HARRISBURG, Pa. — Something strange – but a welcome surprise – happened to pitcher Rob Gilliam late in the 2013 season with the Double-A Harrisburg Senators of the Eastern League.
The East Chapel Hill High School graduate was throwing a bullpen session in Richmond when he suddenly gained a few miles per hour on his fastball.
“Something freed up in my arm,” said Gilliam, 26, a right-hander who had shoulder surgery in October 2012.
Gilliam was told by the Harrisburg medical staff that perhaps some scar tissue freed up in his shoulder. Whatever the reason, the former UNC-Greensboro standout ended the season strong for Harrisburg.
“The big thing for me was the extra range of motion,” he said, standing his locker in Harrisburg during the Eastern League Championship Series. “My stuff has been a lot better. It was a night and day difference. It really helped.”
Gilliam hit 96 on the radar gun late in the season for Harrisburg, which lost in three games to the Trenton Thunder in the Eastern League Championship Series.
He was 3-6 with an ERA of 4.40 in 19 games, with 18 starts, for the Senators this past season. He also threw three innings out of the bullpen in the playoffs against Erie and allowed one unearned run as the Senators advanced to the title series against Trenton.
“Last year when we first got him I think there were should issues,” Harrisburg pitching coach Paul Menhart said of Gilliam. “He came into spring training in pretty good health. His arm seemed to be in pretty good health. He went to Single-A Potomac and earned the right to come back here. This (was) his first post-surgery year.”
“Of late he has felt as good as when he was with Oakland. That is a very encouraging sign for him and for us. I expect him to have a very good off-season and come into spring training ready to go. He has a plus arm. He has a unique ability to spin the baseball. He could be special,” added Menhart, a former big league pitcher.
“Rob accomplished two big goals this year that do not appear on a stat line. He pitched with good health and was able to build volume in innings,” Doug Harris, the director of player development for Washington, wrote in an e-mail to the Chapel Hill News. “When he was commanded his stuff, he was very effective and showed the capability of pitching at higher levels. We will continue to work toward harnessing his stuff, gaining consistency as well as sorting out his role in 2014.”
Gilliam, who was born in Virginia but grew up in Chapel Hill, was taken in the eighth round in the 2009 draft out of UNC-Greensboro by the Oakland A’s. The 6-foot-1 right-hander was ranked the No. 21 prospect in the Oakland system after the 2011 season, according to Baseball America. In 2011 with Stockton in the high Class A California League, Gilliam was 12-7 with an ERA of 5.04 in 28 starts.
After the 2011 season he was traded by the A’s, along with Major League veteran Gio Gonzalez, to the Nationals in exchange for several top Washington prospects, including catcher Derek Norris, and pitchers Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole. The Nationals were able to re-acquire Cole prior to this season and he has also pitched at Potomac and Harrisburg.
Gilliam has watched three of his Harrisburg pitching teammates get promoted straight to Washington this season: starters Taylor Jordan and Nathan Karns and reliever Ian Krol. Jordan was eventually promoted to Washington and joined the starting rotation before he was shut down due to an innings limit.
Karns made three starts for the Nationals before he was sent back to Harrisburg. He was the losing pitcher in the third and last game of the Eastern League Championship Series against Trenton, a Yankee farm team that swept Harrisburg for the title.
Krol, a lefty, pitched in his eighth big league game on June 23 and allowed just one hit and one walk with 12 strikeouts in his first 8.2 innings out of the bullpen with a 0.00 ERA. Krol then struggled and was sent to Triple-A Syracuse, then returned to Washington when rosters expanded Sept. 1. Krol, like Gilliam, also pitched in the minors for Oakland before he was acquired by the Nationals.
Gilliam said his fastball at times reached 97 when he was a minor leaguer with Oakland before he was traded to Washington. That velocity dipped to around 86 last year but this year was been in the mid-90s at times before he gained a few miles after that bullpen session in Richmond in mid-August.
“The last two to three weeks is probably the best I have thrown in years,” Gilliam said late in the season. “My stuff has been a lot better.”
Other Chapel Hill products who played pro ball this season included Orange High grad Josh Horton, who also ended the year in the Eastern League and like Gilliam is former property of the Oakland A’s.
An infielder, Horton played for the Bowie (MD) Baysox, a farm team of the Baltimore Orioles. He hit .303 with two homers and 27 RBIs in 251 at bats for Bowie after he was acquired by the Orioles from Oakland earlier in the season.
Baltimore second baseman Brian Roberts, a graduate of Chapel Hill High and a former Tar Heel, hit .242 in his first 219 at bats with the Orioles this season, with five homers. He remains in the top five in the number of starts among active players, at 1,325 games.
David Driver has covered the Washington Nationals and their farm system for several years. He can be reached at www.davidsdriver.com