WASHINGTON — The Single A Clinton LumberKings were on the wrong side of a lopsided game in 2008 and manager Mike Micucci needed a volunteer to pitch.
First baseman Mitch Moreland said he would and struck out the side.
When word of that got back to the Texas Rangers, they invited Moreland to the Instructional League in Arizona as a pitcher and liked what they saw. Moreland was a lefthander with a low-90s fastball along with a changeup and slider.
Texas asked Moreland to consider pitching in winter ball, but he had just played 122 games for Clinton and needed time off.
Still, the Rangers tried. When Moreland reported to spring training in 2009, he threw in the bullpen a few times and was offered the opportunity to pitch full time.
“I said I wanted to hit until they told me I couldn’t hit any more,” Moreland said Monday. “Texas left it in my hands, which I really appreciated at the time. I guess it’s worked out.”
That Moreland was sitting in a room with his fellow American League All-Stars as he spoke was proof of that. At 32, he is a first-time All-Star and a key member of a Red Sox team that has the best record in baseball.
He would have had to be a heck of a pitcher to do better than that.
“That Mitch is an All-Star is making a lot of people happy,” said Ron Polk, who coached Moreland at Mississippi State. “He’s a good old country boy who’s always on time, conscientious about his profession, and a great teammate.”
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Polk recruited Moreland out of Amory, Miss., a town of 8,000 near the Alabama border, just south of Tupelo. Mississippi State is about an hour away.
For Moreland, the idea of playing there was a driving force.
“When I was about 5, I knew I wanted to play pro baseball,” Moreland said. “I had a broken arm and I kept playing tee-ball. That’s how much I wanted to play. I wanted to go to State, play ball, then get drafted. That was it.”
Kirk Presley knew that feeling. He was a first-round draft pick by the Mets out of Tupelo High before injuries cut his career short. He became an American Legion coach to help Mississippi kids fulfill the same dreams he had.
When Moreland excelled at that level, the idea that baseball could be a profession and not just a game really took root.
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“He played at a good high school program. But Legion was the best of the best, an all-star type situation,” Presley said. “Coach Polk saw him there and everybody knew Mitch was going to be a big player.
“He had that work ethic, the blue-collar work ethic. He showed up every day to work and you knew away from the field he was working just as hard.”
Moreland hit .343 with 36 extra-base hits and 62 RBIs in 60 games for a Mississippi State team that advanced to the College World Series in 2007. He also went 3-0 with a 3.20 earned run average and two saves in 16 games on the mound.
“Mitch did everything we needed to have done that season,” said Polk, who keeps in close touch with his former players. “He almost never came off the field.”
That he fell to the 17th round of the draft was a disappointment. But Moreland was in the majors by 2010. He signed with the Sox before the 2017 season and has had a .797 OPS since.
Now he’s an All-Star, one of only 21 Mississippi natives to accomplish that. Moreland is one of four who did it with the Red Sox, joining Boo Ferris (1946), George Scott (1966), and Ellis Burks (1990).
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“We’re so happy for him, more so then we are for ourselves,” All-Star teammate Craig Kimbrel said. “Mitch is a hard-nosed player. He’s played through a lot. You have an appreciation for a guy who does that and never complains.
“He wants to show up, lace up, and play hard.”
Moreland is a bit embarrassed that so many of his teammates told him how they proud they are of him for making the All-Star team.
“Mookie [Betts] was over there like, ‘I know you’re older than me, but I’m proud of you, man.’ I’m like, ‘Shut up, Mookie.’ But it’s cool to have those guys behind me.”
Moreland, while a reluctant pitcher, has pitched twice in the majors.
With the Rangers down, 12-1, at Colorado on May 6, 2014, Moreland pitched a scoreless inning at Coors Field.
He also pitched for the Sox last Aug. 25 against Baltimore. With the Orioles leading, 16-3, Moreland threw a scoreless ninth inning that started with a strikeout of Caleb Joseph.
Of the 14 pitches Moreland threw in that inning, six were at least 90 miles per hour. He also mixed in a curveball and a cutter.
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The Red Sox jokingly gave Moreland an award in spring training for having the lowest ERA last season.
“He made it a point to let me know he had a 0.00 ERA last year,” Kimbrel said. “He has a great arm, but he has a better bat. I’m glad he’s hitting for us.”
Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.