The Single-A Frederick Keys will host Potomac tonight in the fifth and deciding game of their playoff series. The Keys are one win from the Carolina League championship series.
There are many reasons why the Keys set a club record with 80 regular season wins and now are a win away from advancing in the playoffs.
One somewhat unheralded player that should get some of the credit and attention is catcher Brian Ward.
Despite having modest stats on offense, Ward has emerged as a real solid player and leader for a Frederick team that leads the league in team ERA.
Plus, with the help of his pitchers, Ward has thrown out an amazing 52.6 percent of attempted base stealers this year, getting 50 of 95.
He has played in 104 games with the Keys, batting .254 with 22 doubles, seven homers, 32 RBIs and an OPS of .721. He has hit .273 since the All-Star break.
Ward is 5-for-14 with a homer and two RBIs in four games of the series with Potomac.
Ward is a player likely not that well-known, maybe even by some diehard observers of the O's minor. But among Keys players and coaches, he doesn't fly under the radar at all.
"Ward has been outstanding," Frederick manager Orlando Gomez said. "He's made a lot of progress from last year. He's taking charge and reading hitters. This year, he changed a bit his way of catching with runners on and he's been tremendous. He changed his catching stance a bit.
"He worked very hard last winter and he lost some weight. He came in in real good shape and it's paying off."
Ward's background is interesting. It starts in the Atlanta organization and includes Tommy John surgery, getting released by Atlanta, heading back to college and winding up in the O's organization.
"I originally signed with the Braves in 2006 (out of junior college)," Ward said. "But I didn't catch the whole year, I didn't pass my physical and needed Tommy John surgery. I was able to go (back) to school but not be drafted again.
"I played at Lewis & Clark for two years. A scout named Dave Dangler (of the Orioles) called me and he signed me."
Ward had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in July 2006 and Atlanta voided his contract, essentially releasing him. He then played two seasons for Lewis & Clark, leading that school to the 2008 playoffs and he was named Most Valuable Player of the NAIA World Series.
The Orioles signed Ward on June 14, 2009 and he played that summer in short-season Single-A Aberdeen and last season with Frederick.
Ward said he's been motivated by being cut loose by the Braves.
"Absolutely. I felt like I was good enough to play when they signed me, but getting two extra years of college under my belt with a powerhouse (NAIA) team like Lewis & Clark, I felt like polished me more as a player and a catcher," he said.
Ward has a strong arm and has routinely been timed under the major league average of 2.0 seconds in throwing the ball to second base.
"I have had him at 1.83, 1.85. The highest I timed him was 2.0. That is pretty strong," Gomez said.
Meanwhile, Ward won't take all the credit for his great percentage in throwing out runners.
"First of all, the pitchers are holding the runners on and we've done a great job of that this year and mixing up our looks," he said. "I work with Orlando a lot on catching drills and he stays on me to work hard and do the little things.
"I feel like I have a pretty good arm and, if I am accurate, I have a pretty good shot of throwing anyone out,."
Ward turns 26 Oct. 17. Those two stints in college and time with Atlanta mean that while he may be older than many of his teammates, he may have less pro experience.
Still, he has emerged as a real Frederick team leader with his play this year and may now be the top catching prospect in the O's organization.
He will play in the Arizona Fall League next month.
"I'm excited and honored to play with some real good players. I appreciate the Orioles giving me this opportunity," Ward said.
Whenever this season ends for him, he's already excited about next season and wants to put in a real good winter of workouts.
"I want to get myself into the best playing shape for next spring training as I can. I am going to really work on hitting this offseason and focusing on what I need to do at the plate," he said.
Afternoon update: Word from Frederick is that the Keys will return Game 1 starter Jake Pettit to the mound tonight when they host Potomac in the fifth and deciding game at 7 p.m. Pettit went 7-0 with an ERA of 1.62 in 10 regular-season starts for the Keys and beat Potomac in Game 1 last week when he pitched six innings of three-hit, one-run ball. Potomac is slated to start right-hander Paul Demny, who also started the opener, in tonight's game.
Check back here later today and tonight as I head to Frederick and cover Game 5.