Ekstrom proving his worth with ABL dominance
Veteran right-hander caps remarkable first half with an All-Star Game start
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Hours before taking the hill as the starting pitcher for the World team in the 2013 Australian Baseball League All-Star game, Mike Ekstrom sat quietly in the visitors' dugout. Prior to throwing a scoreless inning in his team's 6-0 victory, the veteran -- who has spent parts of five seasons in the Majors -- was surrounded by up-and-coming prospects, most of whom are in their early 20s.
Having turned 30 this past August, Ekstrom -- wearing his Perth Heat cap -- was happy to talk about his career and what has been a wildly successful sojourn Down Under.
"I'm lucky to be on a team with a good veteran Australian catcher [Matt Kennelly], who knows how to call a game and knows the local hitters," he said. "And we [Perth] have the best defense in the league, so it's just been a good situation all in all."
You could say Ekstrom has made the best of his opportunity through six starts in the ABL. The right-hander has tossed 44 1/3 innings, allowing just one run on 19 hits, while compiling 50 strikeouts and issuing just nine walks. His record sits at 5-0, and his ERA at a dazzling 0.20.
"With all things in baseball, when you're doing well, it snowballs -- and when you're doing poorly, it snowballs," Ekstrom said. "I've been fortunate to have it snowball in the right direction."
One of the keys so far has been Ekstrom's ability to work as a starter, something he hadn't done since 2008. It was something he was looking forward to when he decided to come to Australia.
"I came up in the Minors as a starter through Double-A," said Ekstrom. "But I kind of plateaued there, so I got sent to the 'pen.
"It's been great for my career to keep it going in the 'pen, but I just wanted to see how my arm would react to starting. I wanted to work on my changeup a lot more and just get more innings where I could try out and work on new stuff and get back to the things that have made me successful -- because last year in Triple-A didn't go quite as well as I would have liked."
Ekstrom spent the 2013 season with the A's and Angels' Triple-A affiliates, going a combined 3-3 with a 5.14 ERA in 38 relief appearances for the Sacramento River Cats and Salt Lake Bees. He became a free agent at the conclusion of the campaign, after having spent the last two seasons with three different organizations. He pitched in the Rockies' system in 2012.
It was time to try something new.
"I was looking for somewhere to play winter ball this year, and [I have] always wanted to go to Australia," said Ekstrom. "[I] had heard about the league and played with a lot of Aussies in the U.S.
"So I kind of looked into it and thought, 'Well, I could go there and see the country, and I could start -- so I could throw a lot of innings and work on some stuff and kind of get out of my standard role as a reliever.' There were just a lot of positives to a kind of unique situation."
A 12th-round pick of the Padres in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, Ekstrom's baseball odyssey includes 51 Major League appearances, a lifetime ERA of 3.80 over 347 Minor League appearances and a run to the postseason with Tampa Bay in 2010, which he cites as one of the highlights of his career.
"I wasn't on the playoff roster," he said. "But we won the division, beat the Yankees, and I was getting to contribute and pitching well there. It was a really fun experience."
Ekstrom pitched well down the stretch in '10, as he allowed no runs on four hits in six appearances in September and October. In fact, his entire campaign with the Rays was terrific. Shuttling between the Rays and the Triple-A Durham Bulls, Ekstrom did not allow a run in his last 11 outings in the Major Leagues, finishing the season with a 3.31 ERA.
An argument could be made that Ekstrom may have deserved more big league time the following season after such success. But he made just one appearance for the Rays in '11. Ekstrom refuses to make that argument.
"I can't say anything bad about that organization," he said. "I loved my time there. There's a reason why they're successful. They do things right, they take care of the players, and they create an environment where winning is contagious."
Right now, Ekstrom is looking to the future and trying to parlay the success he's found in Australia as a starter into a new job going forward.
"[Starting] is something that I think I could do over the regular season, and it just adds a little versatility to my pitching," he said. "I can be a short guy or a long guy. Whatever a team needs, I can fill that role. The league here has been a perfect environment to figure that out and to work on some stuff."
As for the success he's found, the native of Portland, Ore., maintains that not much has changed from how he's pitched in the past.
"I haven't reinvented the wheel or anything," Ekstrom said. "I've just done the things I've always tried to do -- throw strikes, change location and work on my pitches and sequences."
And now, with the ABL season half completed, it's time to get ready for another summer of baseball.
"Of course, I'd love to make it back to the big leagues," Ekstrom said. "I think I can still compete at that level, and hopefully I'll get the opportunity to earn a shot again.
"If not that, I'd love to play in Asia. I'd just love to continue to travel the world and play baseball. That was one of the biggest appeals here, as I'm getting older, to allow baseball to take me to different places. It's great to play a game that can take us all over the world."
Craig Durham is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.