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10 July, 2016

DUSTIN MOLLEKEN: LET'S HEAR IT FOR A SASKATCHEWAN BOY!

Saskatchewan sports fans have a new home-grown hero to cheer for and not before it was deserved.

After toiling in the minor leagues of professional baseball for 13 long seasons, 31-year-old pitcher Dustin Molleken of Regina finally made it to the Major Leagues two weeks ago and gave a pretty good account of himself in two relief appearances with the Detroit Tigers. He made his Major League debut on Monday, July 4, at Cleveland and threw two innings, allowing a run on three hits with a walk and two strikeouts. His first Major League strikeout was at the expense of the Indians' 
Mike Napoli.


Then six days later he made his second appearance in the fifth inning of a game in Toronto against the Blue Jays. This time, showing unexpected poise and with his family in the stands (including his wife and baby daughter), he worked two scoreless innings and struck out four of the seven batters he faced, the final out coming when Troy Tulowitzky was retired on a grounder with two runners on base. 

Unfortunately for the Tigers, and in spite of the good relief work by the Regina native, they lost both games.

Dustin had pitched at Rogers Centre in Toronto before, nearly half a lifetime ago. He was a 17-year-old on the Canadian junior national team, pitching against Team USA. At that point, he dreamed of some day coming back to Toronto as a Major Leaguer. (He also competed for his country during the 2011 Baseball World Cup and Pan Am Games.)

Fourteen years later, Molleken walked into Rogers Centre on Thursday afternoon as a member of the Detroit Tigers' bullpen, readying for a four-game series against the Blue Jays' formidable offense. And the Rogers Centre crew was ready for him, posting his picture and stats profile on the scoreboard, complete with a Canadian Maple Leaf to denote his heritage.

"It's an unbelievable feeling," he said, "especially being at home here in Toronto. It means so much to me to be at home and throw."

It's a feeling Molleken wasn't sure he'd ever get as he waited for a call from the big leagues. He has spent 13 years and 349 appearances in the Minors, including parts of six years at Triple-A across four different organizations. He went to Japan to pitch for the Nippon Ham Fighters a few years ago, but came back. He nearly quit, but his agent told him not to give up. Far from growing bitter, Molleken picked up a reputation for his kindness, even helping out clubhouse kids doing laundry after a game on occasion.

"You have to pay your dues," he said with a smile.

A 6'4" righty, Molleken worked as a starter and a reliever in his 629.1 career minor league innings. His minor league numbers are not all that impressive, but his career longevity is what stands out. He features a fastball that sits between 92-94 mph as well as a slider. He was drafted in the 15th round of the 2003 MLB draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates and spent his first seven seasons in that organization before becoming a minor league free agent.

He made his way to the Tigers' system last fall with help from an old scout. Joe Ferrone originally signed him with the Pirates in 2003, and he remembered Molleken when he joined the Tigers for a second stint as a Major League scout this past fall. When the Tigers were looking for Minor League free agents to stock the system, Ferrone put in a good word for Molleken.

When depth issues challenged the Tigers to look for fresh arms at Triple-A Toledo, the word from manager Lloyd McClendon and the coaching staff was Molleken. He was called up on Father's Day last month for a brief stint but didn't pitch, essentially serving as an extra arm.

The Tigers called him back up from Toledo on the 4th of July with 
Jordan Zimmermann going on the disabled list, and this time Molleken did not have to linger long. He made his Major League debut that same night. "My legs felt like jelly," Molleken said. "My heart rate was going, but when I threw my first pitch, I felt normal." 

In a television interview prior to his Sunday relief appearance on the mound at Rogers Centre, he spoke matter-of-factly about a speech disorder he has fought since he was four-years-of -age.  "It's who I am," he explained..."and I want kids out there who stutter to know that they can get over it too."
  
Dustin attended Cochrane High School in Regina and Lethbridge Community College before launching his baseball career.  He comes from a sports family, his dad Doug was active in Regina fastball circles for a number of years and his uncle Lorne is a well known former hockey player and coach.

Like Andrew Albers, Dave Pagan, Terry Puhl and Reggie Cleveland -- all Saskatchewan products who have played in the big leagues -- it was either hockey or baseball for this impressive and determined young man -- he chose baseball and the rest is history.


Needless to say, all those years of riding the bus and playing in minor league cities he had never heard of, has finally payed off.  It remains to be seen how long the dream will last but one thing is for sure, he will make the best of the opportunity to prove what he has known all along -- he is a "major leaguer".

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