The Reality of “Our” Players: Crawdads past and present major pieces in recent trades

Yesterday, two of “our” own players from the Hickory Crawdads were suddenly taken from us. Hickory Crawdads pitchers Erik Swanson and Dillon Tate were a part of a trade in which the parent club Texas Rangers acquired slugger Carlos Beltran from the New York Yankees.

For many Rangers fans, it is a time to get excited about what Beltran can bring to the lineup at Arlington. For many Crawdads fans, their hearts have been stomped.

We don’t see many trades at the low-A level. When pitcher Matt Ball came here in May after a trade with the White Sox, it was the first time a player came to Hickory via a trade since 2008 – the final season of the Pittsburgh Pirates affiliation. As far as sending a player away, that hadn’t happened since 2013 when C.J. Edwards went to the Chicago Cubs. Prior to that, it had been since 2009 when Matt Nevarez left the Crawdads in a trade that brought Pudge Rodriguez back to Texas.

At this level, we know we are going to bid farewell to “our” players in due course. It may happen in a few days, or a couple of years. We certainly hope that when “our” players leave that it is to move up the ladder – to get one step close to their own major league dreams. Of course, at times they leave after being waived and that dream ends.

We often have this fantasy of “our” players moving up to the major league level with the parent club. The joy of seeing in a Texas Rangers uniform Rougned Odor and Joey Gallo and Nomar Mazara and Martin Perez and Hanser Alberto and Ryan Rua and Jurickson Profar is a genuine joy for those of us in Hickory who knew them when. We have this Elysian hope that “our” players will continue to play together always and do so for Texas. It’s like hoping your neighborhood kids will grow up together and always remain friends. The reality is that most of those kids move away from home and rarely keep in touch. The same is true in baseball – minor league teams rarely play together in the big leagues.

Our hope was to see Swanson and Tate, as well as Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz – former Crawdads involved in another trade that moved those players into the Milwaukee Brewers chain – in those Texas Rangers uniforms taking the field in Arlington. However, if you ask those four players about their major league dreams, the name on the front of the uniform won’t matter to them – Braves, Brewers, Yankees, Blue Jays, Cardinals, etc. They are chasing the dream of a major league career. It matters not in which multi-tiered stadium that takes place. As minor league fans, we have to remember that.

They are “our” players, but in reality they are not. The name on the front of the jersey says Hickory, but the big red T on the patch located on the sleeve reminds us they belong to another. The Rangers pay the salaries and we have to remember that the minor leagues exist solely to help bring the major league club a championship. As hard as it is, sometimes that involves sending “our” players elsewhere.

However, for those who follow minor league teams – especially for us in Hickory –we gain an attachment during the time they are here. They are “our” players. It’s not just because “Crawdads” is on the front of the jersey with the letter “H” on the cap standing for our hometown of Hickory. At this level, they become part of us – of our community, and in some cases, part of our families. We have a different kind of access to these guys that those in the major league community do not. We celebrate their successes after a game, and share in the struggles and offer encouragement. We meet their families and welcome them to Hickory when they visit and roll out the welcome mat to our town.

So, while Rangers fans celebrate, we here in Hickory are in a bit of shock – for two of “our” own are leaving us for another team. (It could get really weird in a couple of weeks when Charleston (S.C.) visits L.P. Frans, as it is rumored that both Tate and Swanson will be assigned to the River Dogs.) But while the reality that “our” players will always leave, there is another reality present: Swanson and Tate and Brinson and Ortiz and Travis Demeritte and Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams and Edwards and everyone else who donned a red claw on their cap will be “ours”.

We look forward to following their careers all the way to the majors.

Trouble on the Homefront: Crawdads struggles at L.P. Frans hampers team success

When the Hickory Crawdads sprinted out to a 26-12 record in mid-May – the 14 games over .500 is currently the high-water mark of the 2016 season – much of that was on the back of a stellar start at home during which the team went 12-5 through May 14.

The next day, Hickory lost a 19-inning contest 9-2 to Rome (Ga.) and the squad has been in  a free fall at home, going 10-20. Since taking three out of four from Lexington (Ky.) to end April and begin May, over their last nine home series Hickory has lost five and tied four others.

Conversely, the Crawdads (54-47 overall) currently have the best road record in the South Atlantic League at 32-22. Hickory returns home tonight (Thursday, July 28) on the heels of a 4-2 road trip at Delmarva (Md.) and Lakewood (N.J.).

“Actually, Me and Matos were talking about that the other day about our record on the road is better than our record at home,” said Crawdads manager Steve Mintz in an interview I had with him at the end of the last home stand. “Most of the time, anywhere you’re at, that’s different. I really don’t know.”

Looking at the home-road split for the Crawdads as a team, the lineup has struggled to take advantage of the comforts of L.P. Frans Stadium, which is considered a park that is friendly to hitters. As a team, the Crawdads have slugged just 29 homers over 47 homes games, compared to 38 over 54 road games.  On the road, the team has 154 extra-base hits to just 104 at home. The home slash is .247/.317/.357 compared to .252/.322/387 away from L.P. Frans Stadium.

While the offense hasn’t taken advantage of its home park, the friendly hitting confines have taken a bite out of the pitching staff numbers. SAL hitters have bashed the Crawdads hurlers to a .265 average at home, .258 on the road. One number that jumps out is homers allowed – 42 at home to just 27 on the road. Six of the eight shutouts tossed by Hickory this season have come at road ballparks.

One thing to consider is that home teams generally do their development work at home. Major league clubs send their rovers to Hickory during home stands in order to put the time in to help players with a particular skill, etc. While Mintz says that while the work could have an effect, it’s work that has to be done.

“Hopefully, it’s going to pan out by the end of the year,” said Mintz. “We want these guys to be better. Honestly, we’d love to win, but first and foremost, we’ve got to teach these guys how to play it right. With the young group that we’ve got, that’s a big chore that’s we’ve got here. We’re up for it, but I can’t answer the home and away thing.”

The Crawdads open tonight’s homestand with a four-game series against Hagerstown (Md.), followed by a three-game set against Delmarva. For several reasons, the upcoming seven games could have a bearing on the Crawdads playoff chances.

The Crawdads open the series with the Suns in fourth place, but only 2.5 games behind Hagerstown in the Northern Division’s second-half standings. Hagerstown already clinched a  playoff spot by winning the first half and should it win the second half, the team with the next best overall record would claim a wildcard spot. In that race, Hickory is two games behind Greensboro and one behind Delmarva.

After this home stand, the Crawdads will have just a few chances to take care of business themselves, as Hickory will have just eight games left against Northern Division foes – all on the road. Four of those games are at Greensboro.

 

Payano celebration by Crystal Lin

Victory celebrations at home have been few and far between since mid-May, as the Crawdads are 10-20 at L.P. Frans Stadium since a 12-5 start

 

The Curious Case of Dillon Tate

Hickory Crawdad pitcher Dillon Tate is experiencing what nearly every minor leaguer goes through: a slump. The number four pick overall by the Texas Rangers in the June 2015 draft has looked mortal after a quick start this season.

A hamstring injury seems to have separated the two worlds that has been Tate this season. After allowing one unearned run over his first two starts and striking out sixteen to just one walk over 10.2 innings, Tate retuned three weeks later a different pitcher with different results. Over his last 13 outings (12 starts), Tate has given up 32 earned runs over 44 innings with 34 Ks to 21 walks. The South Atlantic League hit .390 against him in May and is at a .326 clip in July.

Scouts I’ve talked to say Tate’s mechanics are a mess. The velocity that was 96-98 mph is down as low as 91-92 when he is struggling. The high, Juan Marichal-like leg kick is gone from his delivery and it’s been a process of finding a consistent, repeatable motion. There are moments we see the brilliant stuff and then the next inning it falls flat.

To his credit, Tate is not flustered. He understands there is a process to go through to get things right again and is confident it will happen.

I had a chance to talk with Tate after his last start against Lakewood on Thursday. Here is that conversation.

Dillon Tate July 1

Dillon Tate in a game July 1 vs. Kannapolis (photo courtesy of Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

I want to talk to you about the last couple of months. You started well and then had the hamstring injury and it’s been a work in progress to get back to where you were before that. Take me through your last couple of months and the process of getting back to where you were earlier this year and when you came here last year.

Tate: Recently, I’ve just been scuffling and just battling out there and working on things in between starts. I’m trying to get some angle on my fastball to try to help me out. The organization has been helping me out to do that and giving me some things. I’ve been doing it well other times, sometimes not so much. It’s one of those things that you just need to get reps at it until it becomes an actual habit for you. I’m just going to keep going out there and battling and keep working on what I need to work on.

We’ll notice, for example you started well last night. You were and 94-95 in the first and hitting spots. Then we could watch the velocity come down. Is there a fine line with what you’re working on that your successful verses not being as successful?

Tate: I think, as of late, it’s been me trying to do multiple things out on the mound, instead of focusing on one thing that I need to do. So, I think that’s probably been the root of it, for some of it, I should say – not all of it. Simplicity is probably best for me at this point in time. So, just really focusing on working on one thing out there, rather than trying to do three or four different things right now.

So give me a couple of the things you are working on. Maybe at the top of the list the main thing and then maybe a 1A, 1B, 1C sort of thing.

Tate: There’s probably not even a 1A, 1B, 1C to it. I think the headline of it all is to keep the ball down. And then, how are you going to keep the ball down, etc. How are you going to keep it down and doing the things that I need to do to keep the ball down to make it a habit. I think that’ll come within time. This is just part of the minor league process. Everybody’s got a different journey, and this, right now, is mine. I’m going to roll with it, learn from it and keep going.

We notice the leg kick isn’t quite as high as it was when you got here. Is that something the Rangers had you work on or is that something you picked up on. Mechanically, is that part of the whole picture?

Tate: They talked about it a little bit. It was one of things where it’s so extreme that it can throw me off at times with certain pitches. At the end of the day, when you’re up there on the mound, to be successful, consistency is the key. To be consistent, you’ve got to repeat the same thing over and over again. Having that leg kick to be toned down a little bit will help me be more consistent. So, I think that’s all it is.

Saw a couple of curveballs last night? Is that new?

Tate: I threw a few curve balls. It was a pitch that I’ve had; I’ve just never really thrown it. The organization wants me to bring it back, so I’m working on it again and trying to bring it back.

One of the things you were working on – it was at the top of the checklist when you and I talked at the beginning of the season – was the changeup. How do you feel that pitch is working for you?

Tate: I’ve thrown some good ones and I’ve thrown a handful of not so good ones. It’s a feel pitch and some days it’s really good when I’m out here, and other days, like yesterday, not so much. I’m really just trying to focus in on that one thing that’ll make me throw that pitch over the zone and be more consistent with it. When I find it, I’ll hit my stride.

When you get into a rough patch, does it get to the point where you try to do too much to where you try to overthrow and pitches flatten out? You mentioned that you’re trying to do three and four things at once. Is that a part of that process?

Tate: I think so. There’s just a lot of information coming and I need to do a better of sifting through the information and just getting just one piece of information at a time. Work on this and then get that down. Then I’ll a work on this, instead of trying to take it all at one time and master it all. It’s just too tough to do.

When you’re on mechanically, what has to happen for you?

Tate: I think for starters, you’re not thinking about anything, for one. I think that’s for anybody when things are going well. Then to get down to the logistics of it, I think, me not leaning back. When you see the really high leg kick and how it was last year and how it is now, I’m not leaning back as much. So that’s going to help me stay over the rubber a little bit better and I’ll be able to better control my body better. That’s just one thing. There’s others things that go in there, too: hand and when they separate, head movement, things like that.

Has then been much more of a mental process than you thought it would be at this point, even last year?

Tate: Certainly, because last year, I’d just go out there and pitch and throw and I’m not thinking about anything. But now, there’s some things that need to be addressed and I’ve got to go out there and work on them. I’m definitely thinking about those things. So, that makes it a little tough. But, I think if anything that I’ve learned anything from this year is how to turn the page when things aren’t going well. That’s what you’ve got to do at the big league level and that’s something I’m learning how to do now. So, there is are positive things that are coming out of this.

Forbes HR fortune leads Crawdads Victory

Ti’Quan Forbes lined a solo homer in the sixth and a pair of relief pitchers spun five shutout innings to give the Hickory Crawdads a 4-3 win over the Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws Thursday night at L.P. Frans Stadium.

With the win, Hickory (48-43 overall, 10-11 second half) salvaged the final contest of a three-game series with their South Atlantic League Northern Division rival and snapped a four-game home losing streak. Lakewood (39-51, 11-10) had won the first two games of the series and the loss interrupts a stretch in which the BlueClaws had won six of their last seven.

The Crawdads will begin the back half of the two-team homestand on Friday as they host the West Virginia Power in a four-game series.

After Hickory’s Dillon Tate and Lakewood’s Jose Taveras breezed through the first inning, both hand trouble keeping the opposing lineups in check during their remaining tenures on the hill.

The BlueClaws struck first in the second. Damek Tomscha singled to left to open the inning. One out later, Wilson Garcia sneaked a groundball through the right side before Deivi Grullon singled in Tomscha. Tate held Lakewood at bay from inflicting further damage as he got Grenny Cumana and Brendon Hayden to ground out.

Hickory answered in the bottom of the inning, as Josh Altmann doubled and scored on Tyler Sanchez’s bloop single to left-center.

Lakewood countered in the third when Tomscha’s sacrifice fly scored Zack Coppola. Sherman Lacrus quickly brought the Crawdads even again to start the bottom of the inning when he homered to left-center – his first of the season.

Grullon cracked his third homer (6) against the Crawdads in as many games in the series to put the BlueClaws up again 3-2 in the fourth. Lakewood put two other runners aboard in the inning, but Tate worked out of the inning by getting Josh Tobias to foul out to Forbes along the dugout at third.

A Lakewood error got the Crawdads even again in the fifth. With two outs, Frandy De La Rosa singled and moved to third on Dylan Moore’s bloop single to right. With Josh Altmann at the plate, BlueClaws catcher Grullon attempted a pickoff of Moore at first. First baseman Wilson Garcia allowed the throw to trickle away, which allowed De La Rosa to scamper to the plate with the tying run.

In the sixth, Forbes lined a fastball from Ismael Cabrera (0-1) just over the wall in left-center, which turned out to be the final margin of the game. That single-run margin, however, was not without peril. After Joe Palumbo (6-3) was relatively untouched from the fifth through the seventh innings, the BlueClaws threatened after one out in the eighth. Brandon Hayden walked and Zack Coppola placed a single into shallow left field.

Manager Steve Mintz brought in Garrett Brummett to replace Palumbo. Cornelius Randolph greeted Brummett with a sharp single to right that loaded the bases.

Brummett got Josh Tobias to pop up to De La Rosa at second and Tomscha followed with a popup in front of home plate. With a quartet surrounding the play, it took a diving play by first baseman Altmann to complete the out and hold the BlueClaws scoreless.

From there, Brummett retired the side in order in the ninth for his first pro save.

Game story July 13: Lakewood survives heat, Crawdads rally

After the Hickory Crawdads tied the game in the ninth, the Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws struck for three runs in the 11th to take a 6-3 win on a hot, muggy Wednesday afternoon at L.P. Frans Stadium.

The win was the second straight by Lakewood (39-50 overall, 11-9 second half) at Hickory and overall their sixth out of the last seven games.

Hickory (47-43, 9-11) dropped to 19-23 at home this season and lost its fourth straight at home. The Crawdads are assured of continuing a drought in which they have not won a home series since taking three of four vs. Lexington (Ky.) from April 29 to May 2. Since that time, the Crawdads have lost six series and tied two others (9-19 overall).

As they did in game one of the series on Monday, the Crawdads took the early lead in the second. Ti’Quan Forbes tripled just past the dive of Jose Pujols in right to score Josh Altmann, who had singled and stole second earlier.

Lakewood rebounded with a two-out rally in the fourth as Damek Tomscha singled and Pujols followed with a two-run blast to right, his South Atlantic League leading 17th of the season.

Both starting pitchers held the opposing lineups from wreaking further damage through five innings. Lakewood’s Franklyn Kilome allowed three hits and two walks, and struck out seven. His counterpart Wes Benjamin gave up five hits to go with his two runs allowed and struck out five.

BlueClaws reliever Skylar Hunter contributed to his downfall in the sixth as an errant pickoff attempt of Frandy De La Rosa at first skipped into foul territory in right field. De La Rosa moved to third and scored when Tyler Sanchez singled to left.

A controversial play led directly to a run for Lakewood in the seventh inning. With runners at first and second and two outs, Zack Coppola singled on what looked to be a routine grounder to second. Frandy De La Rosa charged the ball and as he entered the baseline between first and second, the runner, Edgar Cabral, ran into De La Rosa, knocking De La Rosa flat and sending the glove high into the air. Cabral was ruled safe at second with Wilson Garcia scoring on the play from second. De La Rosa remained in the game, but Cabral was taken out after struggling to run to third.

Crawdads manager Steve Mintz argued the call and was eventually ejected from the game.

The score remained 3-2 until two outs in the ninth. Forbes singled and scored all the way from first when Pujols mishandled a bloop single into right by Yeyson Yrizarri.

Emerson Martinez (0-2) entered the game for Hickory in the 11th and immediately walked Pujols. A sacrifice moved him to second before Martinez got Duran to bounce to short. After a wild pitch, Grenny Cumana singled in Pujols and then scored on Deivi Grullon’s second homer in as many games.

Jeff Springer struck out two of the three batters he faced to close out his three-inning relief outing and pick up the win (1-0).

Crawdads leave ducks on the pond:

As has been the case much of the year, the Crawdads missed several opportunities to add runs to their ledger and finished the game 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position.

A couple of stout defensive plays contributed to Hickory’s woes. Though Altmann eventually scored from third in the second, Ricky Valencia missed an RBI when second baseman Josh Tobias, who was playing in to cut off the runner at third from scoring, made a diving stab of a sharp grounder to hold Altmann and retire Valencia.

With Forbes at third, the Crawdads had a chance to take the lead in the seventh, Eric Jenkins chopped a ball to the left of the mound. Third baseman Damek Tomscha made a hard-charging play to the ball and short armed a quick throw to first to barely catch the speedy Jenkins and end the inning.

Otherwise, the Crawdads flailed away at the plate and that cost them a scoring chance in the fourth. Dylan Moore and Altmann walked to start the inning and moved up to second and third on Kilome’s wild pitch. With his fastball command perilous at times, Kilome turned to the slider to get Tyler Sanchez, Valencia and Forbes on strikeouts.

Altmann again whiffed in the sixth with a runner at third in the sixth, though De La Rosa did eventually score in the inning.

For the season with runners in scoring position, the Crawdads collectively have a slash of .239/.316/.343. With the bases loaded, it is .183/.243/.267.

Forbes fortunes continue at third:

What is becoming routine this season, Forbes showed off the leather with a couple more quick grabs of short hops in the game, including perhaps his best of the season in the tenth. On a sharp grounder by Tomscha, Forbes made a sprawling backhand pick of a short hop. Then seated with his right leg bent behind him, Forbes got enough on a throw across the diamond to get Tomscha by a step.

Benjamin money:

Wes Benjamin continued a steady progression through the 2016 season on Wednesday night. Coming off Tommy John surgery, the goal was to steer the lefty through good health and thus far it is working. Of his 12 starts, Benjamin has completed five or more innings in ten of them. In those ten starts, he has given up more than three runs just once and has walked more than one batter in just two of his 15 overall appearances (13 walks overall in 71 innings)

Benjamin is a guy that spots his fastball (90-91) well around the strike zone. He’ll mix in a change and a curve for show and used both to good effect today. Benjamin was especially tough in a couple of long battles with Phillies No. 5 (mlb.com) prospect Cornelius Randolph, who fouled off several pitches in both appearances against Benjamin. After Benjamin spun a high-and-tight fastball to the lefty in the first, he spotted a 92 mph pitch on the corner at the knees to get the out. In the third, it was a change on the inside corner that got the job done for a caught looking K.

Benjamin has 26 Ks over his last 20.1 innings of work.

Martinez a one-trick pony:

Emerson Martinez had his second tough outing in a row in a win/lose situation and has been tagged for the loss in both.

On Saturday at Rome (Ga.), it was two walks and two wild pitches that led to two runs scored in the ninth for a Braves walkoff win. On Wednesday afternoon, it was the inability to throw the curve for strikes that did him in. By my count, all five of them were well out of the strike zone, staying up and well to the 3B corner side of the plate. With that info in hand, the BlueClaws hitters were able to pick out a fastball to their liking and went to the attack. Cumana’s RBI single and Grullon’s homer were both on fastballs down the middle.

Moore joins the club:

Dylan Moore stole his 30th base of the season when he swiped second in the fourth inning. He joins teammate Eric Jenkins in the 30-steal club, as the outfielder already has 39. The two become the sixth duo in club history to steal 30 or more in a season, the first since Odubel Herrera (34) and Christian Villanueva (32) turned the trick in 2011.

Yrizarri stays hot:

Yeyson Yrizarri had two more hits on Wednesday and he now has multi-hit games in six straight (11-for-22). Currently in the midst of a seven-game hitting streak, the 19-year-old has 11 RBI and 0 strikeouts in that span.

Looking Back: 1993 Crawdads C Chris Tremie

Chris Tremie a catcher on the inaugural 1993 Hickory Crawdads squad, holds a unique place in the team’s history. On July 1, 1995, the former Hickory backstop became the first Crawdad to go on to the major leagues when the Chicago White Sox called him up from AAA Nashville.

The native of Houston, Texas went on to have brief major league stints with the White Sox, Rangers, Pirates and finally the Astros before calling it quits after the 2005 season.

Tremie then signed on with the Cleveland Indians minor league system to begin his coaching career in 2006 as the hitting coach at short-season Mahoning Valley. His first managerial gig came the next season with then South Atlantic League rival Lake County (Ohio), which brought Tremie back to Hickory for the first time since 1993.

After he led Akron (AA) to the Eastern League title in 2012, Tremie, 46 moved up to manager at AAA Columbus and he is in his fourth season as the Clippers manager. Under his leadership, the Clippers made the playoffs the last two seasons and won the International League championship in 2015.

With his club in pursuit of another playoff spot this season, Tremie was named the manager of the International League team for the Triple A All-Star Game, which will be played tonight (July 13) in Charlotte.

I had a chance during the all-star workout in Charlotte to speak with Tremie about his memories of Hickory in the early days, as well as about his current success with the Clippers.

You were on the original 1993 Crawdads team, looking back 23 years ago, what do you remember about that season?

Tremie: It was a great experience for me. It was my first full season of professional baseball. Hickory was a brand new stadium, a very nice stadium. It wasn’t quite done when we got there, so that’s one of the memories I had. We didn’t have a locker room right at the beginning of the season, but it came in a little bit later. Just a lot of good memories and the town and the people that were there, and also the fans that came out.

One of the highlights of that season was the fan base with a lot of sold out games. I’m guessing the town was pretty well taken with the new club and baseball coming to town.

Tremie: They seemed to be really excited there. Like I said, it was my first professional season. At the time, I didn’t really know what to expect, kind of going into it new. Now, after being around, both managing and playing for a while, it was pretty special being there. Fans were really excited, the people in town were really nice when we were around and if they noticed us. They opened their arms to us as players and as a team in that city. It was good.

You got to play with Magglio Ordonez, who was there the first couple of years. What do you remember about playing with him at 18, 19?

Tremie: He was young, as you mentioned – 18, 19 years old – extremely talented. It was fun watching him play, even at that age and at that experience level. We knew he was going to be good in the future and obviously that rung true and he had a great career. It was a time I got to be around him when he was just a kid starting out. It was great to watch his career as the years went on.

You got to play for Fred Kendall, who had a long career both as a player and has a coach and manager. How did that come together for you, as far as looking ahead to your career as a manager and such?

Tremie: A good experience. He had been around a lot of experiences and Mark Salas was there as well throughout the early part of my career. Both of those guys taught me a lot. Things that I remember from those times I actually still use today, sometimes. I’ve very grateful for those experiences.

Best memory from 1993, or maybe a funny memory.

Tremie: Probably, my first professional home run, I hit in Hickory that year. I was really struggling at the plate at them time. That probably sticks out as one of the highlights. But also, being around the guys and dressing in the trailers for the first month was kind of funny. But we got it done. The facilities came along and finished up and they were really nice. I have nothing but good things to say about Hickory.

You were the first Crawdad to get to the major leagues. I don’t know if you remember that, or not. What was that experience like when you were called up?

Tremie: I didn’t know that. It was just like any other person that goes up for the first time. I was very excited but a little surprised at the time when it happened. I was not expecting it at that point in my career, given the kind of season I was having. Very exciting.

You got to come back as a manager to Hickory when you were with Lake County in 2007. What was it like coming back as a manager?

Tremie: It’s kind of funny. It was good memories, going to the ballpark and remembering what it was like when I was a player, and then going back there 14 years later. It was my first year managing, too. So, it’s kind of ironic that first year playing and the first year managing I was able to go to that ballpark.

Now, you’ve been with Columbus four years now and won the International League title last year. Describe what that experience has been like for you?

Tremie: First of all, I’m grateful for the players that I’ve been fortunate enough to be around the last few years with the Indians organization. We had a great group of guys that have played hard. It’s been a fun experience, especially at the AAA level all the years I’ve been there. Last year was special in the fact that we ended up winning the league, but the year before that we were in the playoffs and had a really good team, as well. Overall, it’s been a great experience being around quality people and quality players and watching them grow.

Looking ahead, are you looking toward a major league gig for you, or are you of a mindset of taking it as it comes?

Tremie: I just go about doing my job and enjoying myself and enjoying being around these players. I just do what I enjoy doing and whatever happens in the future, that’s what happens. Right now, I just take it day by day.

Game Story July 12: Lakewood Cools Hot Crawdads Bats

The Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws built a five-run lead, then fended off a late charge in claiming a 6-4 win over the Hickory Crawdads Tuesday night at L.P. Frans Stadium in Hickory.

The win by the BlueClaws (39-49 overall, 10-9 second half) – their fifth in six games – was the first in four meetings with the Crawdads (47-42, 9-10) this season. Hickory entered the game on the heels of a 5-2 road trip, but continued its woes at home, dropping to 19-22 at Frans this season.

Behind starter Matt Ball, the Crawdads eked out a 1-0 lead through five innings. The lone run came when Josh Altmann ripped a sharp, one-hop grounder past second baseman Josh Tobias to score Eduard Pinto. Ball allowed four hits and three walks over five shutout innings and struck out five.

Lakewood countered with a strong start by Seranthony Dominguez (1-1), who allowed just the one run on five hits and struck out three.

The BlueClaws took the lead for good against reliever Blake Bass (3-2) in the sixth. Josh Tobias singled to left and moved to third on Damek Tomscha’s double. Wilson Garcia’s grounder to second scored Tobias before Jose Pujols singled in Tomscha to take a 2-1 lead.

Dominguez and reliever Sutter McLoughlin held the Crawdads lineup in check, retiring 13 in a row from the fourth through the eighth.

Lakewood blew the game open in the ninth against John Werner. With one out, Cornelius Randolph doubled and moved to third on a wild pitch. Deivi Grullon then cracked a two-run homer to left to open the lead to 4-1. Tobias later singled in two more for Lakewood’s final runs.

Hickory’s lineup reawakened in the bottom of the ninth to make it a game. Pinto singled and scored on Dylan Moore’s double to left-center. After McLoughlin walked Altmann, Zach Morris entered the game to face Yeyson Yrizarri. Moore and Altmann worked a double steal and then both scored on Yriarri’s single up the middle. Morris then settled down to strike out Chuck Moorman and got the final out of the game when Ricky Valencia lined out to Carlos Duran in the left-centerfield gap.

 

Hot sticks stymied:

The Crawdads entered the game after scoring six or more runs over the past five games, and it appeared they would another to the list after a strong first inning. However, Dominguez settled down and overwhelmed the lineup with a lively, cutting fastball that stayed in the 95-97 mph range. The pitch was especially effective in running into the hands of left-handed hitters, elliciting weak contact. Early on, Dominguez was unable to throw the slider for strikes and dumped the pitch pretty much after the second inning, although he got Chuck Moorman to chase two of them to end the fourth.

Sutter McLoughlin had an effective changeup (83-84) to compliment a 93-94 mph fastball. The ball seemed to jump from the righty after a slow windup and delivery.

 

Pinto continues to smolder:

One day after winning the South Atlantic League’s hitter of the week award (.567/.581/.833) Hickory’s Eduard Pinto continued to hit the ball hard and picked up two hits on the night to extend his hitting streak to nine. In seven of those games, he has two or more hits. Pinto was one of the few hitters to solve the fastball of Dominguez, getting the bat out early to pull it into right for a single in the first.. A  liner to short in the third turned into a double play in the third. Another line out came in the sixth, this one to right. He saw just one offspeed pitch on the night, a changeup which he lined for a single to center in the ninth to start the Crawdads final rally.

Opportunity knocked but thrice:

Hickory missed chances to open up its early lead and it proved to be costly in the game’s ultimate result. On Altmann’s RBI single in the first, Dylan Moore rounded the bag aggressively at third, but manager Steve Mintz decided to hold him at the last moment. Moore slipped and fell trying to stop, then was tagged out trying to retreat to third.

In the second, Hickory led off with an infield hit by Yeyson Yrizarri, who used a grounder and a balk to move to third. With two outs, Connor McKay built a 3-0 count, but eventually struck out.

Eric Jenkins doubled and Frandy De La Rosa walked to start the third. Pinto’s liner to short turned into a double play that erased Jenkins. The play nearly became a triple play, but De La Rosa was able to scamper back to first.

Prevent defense actually works:

Only a no-doubles defense kept pinch-hitter Ricky Valencia from keeping the ninth inning alive, as his hard liner into the LCF gap was taken by Duran, who was playing near the track in center.

Failing to take Ball home:

Matt Ball held steady command in the early going for Hickory. It looked like he held mostly to a (94-96) / slider diet. The slider did much of the dirty work for him, ringing up four Ks, all swinging. A 94 mph was called for a third strike to finish off Zach Coppola in the third.

Ball’s fastball control began to fade in the fourth as he walked a pair of hitters. But after a mound visit, a fastball from Ball broke the bat of Jose Pujols and turned the ensuing weak grounder into a double play.

In the fifth, Lakewood put two on with two outs, the second a walk by Ball of Coppola. However, Duran undercut a hanging slider and weakly flew out to left.

No balm for relief:

Bass had a rough sixth inning, but it didn’t compare to the tough night for Werner in the ninth. Lakewood hitters jumped Bass’ fastball early in the count to start the rally, however, it was a broken bat single by Pujols on a slider that put Lakewood ahead. Bass eventually recorded the final two outs of the inning to keep the Crawdads in the game.

In the ninth, it was Werner’s slider that the BlueClaws attacked effectively, when it crossed the plate. Grullon hammered a hanger for an insurance, two-run homer. Randolph and Emmanuel Marrero also hit the pitch hard for base knocks.

But with all the problems with the slider, it was the demeanor for Werner that was evident. Werner argued that the homer by Grullon was foul – it appeared fair from the press box. A few slight kicks to the rubber and just general body language issues after a walk eventually brought manager Steve Mintz to the mound for a rare non-pitching change visit.

The homer was the sixth allowed by Werner, all of them coming since June 19 (seven appearance, 11.2 innings) when Yermin Mercedes took him deep in the ninth inning of a loss to Delmarva (Md.).

Looking Back: An Interview with Nick Williams

The 2013 Hickory Crawdads were arguably the most talked about team throughout the minor leagues that season. As the years pass by, the talent from that team continues to evolve as arguably the most iconic group to ever take the field at L.P. Frans Stadium.

Already nine players have ascended up the ladder to become major league players with several more likely to join them in the future. One of those from that 2013 team on the cusp of a major league callup is left fielder Nick Williams, currently with AAA Lehigh Valley in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.

Williams joined the Crawdads the next season after the Texas Rangers took him in the second round of the 2012 draft out of Ball High School in Galveston, Tex. Some observers considered Williams as a sure top-round pick. However, a subpar high school senior season dropped him to the Rangers as the 93rd overall selection .

It was that drop that perhaps allowed him to fly under the radar with the 2013 team that had two first round draft picks in Lewis Brinson and Joey Gallo, as well as two mega bonus-baby international free agent signees in Nomar Mazara and Ronald Guzman.

Then 19-years old in his first 140-game marathon season, Williams worked around a pair of injuries to post a .293/.337/.543 slash. He became the first – and still only Crawdads player – to post double-digit totals in doubles (19), triples (12, which is tied for the club record for a season) and homers (17), despite playing in only 95 games. His .543 slugging pct. is the ninth best season in club history among qualifying hitters (378+ plate appearances).

Williams went on to postseason all-star status at class Low-A South Atlantic League (2013), high-A Carolina League (2014) and AA Texas (2015). MiLB.com named him a Rangers organizational all-star the past three seasons and Baseball American tabbed him on its AA All-Star team in 2015.

But with a glut of several developing outfielders in the Rangers upper minor leagues, combined with a chance to get Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels, it was Williams that was included in a blockbuster trade last summer.

Williams has spent the entire 2016 season with Lehigh Valley and he has put up respectable numbers with the Iron Pigs. In 75 games (through July 6), the 22-year-old has a .289/.326/.463 slash with 20 doubles and eight homers. He is currently in the midst of an eight-game hitting streak and has a hit in 19 of his last 20, as well as 26 of the last 29.

In its publication posted on July 7, Baseball Prospectus has Williams as the No. 23 overall prospect in the mid-season rankings. Quite simply, with the Phillies sliding out of the picture in the National League playoff chase, Williams is likely to get a shot at the major leagues soon.

I had a chance recently (ok it was a month ago, and I finally had time to transcribe it) to speak with Williams about the 2013 squad and what he remembers about that group. I also asked him about the trade to the Phillies, as well as looking forward to making that final jump to his dream of being a big leaguer.

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Nick Williams in an April 20 game vs. Charleston (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

 

First of all, you were a part of that killer 2013 team that had Gallo and Brinson and Mazara and (Jorge) Alfaro and just a ton of talent. What was being a part of that team like that season?

Williams: It was amazing, especially being drafted with those guys, playing with them at rookie ball and winning it all, and then going to Hickory the following year and playing our first full season there. It was a lot of fun, especially the young guys hitting all those home runs. It made pro ball seem like, wow!

 

Did you guys at that time realize, I don’t want to say, how good you were, but how good the potential was with all of those individual parts that made up that team?

Williams: Yeah, for sure, because really you’re on this team, I would fully believe it by at least five years. A group of young guys to put up numbers, the crazy sets that we did, we knew something special was going to happen.

 

What was the best part of that season for you personally?

Williams: Playing in the game. I missed a lot. I missed 45 games that year. When we were all healthy, that was the funnest part, because we all had fun. You’d never see us down. We just had fun and picked each other up. We just had a good team bond.

 

Did you guys just sit back and watch each other, especially with Gallo who can hit things to the moon?

Williams: For sure. We made it a competition sometimes just to see who could hit the ball the farthest at that time of day. It was fun. The best part was not just B.P., but showing off the long ball during the game. That was just great, just not being a five o’clock hitter, but doing it during the game. It was fun.

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Nick Williams (right) greets teammate Joey Gallo after Williams homers in a game against Charleston (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

 

For all the hitting you guys did, you guys could throw some arms out there as well with C.J. (Edwards), (Connor) Sadzeck, who won the ERA title that year, (Alex) Claudio, who’s gone on to the major leagues. Did you guys push your pitchers as much as you pushed each other as the hitters?

Williams: When I think of hitters and position players, we normally don’t, I don’t want to say we don’t get along, but it’s a different group. C.J., we hung out with little C.J. a lot. C.J. was one of us. He was a position player in my eyes. We’d push each other because everybody wanted to be the best at what they did. C.J. would see us hitting and he’d be like, “They have a chance to move up, why can’t I?” I tell myself that pitching and hitting is different, but when you think of stats, if his ERA is 2 and I’m hitting .330, it all comes around. I would think so, that we push each other because we all wanted to be the best at what we do.

 

Were you guys disappointed at not making the playoffs that year?

Williams: Yeah, we were.

 

People look back at that team and ask, “How did they miss the playoffs?  You had a chance that last game of the first half and things fell apart. Was there disappointment for you guys?

Williams: It was, but we were a young team and we didn’t really know what to expect. It was hard in some situations. I don’t want to say that we were outsmarted, but it was something anyway and it was a long season. None of us were used to that.

 

Along with the home runs that season were the strikeouts, and that’s the other thing that team will be remembered for. Looking ahead, you guys seemed to have learned from that. Gallo’s cut his strikeout rate, Brinson has cut his, you’ve cut yours. What did you figure out from that experience?

Williams: Not to swing as much. We swung. There were times that I wondered why a pitcher even threw us a strike, because we were up there taking monster hacks. It was just barreling up things all the time.  I just sat there and thought, when I saw that I’d only walked 12 times that year, I said, “Why did they throw to us?” It’s funny to laugh at that, but at the higher levels, pitchers, they look at that – and, I learned that in high-A in a hurry – they’ll see that and notice that, so I had to make adjustments. I struggled in my first month-and-a-half, two months there in high-A and I had to force myself to just sit back and learn the game.

 

What was it like to be with (hitting coach) Justin Mashore? What did you guys learn from him that year?

Williams: Ah, Mashore. I always said that him and Coolie (Scott Coolbaugh) were the two best hitting coaches I’ve ever had. He knows his stuff.

 

What did you pick up from him that you are continuing now?

Williams: He couldn’t have said it enough, to use my hands. When all else fails keep your head down – use your hands. He kept it simple. He never got difficult. He never changed everybody up. He just did a minor like – try this or tweak that. It was just everything going good, so fast, where the slumps really didn’t last as long. The man knew his stuff.

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Nick Williams slides into third during a July 6 game vs. Kannapolis. Williams is the only Crawdads player to have double-digit doubles, triples and homers in a single-season (Photo by Tracy Proffitt)

 

I remember talking with him about you guys. He didn’t let you guys settle for just a single. You’d hit the ball hard, but he kind of saw in most of you guys the potential to hit the ball gap-to-gap and out of the ballpark. Is that fairly fair?

Williams: Oh, for sure, because there was times when some players would say, “Man, my average is .200 or .220.”  A lot of players’ averages were low that year, but the home runs were up.

He could see that some were swinging for singles and he would be just like, “Swing”.  Hitters are going to hit – all the tools were there.  He just said, “Stay true to yourself. Don’t change yourself the way you are.”  You just have to fix the overaggressive swinging and learn the counts and things like that – the simple things. In rookie ball, at 50 games you’re trying to know the player and who he is. You couldn’t really do too much there. It was our first full season and he just had to stress to stay the course.  Don’t try to change anything, just learn.

 

Were you disappointed to be traded?

Williams: I was a little bit. I loved Dallas and I have a lot of family there. They got their big league outfielders and they got Desmond this year, after I was traded, so that’s cool.

Gallo – he’s my boy – he’s an infielder and they made him an outfielder and he went up there as an outfielder. So, I was like, you know what, I was thinking and stressing that, “Man, I might get traded before spring training.”

I was thinking, “Man, get me out of here. I’ll go anywhere where a team wants me.” I want to be able to compete, and now I have an equal chance. When I first got traded I was a little disappointed, because I live in Texas and I’ve been there my whole life. But my new scenery did not affect me at all.

 

Has there been any change in what you do or have the Phillies just let you be who you are with maybe a minor tweak here and there?

Williams: Yeah, I just stayed consistent. That’s the whole thing right now. Just stay consistent as possible right now. Everyone, no matter how good they are in the big leagues or anywhere, they all have to work at something, at everything. Everything needs a tweak, so I really just worked on all my craft, like base running, cutting balls off down the line, or anything. I just work on something every day just to stay moving and stay ready.

 

Are you at the point where you can taste the major leagues at this point?

Williams: You know, I talked to somebody else about that. I just said, “Some days I feel like, man, I could go up tomorrow.” And then some days I feel like, “I’m gonna be here all year, and maybe all next year.”

 

Is it superstitious right now to talk about it?

Williams: No, I don’t believe in superstition or good luck, or anything like that. I feel like everything happens for a reason.  That’s out of my control, but I do my best to play hard and plead my case that I know I can compete there when I do get called up.

 

When you get the call, what do you think that’s like for you?

Williams: You know, I’ve thought about that and I can’t even explain it. I wouldn’t even know.  To get the call, to know you’re playing at the highest level you could ever play at, that’s just a dream come true and a blessing. I don’t know if I’ll be called up soon or a year from now.  No matter what, I’m going to play hard and plead my case.

 

You guys have a nice little infusion of Rangers between you and Alfaro at (AA) Reading and (Jerad) Eickhoff is dealing up at Philly and (Jake) Thompson and (Odubel) Herrera. You guys have got to feel like you got some decent training at the lower levels to get to this point.

Williams: Yeah, for sure

 

I mean that the Phillies are wanting Rangers players in a lot of ways.

Williams: The Phillies – I can’t stress it enough – want you to be a complete player. I mean we work. Some teams will cheat you a little bit out of your career, but here they get their money’s worth. They’ll get you better. I like it. They stay on me.  You see all the players around you working hard and things like that and it pushes you and it makes you think, “Why am I this way?” We’re all grinding. Alfaro, he’s killing AA.

I know it all depends on spots and when they come open and the whole business side. Us from the Rangers, they have a good group, because we play to win and we’d do anything.

 

Of the guys that you were with in Hickory, who do you keep in contact the most?

Williams: I lived with Alfaro mostly when we are together. If I would say, who do I keep in touch with the Rangers still the most, I talk to (Lewis) Brinson here and there, (Ryan) Rua, Gallo and (Nomar) Mazara. I still talk to those guys.

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Nick Williams (photo by Mark Parker, June 4, 2016 at BB&T Field, Charlotte, N.C.)

 

(This is the first in what I plan to be an occasional series of interviews with former Hickory Crawdads players and field staff as they continue their careers in baseball.)

Training for a renewed career: An interview with Erik Swanson

Last Tuesday, June 21, 2016, Erik Swanson took the mound at the South Atlantic League All-Star Game, which was held at Lexington, KY. It was exactly one year to the day that Swanson made his debut with the Hickory Crawdads.

The plan was to begin his stint out of the bullpen and then work into the rotation. However, after seven relief outings, a forearm flexor strain ended his season, save for a brief rehab stint in the Arizona Summer League near the end of its season.

A lot has changed for Swanson in the course of the season, especially a renewed attention to his training. That training has paid off in velocity – his fastball sits in the 94-96 mph range and has been clocked up to 98 – and in the ability to take the ball every six games as part of the Crawdads rotation. After throwing 38 innings total over his first two pro seasons, Swanson is already at 57.2 innings following his last start at Greensboro.

In the interview below, Swanson talks about the benefits of his training, the adjustments to his repertoire, and coming to the pros from Iowa Western Community College.

 

First off all, considering where you were this time last year, you’ve got to be especially pleased with how things have gone for you.

Swanson: Yeah, I am. Last year, coming up here at the all-star break and pitching for about a month and then getting hurt and missing the rest of the year, my main focus this year was to stay healthy. Making the all-star team was another goal of mine coming in here and playing for Hickory. It was a pretty good accomplishment that I was able to do.

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Erik Swanson pitching in the SAL All-Star Game at Lexington, KY (Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

What do you think has been the key to your success this year versus where you were last year? Obviously getting healthy is a big part of that, but a lot of guys are hurt one year and come back the next and don’t do what you have put together in the first half.

Swanson: Obviously, like you said, health has been the biggest key for me. Being in a little different role this year – last year I was out of the pen when I was here – this year coming in as a starter, I feel that that’s a big key for me. I think it’s what I do best. I’m able to prepare myself a lot better – getting that routine. Being on a six-man (rotation) here, I’m able to get into the six-day routine, which has been really big for me this year.

One of the things that Mike Daly (Texas Rangers senior director of minor league operations) mentioned when he was here, he said one of the things that he was pleased with was that you’ve owned the strength and conditioning and the training and the arm care.  What was the turning point for you in that area?

Swanson: Obviously health was my biggest. Last year, missing as much time as I did, I knew that year was going to be a big year for me. This offseason, I got after it as much as I could. I felt like I prepared myself going into spring training and put myself into a situation to succeed. Then, being able to carry that from spring training to Hickory this year was been huge for me. Working with Dustin (Crawdads trainer Dustin Vissering) on some different arm care routines that I’ve been doing that have been working. I’m just trying to do that and continue that to stay healthy.

Did you take the training less serious before you got hurt?

Swanson: No, it’s not something that I took as serious as I am now, which is one of my bigger downfalls. I was a little overweight last year. The big key focus for this year was if I could come in spring training at a healthy weight – a good weight – physically strong.  I feel like I did and I think that most everybody thinks that I did that as well. Now, the focus for me is being able to maintain that and show them that I can do that.

Having thrown so few innings, in the last year, so you think that has helped you to stay strong, at least in the first half, with the idea that you’re going to add some innings to that total this year?

Swanson Yeah, that’s a big part of it. I don’t know off the top of my head how many innings I threw last year, but I think I’m close to double the innings I’ve thrown my entire professional career. A big part of that is me staying healthy and me getting in the shape that I needed to be in to come in this year as a starter and bring able to maintain that throughout the rest of the year. Staying healthy is going to be huge for me. It’s going to be a challenge and that’s my main goal this year.

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Erik Swanson pitching in a 2015 contest (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

Was there a moment in the training that you flipped the switch, or did somebody say something to you, or was there a combination that said to you that this has to be different?

Swanson: Obviously, this is only my second full year. Me being a college guy, I’m 22 years old and in Low-A, which is fine with me. But, I just kind of sat down and thought to myself, “How long are they going to keep me around if I’m not doing what I need to be doing?” I think that’s kind of the point in the offseason was when I started to really flip that switch.

I came into spring training and I felt great and still feel great. I still have lot more room for improvement on all those aspects of everything – physical shape, mentally strong – and all that comes down to what I do on the field and off the field. So yeah, I think there definitely was a point where I decided to flip the switch on my own, along with other people telling me that it’s time.

What’s been the difference as far as your stuff goes. I remember you had a good fastball last year and a change – but we didn’t see you enough to get a grasp. What are some different things you’ve done as far as your stuff goes?

Swanson: I had a decent fastball last year and it’s definitely improved this year. The changeup has been a big one for me. It’s a pitch that I’ve been constantly working on, changing grips – and I’ll probably continue to do that until I find a grip that I feel comfortable throwing. That’s something that’s definitely improved from my first start here until my last start. I’m working on slider grips a little bit. Now, I’m working on a little bit of a curveball that hopefully the next start I’ll be throwing it in some games. I feel comfortable throwing it in my bullpens.

How does someone pitching at Iowa Western get noticed by pro scouts?

Swanson: Going from my first Juco (Wabash Valley CC , IL) to Iowa Western, that was my biggest thing. I needed to go somewhere where I’m going to get recognized, where I can go on and continue my college career and possibly have the opportunity to play professional baseball. It just seemed like they go back to the (NJCAA) World Series every year in Grand Junction (CO).

My head coach Marc Rardin was phenomenal. He taught me so much stuff and improved my game on the mound and off the field. That’s kind of his motto; he teaches us to become men before baseball players – to prepare us for life after. Going there, he helped me with that. It’s a winning program, so they’re going to get scouts around there and I just happened to go there. He gave me all the tools I needed and I put them together and had a successful season and got noticed by the right people.

When you were drafted by the Rangers, was the expectation that you would start or they would throw you from the bullpen?

Swanson: When I went to Spokane, I was a little bit on an innings limit because in my freshman year in college I threw only 17 innings, and then I threw close to 90 innings in my sophomore year. So, they wanted me out of the pen in Spokane. But in the future, the plan was to become a starter. I think that was the direction I was headed last year when I first got here, but then obviously injuries put that on hold a little bit.

I want to go back to your college coach and you saying that he treated you like men. What was a big life lesson you got out of that experience with your coach at Iowa Western?

Swanson: When I went there, it was a big program with team. You focus on the guys around you. He’s big in the classroom. If you’re not doing your stuff in the classroom, then I’m not going to say you didn’t deserve to play, but you’ve got to earn it.

The reason I said that, that he wants us to become men first and prepare us for life after baseball, because that’s something he always told us. What I do here, whether it’d be on the baseball field or off the baseball field with classrooms, study halls and stuff like that, my first goal is to help my ballplayers to become men and prepare them for life after baseball. At some point it’s going to end. You can go online and I can guarantee you that you can find that quote in a few different articles. I heard it all the time when I was there and even in articles that I read now, I still read it.

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Erik Swanson throwing in a 2016 Crawdads game (Hickory Crawdads)

What are the goals for the rest of the year?

Swanson: I had a few goals coming in. Obviously, staying healthy is my main goal. Reaching my inning limit is another one. At some point, one of my goals is to get out of here. Obviously, that’s out of my hands. I just need to do what I’m doing here. I need to keep up what I’m doing. If they decide that I need to move somewhere, then obviously that’s decision. I just need to keep doing what I’m doing and trying to get to the point to where they have no choice but to move me up. Notching a playoff spot while we’re here.

You get a call to the major leagues, what does that look like for you? What do you think your reaction will be?

Swanson: It’s kind of a dream come true. That’s something you dream about since you were a little kid, getting a call. I think the coolest thing for me, once I realize what is happening, will be making that call to all my family and letting them know that I’m going up.

I don’t know, that’s a really good question. I’ve never really thought about how I would react or anything. I think that’d be definitely the coolest part is to be able to call my mom and dad and friends, brother and sister-in-law and telling them that.

You guys put up with some much crap. What’s the biggest part of the crap that you might look back on and say, “That was worth it”?

Swanson: There’s a lot of little things that, I wouldn’t say that it’s crap, they might just get boring. You get that same routine every day and stuff seems like it’s tough. You come to the field every day at the same time. Obviously, that’s your time you get your work done, but sometimes you wake up and you might not want to come in, but you know you have to and you know that your ultimate going that you’re trying to get to, going in that day is going to help you get there.

You’ve got instructionals at the end of the year. The regular season is over with and it’s another month that you’ve got to add on, that can be a little frustrating at times. I’ve been twice, once because of injuries last year. I had to get some more innings in. It’s tough doing that, but at the same time, you know it’s worth it. The things that you do there is going to prepare you for the next year and get you better. You’re constantly learning, no matter where you are, so that’s the way that I look at it. No matter what you’re doing, no matter how bad it sucks, you’re going to learn something – whether it’s something really small, or something that may impact your game for the rest of your life. It’s all worth it.

 

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Settled in at home: An Interview with Jeffrey Springs

Very few professional baseball players get the chance to play near their childhood home. Even fewer minor leaguers get to do so. Former Hickory Crawdads left-handed reliever Jeffrey Springs got to do just that and he made the most of it in working a promotion this week to high-A High Desert.

Springs is a native of Belmont, N.C. – about a 45 minute drive from Hickory –  and was a part of the 2011 state 3A championship team at South Point High.

He was named the state 3A player of the year in 2011 and set the Gaston County record for strikeouts and is tied for wins in the county’s baseball history.

Springs went on to a stellar four-year career at Appalachian State – also about 45 minutes from Hickory – where he posted top-10 career marks in starts, strikeouts and innings pitched for the Mountaineers.

He got his first chance to come home – Springs is the first App State product to pitch for Hickory – late last summer when the Texas Rangers 30th round pick in 2015 was promoted to the Crawdads for the final week of the regular season. He struck out six over 3.1 innings and then punctuated his season with a key moment in the first round of the South Atlantic League playoffs.

With Hickory facing elimination in game two of the Northern Division series, the West Virginia Power rallied to tie the score at 3-3 in the top of the fifth and had the go-ahead run on first. Springs was brought in to face SAL all-star rightfielder Michael Suchy. The lefty needed only one pitch to get Suchy to pop up to second and end the inning. The Power did not score again over the final 13 innings of the series.

This season, Springs was a foundational piece of the Crawdads bullpen prior to his promotion. Springs currently has three pitches – low-90s fastball, a looping curve ball, and a change that Springs uses as his go-to pitch. He is also working on adding a slider to the mix. In 18 outings, Springs struck out 40, walked eight, and posted a 1.16 ERA over 31 innings. The SAL batted .106 against him – the stingiest mark among relievers in the league – which earned him a spot in the SAL all-star game in Lexington, Ky. Springs struck out the only batter he faced to close out the sixth inning.

Below is the interview I did with Springs late last week, just after his addition – strangely, for me, a late addition – to the Northern Division all-star roster.

Jeffrey Springs all-star game

Jeffrey Springs delivers a pitch during the SAL All-Star Game at Lexington, Ky. (photo by Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

Obviously you were a late addition to the all-star game. I thought you should’ve been picked originally, but let me get your reaction to your selection to the all-star game.

Springs: Obviously, it’s humbling to be a part of something like that. It’s obviously really good. Like you said, I wasn’t picked in the beginning, but whatever. It is what it is. But I’m really happy to be a part of it and I’m looking forward to spending a couple of days in Kentucky and getting to compete and enjoying it.

 

What are you looking forward to the most?

Springs: Just being able to pitch against the best hitters in the league and competing to see how you match up, to be honest. Obviously we’re out here to compete and you’d like to see how you match up with the best.

Was there disappointment when you weren’t picked the first time?

Springs: No. It is what it is. I know it’s sometimes tough for relievers to make it. So, I wasn’t really expecting to or not expecting to.

How cool was it to pitch here after coming out of App (Appalachian State)?

Springs: I was excited when they posted the rosters out of spring training. I kind of had my fingers crossed to be in Hickory, not only because that’s moving up for me and getting one step closer, but just being close to home and being on the East Coast where my family can actually get to come and see me play. They weren’t able to come out to Spokane and see me. I’m right up the road from where I went to school for four years. It’s really nice. I feel like I’m playing at home and I’m very comfortable here. It’s definitely an advantage, because I live right down the road and I get to see the mom and dad every once in a while and friends and stuff like that. It’s really nice.

Do you travel down to Gaston County?

Springs: Yeah, I travel there most off-days to visit family and stuff. It’s nice to see them and they come to a good it of games.

You got here last year for the last couple of weeks and the championship run. That was a nice bit of a reward for you.

Springs: It was a great experience, for sure.  That team was very good. Obviously, they clinched the first half and it was exciting to be a part of a special thing that they had there at the end. Talent wise and the chemistry within the team, it was really special to be a part of it. They really accepted me with open arms. I contributed the little bit I could whenever they asked me to me to do whatever.

You got a key out in that playoff run.

Springs: I think against West Virginia – we had great starters. Obviously, they pretty much carried the team pretty much the whole year. I came in and threw one pitch to bridge the gap. We had great eighth-inning guys and we had a great closer. If the starters for some reason couldn’t get to the eighth inning, we just kind of bridged the gap. Like I said, our bullpen was stacked with Dillon (Tate) and Lulu (Luis Ortiz) back there and then Scott Williams. If we’d get to the eighth inning, we’re winning the game pretty much.

Jeffrey Springs vs Lexington

Jeffrey Springs in a 2016 game against Lexington (courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

What was your goal entering this year and how has that progressed for you?

Springs: Just being as consistent as possible. That’s something I tried to do last year at Spokane and carry it over to this year. They talk about staying on the kiddie coaster and being consistent, so when you have good outings and bad outings, they’re not too far apart. Just being consistent and doing whatever role they need me to do – being in the bullpen, or if they need me to be a lefty specialist, or a late-inning guy. Whatever they need me to do, just taking it and running with it and being the best at it.

Did you start at App?

Springs: Yeah, I started my whole career in high school and four years at App. When I got to the Rangers, they said you’re going to be in the bullpen, which is no big deal. It’s kind of an advantage for me because, at most, bullpen guys are two-pitch guys. But being a starter, throwing three and working on a slider now; here’s all three pitchers for a couple of innings and you don’t have to see me twice. It’s kind of nice, to be honest.

The one out-pitch for you has been that curveball. Has that been an advantage for you at the start?

Springs: My changeup really is the one that is an equalizer for me to right-handed hitters. I’m almost more comfortable at times with right handers in the box – I know that’s weird being left handed – but for me, my changeup is what gets me back on course. If I’m missing with fastballs, or whatever it may be, for some reason, when I go to it, it kind of settles everything back down. That’s what I go to. My breaking ball has gotten more consistent and I throw it and bury it 0-0, or whatever I need to do. It’s probably a changeup that has really been my equalizer.

I throw a curveball, but the change is the out pitch that I need right now. It’s not really my out pitch; it’s to get the weak contact, the popups. It really helps my fastball. I don’t throw like some of these guys, 98, or anything like that. I have to change speeds and keep hitters guessing.

Is that slider going to be the key for you moving up?

Springs: I think so. If I can really develop that and learn that, that’ll really hopefully take my game to left-handed hitters to be able to hopefully succeed at getting them out. Obviously, if you’re a left hander and you can’t get left handers out, you’ve got problems. I’ve been working on it a couple of weeks and hopefully if I can nail that down, I’ve got a shot of progressing a little bit more, a little quicker.

Do you have hopes of moving up this year, or are you fine being close to home?

Springs: Whatever they want me to do. If they want me to stay here or if they want me move up, obviously that’s the goal. It’s another step closer to the ultimate goal of making it. If they want me to move, I’ll be more than happy to pack my stuff up whenever they ask.

Is there hope for you that you get a change to start, or are you comfortable coming out of the bullpen?

Springs: Obviously, I started my whole career. That’s kind of where my heart is, whatever you want to call it. But like I said, I just want to keep pitching. If I get to start, that would be icing on the cake. But just getting to pitch, for me, is the biggest thing. I don’t care if we’re up by ten, down by ten, or tied in the ninth, as long as I get to pitch, I’m pretty content with that.

Between you and (Joe) Palumbo – although y’all have run into a bit of a rough patch lately – along with (John ) Werner, it’s been a nice back of the bullpen the first half of the season.

Springs: I feel like as a team, our pitching has been pretty consistent throughout the year. Hitting is going to go in slumps. That’s just how it is. I mean, they’re going to struggle. We feel like as a staff, we have to carry them.  We have to keep them in the games, no matter if they’re putting up ten runs or they’re putting up two. For the most part, we did that. We’ve struggled the last few weeks and kind of shot ourselves in the foot trying to win the first half.

Werner’s been nice. It’s another consistent guy who comes in and you know what you’re going to get. Palumbo has been pretty good all year. We feel like we’ve got some guys in the pen that can really finish off games. Our starting staff is really good, and like I said, they’re been really carrying it pretty good.

You get a call to the major leagues, what is your reaction going to be?

Springs: Oh man, I don’t even know. Obviously, you dream of it since you were a little kid. I don’t know what my response will be. You try not to think about it too much during the season, but it’s hard not to wonder when you’re sitting there – even in the offseason – what would it be like. Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you. I’d probably call my parents and just thank God for the opportunity. It’d be so surreal for a guy to really get a grasp on it until you maybe step onto the field. Fingers crossed, we’ll see.

Who’s the first non-family person you’ll call?

Springs: Probably the girlfriend. Obviously, mom and dad, my grandpa and my brothers. There have been a couple of people that have really helped me along the way with the pitching aspect. Devon Lowery, he made it to the big leagues out of Belmont (South Point High), where I’m from. He’s helped me so much along my way. I’ve had so much help. I’ve been fortunate enough to come in contact with people that know a lot about the game and helped me tweak things that I needed to get where I am. There’d be a lot of thanks going out to so many different people.

What’s the one thing that that you’ve gone through that you’ll look back on and say that was worth it?

Springs: Just the sacrifices, like the offseason.  What you have to go through to get your body in shape and the arm in shape and all the sacrifices over the years. You can’t go and do normal things like normal people do. All the hard work that you put it would be worth it to reach that ultimate goal. It’d be like, “I’m glad I did everything that I did to get where I am.”

Jeffrey Springs mug

Jeffrey Springs (Hickory Crawdads)

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