By BARRY BOTTINO – editorial@nwherald.com

Area baseball players knocking on the door of big leagues

When it comes to describing his professional baseball career, Mike Benacka doesn’t have a Reader’s Digest version.

“I don’t know where to start,” said Benacka, a Marian Central graduate who grew up in Lake in the Hills. “I took the scenic route.”

After playing at four colleges and spending almost two seasons with an Independent League team, Benacka knows exactly where he wants to end up – in the major leagues with the Oakland Athletics.

“I’m right there on the doorstep,” said Benacka, who was a Class AA Texas League All-Star last season before being promoted to Class AAA Sacramento, the A’s top farm team. “That made it easier to get up in the morning in the middle of winter to go work out.”

Benacka and three other local athletes – Prairie Ridge grad Rick Zagone (Baltimore Orioles), Cary-Grove’s Brett Nommensen (Tampa Bay Rays) and Hampshire’s Jake Goebbert (Houston Astros) – officially got back to work this month with their Major League Baseball organizations.

For Benacka, his baseball work history came together in an unorthodox way.

An A For Endurance

New addresses and perseverance are nothing new to Benacka, a 27-year-old right-handed relief pitcher who is in the team’s minor-league camp in Phoenix this month.

Benacka spent one season as a redshirt at Northern Illinois before playing at Kishwaukee College in Malta, Elgin Community College and Lindenwood University, an NAIA school in suburban St. Louis. In 2006, he failed in a tryout with the River City Rascals, an O’Fallon, Mo.-based team in the independent Frontier League and was left with only resentment.

A year later, after a coaching change and a recommendation from ECC coach Bill Angelo, Benacka made the team, worked out of the bullpen and eventually honed a devastating changeup.

“By the second half of that year, things had really clicked,” said Benacka, who became the Rascals’ all-time saves leader with 33 before being signed by Oakland after the 2007 Frontier League All-Star Game.

Benacka’s changeup continued to give him a boost as he spent the final half of the 2008 season with Class A Stockton (Calif.).

“It spins like a fastball, then it just takes a dive,” Benacka said. “Hitters don’t like it.”

In 2009 as a setup man with the Class AA Midland (Texas) Rockhounds and Sacramento, Benacka struck out 90 batters in 79 1/3 innings. Benacka was especially tough on left-handed hitters, who batted .115 against him, and his changeup was a welcome addition to the A’s system.

“Oakland really emphasizes the changeup,” said Benacka, whose off-season included getting married Nov. 28 to Jackie Damhauser, a Jacobs graduate. “It’s great because that’s my best pitch. I don’t want to say I’ve mastered it, because sometimes it still goes where it wants to go.”

Where Benacka hopes to start this season is Sacramento, a place where he can show the A’s what he has to offer and continue his unique baseball path.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Benacka said. “It has made me appreciate everything a lot more.”

A Changing Bird

The last year has been full of change for Zagone.
He played for two Maryland-based Class A teams in the Baltimore system last summer. On Oct. 4, he married Stephanie Sievers, his former classmate at Prairie Ridge, and the couple since has moved to Columbia, Md.

The left-handed pitcher also played his first full minor-league season.

“The big thing was just staying healthy for a whole season,” Zagone said from the Orioles’ spring complex in Sarasota, Fla. “I didn’t miss a start. I was able to go out there every five days.”

Zagone was 4-5 with a 4.66 ERA with Class A Delmarva, a team in Salisbury, Md., before earning a promotion to Class A Frederick (Md.). Zagone was 1-3 with a 5.10 ERA in Frederick and learned plenty of lessons.

“I’m more able to control my off-speed pitches,” said Zagone, who had 118 strikeouts last season in 130 2/3 innings. “I worked on my inside fastball to right-handed hitters and I’ve worked a lot on my changeup.”

As he advanced in the system, Zagone noticed another change.

“It’s more of a studying game,” he said. That meant more time reading charts and going over hitters’ tendencies.

Zagone got plenty of glimpses of the road to Baltimore. During the season, he saw a few Orioles’ games in person while keeping an eye on his former teammate at Frederick, Brian Matusz, who advanced from Class A to the majors last season.

In the off-season, Zagone worked out with other players living in the Baltimore area at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. A good performance this spring could put Zagone about 30 miles from Baltimore, playing for Class AA Bowie (Md.).

“I’m fighting for a spot in Double-A,” Zagone said. “But you try not to worry about it too much. We’ve got a lot of good, young arms here. It’s tough to move up the system.”

Ray of Success

In his final two seasons at Eastern Illinois, Nommensen put up phenomenal numbers.

He hit .421 as a junior while helping the Panthers make the NCAA tournament but was not drafted. As a senior, he was hitting .521 when he broke a bone in his right wrist that put him on the sidelines for more than a month.

Last summer with Tampa Bay’s short-season Class A Hudson Valley Renegades team in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., Nommensen was still dealing with a wrist that wasn’t 100 percent healthy.

“It took long enough,” Nommensen joked about the healing process. “I couldn’t really check my swing because of my wrist. When I tried, my wrist would just roll over.”

Nommensen hit .258 with a team-high four triples and 26 RBIs as the team’s right fielder after being drafted last year in the eighth round.

“It was a little disappointing,” Nommensen said from the team’s training camp in Port Charlotte, Fla. “But I’m not going to hit .400 in the minor leagues. I’ve got to be OK with hitting .290 or .280 or .270.”

Along with plenty of hitting work this off-season, Nommensen focused on his fitness.

He has lost 10 pounds since last season, when he weighed 195. Nommensen, who moved to Florida two months ago with Hudson Valley teammate Bennett Davis, said his workouts included running sprints on the beach and doing various exercises to strengthen his wrists and hands.

Nommensen likely will start the season in the Rays’ Class A franchises in either Bowling Green, Ky. – a member of the Midwest League along with the Kane County Cougars – or the Rays’ high Class A Port Charlotte team near his new home.

“Bowling Green would be nice because my friends and family could see me play, but Port Charlotte would mean that I’m moving up the system a little quicker” he said.

Houston Hopeful

After an impressive three-year career at Northwestern, Goebbert dealt with failure in his first season, something that he experienced little of as an All-Big Ten Conference player for the Wildcats.

“It’s a struggle, especially when you’re used to getting at least one hit a game,” said Goebbert, a 13th-round pick of the Astros last summer. “You just have to deal with the bumps and bruises of pro ball the best that you can.”

In 59 games, Goebbert hit .238 with the Tri-City Valley Cats, a short-season Class A team in Troy, N.Y. While starting in left field, Goebbert had a team-high three triples to go with 18 RBIs and 12 doubles.

“It taught me a lot,” Goebbert said from the team’s spring training complex in Kissimmee, Fla. “Each month, I feel like I made progress.”

His off-season included spending time in the Astros’ instructional league in Florida, hitting with Nommensen at an indoor facility in Barrington and working on the family farm.

“I learned a lot about the weaknesses in my swing and I was able to work on those,” said Goebbert, who likely will play this season with the Astros’ Class A teams in Lexington, Ky., or Lancaster, Calif.

“I’m very excited,” Goebbert said. “I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable.”

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