Dominant Dogs pitcher has eyes on ultimate prize
The hottest pitcher in the American Association -- heck, maybe in all of professional baseball -- will be taking the hill in Rosemont this weekend.
It is possible for someone to post better stats than Chicago Dogs left-hander Luke Westphal, but not by much.
In 5 starts this season, Westphal has allowed exactly 1 run in 28⅔ innings. He has given up just 9 hits and struck out 36.
"He's been phenomenal," Dogs manager Butch Hobson said. "He's a competitor. He's got a knack of getting that double play when he needs it."
Westphal's 2019 shutout streak came to an end Sunday when the Kansas City T-Bones pushed across a run in the fifth inning, He's scheduled to start Saturday when the Dogs host the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks at Impact Field.
Westphal, 29, was never a hotshot prospect. He grew up west of Green Bay in Clintonville, Wisconsin, and he wasn't on anyone's radar when he finished his college career at Division III Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Independent minor-league baseball features players with all sorts of backgrounds. The Dogs have players who were first-round draft picks, former Cubs hurler Carlos Zambrano, and plenty of late-bloomers like Westphal.
During his seven years in the minor leagues, Westphal made it as far as Double A with the Minnesota Twins, and he's not ready to give up on reaching the majors.
"I know being 29 makes it a little more difficult," he said. "At this point I love playing the game, I love being here every day, but I'm still trying to pursue that ultimate dream of being in the major leagues."
He thinks the current success was about finding the right fit. The Twins put him in the bullpen when he got to Double A in 2016. Westphal started out well, had some bad outings and didn't get another chance. He was back in independent ball the following season.
"That was very frustrating because I thought I'd be able to succeed as a starter and I was there as a bullpen guy and just didn't get the job done," he said. "Butch gave me the opportunity to try to come here and start, and that's really always where I felt I was best.
"I've been fortunate enough to be able to throw my fastball and breaking ball for strikes and kind of keep hitters off balance. I just hope I can keep trying to compete and keep helping us win here. But it's been exciting being a starter again, for sure."
Hobson, who played for eight years in the majors and managed the Boston Red Sox from 1992-94, provided a rundown of Westphal's pitching style.
"He's 91-93 (miles per hour)," Hobson said. "He'll touch 93, keeps the ball down in the zone. He's got command of all three of his pitches; command of his off-speed stuff, which is a big thing. He's quick to the plate, holds runners on well.
"He just competes. He's not afraid to pitch to contact."
Hobson and just about everyone connected with the Dogs realizes when a player dominates like this, he could be leaving soon. Hobson has heard from two major-league scouts who plan to watch Westphal pitch Saturday.
There's always a chance Westphal could reach his dream of pitching in the major leagues. Goalie Jordan Binnington just carried the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup after spending seven years in the minors.
"Hopefully, they'll have a chance to see him and he gets signed," Hobson said. "Hate to lose him, but that's what we do here."
It has been quite a journey for Westphal. He spent two years with the Gateway Grizzlies after college, which led to two seasons in the Twins' organization, then three more in independent leagues. He added winter ball in Australia the past two years.
"The biggest sacrifice you have to make is financially," Westphal said. "I have no complaints. I love playing, I love chasing the dream. Money is just not that important right now.
"When I was in affiliated baseball, I lived with my parents in the off-season. Now playing independent baseball, I'm trying to play year round, so I've been playing in the off-seasons. But if I'm not playing winter baseball, back to Wisconsin and stay with my parents, absolutely."
A 0.31 ERA makes it a little easier to stay all-in on the dream.
• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls
GS IP H R K BB ERA
5 28.2 9 1 36 8 0.31