Cruising in from the bullpen cart for this episode of C’s Chat is 2019 Vancouver Canadians pitcher Gage Burland.
It speaks to Burland’s talent that three of the five American League East clubs were among those interested in obtaining the services of the Otis Orchard, Washington-born right-hander. He was first drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 26th round of the 2014 draft from East Valley High School in Spokane. Two years later, the New York Yankees drafted Burland in the exact same round two years later out of Gonzaga University. In 2018, the Toronto Blue Jays selected the 6-foot-2 hurler from Lewis-Clark State College in Lewis, Idaho in the 22nd round.
Getting drafted the first time was a surprise for Burland.
“As a sophomore in high school, I started pitching. I did get drafted out of high school too and it was a big reason why I didn’t take the draft because I’m like two years into pitching. I didn’t know if I’m really ready to go and face all these guys.
I didn’t expect to be gone. I told (the Orioles) I was going to go to college but it was cool to hear my name on the (draft) tracker and I actually got drafted again in my sophomore year. I was up in Alaska (Matsu Miners – Alaska Summer League) and that was when I was transferring schools and I got drafted by the Yankees. And then I got drafted by the Blue Jays. The third time was the charm.”
Even though he was drafted by three AL East clubs, he was fan of another team in that division growing up.
“My Dad was a Red Sox fan so I kind of grew into being a Red Sox fan. Everyone asks me, ‘Which team would you want to play for?’ I’m like, ‘I just want to play.’ I just want to go out there and throw the ball.
When I was a kid, I loved David Ortiz. I was a two-way guy most of my life. For the first year of GU, I was a two-way guy or for the first month I was. I loved David Ortiz. Not so much like me being like him in any way, I just loved him. He was a good guy.”
When he was taken by the Blue Jays, Burland says he was at work.
“I was working actually for the city of Liberty Lake (Washington). I was mowing a field and got a call from my Dad and said ‘Congrats!’ I was like, ‘Oh, sick!’ I didn’t know I was really going to get picked up. I was hoping to but you just never know. It was an exciting time.
I drove right back to the shop and dropped the mower and said, ‘Sorry! I can’t work this summer.’ (laughs)”
The Blue Jays were not on Burland’s radar leading up to the 2018 draft.
“The Phillies and the Twins were talking to me a little bit. Other than that, no. I had no idea about the Blue Jays.”
After getting drafted, there was no time to celebrate as Burland had to quickly report to Dunedin, Florida.
“Actually, we had to immediately go and unpack my stuff from Lewiston and then get back and then I flew out the next day. It was not a whole lot of time to take it in but it was exciting.”
Gonzaga to Idaho
A three-sport athlete at East Valley High School who played football and basketball, Burland earned First Team All-State honours in his sophomore, junior and senior seasons on the diamond. He also was named League MVP as a senior after striking out 86 batters and recording a 0.75 earned run average and 64 innings.
That performance allowed Burland to stay home for college as he attended Gonzaga University for two seasons but things did not go well for him with the Zags.
“When I was at GU, it was a little rough for me. I was starting and I wasn’t doing too hot and I kind of thought maybe a change of scenery would help. “
That change of scenery led to a transfer to Lewis-Clark State College and things came together for Burland in 2018. He earned eight saves with the Warriors after striking out 43 batters in 28-2/3 innings to go along with a 1.88 ERA. That performance helped lead the Lewis-Clark to the semi-finals of the NAIA World Series.
“I went to Lewis and Clark and that definitely made me tougher mentally and physically as a baseball player and just as a human being. That’s what our coach preached on was hoping that we could come out of there as better humans, whether it’s in baseball and you continue it or as just being a family, being a Dad, husband, anything. That’s just made me tougher in general.
Burland says there were a number of coaches who helped Burland out in the early days.
“Obviously, my parents. My Dad helped me a lot, playing catch. I had the same coaches for 10 years growing up with the Spokane Dodgers. There was (Jeff and Ryan) Simmelink and Tim Rypien.
John Phelan was my head coach in high school. He was kind of the one who said, ‘Hey! You want to be a pitcher?’ ‘Sure, I’ll try it.’ I started pitching my sophomore year and then the rest of history but without those guys, I would definitely not be here…they helped me along the way and groomed me into who I am today.”
Burland enjoyed being a two-way player but he believes he’s better off on the mound.
“Sometimes you miss hitting, running down balls in the outfield, you miss it but at the same time, it’s easier to focus on one thing, being really good at one thing than it is for the entire game.”
GCL & Bluefield
Burland began his professional career in 2018 with the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays and kept the opposition scoreless in six of his eight outings. He earned his first professional save against the GCL Phillies East August 1.
“Down in the G, it was a little rough down there. I was pitching good. I started off with a little bit of dead-arm from the NAIA World Series so I didn’t play for the first week or two.
I just kept grinding. It’s hot, it’s tough down there in the summer but then it was nice going to Bluefield and being part of an actual team. Yeah, the GCL is a team but at the same time, they’re getting everybody in throwing so you’re only throwing once a week.
It was fun, it was a good experience. It’s a learning experience. Without it, you wouldn’t get any better. You wouldn’t know.”
Even though he joined Bluefield in late August, Burland was impressed by long-time manager Dennis Holmberg.
“He is awesome. As soon as I got there, he just made it easy. He made the transition really easy.”
The 2019 season saw Burland make his Florida State League debut in late May. The promotion from extended spring training came as a complete surprise.
“I was sitting at home on the night of our off-day and our managed called me and said, ‘Hey, you need to go pitch for Dunedin.’ I was like, ‘Oh, okay!’ I didn’t even go to sleep then to get ready for the game tomorrow.
It was a fun experience. Cy (Jim Czajkowski), the pitching coach there, he helped me in spring training a little bit and so it was nice to see him again. All those guys there just made it real easy. It was not like I was coming in from extended and they were like, ‘Oh, this guy, you know!’ They were there to help me and it was a good time.”
Burland went on to pick up his first professional victory against the St. Lucie Mets May 20.
“It was a little different. It was more of a college vibe actually playing against somebody who’s really good and trying to get them out. I just went out there and just show them what I got, let’s see if they can hit it and I snuck a win (laughs). It was fun.”
Burland made an immediate impression in his first appearance with the C’s. He struck out five batters in 2-1/3 shutout innings to help Vancouver gets its first win of 2019 against Spokane June 15.
“It was exciting. I think the funnest part was riding in on the cart. It was cool because my Dad was here and he got to see it. All in all, we’re all just out here doing our thing and some days are better than others. You just got to be able to compete when it’s not there and when it is.”
The fact that game was nationally televised on Sportsnet did not factor into the equation for Burland.
“Not really, to be honest. I mean, I had been told it was like every Saturday game would be on national TV but it’s another game. I just go out there and compete and do your stuff and who cares who’s watching. You know you and just keep doing it.”
Getting to pitch in front of a sold-out crowd at Nat Bailey Stadium is something Burland enjoys.
“It’s amazing. It’s getting out of the cart, walking on the field, I take one glance up in the stands and it gets you a little giddy but then after that, it’s focus on the catcher. After that, it’s like there’s nobody else around, just me and the catcher and the hitter. I’ll hear Demetre (Kokoris) yell at us every once in a while but other than that, it’s trying to focus on one thing.”
To combat opposing batters, Burland uses a three-pitch mix.
“I throw a fastball, a curveball and a cutter. I throw a four-seam and a two-seam.”
The curveball is Burland’s second go-to pitch behind his heater.
“I would say it’s getting pretty close between my cutter and curveball but I’ve been throwing my curveball a lot and I’ve been working on my cutter. The cutter is starting to catch up to my curveball so it’s close.”
Another pitch is in the experimental stages for Burland.
“I mess around with a changeup. I mess around in the off-season with it but I never really got a lot of opportunity to just throw it against batters so I’ve kind of never really been messing with it here.”
Burland’s fastball has settled in around 95 miles per hours but he does not pay a lot of attention to the radar gun when he’s on the mound.
“During the game, no, not at all, but it’s always nice to go back after and just see how you were feeling compared to like what your velo was. I go and I look at my cutter velo a lot because I like that to be pretty firm so I just like checking that out. But during the game, no, you’re focused on one thing and getting an out, that’s about it.”
When asked to give a scouting report on himself, Burland says there is one common theme to the feedback he has received.
“Everybody has told me the ball is heavy. Get your foot down and just try to hit that fastball. The fastball kind of cuts a little bit away from righties. I’ll come at you, I’ll throw everything I got at you for the short period of time that I’m in there. I don’t know, I haven’t really seen a scouting report against me.”
There is one thing Burland has learned so far over his first two years of pro ball.
“Just trust your stuff. Don’t try to do too much. I came in here thinking like, ‘Oh, you know. Draft guy. I got to throw harder or I got to do all this stuff differently.’ But they drafted us for a reason. They know how good we all are and if we just stick with what we know and perform, it will all go smooth.”
Coming Home Again
The 2019 season has allowed Burland to come back home three times to visit family and friends in Spokane. He pitched a scoreless inning in his first appearance at Avista Stadium July 28 and he stranded three runners while tossing 1-1/3 scoreless frames in his second appearance there August 15.
“It was awesome. It was exciting to see the family. Everyone came out and said hi. It was nice to see everyone. You know, I can’t help but smile when we drive down the hill into Spokane. It was a great time. I got to stay at home and see my dogs too. That was what I was really excited about. (laughs)”
Thanks a million to Gage Burland for participating in this edition of C’s Chat. Another million thank yous to C’s Media Relations Assistant Jordy Cunningham for arranging the chat.