Over the last year, Tip Fairchild’s promising baseball career seemed to take a 180-degree turn after an arm injury first sidelined him, then led to his release by the Houston Astros.

In the last week, Fairchild has come nearly full circle.

The former Monmouth Academy and University of Southern Maine star is back in the Houston Astros’ farm system. The Astros purchased Fairchild’s contract from the Somerset (N.J.) Patriots of the independent Atlantic League on July 22 and assigned him to their advanced Class A affiliate in the California League, the Lancaster JetHawks.

“It’s a different league, that’s for sure. But it’s good to be back,”  Fairchild said via phone Wednesday from Lancaster.

Fairchild made his Lancaster debut Monday, going 6 1/3 innings as a starter and allowing five runs on nine hits. He struck out five and didn’t walk a batter in a no-decision.

The Astros released Fairchild, their 12th round draft choice in 2005, last April. The right-handed pitcher appeared to be on a fast track to the majors, advancing to Double-A before suffering an elbow injury early in the 2007 season and underwent Tommy John surgery to replace a ligament in his right elbow. He missed the rest of that season but in 2008 returned to Double-A Corpus Christi, where he struggled to a 2-8 record with an 8.80 ERA.   

Shortly after his release from the Astros, the 25-year-old signed with Somerset. He started the season in the bullpen but worked his way into the starting rotation for four starts prior to signing with the Astros. In 23 innings as a starter, he was 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA and 4-2 in 23 games overall with a 4.27 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings.

While several other teams began to express interest once he became a starter, Fairchild admitted being a bit surprised that the team that released him was first in line to sign him again.

“I feel like I pitched well enough in the Atlantic League to get signed by somebody and it just happened to be the same team that drafted me,” he said. “I would have guessed every other team would have brought me in before Houston brought me back. But they knew I was getting healthy and my fastball was kind of back. If I’m back to where I was before surgery, that’s the pitcher that they wanted.”

“As soon as I started throwing my three pitches (fastball, curve and sinker) again, then teams started looking again,” he said. “I’m not sure if Houston even had anybody see me throw. They may have just had the report  and said, ‘He’s throwing well and we need some pitching help, so let’s bring him back in.'”

In his first outing for the JetHawks, Fairchild gave up three home runs, which is pretty much par for the course in the California League. Calling it a hitter’s league would be an understatement. It is notorious for its thin air and high winds that carry pop flies over the fence.

Lancaster, which until this year was an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, has had a couple of games postponed due to wind this season, Fairchild said. 

“Our field and the field we just played at (High Desert) are probably the two most hitter-friendly places in the country,” he said. “I learned that my first start. I actually threw the ball really well. I gave up three home runs on change-ups that guys popped up and out of the park. When they evaluate you here, it’s more along the lines of how you pitch than looking at your numbers. I think High Desert has five guys with 20-plus home runs.”

The Astros have had a lot of pitcher movement throughout their organization in recent weeks and still have a number of holes to fill, so Lancaster may not be Fairchild’s final destination.

“Especially with me being a free agent signing, I could get bounced all over the place,” Fairchild said as he watched a television screen showing
one of his former minor league teammates, Bud Norris, make his Major
League debut for the Astros in Wrigley Field. “One thing I’ve learned is you’ve got to pack light because you never know where you could be going.”

Fairchild, who is scheduled to start again on Saturday, hopes to stick with the Houston organization but has received no guarantees from the Astros. Even if he isn’t in their long-term plans, he believes he pitched well enough in independent ball and drew enough interest to get a spring training invite next year from somebody.

“One thing I learned (in Somerset) was to get my confidence back,” he said. “Pitching with confidence is big, especially facing some of the lineups I was facing there. There are tons of big-leaguers in that league and I knew that if I could get some of those lineups out, then I could go get anybody out.”

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