Mud Hens relief pitcher Corey Knebel throws against Syracuse during at Fifth Third Field. In two appearances, Knebel has surrendered zero runs and struck out four batters in three innings. BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
When the phone rings, Corey Knebel knows to get warm.
This is the track, for now anyway, the 22-year-old pitcher is taking on his rollicking rise up the Tigers’ organization.
Though equipped with the tools of a starter, Knebel has settled in as a closer, a role many expected him to ditch for big innings when Detroit selected him 39th overall in last summer’s draft.
There is no evidence that suggests Detroit has whiffed. After making a mockery of ill-matched line ups in the first two rungs of the minor leagues, the former University of Texas flamethrower appears poised to do the same stuff in Toledo.
AT THE PLATE: Corey Knebel
In two appearances, Knebel, who was promoted from Erie two weeks ago, has avoided any dents, surrendering zero runs and striking out four batters in three innings.
He’s still searching for his first save.
The man who has warmed to the idea of getting warm at the sound of the bullpen phone is white hot and is on the fast track to the parent club.
By the All-Star break? Sooner?
“I hear those whispers,” Knebel said. “It’s just talk. No one knows anything. It’s not gonna happen if I don’t do well.”
Forgive Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski if he drools on the sheet that shows Knebel’s numbers. Spending all of last year in West Michigan and starting this year in Erie, Knebel is 5-1 with 16 saves and an ERA of 0.92.
He’s struck out 68 against 19 walks.
Hens skipper Larry Parrish, who is managing Knebel for the second year in a row, said the decision to keep Knebel in the bullpen is “sort of an organization thing that starts from the top and works down.”
Knebel’s meteoric rise — exploding to Triple-A from the Big 12 in 12 months — comes with some precedent. Ticketed for a junior college and bummed he wouldn’t fulfill his dream to play for the Longhorns, the Austin-area native caught a break.
In the stands to watch Knebel’s team play the team of a Texas recruit was Longhorns pitching coach Skip Johnson.
And what was Johnson’s opinion of Knebel before that day?
“He was OK. ... Not on our radar,” Johnson said.
His evaluation changed, lifted by the speed of Knebel’s fastball and the speed with which Knebel ran from home to first.
Johnson arranged for Knebel to throw a bullpen session, saw some potential, and offered the right-hander a partial scholarship.
“I was like, yaw’ll could have said be a walk on and I would have taken it,” said Knebel, who grew up about a half hour north of the state’s capital.
An afterthought in Texas’ incoming class, Knebel claimed the closer’s role by the end of the February of his freshman year.
Absorbing the defeat in a 15-inning loss at Hawaii, Knebel’s fastball consistently touched the mid 90s, prompting head coach Augie Garrido to entrust the ninth inning to his late-blooming rookie from that point on.
“Next thing you know, he’s the stopper of the year,” Johnson said, referencing an honor bestowed on Knebel by the National College Baseball Writers Association.
Knebel’s 19 saves that year tied a record at Texas, the last of which sent the Longhorns to the College World Series. He followed with two more dominant seasons before the Tigers scooped him up in the Competitive Balance round, a six-pick lottery bridging the first and second rounds of the draft.
Knebel admits his success is “coming at me fast,” an unthinkable adventure for someone who once signed with Angelina College with no Division I offers.
“I feel if I wouldn’t have gone to Texas there’s no way I could be doing this,” Knebel said.
■ Position: Pitcher.
■ Ht./ Wt.: 6-3/ 195.
■ Hometown: Georgetown, Texas.
■ Age: 22.
■ Family: Fiance, Danielle Matula.
■ Favorite way to spend time away from the field: Playing Xbox, watching TV. Just kind of relaxing.
■ Baseball players you admired growing up: I went to some of the Astros games. I watched Brad Ausmus, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell. I’d say my favorite player was definitely Roy Oswalt.
■ Favorite sport other than baseball: Beach volleyball. I played a little bit in high school, some in college. Can’t play anymore, but I love watching it.
■ Favorite music: House music, dance music.
■ Favorite meal: Any kind of seafood. I’m a big seafood guy.
■ Favorite beverage: Big water drinker, but I’d say Dr. Pepper if I have to.
■ Favorite movie: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
■ Favorite TV show: Blue Mountain State.
■ Do you have a Twitter account? @CoreyKnebel29.
■ Person you most admire: My dad, Jeffrey Knebel.
■ If you could meet any person who would it be? George Strait. House music is my favorite, but country’s right there.
■ Top sports moment: When we went to the Super Regionals my freshman year of college [at Texas]. I got the last save for us to qualify for [the College World Series].
■ Baseball superstitions: I don’t really have any. I just like going with the flow.
■ Something nobody knows about you: I don’t really know. I don’t have a lot of stuff to hide.