For someone who never dreamed or even thought about playing professional baseball until midway through his college career at Penn State Behrend, former Clearfield Area High School and Clearfield American Legion Post 6 mound standout Chad Zurat has experienced quite a magic carpet ride the last few days.
Pitching three innings for the Tri-City Dust Devils in Pasco, Wash., Sunday night capped a wild, whirlwind weekend that began early Friday afternoon when the summer accounting intern was sitting in the Clearfield office of Little Pine Resources.
While scouts for two American League teams had mentioned during the 2014 collegiate season there was a possibility he would get a phone call on draft day in June, he never heard from anybody, and his hopes of getting a chance at the next level waned in the ensuing weeks.
Zurat said he was throwing for Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub in the Federation League “just in case I did get a phone call.”
That call came, out of the blue, from Ed Santa, a highly-respected area scouting supervisor for the Colorado Rockies, a National League West Division team.
He informed Zurat there was an opening on the organization’s Class A Short Season Northwest League team and inquired if the hard-throwing right-hander was interested.
“I said I was, and he said he’d call back in five minutes,” Zurat said while relaxing Tuesday morning in Hillsboro, Ore., where the Dust Devils are on a five-game road trip. “He did and said, ‘Congratulations, you’re a member of the Colorado Rockies organization.’
“I was speechless. I was extremely excited for the opportunity. It’s one of the most amazing feelings ever, definitely.”
Friday evening, while playing for the Sons of Italy team in the Clearfield Fast-Pitch Softball League, Zurat received a call from Zack Wilson, assistant director of player development for the Rockies, that completely altered the Saturday plans for Chad and his parents, Tom and Kristen Zurat.
Instead of rising early for a trip to Baltimore to watch the Orioles play the New York Yankees, Chad was in the Pittsburgh International Airport at 6 a.m. boarding a plane destined for Denver and a connecting flight to Pasco.
The commuter plane landed in Washington at 12:30 p.m. Pacific Coast Time, just about the time his father and mother were getting settled in at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
“It all happened so quickly,” Chad said. “Within 24 hours, I was in Clearfield getting a phone call, and the next thing I know I was in Pasco.”
He was greeted by the mother of his host family.
“She drove up to the field, where I met the coaches, trainer and a couple of players,” Zurat said. “Basically, I hung out, filled out paper work and watched the game.”
Immediately after the game, Zurat signed his free-agent contract to end a long, long day.
Sunday wasn’t nearly as hectic since he didn’t have to be at Gesa Stadium until 4:15 p.m.
His first day in the Dust Devil uniform became extra special, though, when he was summoned from the bullpen in the fifth inning and worked three frames in front of 1,649 fans.
“There were a lot of nerves going out there for the first time,” the 6-2, 220-pounder admitted. “After a couple warm-up pitches, I took a deep breath and kind of relaxed myself a little bit.
“I threw well. A couple of bleeders with two outs led to big innings in the fifth and seventh.
“Our pitching coach (Frank Gonzales) liked the way I was mixing in off-speed pitches and working in on guys.”
Zurat pointed out that the organization’s guidelines for young players include a maximum of 35 pitches in one inning and not pitching out of the bullpen on back-to-back days.
He said the Dust Devil coaches will check out his mechanics in a couple more appearances and “start working with me after that.”
Until he enrolled at Penn State Behrend, Zurat never thought about continuing playing baseball after high school except for summer sandlot competition.
That wasn’t on his radar because basketball and soccer were his favorite sports as a youth and he got involved in football as a kicker his junior year at Clearfield Area High School and became a starting wide receiver and cornerback as a senior.
“That’s what I think makes this even more impressive,” proclaimed Sid Lansberry, longtime coach of the Clearfield high school and legion teams.
“He always was a good athlete and I think the potential was there, but he never really emphasized baseball. He was a late bloomer. He was on the team four years but really didn’t start to excel until halfway through his senior year. He got better and better as the season went on.”
After pitching eight innings with a win in his only decision as a Bison junior, Zurat developed into an outstanding reliever in the spring of 2010.
He appeared in 10 games with a 5-1 record and a 4.24 earned run average and 35 strikeouts in 31.1 innings. Four of his victories came in relief before he split decisions as a starter in his last two outings. He also had two saves.
“He threw hard, probably in the low 80s, and he was a legitimate closer on the high school level,” Lansberry said. “You don’t often get that.”
Zurat was 11-0 as a reliever and part-time starter for the legion team in the summers following his junior and senior season for the Bison, but pursuing a baseball career still wasn’t on his radar after graduation.
He envisioned attending a college where he could play basketball while majoring in civil engineering, but that plan didn‘t materialize and he elected to enroll at Penn State Behrend.
“I wanted to play a sport, so I emailed the baseball coach (Paul Benim) about a tryout,” Zurat said. “I ended up making the team, and everything fell into place from there.”
The Lions certainly were happy he made that choice to walk on, for he developed into an All-Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference closer with 17 saves and eight wins in his first three years. His seven saves as a sophomore in 2012 tied the school record, and he ranks second all-time for total saves.
Converted to a starter for his final season, Zurat responded with an 8-2 record and 2.54 ERA in 12 appearances, piling up 62 strikeouts in 63-2/3 innings while issuing only 20 walks.
He was named to the All-AMCC Team for the third time.
His career totals were exceptional, 175 strikeouts compared to 52 walks and 106 hits allowed in 144 innings. He wound up with a 16-7 record and a superb 2.50 ERA for 58 appearances.
“As I followed him at Behrend, I always was amazed at his strikeout-to-walk ratio,” Lansberry said. “That’s a heck of a ratio when you think about that. It’s amazing that he developed that kind of control.
“He got bigger and stronger and improved on his mechanics.”
Zurat said maturity and help from Behrend coaches and some of the older pitchers were keys to his becoming a prospect who attracted a dozen scouts to see him during his last two seasons there.
“They spotted right away that my front side always flew open,” he noted. “They all helped me work on my mechanics, like keeping my front side closed, almost from Day 1.”
As a freshman, his pitching coach was Dave Koerbel, who was 27-4 as a four-year starter for the Lions.
“He kind of helped me get right mentally to be a closer,“ Zurat said. “He helped me with off-speed pitches and taught me a cutter that I was able to throw pretty much all season.”
Jay Condit, another former Lion, worked with the hurlers in Zurat’s last two years.
“He preached fundamentals,” Zurat said. “He was all about smarts of the game, like where you want the ball to be, pitching inside and whether a fastball or curveball would be better for some guys.”
Zurat, mainly a fastball-curveball pitcher as a collegian, has added a slider to his repertoire just this summer.
Benim, whose 500th win as Behrend coach came with Zurat on the bump against Bethany (W.Va.) in the first round of the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) Division III South Region Tournament, praised the signing of the 2014 Lions’ Most Valuable Pitcher.
“This is a terrific opportunity for Chad,” Benim said in an article that appeared on the Behrend baseball website. “His career here at Behrend was special. He has a gift and earned a professional contract. We are thrilled for him.
“Our goals are to make sure players are earning their degrees and preparing them for the bigger game of life, but every college baseball player wants a chance to play professionally. Chad earned it.
“It’s another great day for Behrend nation and we all are really excited for him.”
Zurat, who pitched for two different teams in the All-American Amateur Baseball Association (AAABA) League at Altoona in 2011 and 2013 and for Herndon (Va.) in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Summer League in 2012, is the second Bison coached by Lansberry to turn pro.
Jeff Droll (Class of 1990) was drafted in the eighth round in 1992 by the Milwaukee Brewers after one year at Davis & Elkins, where he was Western Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year, one at Allegany Community College, now Allegany College of Maryland. He pitched four seasons in the minors, two for the Brewers and two for Chicago White Sox farm teams.
Two other former Bison standout hurlers who played for Lansberry were drafted but did not sign, Don Robb (Class of 1977) by the Philiadelphia Phillies and Randy Ardery (Class of 1981) by the San Diego Padres.