By Brenden West Herald Assistant Sports Editor
The Clinton Herald
---- — CLINTON -- Oliver Zapata and Byron Buxton. Should either hitter accomplish nothing more this season for Kane County or Cedar Rapids, at least they'll carry one distinction:
They are the only hitters to draw walks from Clinton's Dylan Unsworth in the first half of the Low-A minor league baseball season.
If you oppose the LumberKings' right-handed starter, you're going to earn your way to first. You're 90 feet removed from four wins and one loss (Wednesday night against Peoria); 53 consecutive innings without a walk; 11 runs allowed and an ERA of 1.90 over the past eight weeks; a head-spinning 22:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
You're staring down a 20-year-old ace amid an explosion.
With a 6-inch, sandy-blonde mullet, the 6-foot-1 Unsworth models himself after the best in the big leagues — Jered Weaver and Tim Lincecum. His goal is to take their styles a step further, and even his idols can respect the kind of stats Unsworth has amassed in the first half of the season.
Buxton was the last batter Unsworth walked, two months ago on April 14. That memory is lost in Unsworth, who said he doesn't like to think about his current tear — only the next batter up.
"I'm just working my way up and trying to be the best I can every day," he said. "I'm moving up the ranks slowly, but it's getting there."
The LumberKings feed into the Seattle Mariners organization, a franchise hailed nationally in baseball for its current farm system. An April 22 Sports Illustrated article labeled Seattle "The Next Nats" — a reference to the burgeoning, long-maligned Washington Nationals who broke out to make the 2012 postseason with mostly homegrown talent. The article mentioned former Clinton standout Nick Franklin (now starting for Seattle at second base), but delved only as low as the Double-A ranks.
In Single-A Clinton, Unsworth joins teammates Dario Pizzano, Tyler Marlette, Jabari Henry and Tyler Pike on the 2013 Midwest League All-Star roster, pieces of the prized Mariners puzzle.
Even then he stands apart with one of the most unique pedigrees in pro baseball. He's a native of Durban, South Africa (near Cape Town), a country foreign to baseball that has yet to be represented in the majors. In the Clinton clubhouse, it's easy to pinpoint his brogue above the clamber ("Cah-mown guys!").
In high school, Unsworth said he played rugby, cricket and soccer. ...
"But baseball was always there. It was always the first choice," he said. "Once people back home saw the potential in me, they started pushing me more, and I started focusing more and pushing the other sports away.
"They started saying, 'Hey, you've got a future in baseball.' I just believed in that, took it aside and carried it from there."
Unsworth turned heads on the world stage when he was named among the 50 best players in Europe in his mid-teens. He was also selected to play for the South African national team, where he began talking to MLB scouts.
"I got back to South Africa after playing internationally," Unsworth said. "A Mariners scout was there with a contract. That's how it all got started."
He signed a week before his 17th birthday as an undrafted free agent on Sept. 15, 2009. The franchise shipped him to the Arizona Rookie League the following spring, where he received his first taste of American baseball culture.
"Baseball-wise, the sport's a lot bigger here," he said.
Since his minors debut, Unsworth has made steady improvements and climbed the ladder. In 2010, his record was 2-5 with a 3.93 ERA (plus a 44:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio). He jumped to six wins, five losses in Pulaski of the Appalachian League the next year and 7-2 with short-season-A Everett, (Wash.) last season.
With the LumberKings, he's compiled career bests against the best lineups he's ever faced: 2.25 season ERA, one loss, .229 opponent average on 54 hits and 44 strikeouts. If Clinton loses an Unsworth start, it's not because of him. Through 10 games he's allowed only 17 runs, including five no-decisions with 10 runs allowed and two shutout wins.
Clinton pitching coach Andrew Lorraine said Unsworth's 53 consecutive innings without a walk can be credited to his aggressive mound approach.
"It's more than just walks and strikeouts to me," Lorraine said. "He's getting good counts. He's not walking guys, but he's also attacking hitters. He's using the plate, but he's also picking his spots to throw balls, intentionally coming at hitters, opening the plate more for him. ...
"The biggest thing is he's been a guy in the past where hitters were a little more comfortable against him. Now I think he's making them a little uncomfortable. It's great. It's why he's been successful."
Riding on Unsworth's right arm is a fastball that clocks in the mid-90s, four years and 47 games of consistent excellence. But his proudest moments take him back to his native land.
In 2012, weeks after helping the Everett Aquasox to a half-division title in the Northwest League, Unsworth flew across the globe for the World Baseball Classic preliminary games. Roughly three years to the day after signing his Mariners contract, he was the opening starter for South Africa in a losing effort against Isreal on Sept. 19.
It was vintage Unsworth, a term that may grow in popularity as his career unfolds: six innings, six strikeouts, one run allowed.
"Being chosen to start that first game for my country was a big moment," he said. "Growing up, I'd always wanted to pitch for the South African team, from 16 years old on up. Next thing you know, I'm the guy they're choosing. It was such a big hit for me."
Despite all his successes, Unsworth's family hasn't seen him pitch professional, fueling his drive to make it to the majors.
"It's pretty expensive for them to come over," he said. His mom emails him daily with words of inspiration, quotes from successful athletes. "It's not great (being removed), but it makes me want to achieve more so that one day they will be out here. That's my goal."
Lorraine said Unsworth had a chance to make global impacts.
"South Africa is definitely not a baseball country historically," Lorraine said. "Dylan would like to be the first South African to make the big leagues — I'm sure every South African kid does. He's got the driving force to do it.
"When he goes home, I'm sure people say, 'Baseball ... what the heck is that?' But maybe, one day, he can put it on the map as a major leaguer for the Mariners."
Lorraine also called Unsworth a positive clubhouse presence. Beyond the field, he's a team player and a motivator on off-days, Lorraine said. The world class experience gives him an admirable background that is hard to find in any of the major league ranks.
"I've met kids from all over the world," he said, adding there may be a growing trend another South African — second baseman Anthony Phillips — playing with the High Desert Mavs, another Single-A Seattle affiliate. "Baseball is obviously an international sport, but I think in some countries it's starting to grow more. That sums up Africa."
If the Mariners' global phenoms pan out, it could lead to a new trend in baseball.
But Unsworth prefers not to think about his stats, his impact or his general dominance. Only the next batter up and the goal to send him down.
"I'm gaining confidence every day," he said. "The difference between when I first got here to now is the maturation. Believing in yourself. I just go out there and pitch.
"There's not much else to say. Just attack the hitters, stay aggressive, confident and believe that you can be successful."
In other words, Unsworth would sooner let his potentially historic right arm do the talking.
Unsworth by the numbers A look at Dylan Unsworth's game-by-game pitching statistics Date Opponent IP H R ER BB SO April 8 Kane Co. 5 7 4 4 1 4 April 14 Cedar Rapids 7 8 2 2 1 2 April 21 Beloit 8 7 2 2 0 5 April 28 Fort Wayne 9 7 2 2 0 6 May 4 Bowling Green 6 2 0 0 0 5 May 10 Wisconsin 5 2 0 0 0 5 May 15 Beloit 7 3 3 1 0 7 May 24 Burlington 5 2 0 0 0 2 May 30 Cedar Rapids 4 5 1 1 0 1 June 5 Peoria 6 7 3 3 0 7 Totals 62 54 17 17 2 44