John Lamb saw his manager waving to him minutes after the Class AAA All-Star Game ended on Wednesday night. Lamb felt “bummed” at that moment, he would say later. The feeling would be temporary.
His father and his girlfriend had flown from California for the game, to which Lamb earned an invitation because of his 9-1 record and 2.68 ERA for Omaha, only so Lamb could be held out as a precaution. Brian Poldberg, Lamb’s manager, welcomed him into his office and explained the precaution was necessary: Lamb would join the Royals for his big-league debut on Friday.
His stay is expected to be temporary. Lamb, a 25-year-old southpaw, joined the club as the 26th man for a doubleheader with the White Sox. Lamb will soon head back to the Storm Chasers, where he has excelled all season. He arrived on Friday with a weight on his shoulders, an internal pressure that has driven him since he signed with Kansas City in 2008.
“I felt a sense of relief, almost,” Lamb said. “And I’m just excited. Really excited.”
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During the winter before the 2011 season, when Baseball America wondered if the Royals had assembled the greatest farm system in the game’s history, Lamb loomed as the organization’s top prospect. Baseball America rated him No. 18 in the game, Baseball Prospectus ranked him No. 11. But Lamb tore his ulnar collateral ligament that summer, underwent Tommy John surgery and disappeared into rehabilitation.
The process was not pretty. Lamb required years to regain the arm speed necessary to power his fastball velocity consistently above 90 mph. He needed to add a fourth pitch, a slider he implemented this summer with encouraging results. He has struck out more than a batter per inning for the Storm Chasers, and rival evaluators have clocked his fastball as hard as 95 mph.
So he earned an invitation to Friday’s doubleheader. The team only intended to use him in an emergency. But general manager Dayton Moore saw the 24-hour big-league trip as a reward for Lamb’s resilience and consistency. The organization views him as perhaps their best option with Omaha.
“It’s a one-day thing,” manager Ned Yost said. “He’ll be gone tomorrow. But the thing is, he has put himself in that position with (Aaron) Brooks and (Yohan) Pino.”
He added, “He’s been pitching well. I’m anxious to see him, to see if he’s made some improvements over this summer so far.”
The Royals assembled a fleet of starting pitching depth this winter. The influx of veterans like Chris Young and Joe Blanton has forced Lamb to remain in Omaha despite his results. He indicated he has made a conscious effort to avoid paying attention to the travails of the big-league club.
Lamb explained it was human nature to wonder about his role in the organization’s plans. But he has tried to fight the impulse.
“I never like to play that game,” Lamb said. “I have, and it’s not fear-based, but it’s just the reality of wanting to know my future. The more I’ve let go this season and stayed in the moment, I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve had a lot of success with the relationships I’ve been building around me. My idea of success is a good game, a good inning, a good pitch – or putting a smile on someone’s face.”
His presence sparked a succession of smiles on Friday morning. Lamb was one of the first players in the clubhouse. When the veterans arrived after 10 a.m., they beamed at the sight of Lamb. He shared hugs with Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Paulo Orlando and others.
Lamb was once the most-advanced pitching prospect in the team’s system. He possessed a deceptive, reliable changeup, which he used to torment hitters at the lower levels. He resisted suggestions from the organization about adding a slider to his repertoire.
In late May, the Storm Chasers hosted Seattle’s Class AAA affiliate from Tacoma. Lamb hung out with former Royals prospect Mike Montgomery, who raved about the prowess of his slider. A couple days later, team officials asked Lamb once more about using the pitch, he said. He was ready to listen.
“I had complete conviction that it was going to help me,” Lamb said.
The results do not disagree. The slider clocks in the low 80s, which differs from his mid-70s curveball. It distorts the timing of the hitter, and allows his opponents not to focus on his changeup, which is still his best offspeed pitch.
In his last four starts for Omaha, Lamb punched out 31 batters in 23 innings. He compiled double-digit strikeout games twice. He showed enough to merit a one-day trip to the majors.
“I’m just grateful to be here,” Lamb said. “And I believe in myself. I think there’s a reason they called me here. So if I go out there and trust it, the rest will take care of itself.
“It isn’t easy to not think about the future. Nor is it easy to forget about the past. So in the moment, it’s just take it all in and treat people the way I wanted to be treated. It’s that simple.”