Rural North Dakota towns aren't exactly hotbeds of major league talent.
The list of active big leaguers from the Peace Garden State can be counted on just a couple fingers.
There's Sykeston's own Travis Hafner, the burly power hitter responsible for 201 home runs in 11 seasons, mostly with the Cleveland Indians.
Jeremy Horst, a Burlington native, throws a pitch as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies during a game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
And then there's Jeremy Horst of the Philadelphia Phillies, a former military brat whose travels took him from Wyoming to northern Michigan and from northern Michigan to Grand Forks.
The constant uprooting paused momentarily when the lanky southpaw moved to Burlington in eighth grade. But moving around would soon become a trend in the pitcher's career.
Catching his break
For a while, Horst struggled to adapt to his frame. The left-hander was tall (6-foot-3) and athletic, but he didn't grab his potential right off the bat.
"It looked like he had two left feet at times," said Minot State University baseball coach Brock Weppler, a former Legion teammate and coach of Horst's. "He was your typical kid who was tall and lanky and not fully coordinated yet."
Horst tried other sports at Des Lacs-Burlington. As a freshman, he wrestled. He got hurt. His sophomore and junior seasons, he was a tight end and middle linebacker.
But he never found the success his father had on the gridiron. He got injured both years on the football team before giving the sport up entirely.
"My dad was a football star," Horst said. "He wanted me to be a football player. I was probably the biggest kid in school or one of them and I was that guy that the ball would hit me in the butt on defense because I didn't have my head on a swivel. I was a pretty decent long snapper but it was kinda ugly at times on the football field."
Eventually, Horst's focus shifted to baseball and baseball only.
And while he was certainly performing well, a number of signs suggested Horst would never make the big leagues.
The small towns and harsh winters aren't conducive to long baseball seasons the way they are in the south. While Floridians can play year-round, North Dakota kids are lucky to have a field available for four months in the summer.
That being said, the Midwest isn't completely devoid of talent.
"There is a lot of kids that are kinda hidden," Horst said. "They don't take the time to really go into this area of the country to find talent.
"You just gotta get out here and find them."
At a 2003 game in Sherwood, a Pittsburgh Pirates scout found Horst. He liked what he saw and, sure enough, the Pirates picked Horst in the 34th round of the 2003 amateur draft.
A last-ditch effort
Though Pittsburgh drafted Horst, the Pirates didn't immediately tender him a contract. Instead, they designated him a draft-and-follow.
The draft-and-follow process, since done away with in the 2007 Major League Baseball collective bargaining agreement, basically meant Horst was exclusively Pittsburgh's to evaluate for 51 weeks, but that Horst had no rights to any compensation, no MLB team was allowed to talk to him and no team was even supposed to scout him during the year.
The young pitcher anticipated playing at a Division II program in West Virginia. Those plans changed once he got drafted. In order to stay eligible for draft-and-follow, he had to switch his commitment to a junior college. Horst chose Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Iowa Western Community College.
The Pirates and Horst couldn't come to an agreement during that 51-week period. Pittsburgh picked him again in the 40th round in 2004, but Horst didn't get an offer lucrative enough to sign.
"They just decided my numbers weren't good enough," Horst said. "The competition in the Midwest, to them, wasn't up to their par with my numbers."
In 2006, Horst transferred to Armstrong Atlantic State University, a Division II outfit in Savannah, Ga. Horst liked the fact that his new pitching coach possessed eight years of professional baseball experience.
Calvain Culberson made the leap from Armstrong to the pros and took his career as high as Triple-A before retiring after the 1995 season. In Horst, he saw similar potential.
"He's a big, strong left-hander and was very durable," Culberson said. "He could start, relieve. Had four pitches he could throw for strikes. He was a workhorse bulldog guy."
But that season didn't exactly pan out the way Horst had planned. In short, he couldn't find the strike zone. In 63 innings (14 starts, two relief appearances), Horst walked 43 hitters, threw five wild pitches and had a 4.86 ERA and 1.73 WHIP to his name.
College baseball prospects tend to view their junior seasons as big-money years. Playing well can mean a higher draft pick and a larger signing bonus than seniors, who pretty much have to sign.
It's an ideal scenario, but not one that worked for Jeremy Horst.
"I didn't get any looks," Horst said. "I filled out like 20 papers for teams and thought it was going to happen... Well, nothing happened."
Horst went undrafted and returned to Armstrong for his senior season, a campaign even worse than the year that preceded it.
In 24 relief outings, Horst had a 5.88 ERA, walked 18 in 33 2/3 innings and seemed destined to be undrafted once again.
In a last-ditch effort, Horst attended four tryouts in one day for the New York Mets, the Cincinnati Reds, the then-Florida Marlins and the Minnesota Twins.
Something clicked with Cincinnati, and the Reds made Horst a 21st round draft pick in 2007.
Making the show
Horst spent much of five seasons toiling back and forth from starter to reliever in the minors. He played for seven different teams in six different states before he finally got the news he'd long hoped for.
In 2010, he went to the bullpen almost exclusively and the move paid off immediately. Horst started the season a 24-year-old stuck in Class A baseball. He walked just 18 in 72 innings for three teams that year and ended by pitching 14 1/3 effective innings at Triple-A Louisville.
After similar success with the Bats in 2011, then-manager Rick Sweet gave Horst the call he'd been awaiting.
"(Sweet) came in and was like, 'Who do I got that can throw today?' " Horst said, "and so he started asking the bullpen, 'Can you throw? Can you throw? Horst, can you throw?' I was like, 'Yeah, Coach. I can throw. I can throw every day.' He was like, 'All right, pack your stuff, you can go throw in Atlanta for Cincinnati tomorrow.' "
Horst doesn't forget what happens when he's on a baseball field. Ask him about any at-bat and he'll provide the pitch sequence, the result and what happened next.
So it shouldn't come as a surprise the vivid recollection Horst has of May 28, 2011. It was that day at Turner Field when, in the bottom of the 4th inning, he sprinted out of the bullpen and took his spot on a major league mound for the first time.
Horst's night started with a five-pitch strikeout of Braves center fielder Jordan Schafer. Second baseman Martin Prado followed with a pop-up to second on a 1-2 count.
Suddenly Horst was facing future Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones with a chance to retire the top of Atlanta's lineup in order.
"It might sound silly, but I didn't even realize I was facing Chipper until about three pitches in," Horst said.
Horst started Jones with a called strike and a foul ball before missing the zone and going 1-2. It was at this point that Horst recognized the caliber of his opponent.
"When I realized it was him I was like, 'I got a chance to go after him,' " Horst said. "I threw a slider that kinda hung and at the last second broke in on him. I think it surprised him and he just threw his helmet down and was like, 'What in the heck was that?' I don't know if that was 'cause it was a good pitch or a bad pitch but it was good when I got back to the dugout and took a deep breath and got ready to go back out."
But before Horst could go back to the mound, he stepped up to the plate against right-handed Braves reliever Cristhian Martinez. Finally, Horst - who once hit a game-winning grand slam for DL-B in the high school state playoffs - had his chance to hit.
To date, the matchup is Horst's only big-league plate appearance. With two outs and Jonny Gomes taking his lead off second, Horst had a chance to break a 6-6 tie.
He did just that.
"(Martinez) threw me a 2-2 changeup," Horst said. "I don't know why he did that. His changeup, it was really easy to see. So he threw that and I just kinda stayed on it and pulled it through. ... I can brag. A thousand batting average, just don't look at my number of (at-bats)."
That lead lasted five pitches into the bottom of the fifth. After Horst hung two sliders that resulted in a swinging strike and a foul ball, Braves catcher Brian McCann launched the third breaking ball over the right-field fence.
"I was kinda upset and at the same time, it's like you can't make mistakes," Horst said. "A lot of those guys are waiting for one pitch and he was waiting for it."
The outing was a fairly successful debut. Horst finished pitching 2 2/3 innings, surrending just two hits while striking out four. It was the start, Horst hoped, to a long career with Cincinnati.
Horst made three trips to the bigs in 2011. He posted a 2.93 ERA, struck out nine hitters in 15 1/3 innings and had every reason to think he'd start the next season where he finished the last.
That didn't happen.
That winter, Cincinnati traded Horst to Philadelphia for utility player Wilson Valdez. That meant another move and another fan base for Horst to acquaint himself to.
But Horst wasn't daunted.
"Who's this lefty that we've got coming? Who is he?" Horst said of the initial reactions to the trade. "And every year of my career it's always been like that. 'Who's this kid?' until I start doing well. I knew I had to go in and make an impression and I told Ruben Amaro Jr., the general manager, I said, 'Well, I'm going to see you up here later this summer.' "
Horst made good on his word, earning a call-up from Triple-A Lehigh Valley after 26 appearances.
The Phillies struggled and ultimately missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006. But Horst was a model of consistency. Horst allowed earned runs in just four of his 32 outings and never surrendered more than one in an outing.
If there was ever a time to be complacent, now would be that time. But Horst's roller-coaster career won't allow him to rest on his laurels.
"I don't think I'll ever be there," Horst said. "I've been up with Cincinnati and I thought I was on top of the world. I'm going to have a job, I did pretty good. Then, next thing you know, 'We're going to take you off the roster.' Well, that stinks. Then a month later, 'Oh, we're going to trade you.' ... That's something I tell a lot of the guys. You can't get comfortable because it will all be taken away tomorrow. I have to go in every day, you gotta compete. Every single day."
Horst still has goals to accomplish. He'd like to pitch in Colorado again, where balls carry but his pitches don't (just three career home runs allowed, despite pitching for two teams with notable hitter-friendly parks). He'd enjoy the historical mystique that comes of playing at Yankee Stadium (even the new one) and pitching at Minnesota's Target Field would allow his North Dakota friends to see him play.
If he continues to pitch well in Philadelphia, maybe he'll get to stick in one place long enough to see all of those goals play out.