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story.lead_photo.caption Chicago White Sox's James McCann (33) celebrates in the dugout after he hit a two-run home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the Minnesota Twins on Friday, June 28, 2019, in Chicago.

It's a moment reliever Tyler Zuber said he's been dreaming about for a long time.

Zuber, 24, a White Hall native who was a sixth-round draft pick in 2017 by the Kansas City Royals after pitching at Arkansas State University, was promoted to the Class AA Northwest Arkansas Naturals on June 20.

Before being called up, he was a Class High-A Carolina League All-Star and earned the save for the North team in an 8-7 victory over the South on June 18 at Nymeo Field in Frederick, Md. He pitched 1 inning, striking out 3 of the 4 batters he faced. The one batter he didn't strike out hit a two-run home run.

"I was trying to have fun and tried to throw a fastball by the guy, and he put a good swing on it," Zuber said of the home run. "There's always that little extra hype being an All-Star and it being an All-Star Game, but it's also a fun environment. It was a sold-out crowd, and it was fun to get that experience."

Zuber has delivered with the Naturals, converting on two of three save chances, including Friday night in a 3-1 victory at the Tulsa Drillers. In 11/3 innings, Zuber allowed 2 hits with 3 strikeouts, throwing 19 of his 29 pitches for strikes.

In what amounts to two full seasons in the minors, Zuber -- the highest-drafted ASU player ever -- has converted 37 of 42 save chances. He has a career record of 7-9 with a 3.05 ERA as of Friday.

"In my mind, I wanted to be in Double-A in my second year," Zuber said. "That was my goal. So far, knock on wood, I'm here."

Now that he's reached Class AA, Zuber said he has a new goal.

"The goal is to keep climbing the ladder. I'm just going to go out there and compete like I know I can. I'm going to give it my all and let the dominoes fall where they fall," Zuber said.

That doesn't mean he's not enjoying his time back in Arkansas.

"I've missed this place so much," Zuber said. "Now, all of a sudden, I'm seeing Arkansas license plates, restaurants that I'm familiar with and people with southern drawls again. It's awesome."

Zuber and the Naturals travel to Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock to take on the Arkansas Travelers in a three-game series starting Monday. Zuber said he expects to have 100 to 150 friends and family members in attendance.

"Little Rock will kinda be like another home game for me, so I'm pumped about it," Zuber said.

All-star McCann

When catcher James McCann (Arkansas Razorbacks) agreed to a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the Chicago White Sox in December, his career was at a crossroads.

As a member of the Detroit Tigers in 2018, he hit .220 with a .267 on-base percentage. Despite throwing out 36.5% of attempted base stealers, the Tigers didn't tender him a contract.

"This offseason, there was a lot of soul searching, a lot of 'Who am I as a player? Who am I as a hitter?' " McCann told Brian Sandalow of the Chicago Sun-Times. "Just staying within myself, figuring out who James McCann is and being content with that. And honestly, that's what's led to the success so far."

McCann will appear in the All-Star Game in Cleveland on Tuesday for the first time. Entering Saturday, his .318 batting average is .68 points better than his career .250 average. He also has hit nine home runs and drove in 30.

His 3.0 wins above replacement in half a season with the White Sox already has eclipsed the 2.8 he posted in 452 career games with the Tigers. He's on pace to cruise past his career highs in all major offensive categories -- not that he has any specific statistical goals.

That said, he didn't seem too surprised that his game has taken a leap.

"I felt like I hadn't reached my potential," he said. "I felt like there was more in there. Whatever the ceiling is, I just work daily to keep getting better, and one day when I'm done with my career, I'll be able to look back and tell you what that ceiling was."

Tuesday will be a special day for McCann.

"It's a dream come true," he said. "You dream as a little boy to play in the big leagues. It's a dream on another level to be in an All-Star Game. To be able to have that kind of reality, it's a special feeling."

Keuchel effect

It's been an eventful summer for two-time All-Star and former University of Arkansas pitcher Dallas Keuchel.

He signed a one-year, $13 million contract with the Atlanta Braves in June after seven seasons with the Houston Astros. Keuchel spent the early part of June in the minors preparing for his call-up.

Once it came, he lost to the Washington Nationals on June 21 before beating the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field a week later. Then came his home debut, a 2-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday.

Over 172/3 innings in the major leagues, he's thrown 283 pitches, 170 of them (60%) for strikes.

"I think I've held my own," Keuchel told Emmanuel Morgan of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I'm just trying to get a good flow for myself and then get into the rhythm of the game. I think I'm there physically and mentally, so hopefully we can start rolling."

One teammate agrees.

"He just keeps us in the game," first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "You know you're one pitch away from getting a ground ball no matter what the situation is."

Freeman said Keuchel has been a good mentor for the Braves' young pitching staff.

"We've got a couple of young guys that know what they're doing on the mound, too, but when you have a veteran like that, you can only make yourself better," Freeman said.

Brian Sandalow of the Chicago Sun-Times and Emmanuel Morgan of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this report.

NW Arkansas Naturals pitcher Tyler Zuber (White Hall/Arkansas State)
Photo by AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel looks at his catcher during the first inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals in Washington, Friday, June 21, 2019.

Sports on 07/07/2019

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