It was the evening of May 24 at Zebulon, N.C., and a young man who keeps a four-inch piece of his rib in his locker was in a real mess.
One year after contemplating whether he would ever pitch again because of a medical issue, a still rusty Cody Winiarski had loaded the bases with two walks and a single. Now all the Winston-Salem Dash reliever had to do was retire the top three hitters in the Carolina Mudcats’ order.
Understand that Winiarski, a 2007 Union Grove High School graduate, thrives on pressure. It’s just that after not gripping a baseball for eight months in 2012, Winiarski still wasn’t certain what would be there when he reached back for something extra.
Nevertheless, Dash catcher Martin Medina had the faith that Winiarski is regaining to this day.
“He’s the kind of guy,” Dash catcher Martin Medina said, “who you can tell (him), ‘Hey, the ball’s in your hand. You’ve got enough stuff to get anyone out. So let’s just kick it into another gear and get out of this jam.’”
And then Winiarski zoned in as leadoff hitter Joe De Pinto went down swinging. Next was Grant Buckner. Another swinging strikeout. And finally Chris Curley. A third swinging strikeout.
That sequence explains why there’s a chance Winiarski, who turns 24 Aug. 27, may be a piece of the Chicago White Sox future. A right-handed reliever with an arsenal of a fastball that has been clocked at 94 miles per hour, a heavy sinker and a developing splitter appears to have the stuff of a big leaguer.
In 22 appearances for the White Sox high Class A farm affiliate this season, Winiarski has pitched 34ª innings and has 43 strikeouts and 16 walks. His earned run average is 2.36, including a 1.56 mark against right-handed hitters.
“He has a real live arm and he throws a lot of strikes,” Dash pitching coach J.R. Perdew said. “He’s always coming right at you. He doesn’t play around.”
That became evident to Perdew before he even saw Winiarski pitch. After getting drafted on the 36th round of the Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft by the White Sox in 2011, the former University of Virginia standout immediately established that he had a place at the professional level.
Pitching for Great Falls in the Rookie League that season, Winiarski was lights out with 29 strikeouts and just four walks in 20 innings.
“That was the first thing I noticed,” Perdew said. “When I saw the stats, my first impression was, ‘Wow, this guy is going to come right at you and throw strikes.’ He obviously has pretty good stuff or he wouldn’t get that many punchouts, so that does make an impression.”
Last year at this time, Winiarski was putting out emotional fires instead of fires as a relief specialist. Winiarski noticed his arm was swelling and turning red during a workout the day after he reported for spring training in 2012, foreshadowing what was to become a long year.
What he learned was that his collarbone and first rib had been pressuring a vein over the years and ultimately caused a blood clot.
And after undergoing a six-hour surgical procedure by Dr. Robert Thompson May 8, 2012 at Washington University in St. Louis, he was left to wonder whether he would have to fall back on the chemistry degree he earned at Virginia.
“They said the vein was 10 percent of what it should have been and that’s why I had the clot in the first place,” Winiarski said. “So then they took the first rib out and cleaned the scar tissue out and the vein inflated back to regular size.”
Uncertainty has diminished and his confidence has recovered as Winiarski has strived to become his old self this season. How successful has he been? “He’s still the same guy with the same mechanics and everything,” Medina said.
Winiarski has a way of making believers. Mark Stalker, Winiarski’s coach at Union Grove, remembers major league scouts being at Nash Field in Kenosha to evaluate other prospects. Winiarski wasn’t even on their radar.
“I think Cody gave up a couple of unearned runs in the first, but he just dominated from there,” Stalker said. “When a scout came over and put the gun on Winiarski, all of a sudden, eight or 10 scouts were at our backstop and two or three came to ask me about Cody during our game.”
Will that promise ever be fulfilled on a major league roster?
“All I can do is go out there every day and get a little bit better and then put our management in a position to make a move,” Winiarski said.