It's a familiar story line in Angels camp. Pitcher goes undrafted out of college, signs as a free agent, works at various off-season jobs to augment meager minor league income, comes out of nowhere to win big league roster spot.
Only this time, it's not Matt Shoemaker. It's Drew Rucinski, a 26-year-old right-hander from Broken Arrow, Okla., who is expected to snag a long-relief role after capping a solid spring with a 5 1/3-inning, three-run, seven-hit start Wednesday against the Oakland Athletics.
"Any story like that, where guys make it from way out in left field, it's awesome," Rucinski said of Shoemaker, a former substitute teacher who signed with the Angels as a nondrafted free agent in 2008 and finished second in American League rookie-of-the-year voting last season.
"It gives you confidence you can do it, too. It shows you can get outs no matter who you are. Baseball is such a crazy game. You never know where you're going to end up."
Rucinski, who played for Ohio State, signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Indians in 2011 and threw 39 innings for four low-level minor league clubs but was released the next spring.
He hooked on with the Rockford (Ill.) RiverHawks of the independent Frontier League and was 7-4 with a 3.13 earned-run average in 22 games in 2012 and 4-6 with a 2.88 ERA in 15 games in 2013. His salary at the lowest rung of pro baseball: $600 a month.
"Our clubhouse was basically a contemporary trailer from a construction site, and the field wasn't that great," Rucinski said. "But it's still professional baseball. You're still living the dream."
Dreams don't pay the bills, though. The off-season before the 2013 season, Rucinski worked at an Oklahoma pecan farm, raking debris out of the nuts shaken out of trees by a machine. After that season, he worked at an Ohio sporting goods store.
"I was trying to pay the rent," Rucinski said.
Rucinski pitched well enough at Rockford in 2013 to catch the eye of the Angels, who signed him that August to fill our their rotation in Class-A Inland Empire, where Rucinski was 2-2 with a 1.86 ERA in five starts.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Rucinski added strength and a tick or two of velocity to his fastball the next off-season. He blossomed at double-A Arkansas in 2014, finishing 10-6 with a 3.15 ERA, striking out 140 and walking 41 in 148 2/3 innings and earning two brief major league callups with the Angels.
Rucinski carried that momentum into this spring, posting a 2-1 record and 2.60 ERA, striking out 16 and walking four in 17 1/3 innings. He impressed the Angels not only with his stuff, which includes a 93-mph fastball, split-fingered fastball, slider and changeup, but with the way he attacked hitters.
"His stuff is real, and he shows no fear on the mound," General Manager Jerry Dipoto said. "Drew entered camp as a player who was likely to begin the season at triple A. His performance has opened eyes and made him a very relevant part of the 25-man roster discussion."
Rucinski said his approach hasn't changed.
"Just throw strike one and get ahead in the count," he said.
If he opens the season in the bullpen, Rucinski would be a candidate to make a spot start April 14. If he is on the opening-day roster, he'll look back on the adversity he overcame as one of the reasons he made it.
"The guys I played independent ball with said if you can make it through the mental toughness of playing there, not having the things you wish you had, you should be mentally tough enough to play anywhere," Rucinski said. "It was a grind."