On a summer night in 2003, a pair of 12-year-olds battled it out in the nationally-televised U.S. Championship Game of the Little League World Series. One decade later, Dario Pizzano and Devon Travis would face off again—this time as professionals in the Midwest League All-Star Game.
“We talked for a bit and reminisced,” said Pizzano, originally part of the Columbia College class of 2013, but now finishing up his coursework in time for a December graduation. “He won the MVP of the game and it was fitting because every team I ever played on against him, he killed us.”
Indeed, after going 6-for-6 in two games against Pizzano’s Massachusetts club in the Little League World Series, Travis’ three-run triple led the East to victory in the All-Star Game last June.
Some things never change. That can also be said of the consistency of Pizzano’s offensive prowess.
In his three seasons for Columbia, the left-handed slugger tied the program record with 25 home runs and was named Ivy League Player of the Year in his final collegiate season.
He was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 15th round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft and tore it up for the Rookie-level Pulaski Mariners last summer. He led the Appalachian League with a .356 batting average, earning a promotion to the Class-A Everett AquaSox for the final few days of the 2012 season.
This year, Pizzano’s destination was Clinton, Iowa, where the left fielder anchored the lineup of the Low-A Clinton LumberKings.
“We all know that he can hit,” LumberKings manager Eddie Menchaca said. “He was our guy this year that we counted on and he delivered.”
Pizzano batted .311 with eight home runs, 40 doubles, five triples, and 70 RBIs this season. He drew 61 walks, while striking out only 48 times.
“He prepares and he understands what he wants to do,” Menchaca said. “He has a great approach and is well-advanced for his age. He studies pitchers and knows their tendencies.”
Once Pizzano established his propensity for doubles, he mostly hit third in Menchaca’s lineup, leading Clinton into the playoffs. Just like at Robertson Field, most of his extra-base hits were served up the left-center alley.
Such an abundance of doubles is rare. Pizzano was one of only two professional baseball players who had at least 40 doubles and a batting average over .310 by Labor Day.
Pizzano also became the only minor leaguer in the last eight years to play 120 or more games in a season, while collecting at least 40 doubles and striking out fewer than 50 times. Dustin Pedroia and Miguel Tejada were the only other professionals to accomplish the feat in that span, and both did so in 2009.
Despite the shiny statistics, Pizzano still faced several obstacles typical of a minor leaguer over the course of his season. After a fast start in 2013, he endured what he called “the worst slump of my career” over the next several games.
“My strength is my hitting, and I was worried, especially since I was hitting and felt I had to be the guy to produce,” he said.
Pizzano was able to confide in his hitting coach, his parents, and even Columbia head coach Brett Boretti—all of whom reassured him that everyone goes through such skids and that he just needed to relax and trust himself.
“It feels so helpless,” Pizzano said. “In college you could get a cheap hit with a metal bat, but that’s not going to happen anymore when guys are throwing mid-90s with great fielding behind it. It humbled me a little.”
He tried to alter his mechanics at first, but learned he just needed to work with his hitting coach and stick with his approach to outlast such slumps, which grew shorter as the season progressed.
“The mental aspect of it is hard since you already are going through a lot—playing for months at a time and being away from your loved ones,” Pizzano said. “I was putting too much pressure on myself and not having fun. When I stopped worrying about it, I started hitting again like normal.”
Menchaca agreed that Pizzano’s self-inflicted pressure can often be his greatest nemesis. Additionally, Pizzano had to endure the frigid temperatures of April in Idaho, a large ballpark, and most significantly, a new level of pitching.
“In Rookie ball, they really just throw as hard as they can and don’t locate,” Pizzano said. “Right when I got to this league I found out they pitch backwards, like the Ivy League but with plus stuff.”
Similar to Pulaski, Va., the culture shock of Iowa brought another challenge for Pizzano. And the dinner options were limited as well.
“Applebee’s every single night for the last six months,” he said. “I could tell you everything on that menu like the back of my hand.”
Fortunately for Pizzano, the repeated orders from the 2-for-$20 menu pale in comparison to the perks of his season.
In addition to the community support in Clinton (and a spot in a nationally-televised commercial), being Clinton’s representative in the All-Star Game starting lineup was likely Pizzano’s greatest honor.
“I just remember batting practice and hanging out with the guys in the locker room,” he said, adding that he befriended the two top overall picks of the 2012 draft: Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton. “All these big names that I’ve heard about on TV and now we were just hanging out in the clubhouse as a team. It was awesome.”
Pizzano’s most notable encounter was back in spring training, when he had the opportunity to face Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez in a simulated game.
“That really gave me some confidence because if I can take good swings off of Hernandez and see his ball well, I can do it against everyone else too,” Pizzano said. “It was a good experience to get up there and see what is so nasty about his stuff. And I saw it. I know why they don’t hit it now, but I made good contact.”
Pizzano grounded a ball to third base and hit a chopper over Hernandez’s head in two at-bats.
He encountered another landmark matchup against the Burlington Bees. Columbia teammate Pat Lowery, CC ’12, who was drafted six rounds after Pizzano, pitched against Clinton on three separate occasions.
“I feel like I had an advantage because I faced him for four years in inter-squads,” Pizzano said. “Obviously his stuff is nasty, and he did well this year, which I am so happy about. But I don’t know what it is, I see him well.”
Pizzano went 3-for-6 with four walks and a double against Lowery. But their reunion was much more special than that.
“When he came, we hung out,” Pizzano said. “It happened to be good timing, as he faced us right when Columbia was in the regionals. So after the game, we went out to eat at a bar and watched them on TV.”
Pizzano, who worked out with Columbia’s baseball team when he was back in Morningside Heights last fall, kept up with the Lions’ run into the NCAA tournament.
“They worked real hard all year and seeing my class win the Ivy League their senior year was unbelievable,” he said. “I was in the clubhouse, streaming it live that day. I was going crazy and people were asking what I was doing. I got really happy and emotional when they won because I know how much I wanted one and we all worked for four years to get one. I wish I was a part of it, but I’m really happy for them. They earned it.”
Pizzano also stayed in close contact with Alex Black, CC ’13, and Tim Giel, CC ’13, who joined the Royals and Yankees organizations, respectively, this summer. They are now both with Pizzano’s agent.
Ironically, D.J. Peterson, whom Black struck out to beat New Mexico in the Lions’ major upset at the NCAA Regionals, ended up being roommates with Pizzano and batting cleanup for some of the season behind him.
“He would say some no-name, no-offense team came in and we blew our season,” Pizzano said. “It was funny.”
Pizzano is spending his final semester at Columbia this fall, which the Mariners are funding. Currently, however, he is participating in the Mariners’ three-week long Instructional League in Arizona.
“It was a really good experience last year,” he said of Instructional League. “The coaches were able to put a face to the name when they met me for the first time. I was told this year I’m going to play in every instructional game since they want me to polish my fielding and I’m actually becoming more versatile by learning how to play first base.”
An ability to play multiple positions can only make Pizzano a greater asset to the Mariners organization.
“Defensively he still needs a little bit of work,” Menchaca said. “But he got better this year and showed he can play left field. He is only going to get better. I think if he hits home runs, he has a really good chance” to play in the majors.
Although Pizzano was disappointed that he was not promoted this season, he knows he can only control his production on the field.
“I can’t even worry about it anymore,” he said. “I feel like I did whatever I could and had a successful season. Wherever they put me, whatever they tell me to do, I’m going to keep doing it. Hopefully if I keep hitting like this, it’s going to be in Seattle some day.”
For now, next year will likely bring stops in Advanced A-ball in High Desert, Calif. and Double-A in Jackson, Tenn.
The Mariners “have a plan,” he said. “They know what they are doing. Just because I have one specific tool, it doesn’t mean that’s what they are looking for at the next level. That’s just how the minor league system works. And I understand that. I’m going to get my chance.”
Pizzano can hope as his journey continues that he gets his revenge on his old nemesis Travis in a few years. Fortunately for Pizzano, the next time they match up, Travis may have to take his cuts against Felix Hernandez in Seattle.