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Minor Resurgence for Muhlethaler : Baseball: After three trying seasons at Cal, La Canada High product is blossoming in Class-A Northwest League.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mike Muhlethaler got the night off a few weeks ago, and for the first time in four years he didn’t fret.

Muhlethaler was only a month removed from the last of three roller-coaster years at Cal, where a day out of the lineup often turned into a monthlong ordeal for the former All-Southern Section shortstop from Crescenta Valley High.

But when Grady Fuson, the manager of the Southern Oregon Athletics, told Muhlethaler to take a rest, he didn’t flinch.

“It’s different,” Muhlethaler said. “You get a night off here and it’s all right. In college, you get a day off and it’s ‘Damn, what’s going on?’

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“In pro ball, if you’re hitting the ball, you’re going to be in there most of the time.”

Muhlethaler has been hitting with consistency since he arrived in Medford, Ore., to play for the Oakland Athletics’ affiliate in the Class-A Northwest League. Through Tuesday, he was batting .276 with a home run and 10 runs batted in through 22 games.

The A’s selected Muhlethaler in the 34th round of the June amateur draft after three undistinguished and injury-riddled years at Cal--seasons in which Muhlethaler never played in more than 39 games or had more than 91 at-bats.

The A’s made their pick based largely on a season-ending flourish, and on the recommendation of Craig Wallenbrock, a Southern California scout.

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“We’ve never really had an opportunity to see what he can do,” said Wallenbrock, who coached Muhlethaler for several years on summer scout teams. “We’ve only seen glimpses.

“Our feeling is a guy like this is just not getting a chance in college for whatever reason. Get him in there with 200 at-bats in a row and see what he can do.”

Muhlethaler, 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, is ecstatic to have the opportunity--especially after his experience at Cal.

When he set out for Berkeley after his high school career, there was no reason to think Muhlethaler would enjoy anything but success.

During his freshman season at Cal, Muhlethaler split time at shortstop and batted .222 in 35 games for the Bears, who tied for third place in the Pacific 10 Southern Division but were one of eight teams that advanced to the College World Series at Omaha, Neb.

In the fall of his sophomore year, Muhlethaler was moved to third base. He started slowly, going hitless his first few games, and was out of the lineup for the next 20.

“I kind of got lost in the shuffle,” said Muhlethaler, who batted .220 with two home runs and 12 RBIs that spring. “I thought I would be one of the contributors and I found myself sitting on the bench.

“That was probably the most difficult time I’ve had with baseball.”

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Muhlethaler briefly considered transferring to another university, but thought otherwise when he was accepted into Cal’s school of business administration.

He suffered a severe ankle sprain while playing in the Cape Cod summer league in New England, then reinjured the ankle last fall. Once the season began, he got off to another slow start (0 for 7), but felt he was on the rebound when he injured his knee.

Even when his knee healed and he was being used as a relief pitcher, Muhlethaler could not escape injury. He separated his shoulder and missed three more weeks.

Desperate for a chance to play professionally, Muhlethaler called Wallenbrock and asked him to come out to Cal’s series at UCLA and give him a look.

And with Wallenbrock and another Oakland scout in the stands for batting practice before a game against the Bruins, Muhlethaler put on a show, spraying line drives to all fields and blasting five balls over the fence.

“I just went out there loosey-goosey,” Muhlethaler recalled. “All I did was swing free and easy.”

Muhlethaler stayed hot the rest of the season.

In his final six college games, he homered off Lance Dixon of Arizona and Stan Spencer and Mike Mussina of Stanford, all of whom were first-round selections in the amateur draft in June.

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“The last 10 games were the best part of my college career,” Muhlethaler said.

So far, professional baseball has been everything Muhlethaler hoped it would be. The A’s have moved him to first base and also plan to work him at third and, possibly, at catcher.

“It’s the best experience I’ve ever had,” he said. “Everyday I go out there looking to pick up something that I can use to my advantage.”


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