Travis Willis once was a reluctant reliever.
Now he is the top stopper in the Chicago Cubs’ farm system.
Willis, a right-hander from Somis who pitched for Camarillo High and Cal, has 15 saves for the Cubs’ Orlando affiliate in the double-A Southern League.
“I love being the closer,” Willis said by telephone before a game this week. “Each time is a new situation and a new challenge. So many different things can happen, and there is no margin for error.”
Yet, only two seasons ago, Willis perceived his removal from the starting rotation as a demotion.
Willis pitched a shutout for Peoria (Ill.) in the Class-A Midwest League, beating Clinton (Iowa), 1-0. Then came the news: Peoria was switching to a four-man starting rotation and he was the odd man out.
“I didn’t like it at all because I didn’t understand it,” Willis said. “I’d always been the guy who had the most starts and the most complete games.”
Willis does not recall many specifics about his first few relief appearances, only that he “can’t remember getting many outs.”
“Mentally, I didn’t take it very well,” he said.
After an adjustment period, Willis settled down. He had a team-high 26 saves for Winston-Salem in 1991 and earned a promotion to Triple-A Iowa early last season when that club faced a stretch of three doubleheaders in 10 days. Willis had a victory and a defeat during his stay, then was reassigned to Charlotte, which then was home of the Cubs’ double-A team.
At Charlotte, Willis became a setup man for Jesse Hollins, one of baseball’s top bullpen prospects. Willis had a 5-3 record, a 2.92 earned-run average and four saves. Hollins had 25 saves, earning a look from the Cubs in spring training this year.
During that tryout, Hollins suffered a shoulder injury that this week resulted in surgery. He is expected to miss the remainder of the season.
Meanwhile, Willis, the former understudy, has become top gun out of the bullpen.
In one recent four-game stretch, Willis had a victory and three saves. He has a 6-2 record, a 2.63 ERA, 29 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 48 innings.
So what would happen if the Cubs had another change of heart and wanted to make him a starter again?
“I love being the closer, but I’ll do anything to get to the big leagues,” Willis said. “As long as they let me throw the ball, I’m happy.”
Audacious: The Triple-A debut of Rich Aude has been a smashing success--literally and figuratively.
In his first 10 games for the Buffalo Bisons, Aude has a .441 batting average. Among his 15 hits are five doubles and three home runs.
Aude, a Chatsworth High graduate, provided a preview of what was to come in his debut with the Bisons against Indianapolis on June 15. In his first three at-bats, Aude smashed line drives that were caught by the third baseman.
Then, in his fourth plate appearance, Aude blasted a home run to the deepest part of Buffalo’s Pilot Field. His next at-bat resulted in another hit.
Five times up, five bruised baseballs, two hits, three runs batted in.
Aude’s home run impressed even long-time Bison followers. “There is an area out in left-center where you just can’t imagine the ball leaving the park,” said John Isherwood, a club official who witnessed the blast. “That’s where he hit it. It was an awesome shot.”
Back in Zebulon, N.C., where Aude played in double-A, Carolina Mudcat fans greeted news of Aude’s monster homer with a loud ovation.
“Some guys who are called up, we hold their stuff here and don’t pack it up because sometimes they’re back in a few weeks,” said Brett Rhinehardt, a club official. “We’re not keeping Rich’s stuff. It’s already gone. We figure we won’t see him here again until next year--when he’s playing for Pittsburgh and they come here for an exhibition game.”
In 63 games for Carolina, Aude batted .327 with a team-high 42 runs batted in and a club-record 13 home runs.
Rising high: Speaking of packing, Derek Wallace is becoming a frequent flyer.
Wallace, who was a Chatsworth High teammate of Aude’s, was promoted to triple-A Iowa for all of one game.
A rash of injuries to Cub pitchers on the major-league level caused a trickle-down effect. Shawn Boskie, Jim Bullinger and Turk Wendell all were called up from Iowa to Chicago on the same day.
Wallace and Kennie Steenstra made the jump from Daytona to Iowa, each to make just one start. Wallace, the Cubs’ No. 1 selection in last year’s draft, allowed eight hits and five earned runs in four innings to take a loss. Steenstra picked up a victory, although he gave up five earned runs in 6 2/3 innings.
Both right-handers have since packed up and moved to Orlando in another shift of pitchers within the organization.
Wallace had a record of 5-6 with a 4.20 ERA while at Daytona.
Short hops: Steve Sisco was chosen most valuable player in the Midwest League all-star game after his one-out single in the bottom of the ninth gave the North Division a 3-2 victory in a game played in Geneva, Ill.
Sisco, a second baseman, is batting .308 for the Rockford (Ill.) Royals, eighth-best in his Class-A circuit.
The Thousand Oaks High graduate was a 16th-round draft choice out of Cal State Fullerton last June. He started in the short-season Class-A Northwest League, batting .330, which was second-best in the league. . . .
Matt Franco, another graduate of Thousand Oaks, has been promoted to Iowa, the Cubs triple-A affiliate, after tearing up the double-A Southern League. Franco’s .316 batting average led Orlando and was sixth in the league. He also had seven home runs and was the team leader with 20 doubles and 37 runs batted in. . . .
Scott Richardson is leader among thieves in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
Playing second base for Beloit (Wis.) of the Class-A Midwest League, Richardson has stolen nine consecutive bases, 20 of his last 22 and an organization-high 25 in 30 attempts.
Richardson, a three-year starter at Cal State Northridge, also leads Beloit with 63 hits, 13 doubles and five triples. His .296 batting average is second on the club.