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John Blanchette: Royce Bolinger gets a second baseball life as pitching prospect

Gonzaga product Royce Bolinger, who played in Spokane in 2012 as a right fielder, returns this year as a pitcher. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga product Royce Bolinger, who played in Spokane in 2012 as a right fielder, returns this year as a pitcher. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It began on the last night of July – four hits in Boise in a game the Spokane Indians still managed to lose, which was not uncommon that summer.

The end didn’t arrive until more than three weeks later at Avista Stadium, a Salem-Keizer left-hander named Gaspar Santiago coaxing an eighth-inning fly ball to right field that settled into the glove of Mac Williamson, who now does that sort of thing for the San Francisco Giants. Just like that, Royce Bolinger’s hitting streak – the longest in Spokane’s Northwest League history – was over at 23 games.

Devastated he was not.

“It was kind of a relief, really,” he said, “not having the pressure of ‘having’ to get a hit. I mean, you always want to get a hit. But then you go oh-fer and it’s kind of like, ‘Whew, that’s over.’ I can’t imagine what Joe DiMaggio went through.”

Bolinger’s record streak was crafted in 2012, in the summer after his senior year at Gonzaga University, and helped land him on the NWL All-Star team. In recounting it over the weekend, he sat in the same Avista dugout where he parked his bats that year, with a uniform waiting for him in the same clubhouse. He is now seven years into his professional baseball career and he has come full circle to where he began, as a member of the 2018 Indians … pitching staff.

Devastated he is not. In some ways, it’s even a relief.

“Though obviously, if I was a hitter again, playing the outfield,” Bolinger said, “it would probably not be a good career choice.”

Choices. It’s good to have them.

It’s especially good in baseball once you turn 27, often as not the end of the line for one-time prospects who have not yet poked their heads above, say, the Class AA level. Which was Bolinger’s situation last year as the season drew to a close in Frisco – like Spokane, part of the Texas Rangers’ minor league chain.

He had missed all of 2016 recovering from patellar tendon surgery, making 2017 something of a crossroads. It began well enough – he was the Texas League’s player of the week in early June, when his batting average climbed to .322. Then he slumped through a .187 August, and the Rangers came to him with a proposition.

Would he be interested in pitching?

It was not a lark. Bolinger’s play in the outfield had always revealed a strong arm. They’d also seen him work a couple of emergency innings on the mound – not bullpen-depleted mop-up appearances like you see as comic relief on SportsCenter, but bullpen-depleted extra-innings game-on-the-line appearances.

“I threw a little harder than they expected and threw some strikes,” Bolinger said. “And I actually got a win in one of the games.”

True deal. Against the Tulsa Drillers – after playing first base for 11 innings – he worked a scoreless 12th and teammate Eric Aguilera walked-off a 9-8 victory with a home run.

Bolinger, sensing a life preserver, grabbed on.

“Baseball is a hard game,” he said. “You get up to Double-A and there’s a lot of talent. I was looking for an opportunity to get to the big leagues and I thought if I’m going to make a decision, now is the time. I went to the instructional league and it went well. It could have gone poorly and I could have a desk job now.”

Surely it didn’t hurt that the Rangers see it as a mission to find hidden value. Grant Zawadzski, an infielder-turned-pitcher, started 2017 with Spokane and had a strong season at High-A Down East – where former outfielders James Jones and Jairo Beras are both engaged in similar makeovers now.

Indians pitching coach Jono Armold got his first look at Bolinger in spring training and was surprised by his feel for pitching – that he knew it wasn’t all about throwing hard.

“I saw him throw a 1-0 change-up to a guy and get him to roll over on it,” Armold said, “and then a 1-2 breaking ball he was able to locate. It wasn’t just that he’s a good arm – there’s some pitch ability there.”

Bolinger confessed he brought a batting glove and a shin guard with him to Spokane “just in case.” But it’s really the hitter’s perspective that figures to help him – “knowing that throwing inside is a big deal,” he said, “and just how hard hitting is. You can’t be scared to come after guys.”

Or be in too much of a hurry.

“I don’t look at it like I’m 27,” he said. “I look at it that it’s my first year and I have some time. I don’t hear the clock ticking the same way I did as a hitter. There’s a timetable, but I don’t feel a ton of pressure that I’m getting too hold.”

Or that he needs to get a hit, either.


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