PORTLAND, Ore. — Pitcher Chad Zurat’s stay with the Boise Hawks of the Class A Short Season Northwest League proved to be a short-lived one.
So brief, in fact, the former Clearfield Area High School and Clearfield American Legion Post 6 standout didn’t even get to visit the Idaho city.
The Colorado Rockies farmhand, recalled from Grand Junction of the Pioneer Rookie League on Aug. 20, learned the second season of his professional baseball career was taking another turn right after the Hawks dropped the finale of their 11-game road swing to Salem-Keiser in Keiser, Ore., Sunday night.
Manager Frank Gonzalez called him into the coaches’ room to give him the good news that he would be joining the New Britain, Conn., Rock Cats of the Class AA Eastern League Monday when they open a four-game series in Trenton, N.J.
“It was a big surprise,” Zurat said while sitting in the Portland International Airport awaiting the Monday morning’s flight to Philadelphia by way of Chicago. “I had no clue whatsoever.
“All our coaches were just as excited for me. They congratulated me about heading back to the East Coast and encouraged me to just keep working hard.”
Zurat is sure to heed those words, for he’s put in a lot of extra time and effort to become a better pitcher in the last 14 months.
In extended spring training, the 6-2, 215-pound right-hander added a cutter as a third off-speed pitch to go with his two-seam fastball.
However, he wasn’t satisfied with the results he was getting out of his curve and cutter and relayed that to Grand Junction pitching coach Ryan Kibler in late July.
“He agreed and said, ‘Let’s work on a slider,’ so I‘m not throwing those other two pitches,” Zurat said, adding that the new pitch plus a fastball and change are good enough coming out of the bullpen. “For me now, it’s just focusing on a few pitches and being able to command them.”
One week of working with Kibler gave Zurat the confidence to go with the slider against Missoula on Aug. 8.
In three innings of long relief, he didn’t give up a hit and struck out four, the start of a 9.2-inning scoreless streak over his last three appearances with Grand Junction and his two with Boise.
“I wasn’t afraid to throw the slider,” he said. “It’s just a different grip, moving my hand around a little on the ball, and that’s what made it an easy transition. I release it like my fastball and let the grip do all the work.”
Zurat allowed no hits or runs in his 1.2 innings for Boise, winning his only decision for a 4-3 overall record.
He credited pitching coach Doug Jones for his advice during bullpen sessions during his brief time with the Hawks.
“We had a couple of conversations, and he worked with me on keeping my front side closed and driving through the target,” Zurat said.
A hard-throwing strikeout closer for Penn State Behrend, Zurat is content with letting his defense do the work now.
“They want us getting contact from hitters in three or less pitches,” he explained. “I’ve have a lot better fastball command and movement the last couple outings, and I‘m really focused on keeping the ball down and getting groundball outs.”
Zurat noted his fastball is averaging from 89 to 91 or 92 miles per hour, topping out at 94, and the slider gives him a hard-breaking pitch that is eight to 10 miles an hour slower.
In 43 innings this season, he has a 3.77 earned run average with 17 strikeouts and 16 walks, with 10 of those occurring in three of his 17 appearances.
“I’ve really been trying to cut back on walks and just throwing a lot strikes for early contact,” he said.
Zurat’s opportunity for advancement this late in the season is a result of major league rosters expanding from 25 to 40 players on Sept. 1, and New Britain needing replacements for pitchers sent up to Colorado’s Class AAA team, the Albuquerque Isotopes in the Pacific Coast League.
The Rock Cats are in fifth place in the six-team Eastern Division with a 63-69 record and wrap up the season on the road against the Trenton Thunder Monday through Thursday and the Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs Friday through Labor Day.
Zurat’s whirlwind travel plans included arrival at the Philadelphia International Airport at 4:30 p.m. and a 45-minute ride to Trenton in time to warm up and get ready for the Rock Cats’ 7 p.m. game against the Thunder.