Evan Phillips clearly recalls battling the radar gun at Five County Stadium for the first time as a 5-year-old. His quest to throw the ball 70 miles per hour on the popular concourse game was just a pipe dream then.
This summer, the Clayton High School grad’s pitches will register on a radar gun again. This time, he’ll be pitching for the Mudcats.
Phillips, a 2015 17th round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves after a successful run at UNC Wilmington, is one of five players with North Carolina roots who will suit up for Carolina, which opens its home slate of games Thursday (April 14) against Myrtle Beach.
The right-handed pitcher joins fellow hurlers Max Povse, a Green Hope High grad, and Ryan Clark, who played at UNC Greensboro, infielder Jordan Edgerton (from Mount Holly and UNC Pembroke) and outfielder Braxton Davidson of Asheville in Mudcat red as the 2016 minor league season begins for the Atlanta Braves High-A affiliate club.
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“It’s a pretty surreal feeling, playing for the team you grew up watching,” Phillips said. “I remember coming here when I was 5 years old, trying to throw the ball 70 mph on the fan (game) radar.”
Phillips, a reliever so far in his minor league career, has long since passed that 70 mark when it comes to pitch velocity. He made 18 appearances for Danville and Rome last year after the June First-Year Player Draft. He posted a 2.73 ERA with two saves and two wins, striking out 37 in 29.2 innings of work.
This year, his focus is on sharpening his fastball and curveball. “It’s all about fastball command,” he said, “so I’ve been really concentrating on that because everything works off of that, just carrying that into the season.”
Mudcats manager Rocket Wheeler worked with Phillips at Danville last season and likes what he sees so far.
“He’s very aggressive, goes after the hitters,” Wheeler said. “He has a plus fastball, good breaking ball, at times. He’s still got to work on that and that’s why we’re in the minor leagues.”
Povse and Clark will both pitch in the starting rotation for the Mudcats. A third-round Braves pick in 2014, Povse made 17 starts in 2015 despite an injury. He’s one of the most easily identifiable Mudcats this season, standing 6-foot-8.
“I just want to attack the zone and let the defense do the work they can,” said Povse, who is known as a ground ball out pitcher.
Clark was 6-1 in 2015 after going in June’s fifth round.
In the field, Edgerton will spend most of his time at third base and Davidson, the Braves’ 2014 first-round pick, is in the outfield.
The idea of playing close to home is something that excites all five players, but their skipper throws a note of caution on their approach to the pro game near home.
“They have to go out and experience it themselves,” Wheeler said. “You can’t pitch for the people in the stands, mom and dad anymore. You’re in professional baseball and your job is to go out there and get that guy out. So you can’t be thinking about who’s in the stands.
“You can’t stop and think about it because when you get to the major leagues, there’s 50,000-plus people in the stands. Mom and dad might be one of them too, but you’re out there to pitch with the team you’re with right now.”
Phillips and Povse, the two Triangle natives, do not seem to be too worried about any negatives of playing near home.
“I just have to keep my head focused on the field,” Phillips said. “I’m really excited to have my family here, close to every night. I’m just looking forward to a great season.”
Povse says his family made trips to see him play the last two seasons, but is excited about seeing them more often with it only requiring a simple ride around I-540 and U.S. 64/264 to Five County Stadium.
“I enjoy having a chance to be around home more,” Povse said. “Seeing my family more often, that’s always good. There aren’t too many negatives about being home for me.”
All five Mudcats will cherish their time here, but their work and progression in the Braves’ system is what it’s all about now – and ending up in the Braves’ ultimate home: the big league club in Atlanta.
The Mudcats at Five County Stadium
April 14-17: vs. Myrtle Beach – Start times 7 p.m. on April 14-15, 5 p.m. on April 16 and 2 p.m. on April 17
April 18-20: vs. Salem – Start times 7 p.m. April 18-19 and 11 a.m. on April 20.