By Alexis Brudnicki
MESA, Ariz. – As it happens, there are things in life that are more important than baseball.
But sometimes when those things occur, it is nice to have the game to come back to. Toronto Blue Jays prospect Arik Sikula felt that way last year when times were tough, and he was grateful to be able to return to the diamond after his father Andrew’s passing.
“In Bluefield my first year he got sick,” the right-hander said. “Then it was progressively getting worse. Then in Lansing in 2013 it kind of went downhill pretty quick. It was nice being in the Midwest League because he was in the Cleveland clinic so when we got to play in Lake County I got to see him on three different occasions. That was really nice. I missed about a week for his funeral.
“It was tough but it’s so convenient to get back to baseball because it’s almost home here. You’re at it so much and it’s just easy to get your mind off of actual real things a lot of the time. It’s always nice to be back here and at the field.”
Because of the timing of his battle with kidney failure, Sikula’s father didn’t get to see much of the success that led his son to the Arizona Fall League in October. Over four minor league seasons, the 25-year-old has posted a 2.23 ERA over 153 games and 186 innings, recording 61 saves with 49 walks to 206 strikeouts.
“He probably watched me pitch maybe once in Vancouver and that was it,” the youngest of six Sikula children said. “He came to a lot of my college games, but I’ve definitely had a lot more success in pro ball than I have in college. I wish he could have seen the success that I’ve had.”
Sikula played collegiate baseball and received his post-secondary education from Marshall University, where his father spent 14 years as Associate Dean, Director of the Graduate School of Management, Richard G. Miller Endowed Chair and Professor of Business Administration. The decorated educator’s affinity for his work was a trait he certainly passed on to his son.
“He always said to do whatever you’re passionate about,” Sikula said. “He was passionate about his work and he worked all the time. I love my work and I’m passionate about it and it’s easy to be at the field and be focused because it is my passion. It’s what I love to do and that’s what he would want me to do.”
The California-born native of West Virginia was given his ticket to Arizona after his best professional season, posting a 1.66 ERA this year with the Dunedin Blue Jays and leading the Florida State League with 31 saves despite earning a promotion to the New Hampshire Fisher Cats and spending more than a month in Double-A.
“Definitely I had a good year, and a lot of that has to do with the team we had,” Sikula said. “We had a really, really good team. We had an older team there in Dunedin mostly for the first half and when you’re winning it’s easy to play well.
“Everyone’s spirits are high, confidence is high, and it’s an easy environment to play well in. Everyone was comfortable and it made my job easier when we were winning.”
Sikula’s success led to his spot in the prestigious fall circuit, something he is especially proud of and was incredibly excited about.
“That was great,” he said “I’m not one of the normal prospects and a lot of guys don’t get this opportunity. It was one of my goals from the start of the year, I wanted to make it to the Fall League.
“When I was told I was going to the Fall League I gave our roving pitching coordinatorDane Johnson a hug and he thought it was pretty weird. He went to shake my hand and I gave him a hug and he kind of pushed me away, but I was pretty excited. It was just a job for him to tell me but I was super excited, as I still am. It’s awesome being out here with so many good players.”
Sikula has appeared in four games in the off-season league so far as a reliever. For almost the entire duration of his career the righty has been a closer, pitching in the late innings with the game on the line. Though he wanted to be a starter early on, he has since embraced his role.
“My first year, there was supposed to be a spot start and it was between me and [former Blue Jays farmhand, a Toronto native] Les Williams,” Sikula said. “We were both random relievers, I was [a] 36th-round [selection] and he was 37th round.
“I was so upset because they picked him to start that game and I thought why don’t they think I’m a starter? I was pretty upset about it but looking back at it, it’s worked out very well for me to be a bullpen guy.
“I was always told in college that would be my calling in baseball to be a bullpen pitcher and it’s seemed to work out pretty well. It’s fun to give 100 per cent – that’s kind of my personality, to give everything I’ve got for a short amount of time. I’ve been like that my whole life so it’s a good role for me.”
Though Sikula doesn’t claim a typical closer’s mindset, he does believe his personality lends itself to the role.
“I have a strong mental side of the game,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence in myself and it doesn’t matter if I’m going to pitch the first inning or the ninth or the 13th in extras. I’m just going to go in there and get my job done and get three outs. That’s all I try to do.
“It doesn’t matter what inning it is or how many people are in the stands or how many people are on base or who I’m facing – none of that really matters. You’ve got to execute pitches and that’s all I do.”
Not often does a minor league closer come all the way up through the ranks to claim the same spot on the roster in the majors, but that doesn’t matter to Sikula.
“I don’t feel any sort of limitation whatsoever,” he said. “Maybe from an organizational standpoint that’s how they usually doing it, going with a starter just because they have better stuff and they want them to get more innings and more experience and then they turn them into bullpen guys, but … I’m doing whatever they tell me to do and trying to do it as well as I can. It’s more of opportunity than limitations.”
While in Arizona, Sikula is looking to capitalize on his latest opportunity, using the time to hone a couple of his pitches and enjoy the atmosphere.
“I’d like to develop my sinker a little more, it’s still pretty off and on,” he said. “I’ve got a pretty good cutter I throw a good bit. It’s usually my main pitch. I hardly ever throw anything else…I’m definitely working on my sinker a little bit and starting to locate a little better and not walk people. And I just want to have fun.”
– Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis