Sunday July 15, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Michael RoBards admits he's never been this far east. In fact, the Pittsfield Suns pitcher said he hadn't heard of Pittsfield until his San Diego State baseball coaches told him he would be playing for the Suns this summer.

"I just got back from practice one day and had a little letter that said you're going to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was like ‘Where?' " RoBards said. "I ended up really liking it here."

RoBards has turned himself into the top pitcher on manager Jamie Keefe's roster. Heading into the weekend, the left-hander from Oceanside, Calif., leads the Suns' pitchers in several categories. Among pitchers with more than 20 innings pitched, he leads the team in earned-run average (2.46), innings pitched (362 3), strikeouts (36) and starts (6). He is 2-2 and is coming off a no-run, three-hit performance in seven innings in beating Old Orchard Beach on Tuesday night.

"His control on the inside half is definitely his best thing," said Suns catcher Brendan Slattery. "He's very consistent and he's very confident with all of his pitches. His off-speed keeps hitters off-balance, but he's confident to go inside with his fastball."

RoBards plays for Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn at San Diego State.

Playing in the Futures League was a new experience for RoBards.


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Not only was it a summer baseball league against very good players, but arriving at Wahconah Park marked his first trip to the East Coast.

"This is a long way from home, that's for sure," he said with a laugh.

RoBards said he used Google Maps to see exactly where Pittsfield was. Getting to the area was still a surprise to him.

"I was flying into Albany and I was thinking Albany was going to be like, New York so I was thinking big city," he said. "We're about to descend and I'm looking and it's like, wow, it's so green. Where are all the lights?

"I asked somebody ‘Where's the big city?' He said this part of New York is a lot green. It's like the countryside. It was a big shock to me."

What hasn't been a shock is how well RoBards has pitched.

The San Diego State media guide described RoBafrds as a "left-handed pitcher who is expected to fill the role of situational relief specialist for the Aztecs."

He came out of the bullpen early on for the Suns, but Keefe put him in the rotation and the left-hander has never left it.

"Between he and [Dan] Bradley, they're sharing that place at the top" of the Pittsfield rotation, Keefe said. "He's throwing the ball really well and consistently down in the zone. When he is, he's as effective as anybody in the league."

RoBards said he expected to throw a lot of innings out of the bullpen for the 2012 Suns. Keefe told him, however, that he wanted to put the lefty into the rotation.

"I haven't started since high school," RoBards said. "It was great to get back into the starting rotation. I had a feeling I would do pretty good. It's baseball."

It may be baseball, but the level of play in the Futures League has been a bit of a surprise to the Suns' starting pitcher.

"When I was looking over the roster and I was seeing all these D-II and D-III schools, I didn't know what to expect," he said. "Since I've been out here, it's like wow, these guys can really play. They've definitely surprised me in that kind of way."

RoBards was part of what was called the 25th best recruiting class in the nation. He was a standout at Oceanside High School. He appeared in 14 games for the Aztecs, pitched 13 innings and had a 1-1 record.

The lefty called San Diego State a good fit, and he had a good feeling after being recruited by Gwynn. Gwynn was battling cancer at the time, and he didn't spend as much time with some of the recruits as he might normally.

But on the first day of fall practice, RoBards took the field with the San Diego Padres legend.

"It was the first practice and I was throwing a bullpen," RoBards said. "I keep looking out of the corner of my eye, thinking ‘Wow, is that really Tony Gwynn? Is that really Coach Gwynn?'

"I keep looking and he ends up stopping the whole bullpen and says ‘Hey, I keep seeing you looking at me. Just relax. I'm Coach Gwynn.' "

To reach Howard Herman:
hherman@berkshireeagle.com,
(413) 496-6253.
On Twitter: @howardherman.