Three years ago, Mike Connolly’s career in the San Francisco Giants organization appeared to be over.
The former University of Maine pitcher and catcher, who signed with the Giants in 2013 after being drafted in the 27th round (822nd overall), was informed three days before spring training in 2015 that he would be released.
The call came two months after Connolly had flown to California to spend a week working with former major league pitcher Tom House.
“(He) re-made me. He changed my mechanics. He made me look like a pitcher,” Connolly said.
Connolly, a former high school shortstop who cracked the UMaine lineup as a catcher, felt he hadn’t been getting the help he needed from the Giants to make the transition to a full-time pitcher.
When he was told that he “didn’t have what it takes to make the big club,” Connolly pleaded his case.
“I spent 10 to 15 minutes on the phone fighting for my job. I was grateful for the opportunity that they had given me but I wasn’t ready to be done yet. I told them I had just come off Tom House’s program,” Connolly said.
His plea did not go unheeded.
“They called me back an hour later and invited me back to spring training,” Connolly said. “Ever since that day, I haven’t looked back.”
Now, the determined native of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, is one step away from the major leagues.
Connolly was recently called up from the Class AA Richmond Flying Squirrels of the Eastern League to the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats in the Pacific Coast League.
“The time comes when you have to show them that you deserve to be here and that’s what I did,” Connolly said. “By fighting for my job, I gave them the sense that I was more than just a name on a piece of paper. I use that as motivation to become better every day.”
On Thursday at Albuquerque, Connolly gave up three hits and two runs (a two-run homer) in a two-inning relief stint. In three appearances (two in relief) for the River Cats, he is 0-0 with a 2.00 earned run average and has allowed seven hits and two runs with five strikeouts and a walk.
Opponents are hitting .212 against him.
Connolly pitched six scoreless innings against New Orleans in his AAA debut.
“I’m trying to take advantage of the opportunity I’ve been given right now,” said Connolly, who turns 27 on Halloween.
At Richmond, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound right-hander was 3-2 with a 3.99 ERA in 15 appearances, including two starts, and struck out 38 in 38 1/3 innings. He limited opponents to a .218 batting average.
He has made steady progress since his second life. He was a Class A California League All-Star a year ago with the San Jose Giants.
“But I hurt my elbow in the all-star game,” Connolly said. “I didn’t know the severity of it so I tried to pitch through it.”
It was worse than he thought and he struggled after that, winding up 4-8 with a 4.85 ERA. He finally underwent surgery in August.
Connolly, who is a long reliever and spot starter, has a four-pitch arsenal.
“I basically live off my sinker and cutter,” Connolly said. “I throw them 80 percent of the time. I throw my sinker at 90-93 miles an hour and my cutter is 87-89. It’s nice to be able to throw a ball off the same plane in two different directions at roughly the same speed.”
Connolly also has an 80 mph curve and a changeup in the 83-84 mph range that he throws to right-handed hitters, especially when he’s behind in the count.
Connolly’s UMaine career culminated in his becoming the first player in America East history to be named all-conference at two positions (pitcher and catcher). He was a finalist in 2013 for the John Olerud Award, which goes to the nation’s best two-way player.
He was a first-team pick as a catcher after hitting .310 with a homer and 14 runs batted in. He threw out 27 of 52 potential base-stealers (52 percent).
On the mound, he was 6-4 with a 2.11 ERA, which earned him second-team honors. He pitched 76 2/3 innings and allowed 60 hits and 26 walks with 46 strikes. Opponents hit .221 against him.
“I was fortunate to play all three years I was there,” Connolly said. “I was happy that I was able to have an impact on the teams I was on.”
He became a full-time catcher/pitcher as a junior.
“He would catch 16 innings on Saturday and throw nine innings on Sunday,” said former UMaine head coach Steve Trimper, who is now the head coach at Stetson University.
“Athletically, it’s unbelievable that he was able to do that. He had a rubber arm. He could have been a pro catcher.”
Connolly returns to Orono every year to work out with the Black Bears before he heads to spring training.
“I get to throw to some live hitters,” Connolly said.
He likes to compare notes with current UMaine head coach and former assistant Nick Derba, who enjoyed a six-year, minor-league career in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, also reaching Triple-A.
“When you’re around the game that long, you learn so much,” Connolly said.
UMaine was where Connolly met his future wife, Emily Normandin of Augusta. They are getting married on Nov. 11.
He said he has benefitted already from his two weeks in Sacramento as several of his teammates have big-league experience.
“You see how they carry themselves and their work ethic,” Connolly said.
Pitching in a National League organization, which doesn’t use a designated hitter, has benefits for a pitcher. Teams more often pinch-hit for the pitcher so more pitchers are used in the course of a game.
Connolly said he must become consistently effective on the mound.
“I have to stay within myself. I know who I am as a pitcher. I have to locate my pitches and do whatever I can to help the team win,” Connolly said.
Trimper and Derba aren’t surprised that Connolly has reached AAA.
“He is the definition of a grinder. He has an immense amount of talent,” Derba said. “I can’t speak highly enough about his character and about him as a person.”
Trimper counts Connolly among the favorite players he has had in 21 years as a head coach.
“The day he gets done playing baseball, if I’m still coaching I’m going to hire him to work for me,” Trimper said. “He would be an unbelievable catchers’ coach, pitching coach and recruiter.”
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