SARASOTA, Fla. — Micah Owings turned his neck and glanced at the top shelf of his locker, the final resting place for his broken bats. He spotted the bat handle with "33" neatly written on the knob in black ink.
"You’ve got to see this one," he said, excitedly retrieving it.
The Cincinnati Reds pitcher held up the foot-long remnant of his 331/2-inch, 31-ounce bat, which made an unusually smooth break when it made contact. At least the bat was productive on its final swing — Owings got a double out of it.
"I’ve never seen that in my life," Owings said, examining the clean break in the wood.
You don’t see many like Owings around the majors these days, either.
The 26-year-old pitcher is in line for an unusual role this season. If he wins the fifth spot in the rotation — he appears to be first in line at the moment — he’ll take on the role of pinch-hitter the other four days of the week. Manager Dusty Baker wouldn’t hesitate to bring this pitcher off the bench.
"Everybody knows he can hit," Baker said.
The stocky pitcher — he’s currently 6-foot-5, 220 pounds — has always been able to hit. He was Georgia’s high school player of the year after leading Gainesville High to the state title in 2002 with 12 wins, a 1.03 earned run average, a .448 batting average and 25 homers, a single-season state record. He hit 69 homers in high school.
He kept up both roles at Georgia Tech and Tulane, where he was a pitcher and designated hitter. When Arizona took him in the third round of the June 2005 draft, the Diamondbacks realized he was something special.
Most pitchers lose their feel at the plate as their career progresses, spending most of their time perfecting pitches instead of hitting them. Not Owings. He was Arizona’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2006, winning 16 games while batting .382.
Why has Owings managed to keep swinging like a hitter?
"I’ve been given opportunities to work at it," he said. "Arizona put me on the fast track, and I think that helped. I was swinging the bat (in 2006) at Double-A, so I didn’t have much time when I wasn’t. I take a lot of pride in it and put a lot of work into it."
He stayed on the fast track. A year later, he was in the major leagues, winning eight games and starting the fourth game of the NL championship series against Colorado. He also batted .333 with four homers, the most by a pitcher since Jim Rooker hit four for Kansas City in 1969.
Owings developed a sore pitching shoulder last season, then was shipped to the Reds as part of the trade for Adam Dunn, who hit 40 homers a year in Cincinnati. The Reds were headed for their eighth straight losing season and decided there was no point in pushing Owings to pitch.
He had a pair of game-winning hits as a pinch-hitter. In his Cincinnati debut, he doubled home the winning run in the 10th inning off Arizona’s Tony Pena. Later, he had a two-run single off C.C. Sabathia for another win. Those two moments allowed him to feel like a part of his new team.
"I love getting into the box," he said. "Anytime I get into the box, I know I can help the team. I was appreciative of that because they didn’t have to do that for me."
Those shining moments under pressure gave Baker the idea that Owings can be useful in a couple of ways. The right-hander came into camp healthy and quickly moved to the front of the line in the competition for the fifth starter’s job, allowing only two runs in his first four appearances.
He suffered his first setback on Thursday night, struggling with his control in a 6-4 win over Minnesota. Owings gave up six hits and five walks in four innings, but only one run.
The competition is down to Owings and Homer Bailey, a first-round draft pick in 2004. The 22-year-old Bailey has shown progress in camp this year, but Owings has been better. Baker is considering using Bailey as a long reliever to start the season.
Owings’ broken-bat double on Thursday night — he also came around to score — was a reminder of what sets him apart.
"Honestly, I haven’t hit as much this spring training," Owings said. "My main thing is I want to be right with my arm. The hitting, to me, is just a plus. I know I can get into the box and help."