Luke Jackson, the 45th player overall taken in the 2010 first-year-player major league draft by the Texas Rangers, made his pro debut with the Hickory Crawdads in May 2011, in the middle of a playoff drive. He and 2010 second-rounder Cody Buckel – both sporting Justin Bieber-inspired coifs – were both inserted into the Crawdads starting rotation.
The native of Ft. Lauderdale, then just 19, sported a mid-90s fastball and a sharp-breaking curve when he joined the Crawdads. But in many ways, he was like a toddler with a toy tool set. The ability there could be fantastic, but it the results could also be ugly. Jackson admitted at that stage of his career, he had no idea what he was doing.
He had mixed results with the Crawdads. He took the ball every five games and got his first pro win in his fifth start – a one-run, two-hit, five-inning outing at Lexington on June 11. However, it is the next start on June 16 that I will remember most. For it showed what kind of pitcher Luke could be; it also had the chance to be a disaster.
Facing Charleston (S.C.) to start a four-game series to close out the first half – with the team holding a half-game lead in the standings – Jackson was brilliant through four innings. He had struck out eight of the first 12 batters and took a 3-0 lead into the fifth. Gary Sanchez – now with the Yankees – led off the inning with a moonshot homer to the leftfield corner. Jackson sandwiched outs between a single, but then walked two and in the process uncorked a wild pitch that crashed into the plexiglass window in the netting behind home to load the bases. With action in the bullpen, manager Bill Richardson and pitching coach Storm Davis decided it was time to “see what the kid’s got.” Jackson rewarded the trust with a flyout and the Crawdads went on to win 5-1.
In a lot of ways, that outing summed up Jackson’s career of living on the edge. Jackson came back to Hickory in 2012 to figure some things out and then at Myrtle Beach the following year, he soared. He was the starting pitcher in the Carolina-California all-star game in 2013 and MiLB.com named him the Rangers organizational all-star.
Jackson had similar success at AA with Frisco, but after getting toasted at AAA, the Rangers moved him to the bullpen in 2015. Texas brought him up for a taste of the big leagues in 2015 and 2016, but then shipped him in the offseason to Atlanta, where he is currently pitching out of the Braves bullpen.
Jackson’s personality is perhaps a better fit for the bullpen and it could be that his 2011 teammates knew that then when the “Crawdads Bullpen” – a group that included Ben Rowen, Jimmy Reyes, Jorge Marban, Ben Henry among others that still maintain a social media presence – made him one of their group. The highlight of their antics included an ill-advised swim in the dugout.
It is that story with which I began the interview with Luke in the Atlanta Braves dugout at Sun Trust Field. As it turned out, it was the afternoon prior to his first major league win.
There’s been a few bridges since we talked last time. I talked with Ben Rowen last year and there was a certain picture of you guys in the dugout and there was a flood.
Jackson: Yes, I have some great memories with those guys. The bullpen down there was quite hilarious. That was the day when there was a light little rain shower that filled up the dugout to about the brim – so about 4 feet deep – and we decided that we were going to go swimming and do laps, race across the dugout doing laps. Once we realized the toilet was under water, we realized it was a horrible idea and then covered our body with hand sanitizer and took showers. It was pretty funny while it was happening.
So nobody got e-coli
Jackson: No, we lived – barely – but, we lived. It was pretty interesting.
That was an interesting year as far as the whole bullpen crew, and they accepted a starter as a part of that.
Yeah, I actually lived with three of them. That bullpen had some of the funniest antics and routines and things they did throughout the year. I think just because I lived with them they always tried to include me in them and to this day we still – it’s call the Crawdads Bullpen Group Chat – still a text message group that is lively to this morning it was going on – same guys, pretty impressive.
Did you guys get under Bill Richardson’s skin?
Jackson: We were playing well at the time when that all started going on so he didn’t say much, but I guarantee it definitely irked him a little bit. Bill’s a great guy.
Here you are in the major leagues – what was the call-up like when you went to Texas?
Jackson: In ‘15 yeah, I get called up in July or early August and it was pretty surreal. It was probably the best memory I have of baseball. My whole family got to come up to see me in Seattle. It was awesome. I didn’t pitch in the Seattle series. We ended up going to Anaheim after that I debuted, but it was nothing like I can explain. Then in ’16 playing the big leagues and now this year playing with the Braves.
I mean, I got the chance to play with two different teams. The group here is absolutely amazing: coaching staff, players. The first seven years I spent in the same organization and then I come here and I feel like I’ve been with them for seven years. All unbelievable guys and just all for the same goal of getting better and winning games.
There was a hashtag that went around #CanLukepitchnow. Did you get wind of that?
Jackson: (Laughing) Of course, Tepid is one of my favorite guys ever. Michael, I would always see his tweets. He’s a super fun guy and I would always like the way he wrote about guys. He’s super positive and just encouraging. I would always see stuff like that and that would make me laugh. My parents would ask, “Are you going to throw today?” I was like, “I don’t know, I’ve got to do it how it works.” He’s the man; I think he started all that off. He’s a special guy to have on your side.
Did you ever wonder if you were going to pitch?
Jackson: There was a point where I was like, “Maybe I’m just here as a prop, or something, just hanging out.” That was kind of funny. It took a little while, but I think expected.
What is the memory of you getting called up? What did you do? How did you respond? Who did you call?
Jackson: I was in New Orleans. Actually, my girlfriend had just gotten there. I was just sitting in the hotel room. I had gotten back from the field and I got a phone call and Woody (Round Rock manager Jason Wood) was like, “Hey, I’d just like to be the first one to tell you, congratulations, you’re going to the big leagues.” I was like, “Oh wow, I’m actually going up to the big leagues.”
I called my mom four times, but she didn’t answer. I called my dad a couple of times and he didn’t answer. I was like, “Hmm, maybe I’ll just call in the morning.” But I was like, “I’ve got to tell them.” So, I called my sister because she would wake mom and dad up. So, I called her and she walked over and woke them up and put it on speaker phone. I said, “Hey, I just want to tell you guys that I’m going to the big leagues.” They were pretty pumped; mom was crying.
It was pretty surreal to see stuff like that work out. Every time you see somebody called up for the first time, you know what they’re going through. It’s one of the coolest feelings. You worked your whole life to get to this focal point of your career. Now that you’ve made it, the goals start from here for you to stay.
What was your reaction when you got traded?
Jackson: I heard it every year in the middle of the year, even when I was at Hickory. I’d go to high-A I’d hear, “Hey, you’re getting traded at the deadline.” And then next year, “Hey, you’re getting traded at the deadline.” At Frisco, I was hearing the same thing, “you’re probably going to get traded.” My agent calls and tells me, “There’s actually a good chance you’re going to get traded.” I was like, “Every year is something like that.”
So, I get a call from (Texas Rangers general manager) Jon Daniels and he said, “I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded. Best of luck with your endeavors. Thank you so much.” Jon, to this day, is an amazing guy. Whenever I’d talk with him and have a conversation, he was genuine as all get out. He just told me I was going and wished me the best of luck. Then I got a call from (John) Coppolella (Atlanta Braves general manager) and he told me “You’re coming to the Braves. Congratulations and get ready to get the season going.”
It was kind of a surreal whirlwind the night I was traded. I was kind of, “Wow.” I called my parents and told them, “I think I’m with the Braves.” I knew I was, but I wasn’t really sure that how it worked then. It was pretty cool and I’m happy to be here.
What do you think about the ballpark?
Jackson: Unbelievable. It’s spectacular. They kind of took the best of every part they found and jumbled it into one and this is what you get. It’s high end, first class: the dugouts, locker rooms, the stadium. The Battery in the outfield is beautiful. Everything they did is just top of the line.
Who is the current or former major leaguer that you’ve met that you’ve said, “man, I can’t believe I’m talking to this person”?
Jackson: Bartolo Colon.
Last year, when I was rehabbing in ’16 to start the year. The only people hurt in camp were me and Josh Hamilton. So, I spent every waking day of four weeks riding the bike next to him and talking life and getting to know him. That was a surreal moment in my career. I read his book prior to meeting the guy in high school. There I am rehabbing with him and that was pretty awesome.
And then having PFP groups this spring training with a guy that’s been in the league for 21 years. He’s an unbelievable human being and one of the best teammates you could have in Bartolo. That was pretty awesome.
Just every day, just getting to see people and meet people and come across people and ex-high school teammates and seeing people you came up in the minor leagues with is all so fun to do.
What are your expectations for the year?
Jackson: You always set the bar as high as you can and then go out there and post as many zeroes and see how many games this team can win. I think this squad is good and when everything starts to click, I think it’ll be a pretty good run.
When you and I had a conversation back in your second year in Hickory and you accepted that you needed to come back to find things. What did you learn out of that experience now that you’ve gotten here?
Jackson: Oh wow. Just looking back at those years, I would say that I didn’t even know what I was doing. The first year out of high school, actually my first year out of high school was low-A, coming in, I didn’t know how to pitch at all. I was just trying to throw the baseball to the plate.
Looking back on it, I think my second year at Myrtle Beach was when I figured I started pitching. Brad Holman helped me a lot with that. I had Storm Davis mentally getting me prepared for all that. That was pretty awesome. The group of coaches and the staff we had along my career, I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done.
My first encounter with Yanio Perez was in Columbia, S.C. I went there in early April to interview Fireflies manager Jose Leger about ex-football player Tim Tebow, who plays at Columbia. I arrived early and had a chance to catch some of the Crawdads batting practice and I passed this well-built, I mean solidly-build, hunk of a human being. I remember saying, “Now that’s a football player”
Since the Crawdads hadn’t had a home game to that point, the players and names were still unfamiliar to me, so I made a mental note of the number: 28. When I got to the press box, I looked it up. The name: Yanio Perez.
He’s listed at 6-2, 205, but I’m guessing he’s a little heavier than that. Had circumstances been different for his life, I could imagine him as a linebacker. He has a thick neck, battleship arms and the thighs of a weightlifter.
Looking back in my mind’s eye, the Crawdads player I could best compare him to, as far as the build, is former outfielder Jordan Akins. He doesn’t have Akins speed, but as a baseball player to this point, he is further along.
Perez had a quick start to the season, then slow dropped to a .245/.365/.377 slash by April 20. At that time, the whole club had struggled, some of it due to very little field time because of an unusually rainy period. But for Perez adjustments had to make. He had become jumpy in hitters counts, swinging through fastballs that seemed off the plate.
“For him, I think it’s just his mind set as a hitter,” said Crawdads hitting coach Kenny Hook at the time. “He’s so good at kind of being able to hit breaking balls and offspeed pitches up the middle and the other way to where, he was seeing a lot of them and he was just giving up on fastballs and looking to drive the breaking stuff the other way and get his hits that way.”
Finally, Perez figured out how pitchers were trying to get him out and he had a homestand to remember at the end of April. Over the final eight games of the month, he went 16-for-28 with five homers, a double, four walks, eight runs scored and 15 RBI. He ended the month at .358/.453/.642. Perez was named the South Atlantic League’s hitter of the week and the Texas Rangers tabbed him as their minor league player of the month.
“What you saw in the Columbia series,” said Hook, “And kind of the ongoing thing with him as far as what he needs to improve on, and what we’re preaching is, stay on the fastball timing all the time. Because, at any point, he recognizes well enough to where he can still hit the offspeed the other way. What you saw in that series is, he was looking fastball and he was committed to it, so when they did hang a slider or offspeed, you saw him get the bathead out and pulled more baseballs in that series. When he gets extended and pulls the ball, obviously you’re going to do more damage. So, you saw big power numbers in that series.”
Perez continued to put up good numbers and was in the top-five in the SAL in all three slash categories. (.322/.392/.533). He earned a SAL all-star selection, but a well-earned promotion to high-A Down East has changed those plans.
As well as he’s played, there is a certain sadness that Perez acknowledges: he misses his family. While Perez was able to leave Cuba to come and play baseball in the states, his family is still on the island. He talks to his parents daily, but the 21-year-old hasn’t seen them in two years. He wants to succeed in order to help his family, but behind his infectious smile, the pain from separation is real.
I had a chance to speak with him late last week with the translation help of pitching coach Jose Jaimes. It’s not my best interview and I’ll admit my questions were not the most hard-hitting. We were all rushed for time and it’s hard to get too deep when over half of the 13-minute interview was spent in translation. But for the reader, I hope you get a sense about this kid.
How do you feel about making the all-star team?
Perez: I feel very happy, more because this is my first year in professional baseball and playing in this league. I feel very proud of what I accomplished.
Are you accomplishing this year what you had hoped to?
Perez: I didn’t have as my goal to make the all-star team. My goals were, number one, try to help the team as much as I can. I would like to hit .300 for the year, which I am doing and I’m happy with what I’ve done so far.
You signed with the Rangers last October. Has it been a whirlwind getting to the states and then to play ball?
It has been a hurricane to adjust to everything I’ve gone through over the last year – leaving my family, coming here, going to Arizona. So, I’m still going through the process of transition.
What’s been the biggest adjustment personally coming to the states?
Perez: The biggest challenge for me is the language and being away from my family. I have my wife with me right now, but everybody else is away. That has been the biggest challenge, the language and the family.
What made you decide to leave Cuba to come to the states?
Perez: I played baseball for a while in Cuba, but I felt like coming over to the states I was going to be able to compete in a better environment and I am also able to help my family from here. That was the main reason I left Cuba.
Who did you grow watching Cuba?
Perez: I didn’t grow up watching a specific guy. The way that I learned how to play the game was more about thinking I’ve got to get better every single day. It’s easier in Cuba to watch Major League games, so I watched A-Rod and guys like that and names that everybody in Cuba knows. But for the most part, I was just trying to do better every single day with training and listening to coaches.
Who is your favorite player?
Perez: Yasiel Puig and Mike Trout
What do you like about them?
Perez: About Puig, I like the way that he hits. He’s pretty aggressive with the bat. About Trout, I like the way that he plays the game. He’s very professional and I like the way that he looks on the field.
Have you had a chance to meet any of the players that you watched in Cuba?
Perez: I met with Adrian Beltre and Carlos Gomez in spring training, I knew them from Cuba. Those where guys that were famous on the island.
What was it like to meet Beltre?
Perez: It was very exciting meet a guy that’s going to be in the Hall of Fame.
You talk about missing your family. Do you get to talk with them very much?
Perez: Yes. I talk to them every day. It helps having a cell phone and the apps to make it easier to communicate. But still, I miss them a lot because it’s been two years since I left the country.
Is there a time you think your parents will get to see you play?
Perez: I don’t know. We’re working on that.
Is it easier now for Cubans to come here and play baseball than in the past?
Perez: It’s easier right now than in the past.
What’s the biggest difference playing baseball here than in Cuba?
Perez: The biggest difference is that the games here are faster. The pitchers here throw harder than most of the Cuban pitchers.
What do you mean about the game being faster?
Perez: The runners are way faster, but you have to more to think about and more plays you have to be aware of.
You hear about baseball in the Latin countries being a party atmosphere. Is it too quiet here?
Perez: I don’t need that. I actually like the people here in this country that actually come to watch the game and enjoy it. With that said, I do miss playing in front of my people, but the craziness and all that, I don’t miss that at all.
What is the biggest thing you are working on for the rest of the year?
Perez: I’d like to be faster and keep working on my hitting. That’s something I’m working on, to be consistent every day.
Is first base new to you?
Perez: I had first base two times before coming here.
First base, third base, outfield before coming here?
Perez: I’ve played almost every position since I was a little kid. I think it’s more valuable to be able to play a lot of positions.
When you get a call to go the major leagues, what do you think your reaction will be?
Perez: I’m going to be really happy, but in my mind I know I will have to work hard to stay there as long as I can. That’s my goal.
The Hickory Crawdads rallied from behind and then held on late to take a 7-5 win over the Lexington (Ky.) Legends Sunday afternoon at L.P. Frans Stadium.
The win was the seconds straight for the Crawdads (25-38) in the four-game series and they will attempt to take just their fourth series win of the first half, the second at home in Monday’s finale. Meanwhile, Lexington (30-33) dropped its fifth in six games on the current road trip, which concludes on Monday at L.P. Frans.
Hickory pounded out 12 hits on Sunday, seven of those for extra bases, and it started with Eric Jenkins’s lead-off triple in the first. Leody Taveras brought him in with an RBI grounder to short.
Kyle Cody retired the first six hitter before running into trouble in the third. Joe Dudek doubled to the track in center. One out later, Rudy Martin singled in Dudek to tie the game.
Lexington grabbed the lead in the fourth with a three-run inning. Angelo Castellano led off with a single. Two outs later, John Brontsema singled and Yeison Melo bounced a double off the bag at third to score Castellano. Dudek’s second hit in two innings was a two-run single.
Alex Kowalczyk’s homer (5) to right got Crawdads within 4-2. Cody (2-6) provided a boost for his team by working out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth. With one out and runners at second and third, Cody intentionally walked Emmanuel Rivera. He then struck out Gabriel Cancel and got Brontsema to fly out to center.
The Crawdads took that momentum to the bottom of the inning and turned it into three runs to retake the lead. Leody Taveras smashed a sharp grounder off the leg off Gomez for a single. Yanio Perez was hit by a pitch. One out later, Forbes doubled off the wall in left to score Taveras. Garay then doubled to the track in center for the other two runs to make it 5-4.
Despite the three-run deficit, Crawdads manager Spike Owen felt confident his club would be able to battle back. “We knew we were in the ballgame,” said Owen. “Especially with the wind blowing out. We put good at-bats on and put men on base and got a big two-out, two-RBI double from Garay.”
Cody pitched a scoreless sixth before Jake Lemoine added two more shutout innings, though he needed a big play to maintain the lead. Melo singled with one out and after Dudek moved him up with a grounder, Mark Sanchez ripped a sharp grounder to left. Eric Jenkins charged the ball aggressively and then hit the catcher Kowalczyk on the fly with a throw that was in time to nab Melo trying to score.
Blaine Prescott cracked his third homer of the season in the bottom of the inning, a two-run shot that made it 7-4.
“Blaine’s home run in the eighth was huge to give us a cushion,” Owen said. Jenkins play in the top of the eighth was big throwing the tying run out at the plate. We made the plays we had to make and got some timely hits.”
Jenkins throw and Prescott’s homer proved crucial has Khalil Lee clubbed his 10th homer of the season in the ninth. Castellano singled to center to bring the tying run to the plate. But Kaleb Fontentot induced Rivera to bounce into a game-ending 6-4-3 double play.
“That was a good ball game, today.” said Owen. “We made all the plays and got some big hits. The pitching kept us in the game. Nice to see it all in one game.”
Cody guts out six:
(I preface all this by reminding the reader that I am not a scout, baseball mind, etc. My main job at the games is to be the official scorer and so I see the games with those eyes and I miss some things. These are my observations and they could all be just bunk.)
Even when he retired the first six, I’m not sure that Cody had his best stuff today. Rangers trackers had him at 94-96, but pitches tended to stay up. Normally a groundball pitcher, 1.43 GO/AO, three of the first six outs were in the air. Dudek’s double to start the third was crushed to the CF track. Castellano’s single to start the fourth was a liner and Cody needed a leaping, sprawling grab by Forbes at third to take away a potential double off the bat of Rivera. Cancel then flew out to CF.
After the flyout, Cody did run into a bit of bad luck for the three runs with three straight groundball hits, including Melo’s slow bouncer that found the bag.
He seemed a bit rushed in the fifth on two straight walks as Kowalczyk walked in front of the plate to remind Cody to stay in front on delivery. Forbes made a tough, backhanded play for an out at third to move runners to second and third. An intentional walk to set up a double play seemed to settle him down. He got his footing back on three straight fastballs to K Cancel, before a routine fly to center ended the threat.
Of course, a pitcher will not have his best stuff every time out, but learning what to do in those situations will propel or impede a pitcher’s progress.
The Rangers have had a good run with Midwestern-born, hard-throwing, right-handed pitchers out of college in recent years. Nick Tepesch (Missouri), and Jared Eickhoff (Indiana) made it to the majors. Connor Sadzeck (Illinois) is knocking on the door of the majors, as he is on the Rangers 40-man roster at AA Frisco. With that sinking fastball, slider and change, and a good ability to mix them all, the Wisconsin native is intriguing to me. He’ll take his lumps -Tepesch and Eickhoff did during their year here – but pitching coach Jose Jaimes likes his ability to shrug off those lumps. That’s half the battle as a pro.
Forbes again, (see the Cody section above)
Cody and Perez: With Martin on first and one out, the Legends sent the speedster on a hit-and-run and the SS Yrizarri covered the bag. Lee put the ball in play and Forbes made a charging play towards the mound to collect the roller and throw to first. With Forbes and Yrizarri both in motion, third base was uncovered. Aware of the situation, Cody sprinted towards the open bag. 1B Yanio Perez, who’s not been reliable with infield throws, hit Cody on the run to third and Cody arrived in time to place a tag on Martin. The play kept the Lexington uprising in the third to just one run.
Jenkins: After a couple of poor performances in key spots on Saturday, his throw to nab Melo at the plate in the eighth was huge.
Forbes ready to fly?:
The dude picks it at third every single game. He’s made adjustments at the plate and is back smacking nearly everything hard. The K-rate has dropped. Is it time to allow him to ride the bus to different cities in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic region? Not sure what else he needs to do.
When you have a pre-game that has the Red Power Ranger and Dale Murphy throwing out first pitches back-to-back and the box manager announces the attendance dressed in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume, the game itself must be weird.
After the offenses were dormant early, the Hickory Crawdads and the Lexington (Ky.) Legends battled back-and-forth until a play at the plate settled the contest, which the Crawdads won 6-5 on Saturday at L.P. Frans Stadium.
The win snapped the Crawdads (24-38) losing streak at three and sent the Legends (30-32) to their fourth loss in five games on the current road trip.
Well, not much in the first 5 ½ innings. Lexington’s Jace Vines (KC’s 2016 4th round pick from Texas A&M) held the Crawdads without a baserunner until the fifth and a hit until the sixth. Meanwhile, his counterpart Walker Weickel allowed two hits, walked two and struck out five over his four innings.
Lexington scored in the fifth against reliever Christian Torres. Rudy Martin walked, stole second and scored on Angelo Castellano’s single to left.
Alex Kowalczyk broke up the fledgling perfect game with a leadoff walk in the fifth. In the sixth, Jose Almonte laid to rest Vines’s no-hit bid with a clean single through the left side of the infield. Yeyson Yrizarri singled up the middle before Vines walked Anderson Tejeda to load the bases. After Vines fanned Eric Jenkins, Leody Taveras ambushed a first-pitch fastball and drove it over the funeral home sign in center for a grand slam, his fifth homer of the season to make it 4-1.
“It happens in the game,” said Crawdads manager Spike Owen. “(Vines) was throwing well against us the first five innings. We got to the sixth inning and finally had some quality at bats and got the no-hitter out of the way with Almonte’s single and Yrizarri had a great at-bat. Obviously, Taveras get the first-pitch fastball for the grand slam. Up to that point, we didn’t have anything going, but you’ve got to play nine innings. That’s what we’ve been preaching to them all year.”
Matt Smoral picked up for Torres in the seventh and after striking out the first two hitters, he walked the bases loaded. C.D. Pelham entered to face Emmanuel Rivera, who hit the lefty’s second pitch out to left for his fifth homer of the season.
The Crawdads fought back to tie it a 5-5 in the seventh, when Ti’Quan Forbes and Yrizarri pieced two doubles together for the tying run.
Lexington threatened in the eighth when it put Gabriel Cancel on second with one out. Yeison Melo ripped a Pelham pitch to left – or it would have landed there if not for the diving play of Forbes at third, who made the catch and fired to second to complete an inning-ending double play.
What turned out to be the winning tally started in the eighth when Eric Jenkins had a hustle double and moved to third on Taveras’s infield hit. Yanio Perez hit into a fielder’s choice to erase Taveras, but Jenkins inexplicably stayed at third. After Kowalczyk lined out to short, Forbes brought in Jenkins with a single.
Things got harrowing for the Crawdads in the ninth as Pelham hit Martin with a pitch with one out. After Pelham struck out Khalil Lee, Castellano singled Martin to second. Rivera hit a grounder up the middle that SS Tejeda knocked down, which seemingly would’ve kept Martin at third. Except, Martin ran with his head down and either didn’t see manager Scott Thorman with a stop sign, or Thorman didn’t throw one up. Martin circled around third and sprinted for home. Tejeda’s throw to the plate was in plenty of time to allow Ricky Valencia tag Martin sliding in.
Yes, Taveras is back.
I thought Taveras was on the way to his usual pest-like self again on Friday. When he’s on, Taveras is marvelously skilled at picking out his pitch. Whether it’s a first-pitch fastball, like on the grand slam, or a 9-pitch AB as in the first inning, he will seek out his pitch, and more often than not, smack it hard somewhere.
But he’s bunting?
After Friday night’s ninth-inning loss Spike Owen was pulling out the stops to get a win. AFter Jenkins double in the eighth, Taveras fouled off the first two pitches on failed bunt attempts before connecting on a slow roller that set up the final run of the game. Hickory has only 8 sac bunts this season – Tejeda has 3 of them – it just seemed a weird strategy to take the bat out of your second-best hitter.
Forbes making noise like a duck:
Or he could if he gets a promotion to the Down East Wood Ducks. He offers stellar defensive play every night, but it’s been the stick that has held him back. He continues to see fastball and is willing to drive it where it’s pitched. Tonight, he got pitches in and he knows what to do with them. A great play at third deprived him of three hits.
Eric, oh Eric:
There is so much raw talent, but wow, there seems to be some baseball acumen missing at times. In the sixth with the bases loaded, he swung through a fastball up – a big swing, when just putting the ball in play most likely gets a run. Later in the AB, he fouled off a high slider that screamed “hit me”. Jenkins did work the count in the AB, but eventually flew out to shallow left. When he is in a key situation in an inning, he tends to overswing.
Him holding at third with runners on the corners and no outs was just odd – just as odd as it was for the Legends to play back for a double play with no outs and the go-ahead runner at third in the eighth.
It’s been a tough season for the Hickory. The pitching staff has taken its lumps. The defensive play has been iffy. There has been time the two aspects have performed well, but the bats went silent.
Friday night had all the makings of a good team win. Solid pitching, nearly flawless defense, and timely hitting added up to a 3-1 lead. And then the ninth…
Taking advantage of a key error, the Lexington (Ky.) Legends tallied three runs in the top of the ninth and claimed a 4-3 victory over the Crawdads in front of 3,025 fans at L.P. Frans Stadium.
The Legends (30-31) snapped a three-game losing streak and picked up their first win during a weeklong road trip after being swept at Columbia (S.C). The win was also the first of the season after trailing in the eighth inning. Lexington was 0-25 in such games before Friday’s rally.
Meanwhile, Hickory (23-38) dropped its third straight, all at home where the Crawdads are 11-21. It was first loss (14-1) when leading after eight innings.
Crawdads starter Matt Ball held the Legends in check for six innings and Nick Dignacco added two more solid innings to help get the Crawdads to the ninth with the lead.
Ball allowed one run on seven hits and struck out ten before Dignacco tacked on three Ks over two scoreless innings.
Meanwhile, the Crawdads put up two runs in the second against Andre Davis. With two outs, Jose Almonte singled and Yeyson Yrizarri doubled him in. Anderson Tejeda reached on an infield hit and Yrizarri scored when second baseman John Brontsema’s throw to first went into the dugout.
Khalil Lee hit his ninth homer of the season in the third to trim the Legends deficit in half.
Hickory got the run back in the fourth when Alex Kowalczyk singled and came around to score on Carlos Garay’s doubled to the track in center to make it 3-1. And then the ninth…
Rudy Martin and Lee opened the inning with singles to chase Dignacco. Reid Anderson entered to face Angelo Castellano and this was the key sequence of the inning. Castellano sent a 2-1 fastball on a liner to left, which scored Martin from second. On the play, LF Eric Jenkins charged the ball aggressively, but it skipped to Jenkins left and that allowed Lee to go to third and Castellano to second.
Gabriel Cancel atoned for a four-strikeout night with a sacrifice fly to the track in left that easily scored Lee from third and was deep enough to allow Castellano to move to third. With the infield in to try and keep the go-ahead run from scoring, the next hitter, Emmanuel Rivera, hit a grounder to Yanio Perez at first. He made the quick grab of the ball and fired home, but Castellano was able to slide under the tag of the catcher Kowalczyk to make it 4-3.
Anderson pitched out of further trouble, but aside from Yrizarri’s second double of the game with two outs, Gavin Grant had little trouble setting down the Crawdads to close out the game.
Matt was Ballin’
With a decent arsenal of four pitches (fastball 91-92, change, curve and a slider I don’t remember seeing last year), I was a bit surprised the Rangers hadn’t given him much of a look in the starting rotation other than as a spot-starter. With Demarcus Evans going on the DL, and Tyler Phillips and Jonathan Hernandez moving to different affiliates, Ball has picked up a rotation spot. The results up till Friday in the rotation have been not good: 14 earned runs in his last 14 innings (three starts) with 7 walks. But the Ks have increased. He had eight in 6.1 innings at Delmarva and posted 14 over the last three starts.
He hadn’t been much of a strikeout pitcher, but more of a groundball hurler. The SAL hit .266 against him last year, but when he keeps his sinking fastball down and throws his secondaries for strikes, he’s tough. Friday was one of those nights.
He got Ks on all four pitches – spotting the fastball on corners for looking Ks. He threw a few changes early to good effect, but started leaving some pitches up.
Lee’s homer was a rope that skipped off the top of the 32’ billboard in right – a true liner. In the fourth, Rivera lined to right, Meibrys Viloria then nearly decapitated Ball with a liner up the middle and Brontsema added a hard-hit single. From there, Ball began to amp up the breaking ball arsernal and K’d both Joe Dudek and Marteen Gasparini on good sliders.
Running out of gas in the sixth – a walk and hit batter – Ball got his final K on a slider to Dudek and later returned to the change for a fielder’s choice.
The 40th round pick in 2014 finally returned to action after serving out his commitment to West Point and he’s not messing around. Dignacco has a quick pace and brings an 88-90 mph fastball and a curve that seems to have two speeds. It was especially tough on lefties as a couple of them bailed on the bender. He also got a couple of hitters to chase changeups, with which he used to expand the strike zone to righties looking for the curve to come over the plate.
Yeyson Yrizarri was moved to second for this season with most of the playing time going to Anderson Tejeda. Occasionally the two will switch, as they have for the last couple of games. Personally, I like Yrizarri more at short. Cannon of an arm and the range to play the position, I thought he made the position look easy last year and continues to do so this year. The issue of him taking his time to make plays has seemed to vanish this season.
One such play on Friday showed his prowess at the position. In the second, Brontsema hit a grounder that seemed destined for a single to center. Cheating up the middle prior to the pitch, Yrizarri fielded the ball to the first-base side of the bag at the cut of the outfield grass. He quickly twirled and fired a bullet to first for the out.
But there were a couple sequences on force plays that seemed to tax him mentally. In the sixth with runners at first and second, Gasparini hit a ball up the middle that Yrizarri fielded near the bag. What looked like a routine step-on-the-bag-at-second play to end the inning, turned into a throw to first that the speedy Gasparini beat out. One inning later, a similar play occurred when Yrizarri fielding the ball near the bag, but there seemed almost a mindset of, “I won’t mess that up again”. He looked up to Tejeda covering at second and the ball kicked off the glove for an error.
A 1-for-18 at Delmarva (Md.) last weekend seemed to be a cry for help in the form of time off for the 18-year-old. With Monday’s off day, he got three days of R&R before returning to the lineup Thursday. He looked a little rusty last night, but seemed back on track again. In the first, a 9-pitch AB right-handed AB turned into a hard out to right. He waved through a breaking ball for an out in the third, then in the fifth Taveras slapped a pitch away to the RF corner for a double. Batting lefty in the eighth, he turned on a fastball in and again peppered the right fielder with a liner.
Greenville (S.C.) scored five runs over the middle innings to support the start of Jhonathan Diaz as the Drive defeated Hickory 5-3 at L.P. Frans Stadium Thursday night in front of 1,725 fans.
The Drive (37-23) took the three-game series by winning the final two games and now lead the South Atlantic League’s first-half Southern Division standings by three games over the Columbia (S.C.) Fireflies with ten games to play.
Hickory drops to 23-37 in the first half and are three games behind sixth-place Delmarva (Md.) in its bid to avoid the first last-place finish in a half-season since 2008, when the team was affiliated with the Pirates. The Crawdads are also trying to avoid the worst half-season record by a Rangers affiliated club. The 2009 second-half team finished 30-40.
Both lefties – Hickory starter Sal Mendez and Diaz – held the hitters at bay for the most part through the first three innings. The lone flaw by Diaz over the first five innings occurred in the third, when Jose Almonte golfed what appeared to be a low fastball over the fence. The solo blast was his fourth of the season and it gave the Crawdads their only lead.
That was short lived as Greenville returned fire in the fourth to take a 2-1 lead. Ryan Scott doubled hard to left and scored one out later on Rolandi Baldwin’s double to center. After Tucker Tubbs popped out, Tyler Spoon ripped a liner to right for a single. Almonte charged the ball and threw a one-hop bullet home that handcuffed the catcher Ricky Valencia and allowed Baldwin to score. (More on this play later)
In the fifth, Steven Reveles and Chris Madera both singled and later scored when Scott lifted a single past the drawn-in infield (Also more on this play later)
The Drive tacked on their final run in the sixth against Luke Lanphere. Spoon doubled to left, advanced to third on a grounder and scored on Reveles’s ground single up the middle through another drawn-in infield.
Meanwhile, Diaz faced one over the minimum through five innings, the lone blemish being Almonte’s homer and a single by Franklin Rollin in the first that was erased on a double play. The 20-year-old Venezuelan, making just his third stateside start, struck out eight through five innings.
However, the Crawdads finally got to him in the sixth with three straight hits. Yeyson Yrizarri singled to left and moved to third on Anderson Tejeda’s opposite-field double. Rollin singled in Yrizarri and in the process chased Diaz. Pat Goetze faced Leody Taveras, who bounced into a fielder’s choice to third. Reveles charged the play hard in order to get the force at second, but his throw sailed high and allowed Rollin to reach and Tejeda to score. But with runners at first and second, Yanio Perez hit into an infield fly and Forbes hit into a fielder’s choice. The inning ended when a double-steal attempt blew up and Rollin was caught stealing at home.
The Crawdads mounted an uprising in the eighth against Hildemaro Requena. With two outs, Taveras and Perez slapped back-to-back singles to place runners at the corners. However, Requena fanned Ti’Quan Forbes to end the threat.
Requena worked around a walk in the ninth by striking out the side to earn his third save of the season.
Examples of why errors and earned runs do not tell the whole story:
My friend Scott Lucas, who sends out a Rangers minor league report daily during the season, does a primer at the beginning of the season. In it, he explains that while ERA does reflect some of how a pitcher is doing, there are things that happen during a game that have more of an effect on earned runs (on none) than what meets the eye. Heck, an official scorer’s demeanor might get in the way of a judgment call at times. (Though I’m not one of those… I don’t think.) Earned runs, or the lack of them, do not always tell the fan the whole story.
Hickory was charged with three errors on the night and none officially had anything to do with the scoring. A glance at the box will tell a person the Crawdads played poorly defensively – and they did – then you look at the pitching line for Mendez and you’ll think, “well, they played poorly, but they didn’t affect Mendez’s earned run total.” While the errors didn’t affect earned runs, misplays that are not charged as errors did.
The first error came opening batter of the game, when Yrizarri’s high throw allowed Chris Madera to reach. Madera was erased on a double play hit into by Santiago Espinal, so no biggie.
The second error was the play that handcuffed Valencia at the plate. The runner, Baldwin, should have been out by 10 feet, as Almonte’s throw was on the money. But, you don’t assume the runner would be out or safe on such a play. There’s usually a benefit of the doubt given to the runner with the hitter getting the RBI. So, what was the error for? Allowing the runner, who had stopped at first, to advance to second. In short, the second run of the fourth shouldn’t have scored, but it did and it ups Mendez’s ERA total.
In the fifth with runners at first and second and none out, Espinal hit a sharp grounder to Perez at first. Perez made the fielding play cleanly, but a hesitation cost him a chance to throw to second for a simple force out, though a double play would’ve been tough. Perez did record an out at first, but his misstep took away a chance at a double play later to end the inning. So, with a runner at second and third and one out, Crawdads manager Spike Owen had to have the infield play in to try and keep the runner at third on a ground ball rather than at normal depth to try and turning an inning-ending double play. It cost them an out and a second run in the inning as Scott’s base hit was a routine pop up just beyond the second baseman’s position ad it fell in for a two-run single. It’s not a play an official scorer can award an error on, but the right kind of out saves a run. Regardless, it cost Mendez an earned run.
One inning later, Taveras and Almonte converge at RCF to retrieve a single that fell in. The runner stopped, but moved up when the two outfielders couldn’t decide on who would make the play. The ball bounced between them and so I gave the error to the player that should’ve taken charge, the CF Taveras – even though neither of them touched it.
Mendez deserves better, but….
The defense did cost him two runs, but Mendez didn’t help his cause by elevating his pitches. Throwing a well-spotted 89-91 mph fastball, he accompanied that with a changeup that dipped well, especially to left-handed hitters early. His effective mix of speeds worked well as he missed several bats with the change. He pounded the strike zone for first-pitch strikes (17 of 24 hitters). Add to that four broken bats, 10 groundball outs and two Ks and it was good night…. Except in the fourth and fifth he left a lot of pitches up that were spanked. It looked like Valencia kept reminding Mendez to stay out in front rather than fly open on delivery.
I like him more than most. He’s not going to wow you with “stuff”, but to me, there’s a lot there with that changeup that tantalizes hitters to swing… and miss. He has to keep his pitches down, as there’s not enough otherwise to keep him from getting mauled on the mound.
The Greenville (S.C.) Drive rallied with two runs in the fifth and one in the sixth to defeat the Hickory Crawdads in front of 3,625 fans, many of whom spent the 10:30 a.m. matinee in line at the lemonade stand at L.P. Frans Stadium.
The win for the Drive (35-23) snaps both their three-game losing streak and the Crawdads (23-36) three-game winning streak. Pending today’s other action in the South Atlantic League’s Southern Division, the Drive is guaranteed at least a three-game lead with 11 games to play in the first-half title chase. Columbia (S.C.) already defeated Lexington (Ky.) today and is three back. Rome (Ga.) will play at in-state rival Augusta this evening. The Braves started the day 2 ½ games behind the first-place Drive.
The loss assured the Crawdads first sub-.500 record for a half-season since the second-half of the 2009 season. Hickory is now simply trying to avoid its first last-place finish since their affiliation with the Pirates ended in 2008. They entered the day two games behind sixth-place Delmarva (Md.). The Crawdads worst half-season record as a Rangers affiliate came in the 2009 second half with they finished 30-40.
The Greenville started the game with a single by Chris Madera and a walk issued by Edgar Arredondo (2-3) to Santiago Espinal. One out later, Tyler Hill doubled to left to score Madera.
Hickory pounced back with two of its own in the bottom of the first against Darwinzon Hernandez. With two outs and the bases empty, Yanio Perez singled and then walks to Ti’Quan Forbes and Alex Kowalczyk loaded the bases. Carlos Garay hit a broken-bat, jam-shot blooper into shallow center to score both Perez and Forbes.
That turned out to be almost the last of the Crawdads offense as Robby Sexton replaced Hernandez in the second and was nearly unhittable in earning his first pro win (1-5). The lefty, a 14th-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2016 out of Wright State, retired the first 11 and 18 of the 20 hitters he faced.
Greenville vaulted ahead 3-2 in the fifth with two runs that came after the Crawdads missed a chance for the third out. Mitchell Gunsolus doubled and one out later moved to third on Arredondo’s wild pitch. Madera joined him on the bases when he was hit by a pitch. The key play of the inning occurred when Espinal flew out to shallow right. Jose Almonte made the catch and while Gunsolus held at third, Madera, for some unknown reason, tagged up from first and tried to advance to second. 1B Yanio Perez cut the ball off, but his throw to second to cut down Madera was high and the runner slid in safely. Ryan Scott singled in both runners to give the Drive a lead they would never relinquish.
Greenville used a two-out rally for a run in the sixth. Reliever Christian Torres loaded the bases by sandwiching walks to Gunsolus and Madera around a single by Carlos Tovar. Espinal hit a liner that was initially caught when SS Yeyson Yrizarri made a leaping grab. However, the ball tumbled out as he fell to the ground and that scored Gunsolus.
Franklin Rollin hit his third homer of the season in the eighth off closer Stephen Nogosek (11th save). However, Madera returned serve with his third homer of the season to start the ninth and accounted for the final score.
A missed opportunity for the final out in the fifth aside, the game came down to the ability of the pitchers to throw strikes. When Hernandez couldn’t throw strikes in the first (32 pitches, 16 strikes), the Drive moved quickly to shuffle in Sexton and he was brilliant. He mixed in a few breaking balls to miss bats – especially to Jose Almonte and Alex Kowalczyk – but it appeared he stayed with a fastball that was 88-90 according to the pitch trackers with a few changeups mixed in. Sexton (65 pitches, 46 strikes) moved the ball around well, hit spots and the Crawdads never really made solid contact against him.
Arredondo’s fastball was in the 90-92 range with iffy command and he had difficulty getting any of his secondary pitches (change, curve, slider) over the plate. He finished with just 57 strikes out of 87 pitches through 4 2/3 innings.
Christian Torres walks (32 pitches, 19 strikes) cost him a run in the sixth, though he used his change effectively in getting out of Arredondo’s jam in the fifth.
Early-run woes continue:
The first-inning run by Greenville was the 30th time in 59 games that an opponent has performed that feat. Further, Hickory has kept the opposition off the scoreboard over the first three innings just nine times.
Center field prospects take the day off:
Hickory’s Leody Taveras – the Texas Rangers No. 1 prospect – had his second straight off day on Wednesday. He had missed only one game this season prior to this week and on the heels of a 1-for-18 weekend at Delmarva (Md.) a chance to rest and regroup could be what is needed for now.
Greenville’s Lorenzo Cedrola – the Boston Red Sox No. 15 prospect – sat out on the heels of getting pulled from Tuesday’s game for not running out a groundball.
Tuesday night, it was the last place (Northern Division) Hickory Crawdads against the first place (Southern Division) Greenville (S.C.) Drive. So of course, the Crawdads won 2-1 at L.P. Frans Stadium.
The win was the third straight (23-35) for Hickory and sent the Drive (34-23) to their third loss in a row. However, the loss didn’t harm Greenville in the chase for the first-half Southern Division title. It remains 2 ½ ahead of second-place Rome (Ga.), which lost at Augusta (Ga.). However, Columbia (S.C.) moves to three games out with 12 to play.
Four Crawdads pitchers combined to hold the Drive to seven baserunners and Ti’Quan Forbes drove in both runs, including the go-ahead tally in the eighth.
Michael Matuella retired nine of the first ten hitters he faced before Santiago Espinal hit a sharp grounder up the middle. Espinal stole second and scored when Ryan Scott lined a hard single to center to chance Matuella.
Hickory got even in the bottom of the inning against starter Bryan Mata. Yanio Perez singled with one out and moved to second on a wild pitch before Forbes singled him in.
Mata held the Crawdads in check through the sixth innings as he allowed just the one run on four hits, one walk, and fanned six.
Kaleb Fontenot quelled further damage by Greenville in the fourth and went on to pitch three scoreless. He struck out three and allowed a walk and a hit.
Hickory’s Matt Smoral and Matthew Gorst matched scoreless seventh innings before action for both sides in the eighth determined the final score. Smoral walked Chris Madera to start the eighth and that prompted manager Spike Owen to bring in Reid Anderson. Espinal failed at two sacrifice attempts before Anderson got him looking. Scott then bounced back to the mound and Tyler Hill flew out to right to end the threat.
Gorst retired the first two hitters in the eighth before the Crawdads put together three hits. Miguel Aparicio lined to right, Perez followed with an opposite field liner to right. Forbes then singled to left to score Aparicio.
Roldani Baldwin singled to start the ninth and moved to second with one out on a wild pitch. Anderson then struck out Isaias Lucena and got Mitchell Gunsolus to ground out to second and end the game.
“We haven’t had a lot of those from the standpoint of solid pitching, good defense and timely hitting,” said Owen. “That was a fun game. A 2-1 game, obviously, you want to be on the winning side of it, but that’s all we’re looking for is good baseball. That was a good baseball game.”
Forbes back to April?:
Ti’Quan Forbes was a pleasant surprise when he cranked out a bunch of homers and hits to start the season. Then, what seemed like a hitch showed up in the swing in the latter part of April and was it made him late on fastballs. He also swung through a ton of breaking balls.
During the last homestand, Forbes seemed to have an approach of taking everything up the middle and away and was able to pick up the breaking pitches better, but was still able to stay on the fastball.
Mata chewed him up with breaking pitches (looked like sliders) in the second for a strikeout. In the fourth, Forbes waited back on the curveball and bounced it along the line and past third. In the eighth, he sat dead-red and ambushed a fastball to left.
He now has a six-game hitting streak (8-for-24). Over a longer stretch, he has hits in 15 of the last 18 games, five of those with two hits. More importantly for him, he has just 10 Ks in that stretch over 69 plate appearances (14.4%). Forbes whiffed 27% of the time in April. He still needs to work the occasional walk, but he’s seeing the ball better and making contact.
Matuella no-match for the Drive:
The Rangers pitch trackers had him at 96-98 mph and most of his secondaries were changeups. There seemed to be a few sliders mixed in, but I was told they were changes. He needed only 38 pitches (27 strikes) to get through the third and so having him go to the fourth seemed to be an easy call. The first sign of trouble got him pulled.
“He had a good fastball and threw some changeups,” Crawdads manager Spike Owen said. “He’s still on a pitch limit and once action started happening in the fourth, we went ahead and went to the pen.”
As good as his stuff is, whether Matuella is tiring or hitters are adjusting to him, the few times he faces the lineup the second time through the order, he is getting hit. Both hits tonight came the second time through the order and both were smacked hard. He’s faced the order a second time in four starts and thus far hitters are 6-for-15 (2 Ks) with two doubles, a hit batter and a sac fly. There are adjustments to be made on Matuella’s part as to what he offers the hitters.
Fontenot signaling he is ready to become a DEWD?:
He throws 91-92 with a slider, change and curveball. When he is on, the fastball is spotted well and he can befuddle hitters with the breaking stuff. His 12.54 Ks per 9 innings (52 Ks in 37.1 IP this season) is the fifth best among SAL relievers.
Over the last four outings, he has allowed two hits, hit two, walked three and struck out 14 over 11.2 innings.
“Fotenot’s been outstanding all year,” said Owen. “He can flat out pitch. He throws harder than you think and he can put it where he wants. He’s got a good changeup and slider he can throw at any time in the count, so he’s able to keep them off balance. He’s not afraid to throw an offspeed pitch behind in the count. He’s been really good.”
Smoral and Anderson:
Smoral’s fastball was at 85-87 with iffy command which led to two walks of the five hitters he faced. He was able to get the slider to miss bats and it accounted for the lone K. His delivery out of the stretch is glacially deliberate and it led to his removal Smoral walked the leadoff hitter in the eighth with the game tied.
“He could’ve went more, but his situation was once he walked the leadoff guy, we wanted to be able to control the running game better,” said Owen. “He’s slow to the plate and we didn’t want to ask him to do something he’s not comfortable doing right now.”
The outing for Anderson was a needed one, as tonight was just the fourth scoreless outing in 13 appearances (2 starts). He attacked the strike zone with the fastball, pounding 17 of his 23 pitches for strikes.
“I’m happy for him and I hope he can gain some confidence off that in a tight game, coming in with a go-ahead run at first base and doing what he did,” said Owen. “Then once we took the lead, coming back and attacking the strike zone.”
The Drive entered Tuesday night’s game on the heels of two straight shutouts, the last a 17-0 pasting on Sunday by Charleston. So, when Drive CF Lorenzo Cedrola (Red Sox No. 15 prospect) jogged unenthusiastically to first on a 4-3 grounder to start the game, it was not received well. 1B coach Wilton Veras gave him an earful as he returned to the dugout and manager Darren Fenster took out the lineup card in the third-base coach’s box.
Surprisingly, Cedrola took the field in the bottom of the first, though he did not return for the second.
What’s the Mata?:
The 18-year-old from Maracay, Venezuela has impressed in his first three stateside starts. The Red Sox No. 27 prospect has now 16 Ks in 15 innings with 11 hits and five walks allowed. On Tuesday, he was clocked in the 90-92 mph range with which he was able to paint the corners for punchouts. Add in a curveball that had some bite and found the strike zone, Mata was tough to solve at times. However, the curve could be loopy and Forbes was able to wait on one long enough for an RBI single in the fourth.
From what I saw, there’s a lot for Red Sox fans to be excited about.
Hickory Crawdads (Texas Rangers) (20-33, 7th place South Atlantic League Northern Division) at Delmarva (Md.) Shorebirds (Baltimore Orioles) (21-30, 6th place Northern)
The Hickory Crawdads make the trip to Salisbury, Md. to take on the Delmarva Shorebirds in a four-game series.
If you plan to go:
GAME TIMES: Thursday – Saturday 7:05 p.m., Sunday 2:05 p.m.
Promotions: Thursday – Thirsty Thursday. Friday – Orange Friday Jersey Draw String Bag Giveaway. Saturday: Post-Game Fireworks. Sunday – Strike Out Hunger Sunday (Bring 2 canned food items and get an upper-reserved ticket for $3
TICKETS: $8 Upper Reserved for children, seniors or military, other tickets $9-14. Add $1 on game day.
Where is it?: From U.S. 13, takes U.S. 50 East toward Ocean City. Turn right onto Hobbs Rd.
CONCESSIONS: Hot Corner Grill, Scoop It Up, Angus Stand, Bird’s Eye Café, Sweet Shop, Dip N Dots, Pizza Stand.
PROBABLES (Hickory/ Delmarva):
Thursday: LHP Sal Mendez vs. LHP Alex Wells
Friday: RHP Matt Ball vs. RHP Lucas Humpal
Saturday: TBA vs. LHP Travis Seabrooke
Sunday: RHP Kyle Cody vs. LHP Zach Muckenhirn
Recent Series History: The Crawdads went 7-6 against the Shorebirds in 2016, including a 3-2 record at Purdue Stadium. Hickory has dominated the series since the affiliation with the Rangers began in 2009 with a 65-41 overall record. The Crawdads are 29-23 in Maryland. Hickory has won every season-series against the Shorebirds since 2009, except for the 2015 season when Delmarva edged Hickory 5-6.
About the Crawdads:
Hickory enters the series on a 3-9 skid, which includes a 2-5 homestand that ended on Wednesday… The SAL-worst pitching staff took a hit on the roster when No. 1 starter Jonathan Hernandez and arguably its best reliever Tyler Ferguson were promoted to High-A Down East. Hickory finished May with the league’s worst ERA for the second straight month. The Crawdads are last in the SAL in ERA (5.36), WHIP (1.51), hits allowed, runs allowed and earned runs allowed… The hitters found it rough going against the Intimidators, scoring five runs in three games. The lone win of the series with Kannapolis was a 1-0 win. As a team, the Crawdads showed improvement in May (.268/.314/.381) compared to April (.235/.306/.394). Hickory is tied for second in HRs (43), but next to last in walks received. Two big bats return to the lineup as 1B/ OF Yanio Perez (finger) and 2B Yeyson Yrizarri (hamstring) recovered from injuries.
Prospects to watch- Hickory:
CF Leody Taveras (No. 1 MLB.com and Baseball America, No. 43 Baseball America top-100 prospects, No. 51 MLB.com top-100): Signed as international free agent 2015 out of Tenares, Dominican Republic. After 4 straight games without a hit, Taveras has hits in eight of the last nine games, including the last five, during which he has not struck out. He is 11-for-34 in that stretch with a double and a triple.
SS Anderson Tejeda (No. 7 MLB.com, No. 16 Baseball America). Signed as an international free agent in 2015 out of Bani, D.R. After a .204/.257/.347 May at the plate and 9 errors in the field, he is ready to turn the page of the calendar. Though he remains fourth in the SAL in Ks (62), the rate he is striking out has decreased. After whiffing at a 40% rate in April, that dropped to 29% in May.
LF Miguel Aparicio (No. 14 Baseball America, No. 29 MLB.com). Signed as an international free agent in 2015 out of San Carlos, Venezuela. Is 4-for-25 (.160) over the last 8 games and is at .186/.278/.271 in 21 games. However, he has making adequate contact with a 20% K rate to go with seven walks in 79 plate appearances.
OF Yanio Perez (No. 15 MLB.com, 27 Baseball America): Signed as an international free agent out of Havana, Cuba. Back after missing over a week with a finger injury, Perez looks to pick up where he left off. He leads the SAL in slugging (.621) and OPS (1.050) and is second in batting avg. (.357) and on-base pct. (.429).
2B Yeyson Yrizarri (No. 17 MLB.com): Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of the D.R. Missed five days from a hamstring injury. Went 0-for-5 in his return on Wednesday. Posted a .321/.357/.385 slash in May.
RF Jose Almonte (No. 28 MLB.com): Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of Santo Domingo, D.R. Has a hit in each of his last four games and poked two of his three homers during the homestand.
About the Shorebirds:
Managed by Damon Minor in his seventh season (397-488) with the Shorebirds over two stints… The Shorebirds return home after taking two of three at first-place Hagerstown and splitting a four-game series at Lakewood (N.J.)… Offensively, Delmarva has struggled to find runs. The Shorebirds have scored two runs total in their last four losses. The strike zone has been a problem as Delmarva is strikeouts and third from the bottom in walks.
Prospects to watch – Delmarva:
LHP Alex Wells: (No. 15 MLB.com, No.25 Baseball America) Signed as an international free agent in 2015 out of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. Named an Orioles organizational all-star by MLB.com in 2016. Was roughed up in his last outing on May 26, but much of it came as the result of five errors, which led to eight unearned runs. With the exception of a six-run outburst on May 15 (three homers allowed), Wells has given up two or fewer runs in all other eight starts. Has 35 Ks to just 8 walks over 44.1 innings. His 2.01 ERA is seventh in the SAL.
LHP Zach Muckenhirn (No. 26 MLB.com, No. 28 Baseball America) 11th-round pick in 2016 out of North Dakota. Despite allowing 17 hits over his last two starts, he has allowed just four earned runs over those 12 innings. SAL have hit him at a .314 clips this season. His 70 hits allowed are a SAL high.
Nearly every athlete will repeat the mantra, “control what you can control”. While at Duke, Michael Matuella’s right arm seemed to be in control of a future destiny.
As a sophomore for the Blue Devils in 2014, Matuella allowed just 55 baserunners and struck out 69 over 58.1 innings. Towering at 6-7 on the mound the downward angle of his 97-mph fastball along with a developing change, and an advanced feel for the curve and slider, Matuella was on the track as a possible first-overall pick in the 2015 first-year player draft. This, despite dealing with spondylolysis in the lower back.
Then, a little more than two months ahead of the June draft. the dreaded MRI confirmed a different destiny: “Tommy John” surgery.
Almost two years after his selection by the Texas Rangers in the third round – and in the process getting first-round bonus money, a reported $2 million – Matuella finally has his pro career underway. The innings are limited, the results aren’t always pretty, but Matuella is healthy and ready see his long months of rehab pay off.
I had a chance to interview Matuella a little over two weeks ago in preparation for a feature writeup. Here is that interview:
How did you get started in baseball?
Matuella: I’ve been playing as long as I can remember. I have an older brother; he’s four years older than me. I just remember just going out in the yard and playing with him and my dad. That just grew as I started playing travel ball, at whatever age that was, through middle school.
Obviously, I played in high school and my coach, he really pushed me to be the best that I can be there. He saw the potential in me to go Division I. I had the offer to Duke and I absolutely loved it. I had another offer to Maryland, but from the first visit I had there, I loved the place and the people. Duke is really where I took off, where I had the little velocity jump and where I started to figure some things out. My command really improved and it shifted my mentality to a more aggressive one. That’s how I got here today.
Who was your high school coach?
Matuella: Chris Rodriguez
What were some things that he said or did that helped you along to where you are now?
Matuella: I remember, this was the fall of my sophomore year. I was on JV my freshman year and by the fall of my sophomore year I started doing some workouts and he told me I was just as good as his seniors on the team and I could go Division 1 wherever I wanted if I put in all of the work. I think I hadn’t really thought of it like that until that point, but then I realized like, “Wait, this could be a possibility.” That’s when I really started dedicated myself to becoming the best I could be.
Did you have any inkling that professional sports could be a career for you until that point?
Matuella: I would say that point came even later. I admit, I was just thinking step by step at that point. Then, once I got to Duke, probably my freshman year, that I really decided, “Alright, I want to pursue this and I want to see what I can do.” I didn’t know if it was possible yet. My sophomore year, that’s when I realized that this is going to be a thing for me if I keep putting in the work. It definitely started in high school where I was going from working hard and playing and enjoying the game, obviously competing and wanting to win, to where I said, “I can actually maybe take this a step further” and that’s what carried over again at Duke.
You went to Duke, which is not known as a powerhouse, but the program has turned out some players, Marcus Stroman being at the top of that list. What sort of things have happened to help turn that program around to where they are starting to produce some talent?
Matuella: I would say the coaching staff was a big one. Chris Pollard, he didn’t actually recruit me. There was an entirely new coaching staff when I get there my freshman year. I think he’s done a really good job, not only developing players physically, but also really hammering home the mental side of things. I think that’s been really huge for everyone. I really benefitted from that kind of stuff. A lot of people spend time on the physical side, but not as much on the mental side. I think that that’s a huge reason.
Once you see a couple of guys like Stroman that get drafted, and then there was my class. The class above me had three or four guys drafted, then my class had three guys. Basically, it’s been three to four guys every year the past four or five years or so. It’s good to see some more guys go into pro ball.
That’s (ACC) a tough league, especially that they’ve added Louisville and Notre Dame during your time.
Matuella: It’s a lot of fun playing in it though. You know every weekend there’s going to be a really good opponent and you have to really be ready and locked in. I always looked forward to those ACC weekends.
Does that sort of competition helps, not only the program, but the individuals to have that competition against other potential top prospects? How did that help you looking ahead to getting drafted and prepare you for the pros?
Matuella: I think a lot of the talent you see in the ACC – and you see that in other leagues as well, like the SEC and these other top programs that are turning out pro guys – you’re seeing professional level talent. I think it really prepares you, especially knowing you can do well in that setting, that prepares you for pro ball mentally, to where I was like, “I know I can get guys out like this.” Obviously, it’s a step up to pro ball, but for me, it gives me confidence to know, “Alright, I’ve been there before” and “I’ve done well against guys like that.” It gives me confidence to know that if I can pitch my game, I’ll be fine.
So, when you start hearing potential 1/1, what does that say in your mind during that stretch when you’re looking ahead to 2015 and you think, “My gosh, I could be first overall.”
Matuella: I really tried not to think about that at all. I tried to just focus on the work I had to do in and the preparation I had to put in for the 2015 season. Sure, you hear the rumors, but you try not to get distracted by it. You just try to focus in on and lock in on the daily routine and what you have to do to get better.
So, tell me about the back injury. I tried to pronounce it before I came here and still can’t get it right.
Matuella: It’s called spondylolysis. It sounds a lot worse than it is. It’s basically a lot of people have it. It’s something that I manage. I’ve been asymptomatic for two years. I don’t feel it. It’s something that once you do the rehab and once you develop a stronger core and basically develop strength all around that, you just don’t feel it.
Is it upper or lower back?
Matuella: Lower back. You can have it on any of the vertebrae, but I guess it’s more common to be lower.
Was it something that was spurred by all the pitching motions and the twists and turns?
Matuella: You just never know what contributed to it. There’s probably a number of things. Pitching, probably, contributes to it, but also weightlifting. Really a lot of stuff, the running, jumping. There’s a lot of guys, I think they estimated that probably 20 percent of athletes have that injury, but they don’t know they have it because it’s not causing any issues. So, for me, I’m at that point – and I’ve been at the point for a while now – where it’s not a big deal for me. It’s not that I’m frustrated with people – and I’m not frustrated by the question – but some people are really scared by it. I feel like a normal person and I don’t think it’s a big deal at all.
Then you get the “Tommy John” stuff. How long after the back injury did that start?
Matuella: I was cleared to throw in January 2015, which was basically when our spring practices started. It was March 27 in my last game when I injured it. It was only about two-and-a-half months.
Was it something that suddenly came up? Did you have issues before?
Matuella: It was pretty sudden. After my first start, I took the next weekend off, just because I was feeling some tightness in my forearm. We got the MRI and it showed that it was fine. So, I basically went on with a clear head. We felt that the innings might be too much, after I had gone out there for six innings.
They threw me back out there for one inning and then three innings and then four innings. I basically felt it on one pitch. I didn’t feel any popping sensation or pulling sensation. It just felt like a lot of pain in there, so I didn’t think it was UCL until we got the MRI and saw that it was. That was frustrating.
What was your mindset at that point, which, of course, you couldn’t be happy?
Matuella: I was honestly shocked. I couldn’t believe it when the doctor told me the news and he showed me the MRI. I just couldn’t believe it. It didn’t cross my mind that was going to be what it was. Obviously, after that it was pretty tough for the next couple of days to process it and then reset my focus and acknowledge that “Tommy John” was going to happen. So, I started to focus on what I had to do each day to get better and come back from that.
Did you have any worries that you wouldn’t recover from it?
Matuella: No, I never did. I came out fully confident. It’s interesting at how common it is now. People just do it and it’s not a big deal. A lot of people have done it and a lot of people recover from it.
Did you have any worries as to how that was going to be perceived in the draft and where you might go and would you have to come back to Duke another year?
Matuella: I definitely knew that there were going to be some teams turned off by that. I think for me it wasn’t worry as much as I was annoyed because I know how I worked and I know how good I can be and I know that this isn’t going to be a big deal for me in the long run.
For me, it wasn’t worry like, “Am I going to do this?” or “Am I going to be able to come back and pitch again?” It was more like, teams shouldn’t be thrown by that. I was hoping they would judge me based on what I would do going forward versus the injury.
You dropped to the third round. Obviously, the Rangers saw something in you and were able to sign you above what they would normally pay a third-rounder. Tell me about those conversations with the Rangers.
Matuella: The Rangers, they were probably one of the teams that contacted me the most and they were the most interested from the beginning. So, I was happy that they did a lot of research on me and I really appreciated how much research they did on my back issue and, obviously, everyone knows about “Tommy John”.
I had talked with them prior to actually getting picked by them. They had put together a plan for me moving forward about they wanted to me to do and where they wanted me to go and a timeline for certain things. I was super impressed and super happy that they were so invested and put so much time and thought into what my program would be. It was awesome and I’m really happy to be with the Rangers.
Who helped you through the process? “Tommy John” is common and all that, but there are still some guys who go through this and never really get it back. Who helped you mentally through that process? I met you ten minutes ago and you’ve got such a positive attitude.
Matuella: Definitely my parents are a big one. They’re always there to talk and always there to keep me positive whenever I’m feeling down, or I’m feeling upset by things.They were always at Duke, too, which was awesome. They came for every weekend series. So, I got to see a lot of them and they’re always available to talk whenever I want.
My coaches at Duke at the time were really helpful. They were very positive with me. I had a couple of teammates that had undergone “Tommy John”. One was about a year earlier and one was about six months earlier. I had talked to them about what the process was like, so that was really helpful. There’s really so many people. I talked with my coaches. They were super upset for me because you never want to see an athlete go down with that type of injury. They weren’t upset about me not being able to pitch for the team. They were upset for me as a person not being able to pitch, which I thought was really nice.
The coaches I had for three years there and even afterward, I still stayed in contact with them when I went back there to take classes this fall taking classes. They’ve were super thoughtful and just caring, really overall caring. They asked how I’m doing and wanting me to do well for me, not just for the program. Obviously, I want to do well for the program. I love representing Duke and I loved representing Duke while I was there. A ton of people, as you can gather.
You pitched last year at Spokane and you get the one start in and here you are again. Take me through that process. That had to be more mental than physical.
Matuella: That was a lot tough mentally than the first time around, because the first time around I was like, “Alright, I’m going to get the surgery, not a big deal.” There’s no expectations of re-injury. Then it was like, “Whoa, what just happened?” and “How did that happen again?” So, there was a lot of frustration and a lot of questions of why it happened and how did that happen again. But it doesn’t do a lot of good to ask “what if?” or going back and thinking in the past. It was really tough because I had come off an injury that I’d spent 14 months to that point rehabbing.
To go down and know that you’re done for the season again and you won’t be able to pitch again until opening day – not that I was here opening day – but it wound up being ten months. That was tough and that was definitely a lot tougher to walk in and focus on what I was doing each day. I think, looking back, I’m even stronger for it, mentally and physically, to be able to push through as tough a time like that. Not that I had to go back to square one, because I didn’t have to have surgery again, but to really get knocked on my butt again. It wasn’t fun, but I’m glad I avoided surgery.
Did you pitch at instructionals?
They basically shut you down until spring?
Matuella: Yeah, I didn’t begin my throwing until the beginning of October, so they gave me plenty of time to heal up.
How do you feel now?
Matuella: I feel good. Overall, I feel good.
Results aside, how much more do you appreciate being on the mound than you did in 2015?
Matuella: Coming back from the first injury and the surgery, I definitely appreciated every time I stepped on the mound, whether that was a bullpen or that was pitching in an extended game or at Spokane. But this time around, even more so knowing it’s been a couple of years since I’ve had a chance to go out there and compete the way I’m supposed to compete. It makes you appreciate it. You just never know with certain things and so many guys that go down with injuries and it stinks. But you just deal with it and you appreciate what you have each day.
Do you worry so much with results at this point as opposed to going out there and getting your work in?
Matuella: Obviously, you want to get results, too. This season is a lot about me being to get through it healthy, but I’m not going to happy unless I’m pitching well and doing what I need to do on the mound to pitch well.
If you get through the season with the health as opposed to the results, which are you happier with?
Matuella: Obviously, I need to be healthy and I need to be able to move forward and pitch and have a full season under my belt. But, like I said, it’s not like I’m going to be happy if I’m pitching, but doing crappy every outing. There needs to be both in order for me to be happy.
First outing, you got some pitches up, but got through it and then you had a couple of rough outings. What’s been the fine line for you right now to have success?
Matuella: Making sure that I’m commanding the fastball. I think you’re going to hear that out of anyone on the team that you talk to. That’s a big emphasis the Rangers have. For me, I need to make sure that I am committing to pitch down in the zone as opposed to committing to pitch in the zone. You’re going to get hurt if you stay up too much. You’ve got to mix up the eye level at some time, but I think I do a better job if I stick to a pitch down in the zone. I just need to keep working on that. I had a really good bullpen this past week, so I can’t wait to get out there tomorrow.
How was it pitching against Tim Tebow in your first outing?
Matuella: I really don’t pay attention to hitters that I’m facing. I’m just kind of looking at it like, there’s a left-handed hitter up there. After the first swing, you could read that he wasn’t going to time a fastball, so we just kept pounding fastballs. It was nice to see a big crowd there, I’ll say that. It’s really impressive that he brings the crowd everywhere he goes.
Obviously, he was a big story, but that was a big story involving you, too, a convergence of two stories.
Matuella: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. The adrenaline was high. It was a lot of fun being able to look around and soak it all in and like, I’m back in the game. I’m here with an affiliate and a sold-out game. It was just a lot of fun.
Are you getting an idea of how long they will let you throw, maybe 50-60 pitches?
Matuella: I’m not entirely sure. I’m sure it will be a little bit longer. I think the more important thing this year is that I take the ball every six games. You don’t want to get too crazy with the innings, given the back-to-back injures, which is why I’m not too sure when it’s going to expand. I doubt I’ll ever go 100 pitches; I’m not entirely sure of that this season. Obviously, I want to pitch as much as I can, but I understand the plan the Rangers have in place for me.
Are you throwing much of the breaking ball right now?
Matuella: A little bit. I’ll start incorporating it some more, but the Rangers big emphasis is on establishing fastballs and fastball command. So, I’m really trying to stick to that.
When you get a call to major leagues, who is the first person you call?
Matuella: My parents. That will be a great conversation to have and I look forward to that one. Definitely, my parents.
Who is the next non-family member?
Matuella: Does my girlfriend count? She’s been there for me and she’s been super helpful mentally to be able to block stuff out. She’s the one that helps keep me really positive in times when I’m struggling. There’s been, obviously, a lot of those over the past couple of years.
What’s the biggest thing mentally you’ve learned through all this?
Matuella: The biggest thing is to stay consistent. Stay pitch-to-pitch and not focus on the outing-to-outing, but each pitch. You have to be consistent with your approach on every single pitch with a routine, and with how you step on the mound. Basically, doing the same thing every time, no matter what happened the pitch before, whether you struck the dude out on a great pitch, or he just hit a bomb. You step in knowing that this pitch is the only pitch that matters.
Is there an inspirational poster moment or quote that has stuck in your mind?
There’s an article that came out in 2010 in Sports Illustrated that’s called, “What Makes Roy Run?” It’s about Roy Halladay and basically his story about how he was a first-round pick and he made it all the way to the big leagues in his second year. He fell flat on his face and he really struggled and got demoted all the way down to single-A.
He basically emerged as a different pitcher and a different style of pitcher and he emerged as the best pitcher of that generation for a number of years. There’s a lot of details in there about his work ethic and the consistency he had and the mental approach that he had. I actually just read it again the other day. I’ve read it, I don’t know how many times now, but every time it’s super interesting to me. He was my favorite pitcher growing up. I definitely think that article is a cool one.
Following the interview with Matuella, I had a chance to get Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes’s perspective on the progress of Matuella.
How do you see Matuella progressing on the mound in just throwing pitches?
Jaimes: I think so far, we don’t have any concerns results wise. It’s more about him healthy. It’s been almost 16 months basically, since he got hurt last year. He’s going through a little tough time mentally wise. Naturally, he has some concerns about his elbow and his arm, but for the most part he’s getting better. His last bullpen was pretty good, so it’s a process for him just to trust he’s fully healthy. Hopefully, the next start will be better, but we don’t have any concerns about what he can do on the field. It’s more about him staying positive and knowing that all the work he put in the last year and a half is good for him.
Is there any concern about him not wanting to cut it loose and let go?
Jaimes: Yeah, most of the time when guys coming off an injury, it takes them a month just to get through that. They’re afraid to feel something in there. The last bullpen, he actually said, “you know what, I’m going to let it go and whatever happens, happens.” It was a good start for him.