The West Coast League Playoffs offer the lesser of two seeds a unique opportunity: hosting Game 1.
Although the AppleSox will play two of the three games in the North Division Championship Series on the road (if the series goes three games), they have the chance to take a stranglehold on the series by winning the series-opener on Tuesday night at 6:35 at Paul Thomas Sr. Stadium.
With a chance to be in the driver’s seat immediately, there’s no one head coach Kyle Krustangel would rather give the ball to than Jake Saum, an incoming freshman at UCLA.
“I truly believe he is the best pitcher in the West Coast League,” Krustangel said. ”When he becomes draft eligible again after his junior year, this is a guy that’s going to be a first-round pick.”
That’s high praise for someone who has never pitched in an NCAA game.
With Saum, the hype is real and deserved. He finished the 2019 regular season with the fourth-best ERA (2.80) and the sixth-most strikeouts (54) in the WCL. Saum has tossed at least five innings in all seven of his starts and has also appeared in two games in relief. He was one of four AppleSox All-Stars, but the only one who was an incoming freshman.
Every time Saum toes the rubber, the AppleSox know they have a strong chance to win. Wenatchee has only lost one of the seven games that Saum has started and has won in each of his last three. He toed the rubber most recently on Aug. 7 and delivered a season-high eight shutout innings against the Ridgefield Raptors to help the Sox clinch their first playoff berth since 2013.
The Sox are energized every time Saum takes the mound, but are especially electric when the southpaw starts a home game. Wenatchee is 4-0 in Saum’s four starts at Paul Thomas Sr. Stadium and he has a 2.16 ERA in games in Wenatchee this summer.
Saum has struck out at least five in all but one start and punched out a season-best 10 batters against the Bend Elks on July 11. The southpaw’s fastball typically hangs in the upper 80’s to low 90’s and clocked as high as 93 in his season-debut on June 15.
This all comes after posting a microscopic 0.92 ERA while going 6-3 in 12 games as a senior at St. Bonaventure High School in Ventura, California, this past spring.
Even in games that he has experienced adversity, Saum still finds ways to amaze. On July 20 at Bellingham, Saum surrendered three runs on three hits. Despite the slow start, Saum wouldn’t allow 16 of the final 19 batters that he faced to reach base and didn’t allow any hits after the second inning. The four runs allowed represented a single-game high for Saum in 2019, but he still punched out six.
Again, on Aug. 2, Saum allowed three runs on two hits and a season-high five walks but he still managed to go five innings once again. He even no-hit the Yakima Valley Pippins through the first three innings.
What separates Saum from other pitchers his age is his drive to be great. He knows what he wants to be and is willing to work as hard as possible to accomplish that goal.
"I think what makes Saum so special,” Krustangel said, “is not just what the fans can see. It’s the work he does on off days. Every time I’m at the gym, he’s at the gym. He’s first one here every day doing his arm care.”
Saum is always working to improve his game, whether he is pitching that day or not. On road trips, Krustangel says Saum is the first to ask him what gym the players have access to. Pitching coach Tyler VonDracek typically loans his coaches jacket to his starting pitchers and said that he doesn’t wear it again on days that Saum starts because of how sweaty it gets. Every day, you’ll find Saum long-tossing in the outfield or running the warning track prior to games.
Even on days where he seems filthy, Saum is still critical of himself and looking to improve. After striking out eight against Ridgefield, Saum still thought he could have done better.
“I wasn’t too worried about where (the ball) was going,” Saum said, “but I was just trying to throw strikes and make people work. There weren’t a ton of strikeouts, but I just let them put it in play and let the defense make plays behind me.”
Saum is one of the eight remaining players on the AppleSox to have played in June. Because of that, he is a leader on this Sox’ team in many ways. Over the last couple weeks he has become more vocal in the dugout and, along with the other remaining players, has helped welcome newcomers into the Sox’ winning environment.
Even if he is just an incoming freshman, there’s no doubt that Saum is the man that the AppleSox want on the mound in Tuesday’s pivotal game. This could be the first of many big playoff games in which Saum gets the ball at the collegiate level. The AppleSox are confident in their ace to get the job done.