For days, the rumor going around the Fresno Grizzlies clubhouse — the triple-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants — was that relief pitcher Heath Hembree would be called up to the major leagues.
The former College of Charleston star just shrugged off such suggestions. Hembree decided early on this season that he was going to remain focused on the task at hand and finish out the season with the Grizzlies. If the call came, great, but if not he wasn’t going to get his hopes up only to be disappointed.
“A couple of the guys in the clubhouse kept telling me that I was going to get the call, but I took it with a grain of salt,” the Cowpens native said by phone Tuesday. “If it happened, it happened, and if it didn’t, I was just going to keep my head down and grind it out (Fresno).”
But he did get the call Monday night and joined the Giants on Tuesday.
“It’s an awesome feeling to be in the major leagues,” Hembree said. “This is a day I’ve been dreaming about since I was 5 years old. I’m looking forward to getting on the mound for the first time and just having fun.”
Hembree has not exactly taken the most direct route to the big leagues. Coming out of Broome High School, Hembree signed to play at South Carolina, but lasted just a season, making just one appearance during the 2008 season.
He transferred to Spartanburg Methodist junior college where he played a full season in 2009. Despite going 7-0 with a 1.22 earned run average in Spartanburg, Hembree received only one scholarship offer and that was from the College of Charleston.
“I’d had Heath in South Carolina and I knew he had some potential,” said Cougars coach Monte Lee. “As soon as I heard he was available, I offered him right on the spot.”
In that 2010 season with the Cougars, Hembree made 27 appearances out of the bullpen and posted four saves. He struck out 42 batters while walking 18.
Hembree said his season with the Cougars was crucial in his development as a pitcher.
“The College of Charleston and coach Lee were a huge factor in getting me where I am today,” Hembree said. “They gave me an opportunity when I didn’t have a lot of options.”
Hembree was ranked by MLB.com as the sixth-best prospect in the Giants’ organization. Playing with the Fresno Grizzlies this season, he posted a team-record 31 saves with an ERA of 4.07. In his first professional season in 2011, he led all of the minor leagues with 38 saves, playing with the Class A San Jose Giants and the double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels. Baseball America rated him as having the best fastball in the Giants’ organization after that season.
“I think with his fastball and slider, Heath has a very good chance to have a long career in the big leagues,” Lee said.
Drafted in the fifth round of the 2010 MLB Draft by the Giants, Hembree only spent one season at College of Charleston after transferring from Spartanburg Methodist.
Hembree joins Brett Gardner of the New York Yankees and Michael Kohn of the Los Angeles Angels as former Cougars currently on active major league rosters. Former Cougar pitchers Graham Godfrey (A’s) and Brian Schlitter (Cubs) also have played in the majors.