RailCats find rotation in former relief

2012-05-17T00:00:00Z 2012-05-17T17:18:39Z RailCats find rotation in former reliefBy Hillary Smith hillary.smith@nwi.com, (219) 933-3233 nwitimes.com

GARY | Mike Perconte made the decision in the offseason that the best direction for his pitching career was a new one.

A middle to late reliever who had been converted to that position in the Cubs farm league, Perconte was more than ready to try something new. It turns out, so were the RailCats.

Perconte will be today's starting pitcher, opening the season in the No. 1 spot in his first full-time starting role since 2008. He's joined on the pitching staff by another "converted" reliever, as Andrew Johnston is slated to be No. 3, and has made a career out of being a late-inning thrower.

"That’s something guys are sometimes trying to do, to jump-start a career, or give it a different look," manager Greg Tagert said. "Andrew Johnston has been one call away from the big leagues for two years in a row as a late inning guy. That's one of the reasons we signed him is because we were able to offer him something to do something unique for his career.

"And that's one of the reasons Mike Perconte came here. There was a lot of clubs that contacted him to pitch in the same role he had, but when we asked him to be a starter … it was an opportunity to try something else."

Perconte spent three seasons as a Cubs farmhand, and last year was in Double-A for both the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros. When he decided in March to find a starting role, he was more than happy to start working his way through a starter's routine.

"When I decided I wanted to be a starter, I really focused on a certain program of lifting and throwing, too," Perconte said. "I started throwing earlier this year to try to build up my arm."

The mindset for relievers is different than that of a starter. A reliever is expected to perform immediately, enter a game with runners on or with a slim lead.

The mindset for starters can sometimes be a little different.

"(As a closer) you give everything you have that one inning, and as a starter you can really set up your pitches or slow the game down if you want to," Johnston said. "You can figure out how you want to set up the hitters, and I really like that."

Johnston has been a closer even longer than Perconte. A starter in junior college, Johnston was called on to be a closer when he reached the University of Missouri, and until last week hadn't started a game since 2004.

At Mizzou, he was a long-inning closer, typically throwing six through nine, he said. Giving himself the opportunity to tackle more than one form of pitching makes him even more attractive to move up to the major leagues.

"I always liked starting, whenever I did that in junior college," Johnston said. "It gives me more options to do both — teams can see that I can do both, be a starter and close — and I've had success doing that. So I can show everything that I can do."

With a rotation filled with more TBAs than usual to start the season, the RailCats are happy with their conversion players, Tagert said. His offense isn't in question, with a nearly veteran outfield and fully returning infield. So finding relief in the converted pitchers can only help.

"The reason we liked Mike Perconte ... he was a guy who would get 80 innings, 90 innings a season as a reliever," Tagert said. "He doesn't have the typical four pitches a starter might have, but he has the ability to get guys out with early pitches."

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