There were big plans afoot in Loranger, La., a couple years back. Word around town was that a Subway sandwich shop was going to open soon. This was news. "It's a small town of about 4,000 people," Wade Miley said of his home. "There's a whole lot of nothing. Just a grocery store, a gas station and a school. That's about it. There's no stoplights, no stop signs. We do have a caution light, but that's it. No chain restaurants."
And no, no Subway. That hot rumor went as stale as week-old wheat bread. "No Subway yet," Miley said, a bit dejected. But while the good people of Loranger still have to make the 12-mile trek to Hammond, La., to find a Subway or a McDonald's or a Walmart, they do have a profound point of pride in the 25-year-old Miley. He might not have the star power of a Bryce Harper, but if the season ended today, he would be the presumptive favorite for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Miley had a rough day against Harper's Nationals over the weekend, but that was just his sixth non-quality start in 20 tries. For the season, Miley is 12-8 with a 3.02 ERA that ranks ninth among NL starters, a WHIP (1.12) that ranks eighth and an opponents' OPS (.669) that ranks 15th. His surprising success has been a big boost to a D-backs club still very much alive in the NL West, and his performance down the stretch will be huge for their hopes. Obviously, there is nothing huge about Miley's hometown. But his humble upbringing undoubtedly helped form an endearing personality that has made him a hit with his teammates. There is no brashness or bravado to the man who has become the D-backs' unexpected ace, and unlike prized prospect Trevor Bauer, he attracts no attention with an odd pregame routine or fledgling rap career. He's just Wade. And that's enough. "He's a big part of this clubhouse," closer J.J. Putz said. It was Putz who initiated the now-famous "Words with Wade" game in the D-backs' daily Spring Training meetings. Miley would be given a word and be required to spell it, define it and use it in a sentence, in front of all his teammates. The words were difficult, and Miley's ill-fated attempts to figure them out were, according to those in the room, hysterical. "I think one of the words was 'Schadenfreude,'" Miley said, shaking his head. "I never want to use that word again. I don't even remember what it means, and I definitely don't know how to spell it." "Schadenfreude" is a German word meaning "finding pleasure from the misfortune of others." And sure, maybe you could say Miley's teammates were experiencing a little bit of "Schadenfreude" through Miley's vocabulary limits. Or when Putz would stealthily place a bubble gum bubble atop Miley's cap during spring workouts without the pitcher knowing or noticing. Or when word got around that Miley asked a hotel clerk how long a cab ride to Alcatraz would take ... even though the club was in San Diego, not San Francisco. But Miley has been a great sport about everything and is, in fact, happy to help keep the mood light in the D-backs' clubhouse. And though Miley might not know how to spell "Schadenfreude," he insists there's more to him than meets the eye. "Me being from Louisiana," Miley said, "I think they think I'm some backwoods dummy. But I think I'm pretty smart." Miley has certainly demonstrated his intelligence on the mound, learning how to get the most out of his slider and two-seamer to hold opposing batters to a .246 average. The slider has become a particularly effective weapon for him. According to FanGraphs, Miley is throwing it about three mph faster than he did during his initial big league break-in last season, and he's getting more swinging strikes out of the strike zone with it than with any other pitch. Miley credits teammate Paul Goldschmidt, who had faced Miley in college and encouraged him to throw the harder slider that he used to throw back then, with giving him the idea to experiment with that pitch. But Miley says the velocity would mean nothing without the improved command he has shown. "Even when the slider was slower, I wasn't executing it well, I wasn't locating it well," Miley said. "And I don't know if me throwing it harder has helped with that, but any time you execute and locate your pitches down in the zone, you're going to have success with them. I was hanging the slower slider and getting tattooed. If I was hanging the harder slider, it would get tattooed, too. If you leave something up and over, it's going to get hit." Pitching coach Charles Nagy and Miley's more veteran teammates have helped him learn not to be too picky or finicky on the hill. "Hitters hit mistakes," Miley said. "They hit their pitch. When I first came up last year, I was so worried about not throwing that pitch that I wasn't able to have as much success as I'd like. I was not scared, but I wasn't throwing as many strikes. Now I'm able to challenge guys and just throw strikes. It comes down to trusting your stuff and staying in your game plan, rather than adjusting to theirs." Miley's in-game adjustments are what stand out to Putz. "His efficiency stands out," Putz said. "There are some starts where he has about 50 pitches in the second or third inning, and you're thinking, 'All right, hopefully he can get through five.' Next thing you know, it's the eighth inning, and he's still in there." That the D-backs are still in the race in a season in which Ian Kennedy and Trevor Cahill struggled to find consistency for much of the first half and Daniel Hudson was lost first to a shoulder impingement and then Tommy John surgery is largely a credit to Miley. He wasn't even expected to be on the Opening Day roster, but a late-spring injury to Takashi Saito thrust him into the bullpen and Josh Collmenter's struggles thrust him into the rotation. Now, he's the presumptive NL Rookie of the Year Award winner. And a small Louisiana town that once eagerly looked forward to a Subway shop that never came now has new plans in place: A sign that will read, "LORANGER: HOME OF WADE MILEY."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.