On their checklist of old haunts to visit in Columbus, Ohio, Shawn Armstrong and his wife Sarah have two main ones:
They’re going to go back to the spot where he proposed. And they’re going to Katalina’s Cafe on Pennsylvania Ave., home of the pancake ball — doughy bites filled with Nutella, dulce de leche, or homemade pumpkin-apple butter.
“Probably not too good for the diet, but they’re incredible,” the Tacoma Rainiers reliever said last week at Cheney Stadium. And he’s been thinking about them since he left Columbus, where he spent parts of the past four seasons playing for the Clippers in the Cleveland Indians organization.
Then, of course, there’s the business part of his trip. Then again, maybe “business” should be in quotation marks for Armstrong, one of 14 pitchers who will represent the PCL at Huntington Park in the Triple-A all-star game on Wednesday.
“This is not something you really scout or look into,” Armstrong said. “Who you face, you face. It’s all for fun. Being a reliever, I may only face one hitter. It’s just to go there, represent the Rainiers, represent Seattle, and have a good time.”
Armstrong has been one of the key pieces in a Tacoma bullpen that cemented itself as one of the best in the PCL this past month. In 15 innings of works since the beginning of June, he’s struck out 21 batters, allowed just one earned run, and notched seven of his team-high eight saves.
For the season, he's got a 2.04 ERA and has struck out 54 in 39 2/3 innings.
"He's being rewarded for it by making the all-star game," Rainiers manager Pat Listach said. "He'd probably prefer to be rewarded by going to the big leagues, but this is the second-best thing."
This is the fifth time Armstrong has been named a midseason all-star in the minor leagues — and his third trip in four years — but the first that he’ll be his team’s only player in a locker room full of new faces.
Not that he gives that much thought.
“We’re all ballplayers,” Armstrong said. “We’re all there for the same reason. We all got selected to represent the PCL. Baseball players tend to get along.”
And besides, he might not have any familiarity with his short-term teammates, but he knows the area better than any of them.
“Being the only Rainier there, being in Columbus makes it easier, because I know the city and know the surroundings,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong, while in Columbus, plans to touch bases with former teammates, coaches and support staff from his days with the Clippers. He'll also be able to go back and see Shannon Pruzinksy, whose late husband Matt was the clubhouse manager for Columbus before he died due to cardiac arrest this past December.
In response to Matt's death, Armstrong helped set up a GoFundMe account that ended up raising over $109,000 for Shannon and her twin boys, born in February.
Those surroundings also include the office that Armstrong spent half his career at, and will for one day Wednesday. The International League has a reputation as a pitchers’ league, especially in comparison to the PCL. But Huntington Park in Columbus may be the most hitter-friendly ballpark the IL has to offer, with short lines to left and right and smaller gaps. Then again, every park seems hitter-friendly compared to Cheney Stadium.
“It depends on the day,” Armstrong said. “If the wind’s blowing out, the wind’s blowing out. With the city behind it, the wind doesn’t blow in that often, but down the lines it carries a little bit. Center field and the gaps play pretty true.”
Besides, field size and conditions only matter so much when you only get one or two batters — who happen to be the best hitters the International League has to offer.
“There’ll be a lot of good hitters there,” Armstrong said. “Just keep the ball down and let your stuff play.”
The game on Thursday is almost secondary. This is less about Armstrong going to an all-star game and more about going back to a place he called home for so long, seeing familiar faces from the organization, and having a good time before the grind of the second half begins.
Oh, and the pancake balls sound pretty good too.