A pair of former star pitchers at local high schools are finding their way this summer as rookies in Major League Baseball, hopeful to stick around and last the remainder of the season with big league clubs.
Former Eastern Alamance High star pitcher Zack Littell and former Orange High hurler Bryse Wilson are both currently playing in the MLB - Littell with the Minnesota Twins, and Wilson with the Atlanta Braves. Both got their first taste of Major League action in 2018 with spot starts, and are each now trying to find their way in the highest level and stick around a while.
It’s a remarkable thing for a relatively small, largely rural area like Mebane to have two professional baseball players currently participating in the game’s highest level. After all, only 800 to 1,000 of the best baseball players in the world get to don a Major League uniform each year. But it’s also a testament to the tremendous dedication and commitment to athletic excellence on display in eastern Alamance and western Orange Counties.
Littell, who entered the 2019 season as the No. 21 overall prospect in the Twins system, has had a long and winding journey to what is called “The Show,” while Wilson, the No. 7 prospect in the Braves system heading into 2019, has had a remarkably rapid path to the top level, making history last summer as well as during the first week of this season in late March.
After dominating the Mid-State Conference through the early years of the decade as Eastern High’s ace, Littell was drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school. He got a rough introduction to pro baseball back in the summer of 2013 with the Arizona League Mariners, where he went 0-6 with a 5.94 earned run average at the age of 17.
From there, however, things got progressively better for Littell, as he gained better command of his pitches, dramatically improved his control, and further developed his knowledge of pitching.
After a respectable 5-5 season at Pulaski in the Appalachian League in 2014 - which included a local appearance where he pitched against the Burlington Royals - Littell moved up to A ball in 2013, putting together a 3.91 ERA over 21 starts with the Clinton LumberKings of the Midwest League.
Wilson, by comparison, was stellar in his first taste of pro ball at the age of 18 in the summer of 2016 with the Gulf Coast Braves, allowing just two earned runs for an 0.68 ERA and 29 strikeouts over 26 innings.
As Wilson was getting his feet wet as a pro pitcher, 2016 began a dramatic ascension for Littell up the ranks of the Yankees farm system, as he produced a 13-6 record with a 2.66 ERA with Clinton and Bakersfield.
Moving on High A ball at Tampa in the spring of 2017, Littell was dazzling, overwhelming his opposition with a 9-1 record and sparkling 1.77 ERA. He got a promotion to Trenton of the AA Eastern League, and was cruising with a 5-0 record and 2.05 ERA when he learned on June 30, 2017 that he, along with fellow Yankees minor leaguer Dietrich Enns, had been traded to the Minnesota Twins in a deal for veteran MLP left-hander Jaime Garcia.
The deal with the Twins turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Littell, as his path to the big leagues was significantly less filled with obstacles trying to catch onto the Yankees’ deep MLB pitching staff compared to the Twins, who have been building in recent years into a contender in the American League Central.
Littell shifted from Trenton to the Chattanooga Lookouts, Minnesota’s AA entry in the Southern League, and he just kept on getting outs and striking out opposing hitters. When it was all said and done, Littell had one of the top seasons in all of Minor League Baseball in 2017, going a combined 19-1 with a 2.12 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 157 innings of work.
While Littell was winning games with three different clubs in 2017, Wilson was one of the aces of the Rome Braves in the A ball Sally League, going 10-7 with a 2.50 ERA. Wlison started the 2018 season in High A ball, but quickly matriculated to AA Mississippi and then on to AAA Gwinnett, where Wilson was a solid 3-0.
Although Littell wasn’t quite ready to start the 2018 season in Minnesota, a strong start at AAA Rochester got him the call to the Major Leagues for his first appearance on June 5, as he pitched the second game of a doubleheader in Target Field against the Chicago White Sox.
Littell’s family, numerous friends and acquaintances, as well as EAHS head baseball coach Randy Ballard, made their way to Minneapolis to cheer him on for his MLB debut.
Although he struck out the very first man he ever faced in the Majors - Chicago’s Yoan Moncada - things were rough for Littell early in his big league debut. White Sox star first baseman Jose Abreu crushed an opposite-field home run over the former Eagles standout, while Kevan Smith and Adam Engel drove in runs with hits to put four on the board against Littell.
Although it was an inauspicious start, Littell managed to settle down and prove he belonged, holding the White Sox scoreless on just one hit in the second inning, and keeping them off the board again in the third inning on no hits, despite two walks. Littell would take the loss in his big league debut.
Littell then took a second loss in early July when he hit a batter and walked in the winning run in a 10-inning loss at the eventual National League Central champion Milwaukee Brewers. Those tough outings resulted in a demotion back to AAA, but it wasn’t long before Littell was back in Minnesota for a September call-up. Littell was improved in his second stint with the Twins, allowing 10 runs over 17 innings while striking out 14 batters.
Wilson got the call to the Major Leagues last summer for an August 20 spot start against the Pirates in Pittsburgh, where Wilson shut out the Bucs on three hits with five strikeouts.
At 20 years, 243 days, Wilson was not only the youngest pitcher to appear in a Major League game last season, but he was the youngest pitcher in Major League history to win a 1-0 game. Wilson would pitch twice more for the Braves as they made a push to the National League East pennant last fall, but he struggled in a pair of relief appearances, giving up a combined five runs with three walks in lopsided losses to the Red Sox and Cardinals.
After beginning the 2019 season back in Rochester, Littell was called up to the Twins in late May, and made his first appearance this year with Minnesota on May 24, going two innings without giving up a hit while striking out two White Sox batters in a Twins victory.
Although Littell was bombed for eight earned runs in Tampa Bay on May 30, he has not allowed a run in any of his four other appearances this season for the Twins. The list includes a sparkling two inning outing on June 18, in which Littell held the Red Sox scoreless on two hits in the 16th and 17th innings. The Twins won the game 4-3 in 17 innings, giving Littell his first victory in the Major Leagues.
“It was a just a matter of time before we got that hit. It was a lot of fun,” Littell said after picking up his first Major League win.
As it turned out, Littell was Minnesota’s last option in the bullpen that night against the Red Sox. But against Boston, along with more recent outings, Littell has proven he can be a reliable option for first-year manager Rocco Baldelli as he has pushed the Twins to the top of the AL Central.
“It was a little lonely,” Littell said with a laugh in a postgame interview with Fox Sports North. “When everybody left, I was like, ‘Wow, it’s kind of boring out there with nobody here.’ But that’s how it is sometimes, I guess. I feel good. The goal was to go out and there and just keep putting up zeroes, no matter what you’ve got to do. I was just happy I could do it. It was a blast. You’re not part of these games very often. It was a lot of fun.”
In a pair of late June appearances, Littell held the Royals scoreless on one hit in one inning in Kansas City June 23, and a hitless inning of work in extra innings against the Rays on June 27. Although Littell had a 6.97 ERA through his first five outings with the Twins this season, he has gone scoreless with only three hits allowed over his last three appearances, as he appears to be settling into a role as a middle and long reliever for Minnesota.
After a solid spring, along with some early injuries to some key Atlanta hurlers, Wilson found himself in the Braves rotation for their opening series of the season in Philadelphia. When Wilson took the mound to face the Phillies on March 30, he became only the fifth National League pitcher since 1980 under 22 years of age to make one of his team’s first two starts of a season. He was in select company, joining legends Greg Maddux, Dwight Gooden, Fernando Valenzuela, and the late Jose Fernandez in that distinctive group.
Wilson’s debut wasn’t so kind, however, as the Phillies tagged him for four earned runs in 3.1 innings on their way to an 8-6 victory. Wilson got one more inning of big league work on April 26, pitching a scoreless inning with a strikeout against Colorado, but bounced back and forth to AAA Gwinnett.
This week, however, Wilson got the call to return to the Braves, and a chance to pitch at storied Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs.
The hard-hitting Cubs welcomed Wilson to Wrigley Field rather rudely, as slugger Kyle Schwarber belted a leadoff home run against the former Orange High standout. From there, however, Wilson retired nine of the next ten batters he faced, taking a commanding 6-1 lead into the bottom of the fourth inning.
The fourth, however, would prove to be Wilson’s undoing, as he led off the inning by walking Cubs perennial All-Star Anthony Rizzo. He then gave up three straight hits, including a double to Javy Baez, as the Cubs pulled within 6-4. Wilson went back out in the top of the fifth, but gave up a ground-rule double to Rizzo following an error, which pulled Chicago within 6-5. A three-run homer by Victor Caratini by Braves reliever Josh Tomlin ultimately led to a Cubs victory.
Despite the loss - and the fact that Wilson is still looking for his first win of 2019 in Atlanta - the important thing is that for now, Wilson is back in the Majors. He’s got a very bright future at just 23 years of age.
But now that he’s there, Wilson - as well as Littell, for that matter - are not looking for any more demotions. They’re looking to prove in the coming weeks and months that they are big leaguers, once and for all.