Kaleb Fleck returned to Pitt-Johnstown on Tuesday afternoon holding a bright red Visalia Rawhide baseball cap.
The former Mountain Cats pitcher handed the cap to his UPJ coach Todd Williams, who immediately hung it in his office, among a group of hats worn by other Pitt-Johnstown players who advanced to the professional ranks.
Williams resembled a kid who just received a birthday present he’d been anticipating.
“He always had the golden arm,” Williams said of Fleck, who recently finished pitching in the high Class-A California League playoffs. “I’ve never had a pitcher with an arm like his.
“He works his butt off. He goes out and gets after it.”
Fleck’s blazing fastball consistently was in the high-90’s throughout his playoff run with the Visalia Rawhide. He touched 98 miles an hour on multiple occasions during a series against San Jose.
The right-hander from Claysburg appeared in five of Visalia’s seven postseason games and had 12 strikeouts in six innings pitched. His strikeout total ranked second in the league in the postseason. Fleck had no walks, a 1.50 ERA, one win and three holds in two series before the Rawhide was eliminated.
“I ended on a strong note in our playoffs,” said Fleck, who signed as a free agent with the Arizona Diamondbacks in September 2011. “I pitched in either the setup or closer role, averaging two strikeouts an inning. That is the hardest I had thrown.”
Fleck has a 6-3 record and 12 saves during the past two regular seasons in the Diamondbacks organization. He spent 2012 with South Bend in the Class-A Midwest League.
Those numbers seemed unlikely a few years ago. But Fleck’s determination and work ethic enabled him to bounce back from Tommy John surgery.
“I’m looking at the game from a different perspective now,” Fleck said. “Now, I think it helped me going through that experience.”
It certainly didn’t seem like it back then.
Fleck injured his pitching arm only a month before the 2010 Major League Draft. He had been a three-year starter for UPJ and won 14 games with 118 strikeouts before being sidelined during his junior year. He also appeared in the AAABA Tournament with Altoona Johnston Realty in 2008-09.
Fleck had the surgery in the summer of 2010 and methodically rehabilitated the arm during the next year.
“Tommy John surgery is so common now, but still, everything was going so well when it happened,” Fleck recalled. “I was on the right path. It was depressing.”
In 2011, Fleck watched and supported his teammates during the UPJ season. Each day, Fleck and UPJ athletic trainer Scott Mamula worked on rehabilitating the arm. Eventually, Fleck began throwing and long tossing with Mamula as his target.
“He was strong through the injury,” Williams said. “He threw long toss with Scott constantly, every day. When Scott got a sore arm, I even threw with him.”
After signing with the Diamondbacks, Fleck opted to forgo his senior season at UPJ. He spent a summer pitching for the Cotuit Kettleers in the Cape Cod wooden bat league and eventually made his mark in the Arizona system.
“You sign as a free agent, but they treated me as if I was a drafted guy,” Fleck said. “You have to perform. You’re competing with guys who are being paid a whole lot more than me. It’s an uphill battle.
“There is a bottleneck in the organization and moving up is not something I can control. I worry about what I can control. I’m definitely one of the harder throwers in the organization, but that only goes so far.”
Early projections have the righty landing in Class AA next spring.
If that’s the case, Williams will make space for another ballcap in his display.