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Losing Some Velocity

Angel prospect Jenks has a blazing fastball, but off-the-field problems earn him a demotion

June 28, 2002|BEN BOLCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Getting strikeouts has always been easy for Bobby Jenks, whether it was throwing tennis balls past his brothers in the backyard or blazing a fastball by a minor leaguer.

The 21-year-old right-hander has a 100-mph fastball and was compared to Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling when the Angels broke training camp this spring.

But only a few months later, it's Jenks who has two strikes against him.

He has been demoted from the Angels' double-A affiliate in Arkansas for what club officials consider repeated acts of immaturity.

So instead of quickly climbing the ladder to triple-A, one rung shy of the majors, Jenks has fallen to Class A, where tonight he will make his second start for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes.

With the Quakes, Jenks will attempt to reestablish himself as a top prospect. Certainly there are few concerns about the 6-foot-3, 245-pounder's arm. With Arkansas, Jenks had 58 strikeouts in 58 innings.

The Angels are hoping the demotion will be a wakeup call. "In order to succeed and become a successful major league player, it takes both on and off-field focus," Angel General Manager Bill Stoneman said. "I know Bobby wants it, and we're doing our best to help him find that focus."

Jenks and two other Arkansas pitchers each were suspended for seven games after they were caught with beer on the team bus, baseball sources said. Jenks' other transgressions have not been disclosed, but Stoneman said none had any serious legal ramifications.

As he pedaled on a stationary bike before a game earlier this week, Jenks acknowledged the need to get his act together.

"I let them down," he said of the Angels. "We all had our talk and they know it's not going to be a serious thing. It's going to be a bump in the road."

Those who knew him before he signed with the Angels aren't surprised that Jenks' first years in professional baseball have had rough stretches.

"He's a great kid, but his upbringing obviously left many things untaught," said Mark Potoshnik, a Seattle-area youth baseball coach. "Decision-making and things like that were never really anything that was taught in his family.

"He was more [used to] hang-out-and-do-whatever-you-do type stuff."

Jenks was living with his family in Spirit Lake, Idaho, and had dropped out of high school when Potoshnik, who had coached him before, asked Jenks to move in with him and attend Inglemoor High near Seattle so that he would retain his eligibility in the 2000 draft.

Soon after, Potoshnik was setting up workouts so that big league scouts could get a look at Jenks' fastball.

Angel scout Jack Uhey was impressed. "He had a loose and easy arm," Uhey said. "He finished the fastball and had the makings of a plus-curveball. He seemed like he was a good kid."

Uhey found Jenks' pleasant nature all the more impressive after his first visit to Jenks' home, what the scout describes as "a cabin in the woods." Uhey said Jenks' father, Rob, seemed detached from the conversation and didn't ask many questions about the Angels' interest in his son.

"The guidance was not there," Uhey said.

Reached at the family's new home in Tacoma, Wash., Jenks' mother, Carla, was angered by the way some Angel officials have characterized her family in newspaper stories about her son.

"I think he's a fine boy and he's turned out well," she said of her son.

Jenks also came to his parents' defense, saying they have served as role models. "They've both believed in me and knew I could do it," he said.

Uhey said he was so disconcerted by the home visit that when Donny Rowland, the Angels' director of scouting, saw Jenks pitch and discussed taking him in the second round, Uhey said, "No way."

Usually it is the other way around--the scouting director dampens the area scout's enthusiasm for a prospect. But the Angels did get Jenks--in the fifth round.

"Stuff-wise, he was a higher pick than we took him," Uhey said. "But based on the baggage, his past and the lack of guidance, no one wanted to invest the money in a guy like that."

After a rough first season with the Angels' rookie team in Butte, Mont.--he had more walks than strikeouts and was 1-7 with a 7.86 earned-run average--Jenks began showing flashes of promise in his second pro season.

He earned a trip to double A during spring training, where he was 3-6 with a 4.66 ERA at the time of his demotion. Wildness was his biggest drawback. Although he was averaging a strikeout per inning, he also averaged seven walks per nine innings.

Then came the demotion, a sign, Uhey said, that the Angels were willing to dole out discipline.

"When he slips off track, we need to get him back on track," the scout said.

In Jenks' first outing for the Quakes, he earned a victory, giving up two hits and one run in 5 2/3 innings. He struck out six and walked six.

But more impressive, Quake pitching coach Zeke Zimmerman said, has been Jenks' work ethic.

"He's doing two-a-day workouts, he's busting his butt," Zimmerman said. "He's been a leader in the clubhouse, vocal. He's got a smile on his face.

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