Diamondbacks’ top pitching prospect impresses in Triple-A debut

Ex-Basic standout impresses in Las Vegas Ballpark debut

The old Amarillo franchise in the Texas League was known as the Gold Sox, which seems a pretty good nickname for a baseball team.

The more recent iteration — the one former Basic High standout Ryne Nelson was called up to last season en route to being named the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year — is known as the Sod Poodles. Or Soddies, to those who write newspaper headlines.

“It’s kind of a cool little mascot,” Nelson, the slender right-hander with the swing-and-miss fastball, said in the visitors’ dugout at Las Vegas Ballpark two days after making his Pacific Coast League debut Tuesday with the Reno Aces on opening night.

There’s also a song called “Amarillo by Morning” in which George Strait forlornly croons about a rodeo cowboy having lost his wife and a girlfriend on the way there. Nelson isn’t anywhere near as melancholy when he considers the Texas Panhandle in his rear-view mirror.

Amarillo is where he refined secondary pitches, a knee-buckling curveball and a serviceable slider, that combined with his heater have made him one of the D-backs’ top prospects after not being drafted out of high school.

Texas-sized appetite

Nelson was barely in Amarillo long enough to autograph one of the graffiti-festooned tail fins at the Cadillac Ranch and frequent another roadside attraction called The Big Texas Steak Ranch, where they serve a complimentary 72-ounce slab of rawhide — provided you can wolf it down in under an hour.

If not, it costs $72.

“I got a smaller steak — they make you sit up on stage to eat the big one,” Nelson said.

On Tuesday night, the unassuming pitcher found himself on center stage in the new ballpark in his hometown. The fourth Aviators hitter he faced was Eric Thames.

The same year Nelson and Basic defeated Centennial to win the 4A state baseball title, Thames hit 40 home runs for the NC Dinos in Korea. The year before that, he hit 47. In 2017, Thames belted 31 homers for the Milwaukee Brewers, setting a franchise record with 11 in April.

The left-handed swinging Thames, who also makes his home in Las Vegas, is built like Iron Man. With the wind blowing out toward right field at 19 mph, the hulking Thames was the last guy Nelson wanted to face with men on base and 80 family members and friends watching in a sellout crowd.

Hitting his spots

“I knew who he was,” said Nelson, who also played shortstop at Basic before focusing on pitching at Oregon of the Pac-12. After being drafted by Arizona in 2019’s second round, he began his pro career with 15 starts at Class A Hillsboro sandwiched around the COVID season of 2020 during which he had eye surgery that dramatically improved his vision — although glasses and a 97-mph fastball tended to keep batters such as Thames on their toes.

“I trusted my catcher and trusted my game plan and let what was going to happen happen,” Nelson said about switching speeds and retiring the menacing slugger on a nubber to first base.

Nelson would allow a run on four hits in his three-inning stint. He showed excellent command of all his pitches, striking out six, including Thames (who homered and drove in four runs the next night) in the bottom of the third. Five of his six Ks came on swinging strikes.

“I definitely try to make guys swing and miss, but sometimes it runs me into higher pitch counts when guys start fouling stuff off,” he said about challenging hitters and being lifted after throwing 70 pitches.

A unique thing about pitching in the PCL when you are the No. 1 starter is that you get to pitch twice in the same six-game series. Nelson also is scheduled to start Sunday’s game against the Aviators preceding Monday’s travel day.

Like those long-haul truckers with the big appetites who overindulge in Amarillo, he hopes it is the home team that will be leaving town with a serious case of indigestion.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.