Published: Jul 28, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Jul 26, 2012 05:45 PM
BOWIE, Md. - A few days before Christmas last year Robert Gilliam, a baseball standout as a senior at East Chapel Hill High, got an early present.
The right-handed pitcher in the minor league system of the Oakland A’s learned he was part of a deal that sent Major League pitcher Gio Gonzalez, an All-Star in 2011, to the Washington Nationals in exchange for five big league prospects that were sent to the A’s.
That meant Gilliam, who was born in Virginia and spent much of his youth in Chapel Hill, was coming east to be part of the Washington farm system.
“It was pretty cool,” Gilliam said of the trade. “Gio is obviously a superstar. There are a lot of young guys (with Washington) and it is a good system to be in.” Gonzalez was named a National League all-star in his first year with Washington.
But his first season with the Nationals has not gone so well for Gilliam. In his first 13 games as a starter he was 1-7 with an ERA of 5.37 this year and allowed 78 hits in 70.1 innings with 63 strikeouts and 25 walks for the Harrisburg (Pa) Senators of the Class AA Eastern League. So he was moved to the bullpen and made his first appearance in that role on June 26.
“We decided to give him a break,” said Harrisburg manager Matt LeCroy, a former big league catcher who played at Clemson and is native of South Carolina. “He has a real good breaking ball. He had trouble keeping his fastball down.”
“I have been struggling this year,” admitted Gilliam, standing outside of the Harrisburg clubhouse during a recent road trip to face the Bowie (Md.) Baysox in early July. “My stuff really has not been there. I am trying to figure some stuff out.”
He allowed three hits and two earned runs in 1.1 innings against Altoona in his first game out of the bullpen.
He again came out of the bullpen three days later and gave up two hits, four runs and four walks with three strikeouts in 2.2 innings against Altoona. Gilliam’s third outing out of the bullpen showed some progress as he got the win on July 3 against Erie with two scoreless innings. But two days later against host Bowie he allowed four earned runs, two hits and three walks in 1.2 innings out of the pen and his ERA went to 6.00 on the year with a record of 2-7.
LeCroy said the goal is for Gilliam to get back into the starting rotation for the Senators. “He has three really good pitches,” LeCroy said.
The 6-foot-1 right-hander from East Chapel Hill High was ranked the No. 21 prospect in the Oakland system after the 2011 season, according to Baseball America.
“Robert has had difficulty commanding his pitches consistently. He has a very strong arm and needs to trust his stuff more and pitch to contact,” Harrisburg pitching coach Paul Menhart, a former big leaguer, wrote in an e-mail. “He is at a level now where it really doesn’t matter how hard you throw. Success will follow once he commands his (fastball) down better. He has a gift to spin the baseball quite well. Being able to set up his breaking ball with a commanded fastball will progress him as far as he wants to go.”
Being part of a big-time trade may have meant Gilliam wanted to impress his new club too much.
“There may have been some added pressure with that,” admits Doug Harris, the director of player development for Washington. “He has had some good days and not so good days.”
Gilliam, who turns 25 in November, was taken in the eighth round in 2009 by Oakland out of UNC-Greensboro. His brother, Lee, was a freshman pitcher at UNC-Greensboro in 2012 after playing in high school at Chapel Hill High.
Last year with Stockton in the high Class A California League, which is known for being difficult on pitchers, Robert Gilliam was 12-7 with an ERA of 5.04 in 28 starts.
“This is my biggest struggle ever in baseball,” said Gilliam, whose parents live in Chapel Hill. “I am taking it one day at a time. I put pressure on myself to go out there and perform every night. I was struggling (as a starter). I just want to get back to where I am doing well.”