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  • Writer's pictureKyle Youmans

Molding Clay Chandler

Clay Chandler has become the unlikely ace of the West Virginia Power rotation and one of the most dominant pitchers in the South Atlantic League. However, the story behind the right-hander is even more unlikely, as his career almost came to an end before it got a chance to begin.

An ancient art form, clay molding, has been a relief for the human race for thousands of years. Clay molding is a process that is never flashy, ever grinding and full of blue-collar drudgery, but always leads to the end goal that is previously set by the creator.

Starting with a blank canvas (or more literally, a pile of earth), hard work and elbow grease with clay produces some of the most beautiful and magnificent sculptures and valuable pieces in human history.

The same can be said for the lengthy process that has molded Power starting pitcher Clay Chandler to where he is today among the ranks of Minor League Baseball. One of the most dominant pitchers in the South Atlantic League in 2019, Chandler has defied the odds and proved plenty of doubters wrong along the way as he climbs the ranks of the Seattle Mariners organization.

Chandler, 25, grew up just outside of the western Kentucky town of Paducah in a suburb called La Center. A modest little town nuzzled in the Ohio river bend near the Kentucky, Indiana and Missouri borders, La Center is mostly known for being the halfway point between St. Louis and Nashville.

Growing up in a household with two little brothers, Lee and Bradley, Clay’s love for the game of baseball stemmed from playing outside with his family and being on the road with his travel team.

“My passion was always playing baseball,” Chandler stated. “It is always something that I have enjoyed doing and it was a way to get me outside.”

At his childhood home, Chandler had a home-built mound that he would pitch off of to his father, Rod, in the front yard while his mother, Michele, would stand in the batter’s box with a bat in hand.

“It was great until I hit her [with one of the pitches],” Chandler said, chuckling. “That’s when she was over the whole thing.”

Rod and Michele were the driving forces that instilled the love of baseball into a young Clay. Rod, who never played baseball past high school, coached Clay and his brothers’ teams during their youth, while Michele, who played collegiate softball, was the competitive motivator for Clay.

“I have been very fortunate,” Chandler added. “They have run me wherever I wanted to go as far as baseball, and they have supported my dreams and made sure that if I was going to do something, then I’d do it the right way.”

As high school neared, the support of that dream continued, as the Chandler family saw an opportunity for Clay to transfer schools. It would allow Clay to be a part of a respected program across town with a number of players that had already been teammates with him on numerous travel squads.

However, due to the transfer rules, Clay was ruled ineligible to play when he made varsity as a freshman and was required to sit out a year. With this setback, along with missing his friends at Ballard Memorial High School, Clay decided to move back to his original school, where he could play baseball immediately.

At Ballard, Clay was a two-way player, manning shortstop and the mound while earning loads of accolades, including an All-State and Rawlings Central Region honorable mention as a senior. He was also a three-time District All-Tournament Team and two-time Region One All-Tournament Team selection. However, baseball wasn’t the only sport that caught the eye of a burgeoning Chandler.

“I played football, but figured out pretty quick that I didn’t have the body type for that,” Chandler stated. “I really enjoyed basketball, but I am an outdoorsy guy and didn’t like how during basketball season sometimes you’d never see the sun.”

(Note: A very modest Clay Chandler failed to mention that he holds the school record for 3-point shots at Ballard and was the 2013 leading scorer in his region on the hardwood)

Despite his tri-sport athletic success, it seemed as if Chandler’s baseball career had come to a close when he was not recruited heavily out of high school. Only one offer stood on the table for Clay to advance to the next level, a junior college roster spot at Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel, Indiana.

“Of course, sometimes people say that their biggest motivation is those around you that say you can’t do something,” Chandler stated. “Not to name any names, but there were some coaches and people around me in the past that told me I don’t know if you can [play baseball].”

After discussions with his family and friends, Clay decided to take the offer to become a Wabash Valley Warrior. Continuing to chase his dream, Chandler stepped on the diamond on his first day of practice, and immediately had a rude awakening.

“I went to college as a two-way player, but I thought I was going to play shortstop,” Chandler said. “The coach came up to me and said, ‘Hey son, I don’t think you’re going to play shortstop here, have you seen what we’ve got? You might as well try your shot on the mound.’”

He was a bit surprised, but with a log-jam in the middle infield, Chandler made the adjustment. Shifting his attention to the rubber, Chandler re-focused and began by throwing bullpens that first week of practice. That, however, did not go as planned either.

“My first day throwing, I remember there was a transfer in from Auburn, because he wanted to get to pro ball quicker,” Chandler explained. “He was consistently throwing 95, 96, 97 miles per hour and this left-handed hitter still laced one right back at his head. I turned to the guy standing next to me and said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever pitch here.’”

This realization began one of the most challenging times in Chandler’s long journey to the professional ranks. Fighting for innings amongst a talented rotation and re-identifying as a pitcher at a school where he expected to play shortstop, Chandler started to have doubts and let his emotions take a toll. However, he turned back to his roots and received the exact support he needed from the people he needed it from the most, his parents.

His mom, the competitor, encouraged him to keep pushing, while his dad reinforced that he needed to give it his all. Those were the words of wisdom that re-inspired Chandler.

That support helped Clay make it through two seasons at Wabash Valley and earn a spot with Southeast Missouri State (SEMO). In his following two seasons at SEMO, Chandler was a two-time All-Conference starting pitcher and finished with an 8–3 record on the mound in 16 appearances (15 starts) his senior season.

Over the months during and following his final season as a Redhawk, Chandler was in contact with multiple major league scouts leading up to the draft. Receiving word that he was a fringe draft choice, Chandler mentally prepared for either result, but held high expectations that he would either get drafted or signed shortly thereafter.

“He was consistently throwing 95, 96, 97 miles per hour and this left-handed hitter still laced one right back at his head. I turned to the guy standing next to me and said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever pitch here.’”

The 2017 draft came and went, with plenty of drama and phone calls for Chandler, but not the one he was looking for. The waiting game was on, as the Chandler family sought news that Clay could sign as a free agent in the coming days.

Days turned to weeks, and doubt began to creep in again. Chandler wondered if he was going to be picked up by a major league team at all.

“I think two and a half weeks went by (after the draft), and I had already come to terms with it,” Chandler mentioned. “I just wanted to go to the lake with my family, have some fun and celebrate the ride, because it was all over.”

The Chandler family made the trip to the lake, as they do every so often, and Clay tagged along on what he thought was a reflective week on the career that was. He was at the lake for almost a week without working out, running or throwing while enjoying time with his parents and brothers when he received an unexpected phone call.

“I was actually on the boat with my parents,” Chandler said. “We actually had to slow down so that I could answer the phone. I looked up after the call and told my parents that the Mariners were signing me.”

(Note: Chandler, normally a collected individual, even started to tear up when speaking of the moment when he got to tell his parents that he was being signed.)

The moment was special, but short-lived, as the Mariners sent a plane to fly Chandler down to the team facilities in Arizona within a matter of days. Even the first week in Mariners camp did not go as planned, as Chandler was in Peoria for a week and never actually threw a bullpen.

Chandler had not been on a mound in almost a month before he threw in a simulated game at the Mariners’ facility. He only threw a single inning, and, despite being nervous, Chandler struck out the first batter he saw and put up a scoreless frame against the Royals’ AZL club.

“It was nerve-wracking sure, but it was the coolest experience ever,” Chandler reflected. “Getting to walk in that clubhouse and see the Mariners stars on the floor was something I never really thought I’d be able to do.”

Now in his third season with Seattle, Chandler is extremely grateful for the opportunities that the Mariners have given him to grow as a player and learn new things along the way.

“For the Mariners to like me enough to hold on to me, it allows me to excel and do better every day,” Chandler reflected. “There’s not really a ceiling. I have more potential left in me, and it is up to me to figure it out and keep pushing.”

This season, all eyes have turned to Chandler as he became one of the most dominant figures in the South Atlantic League. Over the course of his first seven starts, the righty has allowed just four earned runs and struck out 39 batters compared to five walks. He was also named league Pitcher of the Week from April 22–28, capping off a career month for the Kentucky native.

The month of May hasn’t hinder Chandler either, as he most recently threw his third consecutive seven-inning quality start May 9 against Augusta. In that outing, Chandler went the distance for the first time in his professional career, and did not issue a walk for the fourth straight start while fanning seven men.

He found his name atop multiple leader boards throughout not only the SAL, but also across Minor League Baseball. Even with this unbridled success, Chandler continues to push himself every day despite the lack of recognition from prospect lists or news outlets. In fact, Clay now welcomes the doubt and uses it as even more motivation.

“It makes me hungry that I’m not on there,” Chandler said. “I’ve always been a fearless competitor even though I may not have the best stuff on the team. I know that each time I take the mound, I’m going to give it my best shot and never take a day for granted.”

Never flashy, Chandler goes to work each day, grinding to be the best that he can be for his teammates, his coaches and those who poured into him previously. That blue-collar work ethic is what has put him in this position, a couple of molds away from achieving the ultimate goal of making it to the big leagues.

With the way that he has been molded, tested and proven, I know I wouldn’t bet against Clay Chandler. And you shouldn’t either.

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