Home CookingAugust 30, 2012
Home may be where the heart is, but it also appears to be where Wisconsin Timber Rattlers pitcher Eric Semmelhack (@ESEMMEL33) builds his career on the bump.
The former Oak Creek standout parlayed his way into a Division 1 roster spot on the UW-Milwaukee Panthers, and then got drafted by his hometown Milwaukee Brewers back in June. After some initial seasoning in Helena with Milwaukee’s Pioneer League rookie squad, Semmelhack is back in the comfortable surroundings of Appleton.
“I can’t say that it has sunk in, really,” said Semmelhack, a 12th round selection by the Brewers in the First-Year Player Draft. “I know I’m a part of the organization, I know I’m here for a reason and a purpose, but it just feels like I got incorporated into Appleton’s team and I think that’s the way I’m going to approach things.
“I’m with one team, and if I try doing the best I can with that one team, eventually it leads to better teams, if I have success.”
How Semmelhack even positioned himself to begin his climb up the Brewers company ladder as an armed prospect is worthy of review when you consider this pitcher didn’t really pitch until late in the game.
“I was always a hitter,” said Semmelhack, who played in a utility role at Oak Creek High School. “I really started pitching my junior year of high school. I was very raw, throwing it around here and there. They needed arms, and I had an OK one at the time, so that’s how that happened.”
What happened next was a transformation. Semmelhack’s arm began to blossom but the right-hander was barely aware, fixated on maintaining the strong tradition of Knights baseball, State Champions a record three years in a row prior to his stint with the Knights.
“I wanted to go there and keep the tradition rolling,” said Semmelhack. “It’s kind of a legacy that the guys left behind and you don’t want to be the ones to go in there and mess up the tradition. You try to maintain that and do as well as you can. It was pretty hard to repeat what they did, but I just tried to keep the tradition going of good baseball players coming out of Oak Creek.”
Semmelhack was very good, a workhorse during his senior season, logging more than 85 innings on the mound, notching ten wins and nearly 100 punch outs. UW-Milwaukee saw the upside, while Semmelhack saw an opportunity to continue the climb up the learning curve.
“I got stronger as a person in college because I peaked kind of late,” said Semmelhack. “When I first got to college I was still just throwing the ball…they called me a thrower, because I didn’t have awesome pitches, just going out there and threw my fastball as hard as I could and tried to get it in the strike zone. That worked for a little bit in college, but then throughout the years, it was about developing better mechanics, more off-speed pitches, and toward the end, trying to stay down in the zone.
“That’s what it was all about and now I’m here learning a bunch of new things and hopefully keep incorporating them and getting better.”
From Head Coach Scott Holler at Oak Creek, to Panthers skipper Scott Doffek, Semmelhack was all ears no matter which Scott was in them. With such a small sample size on the mound, there were plenty of lessons to be learned for this true student of the game.
“I had a lot of good people giving me a lot of help,” said Semmelhack. “I try to take in what everybody tells me, and through the course of all the people and instruction I was given in high school and college it led me to where I am right now.
Listening may be one of Semmelhack’s bonus traits, but he also possesses the ability to keep a keen eye on his counterpart on the hill.
“If something is working for somebody else I want to have the edge on that too,” said Semmelhack. “I take listening very seriously and the more you can take in the more you can see what works and what doesn’t. It’s all part of trying to grow as a pitcher and as a person. I appreciate all the advice I get and I try to use it to the best of my advantage.”
One feature film he just won’t watch is one starring himself in the lead role. Semmelhack chooses to let others watch that action flick.
“I always think about if I was hitting, what would I look like in the batter’s box?” wondered Semmelhack. “I don’t really watch myself, I just know how I did then let the coaches tell me what they think and work on it.”
Someone who has been watching Semmelhack play and pitch from an early age is Eric’s father, Mike. A basketball player back in his day, Mike never played baseball on an equal level as his son, but he was able to coach and team Eric the value of competing at a very high level.
“He was always coaching my traveling teams and fall league teams, and he coached me right up until eighth grade and high school,” said Semmelhack. “It was about going out there and doing the best with what you have. That’s been my drive since I started playing baseball. I might not have the best stuff but as long as I can go out there and compete and give my team a chance to win, that’s the main point.
“That’s what he preached and struck home with me…you’re not always going to have great days, fight your way through it and that’s what makes you a better player.”
The bond is somewhat detached now, at least for Mike. Like an expecting father, Eric’s dad paces the ballpark when his son is in the spotlight on the mound, too jittery to sit still in one place for a nine inning affair.
“That’s what he’s done since high school, just paces,” laughed Semmelhack. “Even with people he knows, like when Chad (Pierce) pitches, he’ll be pacing around.”
Eric’s pace has been hectic, to say the least, since he was plucked from the talent pool by the Brewers in June. Mike was the one who flagged down his son with news from the draft while his son was running pregame drills with the Lakeshore Chinooks of the Northwoods League. After six games in Helena, shuffling within the Milwaukee organization brought Semmelhack back to Wisconsin to continue his work in progress two hours from his home base.
Priority one: Continue to stop, look and listen.
“As a junior in high school I was throwing well, we went to State, and during the whole recruiting process I picked up tips,” recalled Semmelhack. “I even picked up stuff watching other people, watching Major League games and college games. I kind of have my own mechanics, that’s always been the harp on me that my mechanics were not always the cleanest, but it’s a lot of learning from other people and trying to incorporate things that may drastically fail, but other things kind of work.”
Cataloging all of these helpful tidbits is a job itself, which may help explain why the overpowering notion of a kid from Wisconsin playing in the Brewers organization isn’t so overwhelming after all.
“I think the other stuff comes in the offseason when people talk about it,” said Semmelhack. “We’re playing games and every day you have a focus and it’s not about being with the Brewers, it’s about improving my game.
“Sometimes you get glimpses of it, you’re able to step back and say I am a part of the organization and that’s a cool feeling. But in the grand scheme of things it’s all about focusing and worrying about that next start and getting through it.”
Eric Semmelhack may exhale at season’s end and savor the thought of home cooking on his plate. An Oak Creek Knight, Milwaukee Panther, and now Wisconsin Timber Rattlers pitcher…does he dare to dream of padding his hometown resume as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers?
“I don’t really consider it a dream, I think of it as a goal,” said Semmelhack. “We put all that time and effort that we can into this, traveling, playing baseball, working every day at it, so I think it’s more about achieving the goal. If I can, that’s great, and if I fall short with all the work I’ve put into it, that’s OK, and it’s back to the real life.
“But I’ll try putting off the real life as long as I can.”
(PHOTOS BY BRAD KRAUSE AND UW-MILWAUKEE ATHLETICS)