By Matt Williams
---- — Stephen Peterson is a Tom Brady guy living and working right in the middle of Aaron Rodgers territory.
The way Peterson sees it, that’s OK — the strikes he’s concerned with reside on the black of home plate rather than on the fingertips of wide receivers.
Danvers’ Peterson is in the midst of his first full season playing professional baseball for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the Single-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers. And aside from the occasional urge to declare that his own hometown hero, the Patriots’ Brady, is far better than the local favorite, Green Bay’s Rodgers, Peterson is loving everything about life in the midwest.
“When my parents came out, we took a tour of Lambeau Field, and we made sure we told people, ‘We’re Patriots fans, we’re just here for the history’,” Peterson said with a laugh.
“Really, though, the people here are great. We get almost 5,000 fans a night and being in the same state as the Brewers is great. The people here are crazy about their Brewers and it really reminds me of the way fans are back home.”
Someday, those fans may be going crazy for Peterson, a 24-year-old lefthanded pitcher who turned pro last summer after his senior year at the University of Rhode Island.
A 2006 graduate of St. John’s Prep, Peterson was solid in the rookie ball Arizona League in 2011 and earned himself a spot in Wisconsin in his first full spring training a few months ago.
The 6-foot-3, 210 pound southpaw has rewarded his team, pitching 41
innings and limiting opposing hitters to a .196 average for a club that is 65-49 overall and won its Midwest League first-half division title.
He has three wins, three saves and has thrown in all situations. Sometimes, he’ll come in for one out in a lefty-on-lefty situation, and sometimes he’s called on to throw 2-3 innings at a time. It’s all part of the learning curve in Single-A.
“We’re young and they try to stay away from roles because they want you to learn,” said Peterson. “The pitching coaches at this level want to put you in different situations to see how you react, how you might control it, and project what you might be able to do as you move up. It’s all about getting innings.”
Peterson has a 3.27 earned run average this season to go with 35 strikeouts. The majority of his work has come out of the bullpen, so he’s taking the conventional pitcher’s approach of getting ahead in the count with his fastball and finishing the job with his breaking stuff.
“Always, if you can get ahead with that fastball you can set something up and make something happen,” said Peterson. “I think my out pitch is my breaking ball and I don’t want to show that to a hitter early in a count. It might be different if you’re going multiple innings, but coming into the situations I’ve been in, there are a lot more options once you get ahead with the fastball.”
Though he’s always pitched well in all situations — for example, two no-hitters as a senior at St. John’s Prep and an All-New England senior season at URI — Peterson knows that as a lefty, he has tremendous value against lefthanded hitters as a pro. That’s why he’s focused on his changeup, a major point of emphasis in the Brewers’ organization, and setting up batters early in the count.
“Since day one our pitching coach has been telling me how good the breaking ball can be in a left-on-left situation,” Peterson said. “You don’t want to show how effective that can be early in the count if you don’t have to.”
With an ERA of 3.00 in 27 innings of rookie ball in 2011, Peterson has quickly learned to be effective in his first 18 months of professional baseball. He’s a smart pitcher and that’s helped him make the adjustment.
“The hitters get better at every level and you have to listen and think about the game,” said Peterson. “As you get older, you get a better understanding of how to react and how to attack hitters.”
There was a time when Peterson probably doubted that he’d ever play a full season of professional baseball. After helping the Prep reach the state final in 2006, he went to Marist before transferring to URI and sitting out the 2009 season due to NCAA rules.
Then, while pitching for the Newport Gulls in the NECBL summer league, he hurt his elbow and required Tommy John surgery. The 2010 season was lost to rehabilitation, meaning Peterson had gone two full seasons without toeing the rubber for the Rams.
“It makes you realize how much you truly love the game and how much harder you want to work,” he said. “It’s also motivation. I’d been there for two years as a student and a practice player, having fun and never putting on a jersey. I felt like I really had to show that I could play.”
Peterson is extremely grateful to URI coach Jim Foster — “He never lost faith in me.” — and put up a team-best 3.06 ERA in his one season as a Ram. The lefty was an All-Atlantic-10 second team selection, won six games, fanned 69 batters and started a team-best 14 games. He was an NEIBA All-New England pick and was selected as the Pitcher of the Game in the NEIBA all-star game.
The Danvers native parlayed that success into a shot with the Brewers and has the standard entry level minor league deal that could stretch as long as six years (”You’re there unless the organization decides otherwise,” he says). Regardless of how high he can rise in the Brewers’ system, he’ll always be connected to the diamonds in Danvers and at St. John’s.
“My mom and dad have been out (to Wisconsin) a couple of times and they’re coming again soon. That’s always great because I wouldn’t be here without them,” said Peterson.
Sure, there are hours of time to be killed on the bus and out in the bullpen. That’s the essence of the minor league baseball experience. But for Peterson, two years removed from major surgery and coming from a relatively small college in New England, it’s an experience to be savored.
“For me, it’s been my dream to do this. I take this as a blessing more than anything. There are a million kids out there that would be dying to be where I am.”