CLEARWATER, Fla. - It was just another day in La Romana, Dominican Republic. Just another tryout on an isolated baseball diamond. And, frankly, when Phillies international scouting supervisor Sal Agostinelli saw Yohan Flande throw that day in December 2004, he thought he was looking at just another pitcher.
Good enough to give a few thousand dollars to, certainly, but that was about it.
"He was a lefty throwing 87-88," Agostinelli conceded recently. "He's the kind of guy you sign a bunch of and hope you get lucky."
It would appear that the Phillies got lucky . . .
Flande, now 23 and in his fifth professional season, has gone 7-1 for the Clearwater Threshers with a 2.52 earned run average. In his last five starts, his ERA is even better: 1.32.
He was named to the advanced Class A Florida State League All-Star team, and he has been selected for the Futures Game that will be played as part of the big-league All-Star festivities in St. Louis in 2 weeks.
And, yesterday, he was promoted to Double A Reading where he will make his first start for the R-Phils tonight.
In the process, he has become something of a case study in why some players who appear to have less pure talent succeed when more gifted athletes often come up short.
The first tipoff that Flande might be something special came when the Phillies gathered their minor leaguers for the 2-mile run around the Carpenter Complex that is a part of their conditioning program.
He blew away the field.
"He'll finish half the perimeter ahead of the next closest guy," said director of Latin American operations Sal Artiaga. "People are amazed. His pace from start to finish is whoosh!"
"When I signed, I know I didn't sign for much," Flande said through a translator recently, sitting in the clubhouse at Bright House Field. "I was probably just expected to fill out a roster. But I like baseball and I thank God for the opportunity. So I'm going to work as hard as I can to be as good as I can."
Said Threshers pitching coach Dave Lundquist: "He doesn't waste anything. He gives you everything he's got. Some guys think that they leave everything on the field. This kid really does. Every pitch. If it's backing up a base or covering first, anything. He goes at it 100 percent. It's very impressive to watch.'
Dedication helps, but there has to be more to it than that. Flande might be largely unschooled, but his baseball aptitude is exceptional. Tell him something once and he is able to grasp it and put it to use.
"He's unbelievable," Lundquist said. "The way he structures his day. A lot of times I'll get with the younger guys and help them put routines together. But everything he does is down to a [routine]. He doesn't miss any detail. He's first one in, last one out.
"Every time he picks up a ball, every single time, it's got a purpose. Then you look at his locker. Everything is in a certain spot. Everything is very meticulous. Just the way he handles himself, he's one of the best I've ever seen."
For all that, Flande didn't exactly burst onto the Phillies' scene. He spent his first 3 years playing in the Dominican Summer League, compiling a 2.39 ERA. When the Phillies finally brought him to the United States last year, he was 4-1, 2.19 in the Gulf Coast League.
It was only after all that time that he began to become an overnight sensation.
"He's like the girl who sits right next to you in class that maybe you don't notice her right away," Agostinelli said. "But then you start seeing that he just puts up good numbers every year. Other guys might be throwing 92 to 95, but he gets people out."
He went to the instructional league last fall and, by this spring, was beginning to turn heads.
"In spring training I saw him and he stood out. There's something special about this kid that just stands out. You have to love him," Lundquist said.
Assistant general manager/player development and scouting Chuck LaMar said Flande has put himself in a position where he could start moving quickly through the system, a harbinger of what happened yesterday.
"He's taken a huge leap forward this year. He's responded very well," LaMar said. "He's got two major league pitches in his fastball and his change. The breaking ball is a work in progress. All the credit goes to him. He's kept working year after year and now he's reaping the benefits."
Flande is aware that he has gotten the organization's attention.
"I just prepared to show up this season," he said. "I knew my body felt good. The only thing on my mind was making it to [high Class A] Clearwater. I didn't want to go anywhere lower. I was focused on making it to this level. And now I've been trying to take advantage of it."
His teammates also gravitate to him. He is one of the most popular players in the clubhouse.
"He's a special individual. He's as much loved by the people around him as any player as I've seen in my 40 years in baseball," Artiaga said.
Even if, for the Phillies, it wasn't exactly love at first sight. *