Tri-City manager Fred Ocasio said. "He's a guy that's going to come in and throw strikes and keep hitters off balance."

Head got his best news yet on Tuesday, when the Rockies promoted him to Low-A Asheville, the next rung on the ladder to the majors. It was a well-earned advancement that made his pitching coach proud.

"I take pride in trying to get these guys out of here," Burba said. "If it was up to me, I don't really expect anybody to stay."

Even though he's now a pitcher by trade, Head admits he still thinks about hitting, longing for the day a manager might call his number as a pinch-hitter.

"I want to hit all the time. I'm a position player at heart," he said. "I don't know what you get your first ball for in the big leagues as a pitcher, but I would really like to have that first hit."

But Head is realistic enough to know that opportunity probably won't come with the Dust Devils.

"I understand they won't do that. They've got guys who are hitters, and that's what they're used to," he said. "When I get to Double A and Triple A, where pitchers can hit, I could see a situation where they put me in to save a guy for later in a long game. But certainly not here.

"But I told them they know where to find me."

* Jack Millikin; 509-582-1406; jmillikin@tricityherald.com

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