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Bill Foley
Contributing writer

Lighting struck in the distance as Jeremy Wu-Yelland worked out, alone, on the north field of the Missoula Avenue Little League complex in Butte, Montana.

It was after noon on the Fourth of July, and the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Wu-Yelland stood on a field set up for the 7-8 division of Butte’s Northwest Little League.

The pitcher could not have been much further from Fenway Park, literally or figuratively.
Wearing a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and his brand-new Boston Red Sox hat, the lefty stretched and lightly tossed a pile of baseballs against the backstop to get ready for Sunday, when he would get to pitch to an actual catcher for the first time in weeks.
Red Sox fourth-round draft pick Jeremy Wu-Yelland works out
at 3 Legends Stadium in Butte, Montana Sunday.
(Bill Foley photo)

It was an unusual place and unusual time to spot the fourth-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox, but these are, indeed, unusual times.

The next morning, Sunday, Wu-Yelland stood atop a real mound on Miners Field at 3 Legends Stadium, Butte’s three-year-old American Legion park, and fired about 35 pitches to Butte Miners catcher Eyston Lakkala. (Read more about Lakkala at ButteSports.com)

Lakkala, a soon-to-be junior at Butte Central Catholic High School, was nervous, but he had no problem handling Wu-Yelland’s fastball, which scouting reports say tops out at 96 miles per hour.

“He did well. It’s hard for a high school guy to adjust to that, just the speed and everything,” Wu-Yelland said of Lakkala, who just so happens to be a huge Red Sox fans. “But he did good. He stayed on it.”

Wu-Yelland was just happy to have somebody — anybody — catch him.

“I’ve been throwing inside,” the Spokane, Washington native said. “A lot of nets. A lot of throwing with no partner. Anytime I get a guy who is willing to catch me I’m thankful for it.”

When was the last time he threw to an actual mitt?

“Probably about three weeks ago,” Wu-Yelland said. “Every other time it’s been into a net.”

Wu-Yelland, who was selected in last month’s draft out of the University of Hawaii, was in town with his girlfriend, visiting her grandparents for the holiday. He said he has agreed to terms with the Red Sox on his signing bonus, but needs to take a physical before he is given a tour of Fenway and sent to Florida to train.

His arrival time for Fenway for good, Wu-Yelland said, is 2023, or hopefully sooner.
Lakkala and Wu-Yelland talk during a break.

That might not have been the consensus when the Red Sox picked Wu-Yelland on June 11. Rather, the experts said Boston “reached” to pick him with the 118th overall selection.

Baseball America ranked Wu-Yelland as the 261st best prospect in the draft. MLB Pipeline did not even mention him.

That does not bother Wu-Yelland one bit.

“I’ve had people sleeping on my name ever since I can remember. That’s nothing new,” he said. “I’m here now. That’s not going to change my process or my journey to the Bigs.”

In fact, Wu-Yelland said that journey could be something for Montana players to watch because, like in Spokane, the Treasure State is not traditionally a baseball hotbed. Montana is one of only two states (Wyoming is the other) without high school baseball, and Rob Johnson, who spent time with the Mariners, Padres, Mets and Cardinals, is Butte’s only modern-day professional baseball player.

“I had a pretty good high school career, but Spokane is not a big baseball town,” Wu-Yelland said. “It’s kind of the same thing a lot of those guys go through, struggling to get seen by guys. If you want to keep playing, someone will find you, and you’ll find a way. That’s the biggest thing for anyone from Montana playing to remember.”

Wu-Yelland did not come out and say it, but you can get the sense that he believes the Red Sox got a steal in the fourth round.

“I’m someone who wants to win more than anyone else,” he said when asked about what the Red Sox saw in him that others did not. “The arm strength is the first thing that sticks out, I think. It’s coming, and I’m only going to get better these next few years.”

While pitching for the Cape Code League Chatham Anglers — like Freddie Prinze Jr.’s character Ryan Dunne in the 2001 movie “Summer Catch” — Wu-Yelland posted a 2-1 record with a 3.15 ERA. He struck out 26 and walked 15 in 25.2 innings.

In seven appearances with the Rainbow Warriors before the coronavirus wiped out the season, Wu-Yelland put up a 0.69 ERA, allowing just one run through 13 innings. A reliever and a starter during his years in Hawaii, Wu-Yelland got the start on Opening Day each of the last two seasons.

With Lakkala behind the plate, Wu-Yelland threw about 20 pitches, took a 5-minute break and then threw about 15 more pitches. Lakkala is used to catching Butte ace Ryan Wahl, a future University of Jamestown righty who Lakkala says throws about 80 mph.

“He was throwing me a fastball, a two-seam fastball a change up and a slider,” Lakkala said of Wu-Yelland, whom the catcher exchanged small talk with throughout. “Those sliders, man, when you’ve got a guy throwing 91, 92, they break just like a fastball that you see in the Legion. It’s crazy. Those sliders he was throwing were just as fast as Ryan Wahl’s fastball. It’s crazy.”

Only three of four balls got past Lakkala.

“I was taking it kind of light and then pumped up at the end there,” Wu-Yelland said. “Probably around 90, 92 or 93, in there.”
Lakkala and Wu-Yelland pose for a post-workout photo.

Lakkala got up early, beating Wu-Yelland to the ballpark by about an hour. He took the tarp off the mound and the one covering home plate. He did not want a future member of the Boston Red Sox to have to use a bullpen during a “bullpen session.”

He also made sure the mound was in game shape.

“I thought a guy like that doesn’t deserve to throw in a Butte bullpen,” Lakkala said. “He might as well throw off the real mound.”

While 3 Legends Stadium is still a long way from Fenway Park — literally and figuratively — Wu-Yelland said he was happy to be there on the picture-perfect Sunday morning.

“This is a nice place. It’s better than I expected, honestly,” he said. “It felt great to throw outside again. I haven’t done that in a while.”

— follow Bill Foley on Twitter @Foles74

Bill Foley 7/05/2020 06:17:00 PM Edit
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