Reading's Friend benefits from winter ball in Venezuela

Posted: June 24, 2012

READING - Give Justin Friend points for honesty.

The 26-year-old righthander is having a lights-out season as double-A Reading's closer. Entering the weekend, Friend had allowed one earned run - all season.

In 24 innings over 22 games, Friend was 2-0 with a 0.38 ERA. He had 23 strikeouts and 10 walks, 12 saves, and a 1.125 WHIP.

"You always want to be successful, but you know there will be a time when you blow a save or give up a run," Friend said last week after earning the win during Reading's 4-3 victory in 10 innings over visiting Akron. "To say I expected this coming, absolutely not."

That doesn't mean he didn't expect success. Friend, selected by the Phillies in the minor-league Rule 5 draft on Dec. 9, 2010, credits much of his improvement to competing this past winter for Tiburones de la Guaira in Venezuela.

In 181/3 innings over 18 Winter League games, Friend was 2-0 with a 3.44 ERA. He had 15 strikeouts, 10 walks, and a 1.80 WHIP.

"Last year, I struggled a little bit with fastball command and needed to develop a third pitch," Friend said. "When I went to winter ball, I needed to throw something other than a slider to get guys out, so I really had to work on my change-up and make that a better pitch, and throwing my sinker in the zone for strikes also helped me."

Friend also saved three games in three opportunities, but said he relinquished the closer role once Milwaukee Brewers reliever Francisco Rodriguez joined the team. Rodriguez, who helped the Anaheim (now Los Angeles) Angels win the 2002 World Series, served as a mentor to Friend.

"Having his presence there, talking about baseball, about pitching the ninth inning, how to set up hitters, he really helped me," Friend said.

Friend has taken that to Reading, where he was 1-4 with a 3.38 ERA in 29 games last season after being promoted from Clearwater on June 16.

"Playing winter ball in Venezuela helped him a lot because he got to face a lot of really good competition as far as facing big-leaguers, and the atmosphere in Venezuela is do-or-die every night," said first-year Reading manager Dusty Wathan, who also managed Friend last year in Clearwater.

"That level of competition was huge for him."

Friend fed off the frenzied atmosphere. His team played home games in Caracas.

"I would compare the atmosphere to a European soccer game," Friend said. "The people would be yelling, screaming, there would be horns blowing, and the fans were very enthusiastic."

Friend says it's only human nature to follow the revolving door that has been the Phillies bullpen this season.

"You definitely look at what is going on ahead of you," he said. "The one thing I always had to do was just concentrate on pitching for Reading, and I can't control the moves the team makes, but I can control what I do on the mound."

At the least, he has made the Phillies notice his dominating season.

"Each year, he has proved he can pitch, and you have to see if he will continue to have success and continue to put up numbers," said Steve Noworyta, the Phillies' assistant director of player development. "Eventually, he will start showing up on the radar."

Another key, according to Friend, has been his ability to get lefthanded batters out. He said he had struggled with that phase of the game, but not this year. Entering the weekend in 71/3 innings, he had allowed six hits and no runs to lefthanders, who were hitting .222 against him.

He said the success stemmed from commanding both sides of the plate, something Friend has done regardless of who has been in the batter's box.


Former Phillie prospect Moss doing well with Oakland

1 Brandon Moss, who had no hits in six at-bats for the Phillies and batted .275 with 23 home runs and 80 RBIs for Lehigh Valley in 2011, was the most recent American League player of the week. The Oakland first baseman batted .348 with five home runs and 10 RBIs in the week that ended June 17. He signed as a free agent with the A's in December.

2 If you don't think the new collective bargaining agreement favors teams in signing draft choices, just look at what the Phillies have done. They had 12 picks in the top 10 rounds and have signed 11, according to a source. The only unsigned pick is second-rounder Alec Rash (No. 95 overall), a high school righthander from Iowa, but that deserves an asterisk. According to MLB rules, Rash may not be signed until July 1 because he is from Iowa, which plays its high school baseball in the summer and not the spring. Thus, the later deadline for signing.

3 The Phillies' two representatives in the Futures All-Star Game on July 8 in Kansas City are Reading righthanders Lisalverto Bonilla and Julio Rodriguez. Three former Phillies minor leaguers also will be in the game: catcher Travis d'Arnaud and outfielder Anthony Gose, both playing in triple-A for Toronto; and first baseman Jonathan Singleton, who is in double-A for Houston. D'Arnaud was dealt in the Roy Halladay trade. Gose went to Houston in the Roy Oswalt trade, and the Astros quickly sent him to Toronto. Singleton joined the Houston organization last year as part of the Hunter Pence deal.

4 In his last 10 starts, Clearwater lefthander Jesse Biddle has allowed two earned runs or fewer nine times. Biddle, the Phillies' 2010 first-round draft choice from Germantown Friends, is 3-1 with a 2.00 ERA in his last 10 games. Overall, he entered the weekend 3-3 with a 3.03 ERA and 74 strikeouts and 24 walks in 651/3 innings.

5 Lakewood will be hosting the 2013 South Atlantic League All-Star Game. The last time Lakewood hosted the event was 2002. Next year, it will become a two-day affair featuring a Celebrity Hitting Challenge on June 17 and the All-Star Game on June 18. Reading will host this year's Eastern League All-Star Game on July 11.

- Marc Narducci


Contact Marc Narducci at 856-779-3225, mnarducci@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @sjnard.

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