Daily Journal Sports File
Sam Tuivailala, a former Aragon standout, is in his fourth season with the St. Louis Cardinals orginzation, which selected him in the 2010 MLB draft.
Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Seth Maness, all having debuted in 2013, are just three of the many fireballing right-handers to emerge from the st. Louis Cardinals’ farm system in recent years.
Sam Tuivailala hopes to qualify for that list in the years to come.
The former Aragon star was drafted by the Cardinals as a third-round selection in 2010. Since that time, he has witnessed the machine that is the St. Louis farm system in terms of producing impressive major league pitching talent.
“It’s pretty shocking … when we keep seeing guys coming up and throwing hard,” Tuivailala said. “Their whole bullpen is just flame throwers.”
Insofar as flamethrowers go, Tuivailala certainly qualifies. Just ask Half Moon Bay hitters of yesteryear. As a two-way player with the Dons, Tuivailala consistently featured 90-plus mph heat and once struck out 17 Half Moon Bay batters in a regulation, seven-inning game.
Now with two pro seasons as a pitcher under his belt — Tuivailala spent his first two seasons with the Rookie-Class Cards as an infielder before converting to the mound — the right-hander consistently sits in the mid-90s, and said he even touched 100 mph last season.
Currently with Cardinals High-A affiliate Palm Beach, Tuivailala earned his first save of the season April 19 in a 13-9 rollercoaster win for the minor-league Cards. With two on and one out in the eighth inning, Tuivailala entered the game only to be confronted with an old rival, and friend, as Hillsborough native Tyler Goeddel was standing on third base.
Tuivailala promptly induced two harmless fly outs to end the inning and strand his old Little League rival at third. Then after a leadoff double in the ninth, Tuivailala responded by striking out the side to notch his second career save.
If Tuivailala has his way, it will be the second of many.
“As of right now, I would say [the Cardinals] see me as a late-inning guy, hopefully as a closer,” Tuivailala said. “There were talks of me going to the starting rotation a year and a half ago. But I think, if anything, they just want me to get my command down and all my pitches to go as planned first. But I’m perfectly fine being in a closing situation. I like coming out of the bullpen.”
After two lackluster offensive seasons in the Gulf Coast League in which he posted a .220 batting average throughout 2010 and ’11, Tuivailala converted to the mound. Essentially a one-pitch pitcher at the outset of 2012, he’s been a project.
Sure, Tuivailala featured a curveball in high school, but admittedly it was a glorified changeup which he had to reinvent if he stood any hope of surviving against professional hitters. And after playing at Short-Season Johnson City, Tenn. in 2012, he certainly experienced his share of ups-and-downs in his first full season at Low-A Peoria last year.
“I definitely learned that fast last year,” Tuivailala said. “I thought I could just blow by guys with the fastball. There’s a lot of hitters in the league that can hit a 97 (mph), so I’ve got to use the curveball to get them off my fastball.”
Despite scuffling with a 0-3 record and a 5.35 ERA in 2013, Tuivailala’s electric stuff was evidenced by his tabbing 50 strikeouts over 35 1/3 innings.
This year has been a different story. Tuivailala didn’t allow a run through his first six appearances of the year. Since getting touched for a run Tuesday against Mets affiliate St. Lucie, the right-hander owns a 1.08 ERA through 8 1/3 innings while striking out 16 against eight strikeouts.
“When I first converted, I would say my arm wasn’t used to all this throwing as a pitcher,” Tuivailala said. “So, obviously the little aches and pains were getting to me, but now I would say my arm is more in shape.”
Tuivailala, 21, stayed in shape during the offseason by returning home and training at Aragon. His homecoming was quite a thrill not just for the current Dons squad, but also for manager Lenny Souza.
Souza and Tuivailala have a special bond, as the two ascended through the high school ranks together. Souza’s first managerial post at Aragon was for the frosh-soph squad in 2007, Tuivailala’s freshman season. Two years later, when Tuivailala was promoted to the varsity squad as a junior with teammates Chris Hahn and Drew Vanisi, Souza took over at the varsity helm.
“It was really cool,” Souza said. “I got to grow up with that group. I grew as a coach and they all grew as players. It was a really fun group.”
The map of Tuivailala’s prep career paralleled that of his first four pro seasons. As a two-way player, he proved an impact bat in 2009 by leading the Dons to a 14-0 record in Peninsula Athletic League Ocean Division play en route to earning Ocean Division Player of the Year honors.
After working almost exclusively as a reliever in 2009 behind a pair of 10-game winners in seniors T.J. Dinges and Aaron Cutts, Tuivailala moved to the starting rotation in 2010 and earned PAL Pitcher of the Year honors.
“[Former Burlingame ace Grant Goodman] is the closest thing I’ve seen to him,” Souza said. “And Goodman was a true pitcher. Sam was an athlete out there. It’s a little different. That’s why you see him having command issues out there (now), because he’s an athlete. He’s still learning a lot.”
But he’s got a lot to draw from, currently on staff with a pair of first-round draft picks including former Gonzaga ace Marco Gonzales.
“Marco Gonzales, he is a great pitcher,” Tuivailala said. “Overal,l our pitching staff, I’m really happy with it. We have a good amount of guys. We have a lot of good young guys as well. But throughout the whole system it is a battle because there are a lot of good arms in the system.”
So far as good arms go, Tuivailala certainly has one. And it’s just such arms that paced the big-league Cardinals to two World Series appearances in the past three years.