DURHAM Opportunity knocked at Kirby Yates’ door 16 times this season, and 16 times the Durham Bulls’ closer answered with a save.
On Saturday, though, opportunity threw a changeup at Yates while he was off the mound and in his hotel room.
Early Saturday morning Yates became the 12th Bulls player this season to get called up to play for the Tampa Bay Rays. He went 1-0 on the mound with a 0.36 ERA in 21 games, allowing just 10 hits and one run in 25 innings for the International League-leading Bulls (38-26).
Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said Yates, 27, is an outstanding pitcher.
“What makes him special is he dominated this league for a year and a half now, and he never complained,” Montoyo said. “He was so special that last night, personally at 1 o’clock in the morning, I told him that he was going up to the big leagues.
“He wasn’t just a phone call for me. I had to go in person and tell him.”
Yates said last Tuesday that his goal was to get to the majors and stay there. Nearly five years to the day, the undrafted pitcher signed his first deal in June 2009, he’s finally accomplished part one.
“I just want to be able to play long enough to where I can support my family and everybody for the rest of our lives,” he said. “That’s pretty much my main goal. I really just wanna be up there and stay healthy and, if the opportunity presents itself, stay as long as I possibly can and whatever happens, happens.”
The journey to the majors has been a long one for Yates in more ways than one. His birthplace – Lihue, Hawaii – is nearly 5,000 miles from Tampa, Fla., and so is his family.
Yates said his dad, who coached him when he was younger, and his older brother, Tyler Yates, who played five seasons in the majors, always knew how to help him out. They taught Yates how to throw a baseball when he was 12 or 13.
They started “instilling things in me that I needed to be successful at this level, like keeping the ball down, how important that is and how to attack hitters,” Yates said. “They’re the reason I’m here and why I’m having success.”
Being overlooked has been a theme in Yates’ life. At 5-foot-10, he literally stood in the shadow of his brother, who stands 6-4. Because Yates isn’t the prototypical height of a major league pitcher, he stood in the shadows of other pitchers, too, going undrafted out of Yavapai College in 2009.
Yates was drafted in 2005 but decided to go to college instead of signing with the Boston Red Sox, who took him in the 26th round, so going undrafted after college was hard.
“It was hard to take, but it was a lesson learned,” he said. “I got an opportunity (signing as a free agent with the Rays organization) and kinda ran with it.”
Of the first 10 pitchers drafted in the first round of the 2014 MLB draft Thursday, the shortest pitcher was 6-2. Only 12.7 percent of the 463 pitchers drafted this year were listed under 6 feet.
Bulls pitching coach Neil Allen said a lot of baseball people think height is a factor in a player having success. Not Allen, and he’s thrilled with what Yates does with his pitches.
“He has taken that theory and thrown it out the window,” Allen said, “because at 5-foot-10, he’s done one heck of a job. We’re gonna miss him. There’s no doubt about that.”
Yates said height being a factor in the success of a pitcher is the most ridiculous thing people talk about.
“The best closer in the game is 5-10,” he said. “So go tell (Atlanta Braves pitcher) Craig Kimbrel that because he’s not 6-4, he can’t be successful.”
Yates has been at the bottom, Allen said, battling two potential career-ending injuries for a pitcher. He came back from Tommy John surgery and a partially frayed labrum in his throwing shoulder.
“If you can overcome them obstacles, you can just about do anything in this game,” Allen said.
Two outs into the seventh inning with nearly 24,000 fans watching live at Tropicana Field, Yates made his major league debut. He pitched 1 1/3 hitless innings, striking out two batters. An extension of what he did so often for the Bulls.
“If (the Rays) get what we got here,” Montoyo said, “they’re getting a pretty good pitcher.” .
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