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Saturday, May 3, 2008

McClellan takes long way to the majors

May 1, 2008 --Cardinals pitcher Kyle McClellan shakes hands with Hazelwood West junior Shawn Kelley at the start of a game against Hazelwood Central. Thursday was "Kyle McClellan Day" at Hazelwood West.
HAZELWOOD — When his son was the rising ace of the Hazelwood West High ballclub, Terry McClellan became one of the founding fathers of The Bullpen Club. The boosters' first order was to spruce-up their boys' field — groomed grass, a brick backstop, bleachers and a touch of legacy.

Two wooden plaques, cut and painted to look like baseballs, went up with the names of Hazelwood West's two grads who became major-leaguers.

The school unveiled a third Thursday. It was for Terry's youngest son, Kyle.

"That was part of (the improvements) we wanted to do, putting something up to acknowledge the major-league players who came from here," Terry McClellan said. "I never thought about Kyle's name going up there next to them."

One year and a day since Cardinals reliever Kyle McClellan was at the lowest level of professional baseball, he received the highest honor from his high school. Thursday was "Kyle McClellan Day" at Hazelwood West. An hour before McClellan threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the varsity game, two students sat outside the school wearing T-shirts with the school mascot on the front and "McClellan 46" on the back.

Others crowded the field to see the local boy turned big-leaguer make a pitch from his old mound. A fitting one-year anniversary, of sorts.

On May 1, 2007, McClellan was moved from extended spring training to the High-A active roster. It was the first time he had been on an active roster in 22 months. That meant the end of an arduous rehab from two elbow surgeries and the beginning of an express-lane to the majors. As the first-place Cardinals host the second-place Cubs this weekend, McClellan, 23, is one reason those standings aren't reversed.

The rookie reliever is tied with the second-most holds in baseball (seven). He has a 1.72 ERA, and the Cardinals do not hesitate to dispatch him for what pitching coach Dave Duncan calls "significant situations." He is in May 2008, what Adam Wainwright was in May 2006.

"He has four pitches, and he throws them for strikes," said Wainwright, a reliever then and an ace now. "He tries to get ahead in the count. He's attacking guys. I'd like to think that's what I did in 2006."

Like Wainwright did then, McClellan has defined his role as a middle-inning shutdown reliever. Like Wainwright became later, McClellan is viewed as a future starter.

"Anybody who has four quality pitches, you have to look at them as having the potential to be a starter," Duncan said. "On top of that, his pitches are above average. He's got an above-average fastball and an above-average curveball. He has the potential to be a significant starter."

The highest McClellan had pitched before this season was Class AA, for 30 2/3 innings last season. Asked how much he knew about McClellan before spring, Duncan was blunt.

"Nothing. Didn't know anything about him," Duncan said. "He doesn't have to throw too many times before he gets your attention."

Drafted 762nd overall in 2002, McClellan skipped a scholarship to Mizzou to become a Cardinal. Injuries stopped his rise. First, it was Tommy John surgery in 2005. Then, after 6 2/3 innings in 2006, pain returned as cartilage began choking a nerve in his elbow. Another surgery followed.

"That's when you have doubts," his father said.

McClellan plugged on, through nearly two years of rehab. To pass the time when he wasn't at the Cardinals' Florida facility rehabbing, he got a job at Sports Authority and made selling warranties his field of competition. As he became healthier through rehab, he got stronger. His fastball started hopping in around 95 mph.

"I was terrible before rehab," McClellan said. "Going through rehab you mature really quick. You become stronger mentally. Having the game taken from you makes you understand it and what it really takes."

Last spring, McClellan was throwing well and stuck in extended spring training. The Cardinals had no minor-league opening for him.

On April 29, 2007, the death of Josh Hancock caused a ripple in the organization. Pitchers were moved and promoted at several levels, and McClellan found an opening. On May 1, McClellan joined High-A Palm Beach's bullpen. He posted a 1.24 ERA, surged to Springfield and struck out 54 in 59 2/3 innings combined.

That meant a spot on the 40-man roster, which led to spring training and Thursday's festivities.

Members of the 2002 Hazelwood West team surprised McClellan at the field. His brother, Matt, the Hazelwood West pitching coach, escorted him to the field — a field that will boast baseball placards for three big-leaguers: Al Nipper, Morgan Burkhart and, now, its first Cardinal.

"When he was in the minor leagues, he had a lot more time and it was like we had him to ourselves," said Kyle's mother, Kathy, motioning to throng gathered around her son. "Now, he doesn't have any time, and we have to share him with so many people. But there's good reason."

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