Maybe it was more than a coincidence that took Joey Baran to a golf course Wednesday with one of his former fellow Hazleton Area pitchers.
Because that Cougars’ 2014 district championship pitching staff is now 4-for-4 in the Major League Baseball Draft.
Baran, a hard-throwing lefthander who overcame recent elbow issues with a dominating season at Lackawanna College, was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 22nd round Wednesday on the third and final day of baseball’s annual amateur draft.
“I didn’t even know what to think,” Baran said. “I was like, ‘Did it really happen?’ It still didn’t really set in yet.
“It’s surreal, to say the least.”
Baran was able to share in the moment on the greens with Dante Biasi, who was also selected in the 22nd round by the Chicago Cubs in 2016 along with their former teammate, Tony Hernandez, who was chosen on the same day by the New York Yankees. Sal Biasi, Dante’s older brother, was the third member of that Cougars’ district title team to hear his name called when the Kansas City Royals drafted him out of Penn State last year before Baran joined the crowd of major league draftees from Hazleton Area.
All four helped the Cougars claim the 2014 District 2 championship at PNC Field and reach the state quarterfinals that season.
“I wasn’t watching, to be honest,” Baran said of Wednesday’s draft proceedings. “I was actually playing golf with a couple guys. They were listening to the draft, they heard my name called and we kind of went nuts. Actually Dante was one of the guys I was golfing with. He was kind of helping me, he went through the same thing on the same day of the draft in pretty much the exact same round.”
It seems Dante Biasi could lend Baran advice about more than how to handle the draft process.
Both were forced to overcome serious elbow injuries before catching the attention of big league scouts.
Dante Biasi underwent Tommy John surgery as a Hazleton Area senior in 2016 that kept him from pitching during the entire Wyoming Valley Conference season. He passed on signing with the Cubs that summer and elected to head to Penn State, where he debuted this season after redshirting during his rehab. He will be draft-eligible again next year.
Meanwhile, Baran began his college career at Stony Brook but began suffering from Ulnar Nerve Entrapment at the Elbow — a condition commonly called Cubital Tunnel Syndrome that, among other difficulties, causes numbness and tingling in the hands and fingers.
To relieve it, doctors performed Ulnar Anterior Transposition on Baran, which typically takes six months of healing.
“They basically moved my funny bone,” Baran said. “After coming off surgery, I was at a pretty low spot at this time last year.”
But he rebounded from that at Lackawanna College in a big way, as Baran was named Division II Men’s Baseball Pitcher of the Year by the Region XIX Baseball Committee last month. He finished the 2018 season with a 1.55 ERA and struck out 52 while walking just nine in 40.2 innings. Opponents batted just .201 against him.
“There were tears in my eyes,” Hazleton Area baseball coach Gino Cara said. “He’s battled through some (health) issues, but he’s done everything he needed to get back to this point. I’ve watched him playing games from 7 or 8 years old. The thing that’s most impressive with Joey is, first, his work ethic. He’s always committed to being the best he can be. The competitive drive is just incredible.”
That isn’t Baran’s only eye-opening asset.
“He knows when to throw what pitch in what situation,” Cara said. “He understands the game and the hitters he’s facing. He’s got outstanding velocity, very good movement and, most importantly, he knows how to pitch.”
Now, Baran has to figure out where he’s going.
Following an outstanding redshirt sophomore season for Lackawanna, Baran signed a letter of intent to play next year for Penn State, where both Biasi brothers have played. Baran will now have the option of signing with the Brewers organization this summer or heading to play for the Nittany Lions and re-entering the draft next June.
“I have an adviser, who worked with the Hernandez (family),” Baran said. “I’m going to celebrate tonight, then start negotiating, with him and the Brewers.”
Tony Hernandez ultimately signed with the Yankees organization out of Monroe College in the Bronx. He is 2-1 with a 4.32 ERA over the last two years and currently in extended spring training.
Sal Biasi pitched three years for Penn State before being drafted by the Royals and currently plays for Single-A Lexington, where he’s 1-2 with a 6.63 ERA while transitioning into a full-time relief pitcher.
And Dante Biasi wrapped up his comeback season by going 3-6 with a 5.20 ERA while pitching in 14 games, 13 of them starts, as a redshirt freshman for Penn State.
Baran, who was the 665th overall selection in the draft, continued the impressive line of Cougars alumni — particularly pitchers — to receive the honor. Now he has extended the Wyoming Valley Conference’s run in the draft, giving the league at least one pick in 12 of the last 15 years for a total of 14 players in that stretch. Seven of those 14 played for Hazleton Area, including Justin Gutsie (2008), Kyle Landis (2007) and Russ Canzler (2004).
And that doesn’t include former Hazleton resident Jhordany Mezquita, who wasn’t eligible to play for the Cougars, but was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the eighth round last year.
“Joe’s as special as those kids,” Cara said. “My four top pitchers were all drafted now.”
Regardless of where Baran decides to play next season, the WVC’s draft streak looks to continue in the near future with Dante Biasi back on the board next June and then Wyoming Valley West’s Justin Vought — who was drafted in 2017 but elected to play at the University of Maryland — eligible in 2020.
“I expected to be drafted, just not by the Brewers,” said Baran, who said he’d had heard from the New York Mets, Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays in the days leading up to the draft. “I worked out for a couple teams before the draft. It’s kind of weird.”
Times Leader sports writer Derek Levarse contributed to this story