Clash of the Titans

John Lackey and Jerome Williams face off at Salem-Keizer two months after they were selected in the June 1999 draft.

August 20, 1999.

Tom Kotchman and the Boise Hawks were in Oregon to play the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, the San Francisco Giants’ affiliate in the Short-A Northwest League.

I’d flown up to visit nearby friends and see the Anaheim Angels’ affiliate on the road. The game that night was billed as a match of top pitching prospects.

Jerome Williams was the Giants’ first round supplemental pick that June, #39 overall. John Lackey was chosen in the second round by the Angels, #68 overall.

Williams was considered the more polished product. Lackey had converted to the mound that year in his junior college season while not playing first base.

The next winter, Baseball America ranked Williams the Giants’ #4 prospect. They wrote:

Williams is a classic projection draft with a loose, wide-shouldered body that has been compared to that of Dwight Gooden. His fastball is in the 89-92 mph range now, and the Giants expect his velocity to go up as he fills out. Williams has a fluid, easy delivery and arm action.

BA concluded that “Williams might have the highest ceiling in the organization if he physically matures as the Giants think he will.”

A few weeks later, BA published the Angels’ Top 10 prospects list. Lackey wasn’t on it. Under “Newcomer Report,” David Rawnsley included Lackey in a list of Boise pitchers who “flashed above-average stuff.”

When they met on August 20, Williams had the better night. He worked four innings, gave up two runs on five hits in four innings with three strikeouts and three walks. Lackey took the loss. In six innings, he gave up seven runs (six earned) on eight hits with four strikeouts and five walks.

History, of course, shows that Lackey went on to a far better career. He won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series and hit the jackpot when he signed a free-agent contract in December 2009 with the Boston Red Sox for five years totalling $82.5 million.

Williams reached San Francisco in 2003 at age 21 and posted a 3.30 ERA in 21 starts (131 innings). He was traded to the Cubs in 2005, claimed by the A’s on waivers in late 2006 and released, then signed with the Nationals but suffered a rotator cuff injury and was released. His nomadic career took him into independent ball, the Puerto Rico winter league and even Taiwan in 2010.

Jerome began 2011 with the Lancaster Barnstormers in the independent Atlantic League. The Angels acquired him on June 16 after he posted a 6-0 record with a 2.91 ERA.

Williams made his Triple-A Salt Lake debut last night. In six innings, he gave up three runs (one earned) on eight hits in six innings, with six strikeouts and no walks. The Bees won 6-5 — at Fresno, a Giants affiliate, and Jerome’s home team in 2002, 2003 and 2005.

This morning’s Fresno Bee wrote:

The right-hander, a first-round pick in the 1999 draft, worked in and out of trouble for six innings and left with a 5-3 lead. He allowed eight hits and fanned six.

“It was awesome, amazing. I felt great,” he said, standing by the Grizzlies dugout. “I got some balls up, but for the most part kept them down and got groundballs.”

It was home-sweet-home for Williams, who has lived in Fresno since 2002 when he met his future wife, Sarah, a Fresno City student and Central High graduate. They married in 2004, have three children and he’s part-owner of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue that has restaurants in Fresno, Crescent City and New York.

Last night was only one start, but if Jerome should resuscitate his career at age 29 and contribute to the Angels in the major leagues, it will be a feel-good year in a season desperately in need of one.

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