05/18/2016 9:07 AM -
When former Oilmen pitcher Matt Pobereyko received a professional contract from the Frontier League’s Florence Freedom, it was only the first step toward making the club.
Now, the Bishop Noll High School and Kentucky Wesleyan University graduate has made it through the challenge: surviving preseason cuts.
“Camp was extremely competitive,” he said. “You get a contract and think you’re safe. You come here and there’s 40 guys competing for the 24-man roster. There were 25 pitchers. Camp is not a preseason. A lot of people in this league call it spring training; our coach calls it competition camp. You definitely have to earn your spot.”
Pobereyko did just that, and has immediately taken over a late-inning role as a setup man in the Freedom bullpen. His professional debut came in the eighth inning of a tied game against Windy City on Sunday. The right-hander heaved a scoreless frame.
“There was a lot of adrenaline,” he said. “Not pressure; I’m used to closing and I’m used to tight spots. The big thing is staying within myself and doing things the way I’ve always done them. I don’t want to speed up just because people are in the stands or I’m facing better hitters. You have to be the pitcher you are no matter where you are.”
It didn’t take Pobereyko long to figure out the difference between college and professional hitters. He struck out two in his debut, but did allow a double off the wall.
“Your mistakes get hit,” he said. “Yesterday, I left one that hung on a two-strike count. Odds are someone (in college) would swing through or even take, but I paid. I escaped and got out of the inning, but mistakes get hit here.”
Life in independent professional baseball means long days at the ballpark. Pitchers’ early work begins at 3 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game, so Pobereyko arrives at 2 p.m. and leaves home at 1:30. When it’s all said and done, it’s a 10-hour day at the ballpark.
The Freedom are on a season-opening homestand, but when they hit the road the journey will be even more challenging.
“It’s going to be a grind, there’s no doubt about it,” Pobereyko said. “I love it. I knew what I was getting myself into.”
Pobereyko spent two summers as the closer for the Oilmen in 2013 and 2014. He holds the Midwest Collegiate League all-time career saves record with 18 and single-season record with 13. Surpassing those marks would be a tall task in a short-season league where saves are uncommon.
Pobereyko posted a 2.57 ERA in 14 innings with 17 strikeouts in 2013. A year later, he put together one of the most dominant seasons in team history, allowing two runs in 23 innings for a team-record 0.78 ERA. He struck out 42, issued eight walks and allowed just 11 hits all season. Pobereyko converted all 13 save chances in 2014 and went 18-for-19 in nailing down saves over his Oilmen career.
The MCL saves king also spent the 2015 season as an assistant coach for the Oilmen.
“I think the Oilmen letting me close really helped me be more versatile when it comes to pitching and a little more comfortable in those one-inning roles,” Pobereyko said. “Getting that closer experience with the Oilmen and having that in my repertoire helped me decide I wanted to be a one-inning guy.”
Although Pobereyko is enjoying his stint with the Freedom, he’s hoping it’s relatively short-lived.
“Obviously, the ideal in these independent leagues is to be here as short of a time as possible,” Pobereyko said. “I love it here, but everyone’s goal, from the manager to the pitching coach to every player and even the clubhouse guy is to get to affiliated baseball. Our closer throws really well, so he’s probably going to be picked up pretty quickly. Hopefully I’ll step into that role and be gone shortly after him.”