The Hickory Crawdads are off to one of the best starts in the 23-season history of the club. Going into Sunday’s game at Augusta – which will mark the halfway point of the “first half” – the Crawdads are 25-9 and sit 5 ½ games ahead of second-place West Virginia Power. Hickory returns home Monday to face the Power in a three-game series.
I spoke to Manager Corey Ragsdale after the finale of the last home stand on Tuesday to get an assessment of his team a quarter of the way through the season.
When the team comes back from this road trip, you’ll be at the halfway point of the first half. I’d like to get your assessment overall. You’re 31 games in and you’re still at single digits in losses (22-9 at the time of the question). Overall, that’s not a bad thing.
Ragsdale: No, it’s always a good thing when you win some games. Obviously, it’s a credit to the guys the way they’ve been playing. It hasn’t been quite as good as of late, but the pitching has actually picked up a tick lately and carried us a little bit. But, that’s what good teams do, they find a way to win and lately, these guys have grinded out some games and found a way to get it done. I’m not sure how every night, but they’ve been able to do it. It’s a little nerve racking at times, but looking back, yeah, it’s been a pretty good first 30 games.
Let me ask you about the pitching. The starters have pretty much night in and night out given you five or six innings and hold them a lot of times to zero or one run, and no more than two for the most part.
Ragsdale: The starters have been awesome. Anytime you can get pitching like we have, it makes life a lot easier. Jurado, a 19-year-old kid, has been going out there and working that sinker. All of the other guys have just fit in and followed along and done very well. Collin Wiles putting up zeroes left and right. He’s stepped his game up and is a little bit of a different pitcher that we saw last year. Obviously Ortiz is very talented and has done very well so far this year.
You know what, I think one of the things our guys do is that they compete. That’s been one thing we’ve been trying to work on with these guys is competing for the other guys, even if you don’t have your best stuff – competing for the other guys that are trying their hardest, too. That starts with the starting pitching. Everybody else sees the starters going out there and grinding it out and putting up zeroes and doing the best that the possibly can. It breeds a good feeling. It breeds a winning atmosphere. It breeds a determination where all the guys kind of pull on the rope in the same direction. It’s been really run and we’ll see how long we can keep it going.
What’s been the biggest surprise so far in that area (Pitching)? I know you expect they will all do what they do, but the reality is they don’t.
Ragsdale: You hope they go out and do well. To be honest, at the start of the year I just wasn’t sure about some of the guys – as it always is at this level, the first year out and a full season and all that stuff – but you’re not quite sure how guys are going to come out of the gate. But for the most part, everybody has been pretty good. All those bullpen pieces that we’re running out there – and a 17-inning game (vs. Savannah on May 9) gets us out of whack a little bit – we’re able to run guys out there every night that are putting up zeroes and holding onto what the starters have done.
I guess the one thing I would say is that no matter who you would put in what situation, they’ve been able to get that job done for the most part. Whether it’s guys you weren’t sure about and they wind up at the back end of the bullpen and they’ve handled it fine, or vice versa. Guys that maybe you thought were going to be a one-inning guy that maybe you’ve had to stretch out and they gave you three zeros and they gave you a chance to win. I think that would be the biggest surprise is that no matter what the situation you’ve been able to put the pitching staff in, they’ve come through.
You mentioned Wiles earlier. He’s sort of seemed to figure out what kind of pitcher he is. He’s not going to blow it by guys and realizes that now, and he’s okay with getting the contact.
Ragsdale: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think he’s just going out there confident in what he has now, knowing what he has, and working what he has. Like you said, he’s not trying to blow fastballs by people. He knows he’s going to be in the low 90s or upper 80s and he’s going to need to mix in the other stuff to go with it. And he’s been able to do that. He’s mixed in three pitches for strikes any time he’s wanted. At this level, if you can do that you’re going to be pretty good. Obviously, he’s still working on some things, but he’s got a feel to pitch and that helps out for sure.
At the start of the year you had seven out of 11 position players that were here before. Then you add (Luke) Tendler and (Jose) Trevino and a couple of nice pieces in that mix. For the most part, this has been a lineup that has done some damage.
Ragsdale: To start the year, they swung the bats well. And you know everybody’s not going to hit .420 all year. So, some of the guys are coming down off of that a little bit. Losing Guzie (first baseman Ronald Guzman), obviously, was good for him, and it’s good for the rest of these guys, too. It gives the other guys a chance to hit in the middle of the order and stuff like that. But, I think losing Guzie and some of those guys kind of coming down off of that high to begin with, they’re kind of finding themselves a little bit more right now. I think they’ll settle back in.
With Luke and Jose and Tripp (Martin) for the most part in the middle of the order and Jairo (Beras) there on the back end, I think they’ll be alright and they’ll be able to put some stuff together. Obviously, Travis (Demeritte) staying up front and in the middle of the lineup. We’ve got some guys that can do some things, for sure. You get those guys in front of them on base, they’ve got a chance to drive in some runs. They’ve got a chance to be good and we’ll see how it continues.
It looks like Trevino has been a keystone in a lot of ways. You see him get a key double today (during a decisive 8th inning rally in a win over Savannah on May 12) and you see him jacking the guys up and suddenly there’s a different feel to that inning.
Ragsdale: No doubt. He’s a special kid. He likes to compete. You want guys like that behind the plate. He brings good energy. He competes. He wants to win. He wants to make the other guys better. It just so happens he’s swing the bat really well and catching pretty good too. When all of that stuff comes together, you get a pretty good player. That’s what he’s been. He’s been really good for us. He’s been hitting in the four hole most of the year and catching. He’s been a big part of that pitching staff as well. We kind of put a game plan together and he helps those guys follow that game plan and get through it. He’s been a huge part of that success so far.
(Jairo) Beras is back after an extended time away with the quad injury and a brief inactive period. How has his progress been?
Ragsdale: It’s good. Early, it looked like he was pressing a little bit the first game or two that he played. He had the leg injury. I think what that did is that allowed him to go back to Arizona, rehab that a little bit and allow him to settle down. He got into some games down there to get him ready before he came back. He’s been better.
What we’d like for him to do is to continue to build off that second half he had last year and see where he develops throughout the year. I think he probably put a little pressure on himself early and I think he’s kind of settling down into that. He’s going to be fine.
In the field, you’ve got essentially three shortstops playing in the infield and they’ve done yeoman’s work helping that pitching.
Ragsdale: We’ve talked a lot about that – about how defense gives the pitcher confidence to throw it, and pitchers getting up there and how throwing it keeps the defense in the game. Obviously, with Mikey (Michael De Leon) at shortstop, he’s a special kid with those hands, and then J-Mo at third – just learning to play third, but has done unbelievably and done an outstanding job handling the transition to third. Obviously he’s going to play short, too.
Travis has been really solid at second base making plays to his left, to his right. He’s been a little bit more focused, I think, this year on the defensive end than maybe he was last year. He’s into the game a little bit more on the defensive side. He’s talented and now his talent plays and now he’s ready and now he’s into the game and his talent plays a little bit better. He’s been very good. And then you’ve got Kiner (Isiah Kiner-Falefa) that can play any position on the infield.
For me being an ex-infield guy, it’s a lot of fun to work with those guys and to see those guys. They have done an outstanding job. Obviously when you pitch like we’ve talked about and you play defense like we’ve talked about, that’s a pretty good recipe to be in a lot of games.
You mentioned De Leon, who is only 18, but in his second year here is carrying self like a little veteran.
Ragsdale: He’s a special kid, for sure.
He has an awareness about him in the field that reminds me of (Jurickson) Profar defensively.
Ragsdale: He’s got the intangibles that go along with the hands and the feet and the defense. A lot of people look at him and see how small he is, and maybe how week he is.
Offensively, he’s never overmatched. He always puts good ABs together. No matter how hard they throw, they can’t get a fastball by him. He’s just offensively and defensively a pesky guy that never goes away and is always in the right spot doing the right thing, it seems like. I think you hit the nail on the head with the intangibles. Kind of what everybody saw in Profar, Mikey definitely has that.