For professional ballplayers, the independent leagues are a last resort, a Hail Mary attempt to keep their career alive and perhaps score a second chance with a major-league organization. More often than not, it signals the end of a career.
Joe Bisenius didn't know what to expect this spring when, out of a job after six seasons in the Phillies' system, he swallowed his pride and went home to Sioux City, Iowa, to try out with the Explorers of the independent American Association. Turns out the right-hander needed only four days of workouts to convince the Nationals to sign him to a minor-league contract.
"It ended up working out," he said.
That's an understatement. Bisenius tonight will find himself sitting in the Nationals' bullpen, ready and available to be used in a big-league game after getting a surprise September promotion. The 28-year-old had his contract purchased from Class AAA Syracuse after a brief-yet-impressive showing there.
A 12th-round draft pick of the Phillies in 2004, Bisenius is a flamethrower who made two relief appearances for Philadelphia early in 2007 but stagnated in the minors the next two years. He left the organization after last season, tried out with the Explorers, got noticed by the Nats and wound up pitching at Class A Potomac by mid-May.
Bisenius impressed at each level of the Nationals organization, posting a 1.23 ERA in six appearances at Potomac, then a 3-0 record and 4.40 ERA in 14 games at Harrisburg, then a 2.70 ERA in 14 appearances at Syracuse. Plenty of people within the organization weren't really aware of his progress, but the right people in the front office were well aware of it.
"I worked with all the different coaches, and everything just kind of came together," he said.
And when Bisenius struck out 12 over his final 8 1/3 innings at Syracuse, pitching Greg Booker made the recommendation to the big club that this guy deserved a promotion. The Nationals also felt like it was worth adding him to the 40-man roster and not risk losing him after the season.
"When a guy that has kind of arm, when you get reports of a guy pitching in the high 90s, you can't just let him walk away in the winter," Jim Riggleman said. "He would be a six-year free agent and could go sign somewhere else. We've kind of had him in our system for a while this year and made some progress with him. So you'd like to look at him in September and make the decision about him over the winter. If we didn't bring him here, we probably would not have been on his list of candidates to sign with this winter."
Not bad for a guy who showed up in Sioux City this spring hoping to catch a break in the independent leagues. Turns out Bisenius caught a big break, though he never doubted it would come.
"I mean, yeah, I was looking to get back to the big leagues," he said. "If you're in the minor leagues and don't think you can get back to the big leagues, you probably shouldn't be there. So yeah, I definitely envisioned getting back."