Pitcher Micah Owings a big hit for Diamondbacks
PHOENIX -- Arizona manager Bob Melvin seeks out pitcher Micah Owings on the days he isn't starting.
"We have a little running joke," Melvin said. "Before every game, I ask him if he has his spikes on. He has his spikes on in the first inning of every game."
Many pitchers wear comfortable running shoes in between starts. Owings isn't a typical pitcher.
He's batting .417 (10-for-24), and Owings knows that on any given night Melvin could summon him with the game in the balance, so he's always got his spikes on.
"I just kind of look at him and flip my shoe up," said Owings, who won the 2007 NL Silver Slugger Award for pitchers.
On April 29, Melvin called on Owings to pinch hit for fellow pitcher Brandon Medders with a man aboard and the Diamondbacks trailing Houston 7-5 in the sixth inning. The Astros brought in right-hander Dave Borkowski, and the righty-swinging Owings lined his first pitch into the right field seats to tie the game.
The Diamondbacks went on to an 8-7 victory, and the quiet-spoken Owings soon blossomed into a minor folk hero. It was the first pinch-homer by a pitcher since Milwaukee's Brooks Kieschnick hit one against Arizona on April 22, 2004.
"I knew he'd get some notoriety, get a little ESPN playtime," Melvin said. "But he's still getting it."
Owings' hitting has generated far more attention than his strong start on the mound, where he's 4-1 with a 4.33 ERA for the NL West leaders. Last year, his first in the majors, Owings hit .333 (20-for-60) with four home runs and 15 RBIs.
A year ago, all of Owings' homers came when he was pitching. His lone homer this season came as a pinch-hitter, so it didn't count toward his total as a pitcher. Owings is 2-for-6 as a pinch-hitter this season.
Wes Ferrell, who pitched from 1928-41, owns the record for homers by a pitcher with 37 (he hit another as a pinch-hitter), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The highest batting average for a pitcher with at least 500 at-bats is .288, by George Uhle, who played from 1919-36, Elias said.
Owings is hitting .357 (30-for-84) in two seasons. But it's too early to mention him in the same breath as pitchers who were also dangerous at the plate -- a list that includes Warren Spahn, who hit 35 career homers, and Don Newcombe, who had a career .271 average.
Teammate Conor Jackson jokingly refers to Owings as "Babe Ruth." The real Babe Ruth hit .299 with nine homers as a pitcher from 1914-1917, back in the dead ball era.
"The only thing with Owings is, he's got such a small sample," Elias' Bob Waterman said. "You almost need to compare him to recent single-season numbers."
Owings may have limited numbers, but he's getting unlimited attention. He has been sought out for national radio and television interviews, and when he arrives at Chase Field, he'll often find a handful of writers loitering around his locker stall.
"He's the type of guy that I don't think lets it be a distraction to him," Melvin said. "He's proud of being a baseball player and being able to contribute on both sides of the ball."
The 25-year-old Georgian can be a tough out and a tough interview. He often reaches for the sort of cliches that Crash Davis spouted in "Bull Durham." "I feel like I can help the club when I'm in the box," Owings said.
Owings doesn't have to brag about himself. Others do it for him.
San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy, after watching Owings go 3-for-6 at the plate in two starts, said that the Diamondbacks are essentially playing with a designated hitter when Owings is on the mound.
Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel covets Owings. Before the Phillies met the Diamondbacks in Chase Field last week, Manuel joked that he had approached Arizona general manager Josh Byrnes.
"I want to trade for him, because I'm going to play him somewhere and pitch him every five days," Manuel said. "He'll play four days in a row and then he'll pitch that fifth day."
Asked where he'd play Owings, Manuel grinned and said, "I'll find somewhere. Don't worry.
"I've seen him hit home runs to right field, left field, center field," Manuel said. "Pretty good."
If there's a down side to Owings' prowess at the plate, it's that he increases the risk of injury on the bases; Owings turned an ankle stepping on second base after doubling during a start at San Diego on April 26.
But Melvin said he's not concerned about Owings getting hurt on the basepaths or at the plate.
"I think he's probably a little more athletic than some pitchers and is used to probably playing with some nicks and pains because of the fact that he did play some first base and has always hit," Melvin said. "So I think to a degree, I don't worry about him as much as I do somebody else."
Owings always has considered himself a ballplayer who happens to pitch. He has the numbers to back it up.
In 2002, he hit a state-record 25 home runs as a senior while leading the Gainesville (Ga.) Red Elephants to the second of back-to-back state titles. He also went 12-1 with a 1.03 ERA.
Many major leaguers dominated on the mound and at the plate in high school. But Owings kept it up through college and into pro ball.
In 2005, with Tulane, Owings played first base on days he wasn't pitching. He was selected to the NCAA Regional All-Tournament team as a designated hitter as the Green Wave reached the College World Series.
Owings' limited numbers have created quite a buzz. There's been talk in the Diamondbacks' clubhouse that Owings ought to be invited to the home-run derby at the All-Star game at Yankee Stadium.
"I hadn't heard that," Owings said. "If it comes in front of us, then we'll discuss it and figure it out, but you never know."
A pitcher taking hacks in the home-run derby? That would be novel. But Owings doesn't see himself as sideshow.
Owings said he hopes his success at the plate may stem the trend toward specialization in youth baseball. He doesn't think a pitcher should be required to lay down his bat.
"I hope to give kids some encouragement, because (pitchers) are discouraged (from hitting) even in high school and coming through college, more and more," Owings said. "And I think it's a shame because if you've been given the talents and the blessings to do it, I've always said I'm going to go for it as long as I can."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index