Parker Sanburn pitches for the Kokomo Wildkats in 2012. (SJ photo/Dean Hockney)


KOKOMO, Ind. – When Parker Sanburn signed to pitch at the University of Arkansas in November 2012, his pitching career was on cruise control. He had dominated the high school ranks with a moving fastball and sharp curveball. But the hard-throwing Wildkat had no idea how fast the game would be taken away from him, or how hard he would have to battle to get back into the game he loved and take it to the professional level.

On July 14, after a surgically repaired shoulder and a healed broken back, Sanburn signed a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers – and in the process, proved that hard work and perseverance pays off.

“I was hoping to get drafted, but my medical history got in the way,” said Sanburn of the MLB Draft that took place last month. “So, I kept going while playing in the Northwoods League. I talked to eight to 10 MLB teams and it came down to the Royals and the Rangers, and I thought the Rangers were a better fit.”

The road to professional baseball was especially long for Sanburn. When he signed to play college baseball at Arkansas, he said, “This has been the goal – going to college and hopefully going to the next level. This is unexplainable on how excited I am with this gift that God has given me.”

But as excited as he was after signing to play for the Razorbacks, he was just as disappointed as injuries dominated his senior season at Kokomo High School. After striking out 65 batters in 41 innings during his junior season, Sanburn made just one appearance in his final prep campaign. He then traveled to Arkansas, and after being medically redshirted his freshman year, he threw less than nine innings in year two.

When Arkansas told Sanburn he was no longer needed, he returned to Kokomo to continue healing a fractured L3 vertebrae that occurred during his freshman year with the Hogs. After an attempt to make the team at Indiana University, he nearly gave up on the game before a former coach called and asked him to pitch at Des Moines Area Community College.

“I actually quit at Indiana – I said I was done and over it,” said Sanburn of his decision last summer. “Then (DMACC pitching coach) Jason Van Skike called and wanted me to come to Des Moines, but I told him I was done. He said I had too good of stuff to quit, and so I went to Des Moines.”

Van Skike had coached Sanburn on the Kokomo Jackrabbits in the summer of 2016 and knew the hurlers potential. After playing in Des Moines last spring, Sanburn praised the DMACC coaching staff for allowing him to mature as a pitcher and for providing an ideal learning institution.

“I had a lot of help from Jason,” said Sanburn, who had 69 strikeouts in 50 innings at DMACC. “I had a great time there, and I learned a lot about myself. I was able to become the best version of me that I could – it is amazing what happens when you are not getting yelled at all of the time; just a positive environment.”

One benefit of being injured was Sanburn grew into a smarter pitcher. While his fastball is still clocked above 90 miles per hour, he has learned to rely on his secondary pitches.

“I had to overcome that fear of hurting myself again,” said Sanburn. “I basically had overworked myself. But as I grew older, I realized it is not a good idea to work until you break. I have worked on my location instead of trying to overpower people. I can still get the fastball going, but I don’t need to as much because I have good secondary stuff. And I can now locate my fastball down in the zone, which gets people out.”

Sanburn spent the first part of this summer in the competitive Northwoods League, which has produced more than 160 Major League Baseball players. Playing for the Lakeshore Chinooks, Sanburn earned an All-Star Game nod earlier this month in the 20-team league. Before signing with the Rangers, he led the league with 48 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings as a relief pitcher. In 15 appearances, he gave up just eight hits while posting a sizzling 0.37 ERA.

Sanburn, who passed the MLB physical despite previous injuries, is now in the Rangers rookie camp in Surprise, Arizona. He hopes to be placed with a Class A team (possibly the Spokane Indians in the Class A Short Season Northwest League) and feels he has a legitimate chance to move up the ranks – much like his older brother Nolan, who is pitching in the Washington Nationals organization and has seen action in Class AA.

“This might sound arrogant, but I feel like I could throw in the big leagues right now,” said the younger Sanburn. “I am throwing between 92-95 and touching 96, and my curve is my best pitch and touching 85. I have worked on my changeup and I am throwing strikes – if I can continue to do that, I feel I should be able to move up.”

He noted that he told the Rangers when he signed that he is not just a roster position – he is someone that wants to contribute.

“I told them that I am not just someone you sign to fill the roster,” he said.
“I am a bulldog and I am going to come and kick people in the teeth. I want to sign another contract as I move up. I am going to will this into existence and make it happen – and if they don’t like that, they have the wrong guy.”

The Rangers organization must have liked what he said and thought he was the right guy – and now it is back on the shoulders of Parker Sanburn to prove he has what it takes to be a professional baseball pitcher.

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Don’t look now, but just when I was about to count out the Kokomo Jackrabbits, here they come back to life. Despite losing its top two pitchers, the hares have tied a team record with five consecutive Municipal Stadium wins and are now only 2½ games out of the East Division playoffs with 25 games to play.

As teams enter week six of the season, the Jackrabbits are 16-19 after twice going seven games under .500 (as recently as July 3). But they have now won four straight – including two against rival and West Division-leading Lafayette (20-15) – and six of its last eight games and are showing signs of being the contender management thought they would be at the beginning of the season.

But the road to playoff contention has been rocky – gone are leading pitchers William Freeman (league leading 59 strikeouts, team leading four wins and an ERA of 2.58) and Mike Anthony (Jackrabbits all-time wins leader with nine and strikeouts with 110; career ERA of 3.20). Also no longer with the team for various reasons are pitchers Ryne Underwood, Jack Wolfe, J.T. Conti, Trey Bickel (32 career appearances with 74 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.05), Collin Lollar and Chase Vanek.

But new pitcher David Flattery thrilled fans with an eight-strikeout performance in his debut last week. Quentin Miller is in his second season with the Rabbits and has looked good with a 3.26 ERA in nine games. Josh Konecek threw 4 1/3 innings of shutout relief work in the last victory. And a trio of local products are looking strong – Tucker Waddups from Logansport (4.20 ERA), Western’s Dalton Leighty (13 strikeouts in 11 innings) and Tri-Central’s Colby Malson (five strikeouts in six innings).

On offense, despite losing two-way player Conti (.333 batting average), newcomers Bailey Partlow (.385 in eight games) and Zeb Adreon (.333 in six games) join a lineup that is starting to click. Imani Willis is hitting .344 with five doubles, five triples and three home runs; Luke Fegen now leads the team with 19 RBIs from the leadoff position; Romero Harris has tied the Jackrabbits single-season home run record with four; and crowd-favorite Alex Del Rio has three home runs and 17 RBIs. And fresh from the NCAA national runners-up Louisiana State University, Chris Reid has arrived and is adjusting to the wood bat league in time for the playoff run.

The playoffs are different this year in the Prospect League. Gone is the split season with the first-half winner battling the second-half winner in the first round. This year, the top two teams in each division (overall record) will play a three-game series with the two division champs playing for the league crown. With the way Kokomo is playing, they have a good chance to pass Butler (18-17), Chillicothe (19-17) and West Virginia (18-16) in the standings – and that would leave an East Division playoff series against Champion City (21-14).

The Jackrabbits are on the road this week; they return on Sunday and it would be a great time to go out and cheer the team on. Attendance is up from last year, and with the cooperation of Mother Nature, there is no reason why the team can’t break the Municipal Stadium attendance record once again.

And don’t forget that tickets are on sale for the Prospect League Home Run Derby on July 17 at Municipal Stadium. Local celebrities (including the Sports Journal’s own national award-winning Photo Editor William Gibson) will hit the long ball (okay, softballs) at 5:30 p.m. and the league leaders will battle it out at 6:30 p.m. (with real baseballs). After the Derby will be a  fireworks show that Jackrabbits officials say will be the best the stadium has ever produced – they will be shot from the Kautz Field tennis courts instead of the Memorial Gym south parking lot. It should be a fun night of dingers and fireworks.

Until next time, remember to keep the man and ship in sports – and I’ll see you at the game.

Dean Hockney is the publisher of the Sports Journal of Central Indiana, Hit Country WWKI contributor and the public address voice for IU Kokomo and the Kokomo Jackrabbits. You can follow him on Twitter (@Sports_Journal) for the latest in local sports news and in-game reports.

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KOKOMO, Ind. – First-year field manager Gary McClure and the 2017 Kokomo Jackrabbits embark on a crucial six-game road trip beginning Tuesday, July 11, at Lafayette. The Brown and Gold, harboring a four-game win streak and 16-19 record, face off against the Prospect League rival Aviators in a doubleheader Tuesday, beginning at 5:30 p.m., and a single contest Wednesday, July 12, at 6:35 p.m. at venerable Loeb Stadium; pay a visit to Quincy University Stadium, home of the Gems, Thursday and Friday, July 13 and 14, for twin 7:35 p.m. Eastern Standard Time first pitches; and then make their way back to Lafayette for a single game Saturday, July 15, at 7:05 p.m.

The team returns to Kokomo Municipal Stadium for a match-up with the Springfield Sliders Sunday, July 16.

ALL-STAR EVENTS VISIT KMS: A full day of festivities is on the agenda Monday, July 17, as the 2017 Prospect League Scout Day and Home Run Derby take over the field turf at Kokomo Municipal Stadium.

Selected players arrive at the home of the Kokomo Jackrabbits at 8 a.m. with warm-ups set for 9-9:30 a.m. and workouts running from 9:30-12 p.m. at Scout Day. After a special luncheon for all players, coaches and scouts in attendance, batting practice for both teams in the Home Run Derby opens at 3:30 p.m.

Fans are treated to a celebrity home run event from 5:30-6:30 p.m. with local luminaries involved. The PL competition opens at approximately 6:30 p.m. with special introductions, entertainment courtesy of DJ Pugh, and an address from Commissioner Dennis Bastien followed by the 2017 derby from 7:05-9:30 p.m. Fireworks and live music conclude the evening.

For a complete schedule, visit www.kokomojackrabbits.com.

SIGN UP NOW FOR KIDS CAMP: Registration remains open until Friday, July 21, for the first Kokomo Jackrabbits’ Kids Camp. The event is set for Tuesday, July 25, at Kokomo Municipal Stadium.

Cost is $50 per person for ages 6-12. Participants receive a dugout reserved ticket for the evening’s Prospect League game against Butler; a t-shirt; a special 15-minute autograph session with members of the Jackrabbits after camp; and a hot dog, water and chips as well as instruction from coaches and players from 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. on the field turf at Kokomo Municipal Stadium.

Interested individuals can register at https://kokomojackrabbitscamp.myshopify.com/.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING: With at least one hit in six of his last seven games, Austin Peay University’s Imani Willis continues to reside in the PL’s batting average top 10. His .344 mark stands 10th … In other offensive categories, a trio consisting of Willis, Des Moines Area Community College’s Luke Fegen and John A. Logan College’s Collin Butkiewicz are each in the top 10 of triples (Willis T-1st – five; Butkiewicz and Fegen – T-5th – 3), and Willis’ 12 stolen bases are tied for fifth … On the mound, bullpen standout Josh Konecek is among the top 10 in wins. The University of Missouri product’s three are tied for seventh. He and fellow Jackrabbits’ staffer Quentin Miller of Butler University are among the strikeout top 20 (Konecek 33 – No. 16/Miller 32 – No. 17), while Miller’s 3.26 earned run average is 13th-lowest.

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