TAMPA — Mychal Givens' baseball season last year started at a crossroads, changing positions from the infield to the pitcher's mound. It ended with a flourish that could propel him to the major leagues.
Still in the low minors in the Baltimore Orioles system, Givens, a 2009 Plant High graduate, has a long way to go to achieve his big league dreams. But he impressed the Orioles' brass this past season with his ability on the mound and natural feel for pitching.
"The path that he was on in the (Fall) Instructional League was the yellow brick road," said Rick Peterson, the Orioles' director of pitching development. "He transformed from a kid making this transition to someone who can dominate if he comes in from the bullpen every time with his pants on fire ready to be this nasty late-inning pitcher."
How Givens got there is a story of life in the minor leagues, which tests the mental and physical attributes of many young men. That includes even those as decorated coming out of high school as Givens, a second-round pick in the June 2009 amateur draft.
An All-State performer his junior and senior years, Givens led Plant to the Class 5A state semifinals as a senior. He excelled on the mound with an 8-4 record and a 1.71 earned-run average, registering 113 strikeouts in 78 innings. He also hit a team-high .374 with four home runs and 31 RBIs.
The Orioles were well aware of the right-handed Givens' mound mettle, with his 97 mph fastball. But he was an intriguing, athletic two-way prospect who they felt deserved a shot at playing every day. He performed well defensively at second base and shortstop, but struggled at the plate, and after four years of not advancing past low Class A ball, the Orioles approached him last winter about pitching.
Givens took it well, realizing it might be his last shot at the majors.
"I lacked consistency hitting," he said. "The off-speed pitches were tough, and they felt like I was thinking too much and not reacting naturally. It was a bit of a shock when they asked me to switch. But it's the business. They think I'm a pitcher now, so I'm making the best out of it."
That's an understatement, a normal reply for the laid-back Givens. What Peterson and the Orioles found could be a pitching diamond in the rough.
"He's a great young man to work with and has an effervescent personality," Peterson said. "He has a big upside."
At 23, Givens still has work to do, as well as multiple levels of the minor leagues to climb. However, as he acclimated to pitching in low A Delmarva on Maryland's Eastern Shore this past summer, things began to click. The Orioles limited his work, as he appeared in only 28 games and barely above 40 innings. But teams hit only .219 against him, and he struck out 36 batters and walked 19. More significantly, he surrendered only one home run all season.
"He's relaxed and laid-back, but that's unique to each individual," Peterson said. "Mariano Rivera was laid-back; he looked like he was ready to yawn between pitches. But all he did was get you out.
"The key with Mike was to get him to be aggressive from the first hitter. Sometimes he'd get a couple guys on and then dial it up to 95, 96 and get out of the jam. So we stressed that the jam starts the minute he leaves the dugout. Keep the foot on the gas pedal from the start."
The 6-foot, 207-pound Givens likened his pitching transition to riding a bike.
"I didn't forget how to pitch, I just had to see what was working day to day and figure out what pitches worked best," Givens said. "Rick worked with me more on the mental part of the game, told me to trust my ability and to stay focused and get in there and attack guys right away."
As he traverses his way through professional ball, Givens has learned several important life lessons. He has socked away much of his $800,000 signing bonus, realizing a pro athlete's career can be fleeting. He bought a house in Carrollwood, as well as a car for his parents, who still live in South Tampa.
Traveling and being away from home has been a part of Givens' life since he was 14 and playing on travel teams. He estimates he has seen more than half of the United States, and seven or eight countries, so the game has broadened his world view.
"I know that's part of the game," Givens said. "I like it, seeing different places and how people live. That wouldn't happen without playing baseball."
Givens doesn't have a regular job during the offseason, spending most of it preparing physically for the next year. He does, however, work some clinics and give private baseball lessons to youngsters in South Tampa.
He said his only goals for this year are to stay healthy and let the chips fall where they may.
"I'm a pitcher now. I know I can get hitters out," he said. "My goal isn't to worry much about where I end up or what level. I'm just concerned about maximizing my ability and control what I can. They'll see your ability when you produce and do well. That all takes care of itself."