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story.lead_photo.caption MLB/MIRANDA PEREZ Hunter Wood, former Rogers Heritage standout pitcher, jumped at the chance to pitch in the Arizona Fall League this summer. Wood is a member of the Tampa Bay Rays farm system.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Hunter Wood has been adjusting on the fly for several years now. Thus, the fact he is used out of the bullpen in the Arizona Fall League was just another speed bump in his development.

The former Rogers Heritage hurler is three years into his professional career. He believes his future is as a starting pitcher with the Tampa Bay Rays. In the AFL, he is one of 35 players on the Mesa Solar Sox roster. Nineteen are pitchers, limiting the amount of work for each.

Hunter Wood

AGE 22

HEIGHT 6-1

WEIGHT 175

POSITION Right-handed pitcher

BIRTHPLACE Rogers

RESIDENCE Springdale

HOBBIES Bow hunting

DRAFT Selected in 29th round of the 2013 first-year player draft out of Howard College

2013 Princeton (WV), 3-3, 3.80

2014 HV and BG, 4-4, 3.35

2015 BG and Charlotte, 2-7, 2.20

"This is my first offseason playing fall league," Wood said. "The last two years the Rays sent me to instructional league. When I found out they wanted me to be in the Arizona Fall League, I wasn't going to miss out on the opportunity. I don't know what the percentage of those who played here is in the major leagues. I've heard it is 60 to 80 percent.

"That doesn't mean it is automatic. If you are doing well, all it takes is for one scout to notice. I feel like I am on the right track right now. Only time will tell."

Wood wasn't far off with his numbers. World Series participants Kansas City (17) and New York (12) had a combined 29 players on their rosters who are AFL alums.

The early results weren't great for the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Wood. He was issuing too many walks. He was struggling finding his rhythm out of the bullpen. And yet he was undeterred, believing he would find himself. Wood had his best outing Monday when he pitched two scoreless innings with no walks and three strikeouts. He enjoys the challenge of the AFL.

"The hitters ambush pitchers big time here," said Wood, 22, whose wife Hannah and 4-month-old son Easton accompanied him to Arizona. "They are sitting dead red fastball. The ball travels well.

"The fall league is a springboard to (Class) AA. All the (Rays) guys who were here last year moved up to at least AA. Hopefully, I will start out at AA, or maybe I will be at high A. I'm still young and have a lot of time."

Wood's 2015 season in Class A was less-than-noteworthy from a win-loss standpoint -- 2-7. His earned average, however, was a sterling 2.20 as he switched between starting and relieving. He struck out 113 and walked 25 in 106 innings.

Interestingly, if Wood had followed his childhood dream of pitching at Arkansas, he wouldn't be in Arizona. He would have likely just completed his first short stint in rookie ball after being drafted. But Wood, who graduated from Heritage in 2012, flipped the script.

"I always dreamed of being a Hog," said Wood, a self-described "home body" who committed to Arkansas after his high school sophomore season. "(Arkansas) is really high on hometown kids.

"But I didn't want to go to class for three years. If I had, I wouldn't be here (in Arizona) now. I was drafted by the (Boston) Red Sox (in the 32nd round) after high school. If they had offered enough money, I would have signed."

Instead, he went to Howard Junior College in West Texas where he pitched for Brett Smith. For a young man who had always started, he surprised his college coach by saying he wanted to be a closer. Wood was used in relief initially and struggled to get his footing in a college environment and during his first time away from Northwest Arkansas. By the end of the season, he found himself and Smith encouraged him to stay for a second season. Wood chose field trips over the classroom.

Admittedly, he knew nothing about the Tampa Bay organization when he was drafted in the 29th round. Wood thought that either Kansas City or Miami would draft him. He remembers a conversation with a Royals' scout after his senior year in high school.

"He told me in the next two, three years they would be in the World Series," said Wood, who admitted skepticism when he heard it.

Kansas City was in the midst of developing good young players, but the Royals also used free agency to fill roster openings. Wood found out in a hurry he was fortunate to be taken by an organization that has a reputation of development over buying accomplished major leaguers in free agency.

"No matter what, you are going to get your chance with this organization," Wood said of the Rays. "They will keep you in the organization as long as you do well and keep you moving forward.

"Their pitching coordinator (Dewey Robinson) is all about developing pitchers. If you are released there is a good chance someone will pick you up. Teams are aware that the Rays are great at developing pitchers."

Short Hops

Several players in the Kansas City Royals' organization who were with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals have performed well for the Surprise Saguaros in the AFL.

• Brooks Pounders, who pitched well in eight starts for the Naturals, has carried it over into the fall. Making three starts, the 6-foot-4, 270-pound right-hander had allowed no runs in 12 innings with no walks and 14 strikeouts. Hitters had a miniscule .122 batting average against him.

• Ramon Torres, the slightly built shortstop with decent pop in his bat, was hitting .298 with five extra base hits among his 14 safeties.

• Bubba Starling, the Royals' first-round pick (fifth overall) in the 2011 First-Year Draft, was hitting .281 with four home runs and eight RBIs.

Also, Andrew Edwards, who could wind up with the Naturals, was off to a strong start with a 1-0 record and 2.16 earned run average in six games out of the bullpen.

Sports on 11/12/2015

Print Headline: Wood hopes AFL is springboard to major leagues

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