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VOL. 131 | NO. 106 | Friday, May 27, 2016

Bartlett Native Wright Makes MLB Debut at Dodger Stadium

By Don Wade

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When Daniel Wright stepped up on the pitcher’s mound at Dodger Stadium to make his major-league debut with the Cincinnati Reds the other night, a crowd of thousands was watching. And more than a dozen family members and friends from Memphis and Jonesboro, Ark., were there to root for him.

Former Bartlett High School pitcher Daniel Wright made his MLB debut on Tuesday, May 22, by throwing 5 1/3 innings for the Cincinnati Reds in Los Angeles vs. the Dodgers. He started his warmup routine earlier to account for nervousness and to appreciate that he was about to pitch at Dodger Stadium.


(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

But about 45 minutes before that, before Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley would step into the batter’s box and Wright would throw his first big-league pitch, he found himself a quiet place in the outfield.

The nerves were with him, but he had expected that, planned for that. He needed a moment before he went to work, before he locked everything into focus and treated this game like any other – like pitching for the Bartlett Panthers competitive team when he was 8 years old, for the Bartlett High School team when he was 16, and in college at Arkansas State.

He had done this so many times before. Still, this season had started with him as a reliever in the Double-A bullpen of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. It doesn’t get much farther from Hollywood than that.

Then he got bumped up to Triple-A Louisville and joined the starting rotation. And now he was wearing a gray road uniform with CINCINNATI written in large red letters across his chest and No. 41 on his back.

He was in the lush green grass of Dodger Stadium, his face big as life on the scoreboard. The lyrical voice of legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully was giving fans a preview of the night’s game and mentioning this 25-year-old right-hander for the Reds was making his big-league debut.

“I just stood out there and kind of soaked it in,” Wright told The Daily News. “It was really cool.”

His first pitch to Utley was a 91-mph fastball that was called a strike. The baseball was taken out of play, sent to the Reds’ dugout for safekeeping.

In the stands, his mother watched his first pitch and then the 86 pitches that followed. That’s more impressive than you might imagine.

“I was very nervous the entire time,” Patrice Wright said. “It’s hard to watch. Sometimes, it’s so hard I can’t watch. In college, if it was a big game, I’d hide my face and say, ‘Tell me what happened.’

“But I wasn’t going to miss this. You don’t know how long it’s going to last.”

Daniel’s father, Paul, tells a similar story – always tense, yet all the way up the line believing the day would come when the butterflies would stop and he could just watch his son pitch.

“I thought it’d go away at some level,” he said. “But it never has.”

A quick trip through Daniel’s first big-league inning shows why it’s so tough. He got ahead of Utley, a guy with more than 1,600 big-league hits. But on a 0-2 count, Wright left his curveball up just enough for the left-handed Utley to line a single into right field.

He fell behind the next hitter, Corey Seager, 3-1, and Seager lined a fastball up the middle that Reds shortstop and Memphis native Zack Cozart couldn’t quite glove; small world, and another hit.

The No. 3 hitter was Justin Turner. He sent a 2-2 pitch off the end of the bat into right field – a classic blooper – for a hit and a run. Buzzard luck.

Next up: Adrian Gonzalez, another lefty and the most accomplished hitter in the Dodgers’ lineup.

“Trouble,” Paul thought.

It took eight pitches, but Wright struck him out on a breaking ball away. Again, the baseball was taken out of play.

“I knew why that ball went over to the dugout,” Paul said.

But out on the mound, Daniel wasn’t thinking about his first big-league strikeout. He was thinking about escaping his first major-league jam.

“Just trying to fight for that first out,” he said.

He got the next two hitters on harmless fly balls and survived the inning. When his night was done, he had gone 5.1 innings, allowing 7 hits and 4 runs (3 earned) with 4 strikeouts and 1 walk. When Reds manager Bryan Price took the ball from his hand in the sixth inning, you could read his lips: “Good job.”

And it was. Not perfect, but solid. He had kept his team in a game that the Reds would eventually lose 8-2. But, seeing as this was their ninth straight defeat and the Reds fell to 15-31, the team has a lot to work on.

As for Daniel Wright, who was drafted in the 10th round in 2013, he already has defied long odds. He grew from the 5-foot-2, 105-pound wisp of a pitcher he was as a freshman at Bartlett High School and now stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 205 pounds.

The “average” big-league fastball is almost 93 mph today, and plenty of guys are throwing well north of that; most of the right-handers who do throw in the uppers 80s to low 90s are older guys who used to throw 95 and beyond but have learned, over time, to pitch with less.

Wright reached the majors with a fastball relegated to the “slower traffic keep right” lane of the game. His average fastball speed against the Dodgers was just over 89 mph. Which is another way of saying he truly “pitched” his way to the majors and repeated the process once he got there.

So when Daniel Wright climbs that pitching mound, in many ways it is steeper for him than for so many others that send lightning bolts to the scouts’ radar guns.

“My whole life, I’ve thrown a little slower than normal,” he said. “I’ve always had to know how to pitch. But I decided a long time ago I was just going to go at guys.

“In my mind, I do throw 95.”

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