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Sanburn Finding Renewed Success in Chinooks Bullpen

By Nathan DeSutter

Mequon, WI – Living up to an older brother is never easy. Just ask Chinooks’ reliever, Parker Sanburn, whose brother, Nolan, dominated in his two years of college baseball at SEC power, Arkansas, was selected in the second round of the 2012 MLB draft by the Oakland Athletics and currently sits in high-A Potomac, an affiliate of the Washington Nationals, with a 3.86 ERA and 9 strikeouts through his first 9 innings. 

The two have a great relationship. They text frequently, congratulate each other–especially that time Nolan was traded to the White Sox straight up for Adam Dunn–and play catch whenever they’re both back home.

“He’s tearing it up [with the Nationals],” Sanburn said. “We’re all hoping he gets shotgunned [to the majors] real quick or at least makes the 40 man this year. He throws four pitches, all for strikes. He’s definitely good enough.”

The only time he'll admit he moderately dislikes Nolan is during those games of catch, and that's mainly because it’s more of a harrowing exercise than it is fun. But, their relationship is special and that’s why, originally, Parker planned the exact same route to the majors. 

He committed to Arkansas for the fall of 2014, one year after his brother graduated, and after redshirting his freshman year, he became the second Sanburn to debut for the hogs. 

“There was pressure to follow my brother to Arkansas because I saw how much success he had there, and I thought if I went there I would have the same sort of success,” Sanburn said. “I wasn't really ready for college baseball I don't think. I was playing at the top conference in the country and we were ranked number 10”

Sanburn appeared 11 times in his freshman season going 8.2 innings, walking 9 and surrendering 15 earned runs for an ERA of 15.69.

“It was really tough for me,” he said. “I broke my back, had shoulder surgery and they said I should probably go somewhere else. I totally understood that.”

At first, he thought he’d found a new home at Indiana University in Bloomington, which, depending on Indianapolis traffic, is just a quick two-hour drive from to his childhood home in Kokomo, Indiana, but the Hoosiers and him didn't quite mesh, as Parker put it. So, the search continued.

Eventually, he did find a home, albeit temporary, in a town called Ankeny, Iowa, the site of a fast-growing, multi-faceted institution called Des Moines Area Community College.

Not only was it new situation for Sanburn, but the coaching staff threw him further into uncharted waters. Or, in Iowa's case, deeper into the cornfield. He'd have to learn how to be a starting pitcher. 

“Starting was really hard for me. Going from max effort for two innings [as a relief pitcher] to now I actually got to pitch and locate and learn hitters tendencies. It took me a bit longer to learn,” he said. 

“The first guy I faced I walked on four pitches and the next guy I gave up a homer to. I said, ‘what did I get myself into.’”

Eventually, he did get the hang of it, finishing the year with a 3.04 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 11 starts over 50 innings. And, now that it’s over–he’ll be looking for a new home this fall pending the results of the upcoming MLB draft on June 12th–he admits being a starting pitchers actually helped him in the long run. 

“It helped me realize what I need to do,” he said. “Win the 1-1 counts, win the first pitch, don’t walk anybody with two outs and always get the first guy out in the inning. You do those things and you’ll have success no matter what you throw how you throw or where you throw.”

For the Chinooks, his role has shifted back to the bullpen, and so far, the lessons he learned and successes he had for Des Moines have translated into dominance. 

In his first 7.2 innings with Lakeshore, Sanburn has struck out 15, walked only 3 and has still yet to give up a run. He was hitless through his first 7.1 innings, but a two-out, opposite field single from Fon du Lac's Joe Breaux broke up his bullpen no-hitter. To make things even more ridiculous, he’s caused opposing hitters to whiff 21 times and has only allowed contact, fair or foul, 21 times. 

Here is the contact:

1 groundball base hit, 6 groundouts, 2 flyouts, 1 hard-hit line drive and a bunt. 11 total balls in play, that’s it, and he’s faced an even 30 hitters.  Further, he’s only allowed two players to put a bat on the ball twice in the same at-bat. It doesn't get much more dominant than that. 

“I want to become the best reliever I can…I want to get to the zenith” he said. “Because, if I play professionally, that’s probably where I’ll be.”

More importantly, Sanburn is done trying to be someone else or live up to expectations, he’s just trying to be himself. A goofy, fun-loving guy with an odd sense of fashion and a wide variety of superstitions. 

When Sanburn trots out from the bullpen, the first thing that sticks out isn't his 93+ mph fastball or sharp breaking ball that’s left more than a few opposing hitters scratching their heads. Instead, it’s the foot and a half long string hanging from his glove. 

“The first time I got this glove, I tightened it. Then, I threw it really well that and said to myself, ‘Oh, I gotta keep doing that every day,’’ he said. “So, I would tighten it every single day and now it’s super long and it’s kind of a superstitious thing now.”

He doesn't use it to pester or throw off hitters, and honestly, the length of it bothers him more than it helps, but right now, he has no plans to remove it. Unless it causes an embarrassing blunder. 

“It’s at the point where the other day I had a ground ball and I went for it. I stepped on the string and when I went to pull my glove up, it came right off my hand,” he said. “The day that it ends is the day I fall over on the mound and make a fool of myself.”

The second thing you might notice is his goggles. Think Moses Malone, Horace Grant or Gordon Pibb from the movie “Dodgeball.”

“I know it’s kinda dumb, I look kinda funny,” he said.”I was looking for Oakley glasses, but they said my eyesight is three times too bad for them. I had to go with these big old ones because I’m darn near blind.”

You’d think Sanburn would be past worrying about his appearance at this point, but when he tried wearing stirrups for the first in his last appearance, he was shaking in his boots. That's just what makes Parker so unique. 

“This is gonna sound really dumb, but this is the first time I’d ever worn stirrups and I was nervous about it,” he said. “So, I walked the first guy and I hit the next guy.”

Sanburn took a deep breath, adjusted his goggles and postured into his Craig Kimbrel like stance–something he says he just picked one day up without any inspiration from the Boston closer–and decided the stirrups wouldn't beat him, he would close down Kenosha. 

“I said you know what, I’m getting angry a little bit and I’m just gonna strike these guys out. So, I started throwing a bit harder and snapped it off a bit more,” he said. 

He struck out four of the next six hitters he faced and the Kingfish learned he isn't much fun when he’s 60 feet, 6 inches away. 

Every other time you catch Sanburn, it’s a different story. Wether it’s trying to get the whole bullpen to tighten their gloves and form “the string pen,” attempting to sunbathe in the bullpen while dodging the eyesight of field manager Eddy Morgan or loudly laughing, almost to the point of tears, on a silent bus ride home from an away game. 

Sanburn is no longer trying to live up to his brother, he’s his own man, and come this June he could find a new home in the minor leagues, but for right now, he’s happy to be a dominate force down in the Chinook bullpen.