July 2015

Learning His Approach: An Interview with Jose Cardona

CF Jose Cardona has been involved in five last AB rallies for the Crawdads this season.

CF Jose Cardona has been involved in five last AB rallies for the Crawdads this season. (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

Hickory Crawdads centerfielder Jose Cardona doesn’t come with the heralded tools that many of the highly-touted outfielder prospects to play at L.P. Frans Stadium the past few years. At 21, he’s 13 months older than Nomar Mazara, two months older than Lewis Brinson and six months younger than Nick Williams.

After a .333 start over the first week, he gradually sank to the .240s statistically, and to the bottom of the order in the lineup. But baseball is a game of opportunity and Cardona recently took one. When regular leadoff hitter Michael De Leon went on the disabled list early in July, Cardona was flipped to the top spot in the order. That seemed to create a spark for Cardona, as he went on a nine-game hitting streak in which he was 17-for-34 with 12 runs scored, ten RBI and seven steals.

Regardless of the numbers, Cardona has shown a knack for big moments. He had two walk-off hits – including a homer in the 17th inning – and scored the winning run in another walk-off win over the first month of the season. In a game against Augusta (July 18), he muscled a 98 mph pitch from Reyes Moronta for a double in the eighth that started a three-run rally. Last Saturday (July 25) his three-run double with two outs in the ninth gave the Crawdads a 6-5 win.

Cardona has shown the ability to hit fastballs and has shown the ability to recognize breaking pitches. In the outfield, he has displayed a strong arm posting 11 assists.

I talked with Cardona at the end of the last homestand about his season and the changes in his approach at the plate.

The native of San Nicolas de los Garza, Nuevo Leon, Mexico also talked about the influences of his family, especially that of his mother, who he looks to for support and inspiration and who he hopes to reward with a trip to the major leagues.

First of all, this was a good homestand for you. You have to feel good about getting off the snide at the plate.

Cardona: Yeah, I feel comfortable right now. I’m just sticking with my approach, so that’s working. I’m just staying up the middle with line drive, nothing big.

When you are out of your approach, what does that do for you, when you realize that you are not where you need to be?

Cardona: When I stop hitting the ball hard, that’s when I know that I need to stop and think about what I am doing and get back to what I was doing when I was hitting hard. Maybe it’s a big swing, or I’m not thinking smart. I have to stay humble and hit line drives up to the middle. That’s back to what I was.

During the homestand, it seems like you are zeroed in. Frankie (Hickory Crawdads hitting coach Francisco Matos) and other guys will talk about being ready to hit the fastball. It seems like right now you are ready to hit the fastball. Is that part of staying middle and away?

Cardona: You always have to be ready for the fastball, because that’s their best pitch. The pitcher uses the fastball regular. You just have to stay with it and ride it wherever it’s pitched.

You got here and you started hot the first week or so and then you have the downturn. What got you into the funks from where you wanted to be?

Cardona: I started losing it after a couple of weeks after a pretty good start. The first weeks, I had a really good time and then I got down. I got to make an adjustment to the pitcher, because they’ve got to adjust to me. So I’ve got to adjust to them. It’s a long process during the whole season, so I had the time to think about what they are doing to me and how they’re pitching to me. I had the time and I did it and it’s working right now.

What were pitchers doing to adjust to you?

Cardona: I had a little trouble with breaking pitches, because I was swinging at a lot of pitches in the dirt. I started thinking about, ‘Well, if I see that ball a little bit down, so don’t swing at it.’ I just stay with the fastball until I have two strikes and it’s working.

I notice on this homestand that you are able to pick up the breaking ball better. You’ve been able to hit a couple of hangers. What have you been able to pick up to stay off those pitches?

Cardona: Like I told you, it’s a long season. I’ve stopped swinging at breaking pitches, so, that makes me recognize (them) better. For example, I stopped for like a month swinging at curveballs or breaking pitches until two strikes. That helped me for the future, so I can recognize the pitches better. Like you said, I’ve been hitting a lot of breaking pitches. That’s because of my adjustment to the breaking ball.

You faced a guy (Augusta’s Reyes Moronta) the other night throwing 98. How hard was that to see, especially since the guy (DJ Snelten) before that – the left-hander- was throwing not hard, 88-91. How hard was that to gear up for?

Cardona: It’s just a mental adjustment. Of course, you’re going to see that ball fire, but the mental adjustment is more adjustment in staying calm. Just see it and hit it. Nothing big, not a lot of movements with the body just keep the calm. See it; hit it. Don’t think too much because he’s throwing fast.

You talked about staying calm. You had some moments earlier in the year where you had a lot of big moments, walk-offs, or you got a hit in a big situation to start a rally. Do you think of yourself as somebody who is calm at the plate generally?

Cardona: When there comes a big moment, I’m thinking it’s just the pitcher and me. ‘It’s just you and me. You pitch, I’ve got the bat and I’m going to do something right here.” That’s my thought when I’ve got the pressure on.

How have you adjusted to the first full season of 140 games?

Cardona: It’s my first full season, so I’ve got a lot of pressure on me. This is something new, so I didn’t know how it’s going to work. I’m just thinking about having some goals game-by-game, what I’m doing, what they’re doing to me. I’ve actually got a notebook where I put down what I did in the game, what they’re doing to me, what’s my thought process and all that in big moments. I’ve got my notebook of what’s happened, so I can record what I did with the team and the pitchers.

Who have you been working with that has helped you with your approach?

Cardona: Frankie’s helped me a lot talking with me about mentally what I have to do when I’m at the plate and what I don’t have to do and having a plan with the pitcher throwing a breaking pitch or a sinker. If it’s a pitch that’s a little it down, don’t swing because that’s a ball. He’s helped me a lot with those thoughts.

You play a pretty good centerfield as well with a lot of strong throws from you. Do you like taking runs away?

Cardona: The throws from the outfield, that’s the best part for me in the outfield. I love playing outfield, catching some balls and making some big throws. I really have a lot of fun in the outfield.

Would you rather hit one out or throw somebody out?

Cardona: Throw somebody out.

Why it that?

Cardona: You see the throw and you see the runner. Who’s going to win, the ball or the runner? It’s like, “Ah, come on, come on, come on.”  It’s exciting.

When you’re done at the end of the playoffs, what does a good year look like for you?

Cardona: If I had a bad first half and I compete and I never give up in the second half and I put up some good numbers, that to me is a successful season, because I never gave up. Just stay within and fight until the end. That’s for me a good season.

What do you have to work on most between now and the time, hopefully, you get to the big leagues?

Cardona: I’ve got to keep my plan, right now. In the second half, I’ve got to stay with what I’m doing because it’s working. I’ll keep doing it until the end of the season. I have my first full year, so I know what I have to do in the next full years. So, just stick with it.

When you get a call to the major leagues, what do you think that will be like for you?

Cardona: (laughing) Oh, my God. First, I don’t think I will be able to talk for a while. And then call my family and give them the news. I’ll be so excited I won’t be able to talk.

Who do you think it will mean the most to?

Cardona: My mom. She always worked for me. My grandmother and all my family worked for me. My mom and my aunt, they helped me a lot. They took me to the ballpark all the time. So that’s who, all that they’ve done as a family.

Is there a moment that you will look back to and you will say, “This was worth it”?

Cardona: Yes. I remember when I told my mom that I was going serious to this (baseball). I was like 13 and I could see a future in baseball because I was doing good and I felt comfortable with it. With hard work, I could do some big things. So, I told my mom one day, “I going big; I’m going serious.” She told me that felt something, like a hope. She saw something in the future that I could be on a good team, a professional team. I owe her all of that.

My family, we are a humble family. We started from the bottom, poor. We don’t have a lot of money. With a lot of hard work from my mom and my grandmother, they pushed me to baseball. We don’t have the best stuff, but we have what we need. I just want to give all I have to make the big leagues, because I’m real thankful for my family. I want to give them what they deserve; they deserve that I give the best of me.

What does your family do?

Cardona: They push me, because I grew up without a father. My mom and my grandmother, they work a lot all the time. My mom is my hero, because she was working so hard. She is my example and I’ve got to do the same thing. I will work really hard for what I want for them, because I learned that from her.

Game Story: Notes from Hickory at Asheville July 24

Hickory at Asheville

After the Hickory Crawdads came from behind twice, they scored three runs in the top of the ninth to claim a 7-4 win over the Asheville Tourists at McCormick Field.

The Crawdads (58-38 overall, 14-14 second half) took two of three games in the series and finished the season series with the Tourists at 7-2. Hickory went 6-1 at McCormick this season and is 13-2 there over the past three seasons. The Crawdads take an overnight bus to Lexington, Ky. and open a four-game series with the Legends on Saturday.

Asheville (49-48) dropped to 17-10 in the second half and remain a game-and-a-half in front of Augusta for the second-half, Southern Division title chase.

What happened?:

The two teams combined for 25 hits, but stranded 15 altogether in what turned into a see-saw affair.

Hickory put the first four runners of the game on base against Asheville starter Ryan Castellani with Jose Cardona scoring on Eduard Pinto’s single. The Crawdads missed a chance for more when Josh Morgan was thrown out at second trying to stretch a hit into a double. With runners on first and second and one out, Luke Tendler’s grounder forced Pinto at third, but 3B Josh Fuentes’ throw to first was wild placing Crawdads and second and third. Despite four hits and error, the Crawdads were held to the one run after Jairo Beras bounced out to the pitcher.

The Tourists scored an unearned run on Crawdads starter Ariel Jurado to even the game in the first. Shane Hoelscher doubled with two outs and scored when Roberto Ramos’ grounder went through the legs of Jonathan Meyer at first.

The Crawdads retook the lead in the third when Eduard Pinto was hit by a pitch and later scored on Luke Tendler’s sacrifice fly. However Asheville tied the game in the bottom of the inning as Omar Carrizales doubled to right and scored on Dom Nunez’s single to make it 2-2.

The Tourists took their first lead of the game in the fourth against new pitcher Yohander Mendez. Ramos doubled and stole third before coming home on Fuentes’s single.

Meyer’s RBI single in the sixth retied the game at three, but Juremi Profar’s double play ball stranded a runner at third.

Again, the Tourists fought back in the bottom of the inning. Jairo Rosario led off the inning with a double and scored on Fuentes’s second RBI single of the game.

Hickory answered in the seventh. Cardona doubled off the wall in left and moved to third on a Pinto’s sacrifice bunt. Trevino’s sacrifice fly to center made it 4-4.

Asheville put runners at second in both the seventh and eighth inning, but stranded both.

The decisive rally for Hickory came against reliever Jerad McCrummen (4-3) started when Profar doubled off the wall in right-center. Cardona beat out a bunt to put runners at the corner for Morgan. His liner to centerfielder Carrizales was just deep enough to score Profar, who slid around the tag of the catcher Nunez. Pinto singled in Cardona, then moved to third on a pair of McCrummen wild pitches before trotting home on Tendler’s double.

Adam Dian had a successful debut with the Crawdads by retiring all five batters he faced to close out the game and pick up the win (1-0).

 The Good:

Jose Cardona went 3-for-5 and scored three times, but it was his speed that factored into the equation in both the first and ninth innings. In the first, Cardona fought off Castellani’s change off, sending a soft liner that fell to second baseman Shane Hoelscher at the cut of the grass. Hoelscher made the play, but Cardona beat the throw to first and later scored the game’s first run. In the ninth, Cardona’s sacrifice bunt went between the mound and the third base line, with Cardona reaching just ahead of Fuentes’s throw.

Cardona also cut down a runner trying for a double in the sixth.

Josh Morgan had the key AB of the ninth. After falling behind 0-2 on two of McCrummen’s  fastball, Morgan fouled off a slow curveball and let another go by for a ball. The next pitch was a fastball up that he lined into center for the sacrifice fly.

Eduard Pinto ripped first-pitch fastballs for RBIs in the first and ninth inning. His sacrifice in the seventh moved Cardona to third from where he scored on Trevino’s sac fly.

Jose Trevino had a couple of hits and a sacrifice fly.

Luke Tendler doubled in a run in the ninth and made a leaping catch into the wall in right to rob Carrizales of a hit in the first.

Juremi Profar’s double starting things in the decisive ninth inning. In scoring the go-ahead run in the ninth, Profar had to steer around Nunez, who had to leap to make the catch from center and then tried for the backhand tag. In the third, Profar made a backhanded stop off a short hop to start a 5-4-3 double play.

Carlos Arroyo ran down a one-hop, soft liner off the bat of Yonathan Daza by ranging back and to his right. Because the ball held up, Ramos had to hold up at second and then failed to advance when Arroyo looked him back to the base. Arroyo then recorded the out at first.

Jonathan Meyer stayed with a breaking pitch away from James Lomangio and sliced it along the line in right for a run-scoring single.

Adam Dian: Showed a fastball 90-93, but took advantage of an aggressive lineup as he started the outing with several curve and changeups, getting Ryan Stevens to chase a breaking ball for a strikeout to strand a runner at second.

The-Not-So –Good:

Yohander Mendez gave up nine hits over 4.1 innings, four of those by left-handed hitters. From my vantage point along the third-base line, it appeared righties were able to lean out over the plate and serve pitches up the middle or to right. A single on an 0-2 pitch by Rosario started the run-scoring inning in the sixth. Carrizales also singled on an 0-2 pitch in the seventh.

McCormick Field turf: Carrizales’ double in the third happened when Luke Tendler slipped and took out a hefty divot as he attempted to make a likely catch on the liner.  Carrizales eventually scored in the inning.

Series Preview: Asheville at Hickory July 22-25

The Hickory Crawdads begin a seven-game road trip with a three-game series against the Asheville Tourists at McCormick Park.

Probables (Hickory/ Asheville):

Wednesday: Cody Buckel (RH, 0-4, 3.32) vs. Sam Howard (RH, 4-8, 4.24)

Thursday: Brett Martin (LH, 4-4, 3.31) vs. Helmis Rodriguez (LH, 7-4, 3.49)

Friday: Ariel Jurado (RH, 10-0, 2.10) vs. Ryan Castellani (RH, 0-6, 4.04)

Recent Series History:

The Crawdads are 5-1 against the Tourists in 2015, including a four-game sweep at McCormick back in April. Over the last three seasons, Hickory is 11-1 at Asheville and 20-16 since 2009.

Entering the Series – Hickory:

The Crawdads (56-37 overall, 12-13 second half) dropped the final two games of a series against Augusta to finish a weeklong homestand at 4-3. After scoring 38 runs in the first four games of the homestand, Hickory scratched out just five over the final three. The lineup is batting .254/.319.382 for the season in what has been a down year for offense in the South Atlantic League. Hickory is second in the SAL with 66 homers.

After scuffling on the last road trip, the pitching staff returned to its old self by allowing seven earned runs over the last five games. Overall, the club leads the SAL in ERA (2.90), WHIP (1.17), and has given up the fewest hits, runs and earned runs.

Defensively, the Crawdads have committed a SAL-low of 80 errors.

Entering the series- Asheville:

The Tourists (48-46, 16-8) took the last three games at Greenville to close out a 5-2 road trip. Oddly Asheville is just 22-22 at home this season (5-4 second half), while carrying a winning record on the road.

As usual, the Tourists bashed mound opponents at home (.278/.353/.442), but have only scored 20 more runs at home than on the road. Opponents are hitting .288 at McCormick and 41 of the 55 home runs allowed by Tourists pitching have occurred there. Asheville has 205 stolen bases this season to lead the SAL.

Defensively, Asheville have the worst collective group in the league with 145 errors committed in 94 games (.961 fielding).

Players to watch- Hickory:

OF Luke Tendler: He continues to be among the hottest hitters in the SAL, and certainly on the Crawdads. He is leads the Crawdads in total bases and tied with Carlos Arroyo for the most hits (28) in the second half. His 21 RBI are second in the SAL. For the year, Tendler is fourth in doubles (23) and fifth in total bases.

CF Jose Cardona: Has become a catalyst for the offense since moving to the leadoff spot. Before ending the homestand 0-for-8, Cardona had a nine-game hitting streak during which he went 17-for-34, scored 12 runs, knocked in 10 runs and stole seven bases. A dead-red, fastball hitter, Cardona has a .304/.375/.532 slash leading off an inning.

SS Josh Morgan: Has handled shortstop well since the injury to Michael De Leon, going 25 games without an error at the position. At the plate, he continues to hold up in his first full season. Morgan has shown a good eye with at least one walk in ten of his last 15 games (13 total) and has reached base in 15 of 18 games.

2B Carlos Arroyo: Went three straight games without a hit for the first time in his Crawdads career to close out the homestand.

OF Jairo Beras: Hitting .288 in July and July and has 23 of his 26 RBI the last two months.

SP Cody Buckel: Looking to corral control issues, has walked 15 batters and hit five in his last 23 innings (5 starts). He also has 16 Ks over last 15 innings.

SP Brett Martin: After posting his shortest start of the year (1.2 innings at Lakewood), Martin put up one of his better ones in his last outing against Greensboro when he allowed two runs on five hits over seven innings. Martin threw three-hit ball over six innings at Asheville back in April.

Ps Ariel Jurado/ Yohander Mendez: The tandem continues to wreck havoc on opposing lineups. In their five outings together, the duo has allowed 36 baserunners and struck out 39 over 34.2 innings. Separately, Mendez has a 1.15 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP in 39 innings, while Jurado has a 2.10 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP.

Players to watch – Asheville:

C Dom Nunez: The number nine prospect (mlb.com) of the Colorado Rockies has had a dominant second half with a SAL-high seven homers to go with a .373/.506/.780 slash. He was drafted in the sixth round (2013) as an infielder, but the Rockies moved him behind the plate. His 16 errors lead all catchers

CF Omar Carrizales: The Rockies No. 30 prospect currently leads the SAL in batting .328 and is fifth in OPS at .843. He has six multi-hit outings in his last ten games. The speedster has stolen 21 bases in 64 games.

OF Drew Weeks: Among the hottest hitters in the SAL with a .357/.446/.607 slash in the second half. Overall, he is second in the SAL with 24 doubles and 55 RBI. Weeks

1B Roberto Ramos: The native of Mexico has crushed the ball since joining the Tourists on July. In 16 games, Ramos has four homers and posted a .361/.420/.607 slash. The lefty is batting .421 against right-handed pitching.

SP Ryan Castellani: The Rockies second-round choice in 2014 out of Phoenix is the No. 10 prospect. He has managed to put up good numbers and McCormick (4.33 ERA) and kept the ball in the park, giving up one homer in 27 innings. Castellani has thrown five innings just twice in 18 starts.

SP Helmis Rodriguez: Currently the No. 27 prospect in the Rockies system, the lefty has walked seven and hit four in his last two starts, leading to 13 runs (9 earned) covering 5.2 innings.

RP: Josh Michalec: The Rockies’ 21st-round selection out of Baylor has six saves in eight chances this month. He can be wild at times (8 walks in last 22.1 innings), but rings up strikeouts as well (42 in 43 innings.

Game Story: Notes and Quotes Augusta at Hickory July 20

The Augusta GreenJackets behind a strong start from pitcher Sam Coonrad shut down the Hickory Crawdads 3-1 Monday night at L.P. Frans Stadium.

The two teams split the four-game series with Hickory (56-37 overall, 12-13 second half) taking the first two games before the GreenJackets (46-48, 13-12) won the final two games.

What Happened?:

The right-handed Coonrad (6-3) – currently the 27th-ranked prospect of the San Francisco Giants by mlb.com – struck out six and allowed just one unearned run over eight innings. He retired the first 14 batters before Jairo Beras legged out a chopper behind the mound. Coonrod needed only 92 pitches before turning the game over to Carlos Diaz, who needed only eight pitches to retire the side for his second save.

The GreenJackets scored all they needed in the fourth against Nick Gardewine (5-7). Aramis Garcia crushed his 14th homer of the season, a solo blast over the fence in left.

Jonah Arenado then singled to center and scored on Skyler Ewing’s double to the wall in center.

An odd series of sequences led to the GreenJackets final run of the game in the fifth. With one out, Richardo Rodriguez hit an 0-2 fastball from Kelvin Vasquez to right. Johneshwy Fargas squibbed a slow roller behind the mound. Second baseman Brallan Perez fielded the play and made the quick throw to first for the out with Rodriguez going to second. The next batter, Travious Relaford, hit a sharp comebacker to Vasquez, who deflected the ball to shortstop Juremi Profar. Relaford beat the play at first with Rodriguez coming all the way home to score.

Hickory’s lone run came after two were out in the eighth. Profar bounced a single just over the glove of Jonah Arenado at third and then scored when first baseman Chase Compton misplayed Rock Shoulders’ roller for an error.

The Good:

Luke Tendler: Was the lone Crawdads hitter to square up Coonrad when he turned on a fastball and sent it to the rightfield corner. Had the best battle of the night with a 9-pitch AB in the second that ended in a flyout to center.

Scott Williams: Struck out three in the ninth, missing four bats – three on fastballs – in the inning. Pounded the strike zone at 94-96, struck out Compton on a slider.

Erik Swanson: Pitched a scoreless eighth inning, with a seeing-eye single to Jonah Arenado. Fastball 91-92 with a slider that Skyler Ewing tried to pull, which ended in a 5-3 grounder.

Juremi Profar: The second-straight, strong defense game. Showed a quick glove-to-hand transfer when he fielded a quick short-hop of the bat of Johneshhy Fargas and turned it into a 6-4-3 double play.

The Not-So-Good:

Lineup: A tough night for the lineup against Coonrad. Only three balls went to the outfield before Tendler’s rope in the eighth.

Nick Gardewine: The Crawdads right-hander actually had a groove at times. Lost command of the fastball briefly in the first, then settled in to a comfort level in the second and third. Garcia attacked a get-me-over fastball from Gardewine for the homer. Gardewine then left back-to-back sliders up that Arenado and Ewing punished.

Kelvin Vasquez: Threw 95-97 during his three innings of work. Let an 0-2 fastball catch the plate that Rodriguez dunked into right to set up the final insurance run.

 

The opposition:

Sam Coonrod: Methodically kept the Crawdads off balance throughout the night. Threw mostly 4-seamers in the opening innings that were 94-96, touching 98. The second time through the order was reserved for a two-seamer (91-93), or what Coonrod called a short-slider. Both pitches were kept down, which the Crawdads hitters – unable to time either pitch selection – beat into the ground. Coonrad offered a couple of sliders, but he didn’t really need to pull out much in the way of secondaries. Tendler saw a good many of the sliders in his second AB – a 9-pitch appearance that ended when he sent a 95 mph to center.

Coonrod finished with 92 pitches (65 strikes), but started to tire in the eighth as he started leaving pitches up.

Aramis Garcia: Crushed a fastball middle-in for the solo homer. Showed a willingness to take pitches the other way, as the Crawdads pitchers kept the ball away from him throughout the night.

Jonah Arenado: Made a couple of tough short-hop plays to keep Coonrod’s fledgling perfect-game bid alive. Spanked a slider up from Gardewine for a single and showed good speed coming around to score from first on Ewing’s double to right-center. Didn’t have the best luck at the plate this weekend, especially on Sunday when he lined hard to third and to the mound in back-to-back ABs. Showed quick hands throughout the series.

Quotes:

Coonrod when asked about using the two-seamer the second time through the order:

“I started thinking they might have been cheating a little bit with the fastball, so I threw a few more sliders.”

Coonrod when asked about whether he could’ve pitched the ninth.

“I was definitely hoping to get through the ninth, but whatever they say is best.”

Coonrod on Beras’ infield single in the fifth that ended a possible perfect-game bid.

“It aggravated me a little bit but it’s like you’ve got to move on.”

Crawdads manager Corey Ragsdale on Coonrod:

“He was pretty good, but we didn’t really help ourselves or come out. It didn’t seem like we came out ready to play, to be honest. Not a lot of energy tonight. It didn’t look like we had a lot of fight, to be honest. We kind of challenged them there after the game moving forward. Obviously, he did have good stuff going on and that made it for easy work when we didn’t put up much of a fight.”

When He Was a Crawdad: Abel De Los Santos

On Monday, the Washington Nationals made pitcher Abel De Los Santos the latest former-Crawdads player to get to the majors when they purchased his contract from AA Harrisburg. He is the 138th former player to get to the majors

De Los Santos had a brief career with the Crawdads at the start of the 2014 season. A native of Puerto Plata, D.R, the lanky 6-foot-2, 180 lbs. fireballer showed a live arm during his short tenure at Hickory.

In eight relief outings with the Crawdads, De Los Santos had a 1.69 ERA with 12 strikeouts and one walk in 10.2 innings. He went on to finish the 2014 season at high-A Myrtle Beach before the Texas Rangers sent him to the Washington Nationals system in exchange for Ross Detweiler.

De Los Santos went 4-4 with eight saves and a 2.65 ERA at Harrisburg. He recorded 35 Ks, walked seven and put up a 0.88 WHIP in 37.1 innings.

Quote on De Los Santos:

The only two earned runs De Los Santos gave up with Hickory came in a day game at L.P. Frans Stadium. Lexington’s Elier Hernandez took a 96 mph pitch well over the billboards in right. In talking with pitching coach Oscar Marin soon after, Marin said then that De Los Santos would have to learn that velocity alone was not enough.

“Yesterday was a nice little eye opener for him: 96, 97 up gets hit. Get it down. I think he’s got it and I think he’s going to make the adjustment, just like he has in the past. I think that’s the difference maker.”

Abel De Los Santos had 12 Ks/ 1 BB in 10.1 innings in 2014 with Hickory (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

Abel De Los Santos had 12 Ks/ 1 BB in 10.1 innings in 2014 with Hickory (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

Clark Talks Crawdads Pitching

Sunday’s game (July 19 vs. Augusta) marked the two-thirds point of the South Atlantic League season for the Hickory Crawdads and the story of 2015 has been the pitching staff. Five starting pitchers and a reliever claimed spots on the South Atlantic League’s all-star team and the group has a chance to rewrite the Crawdads record book.

With the final 46 games of the season still left to be played – plus the playoffs – the Crawdads have the potential to set single-season records in fewest hits, runs, earned runs, and homers allowed, as well as in ERA and WHIP.

Texas Rangers minor league pitching coordinator Danny Clark was in Hickory this week to fill in for Crawdads manager Corey Ragsdale during his vacation. Clark had an extended, first-hand look at most of the pitching staff during his visit and he sat down with me to give an assessment of several individual pitchers.

First I just want to get just an overview. We are almost two-thirds of the way through the season and this has been one of the better pitching staffs we’ve had here. Let me first get your overall impression from what you’ve seen.

Clark: I think from the experience level that these guys have right now, coming into pro ball, most of them are one to two-year starters, to be able to do what they’ve done to this point, I think the biggest accomplishment to me is to make every start. That’s been a goal of ours to see from start to finish them being healthy. We’ve got two or three guys in the rotation who haven’t been able to do that in the past. So I think first and foremost, that’s our main goal.

Let me ask first about the guy that wasn’t talked about a lot coming in – seeing him pitch, I don’t know why – and that’s Ariel Jurado. Pretty much from day one he’s six, seven innings when he’s started. He kept down the opposition and has developed some pitches along the way.

Clark: I think in Jurado’s case, obviously, I’ve got to admit I didn’t see the high ceiling leaving instructs last year. Some of our pitching coaches were talking about changing a little bit on his arm slot and trying to get more of a run or a sink to his fastball. I think he took that in the winter and came back to spring training and was very impressive.

He had a very good spring training, so he earned his right to get here. Then from that point on I think just the confidence level that he’s had.  Oscar Marin has done a good job of trying to keep him continue to go forward. A lot of times guys, especially young pitchers that jump out record wise, they look at their stats. We throw out new competitions for him and his mind to keep that cultivating. That has been a big plus for him.

Yohander Mendez and Jurado are in the tandem right now. Mendez started the season in the bullpen and I know the plan was to get him back into the rotation at some point. I know a lot of the focus with him has been to keep him healthy.

Clark: Last year we only had him for 31 innings and we had to shut him down. Our goal for this year was to get him to around the 90-inning mark. We see Mendez as a high-ceiling starter. He has a good feel for all three of his pitches. Sometimes a pitcher like that can become bored on the mound. So, just keeping those small, short-term challenges for Mendy has been the thing for him mindset wise, versus just looking at the results all the time.

The two of them have gone in tandem the last four or five starts. Is there a a point where they will break back out as individual spots? I know with Mendez you want to build up the innings and do you see that with Jurado as well?

Clark: Both of them, we’ve got to control their innings. You won’t see them be by themselves, other than the tandem, until the playoffs. We’ll keep them that way. We’re committed to keeping this rotation together.

We’ve tried to build this rotation how we have in the past with a couple of different rotations that’s been here to kind of keep five or six guys together, as they go through the system, I think competing against each other. But to answer the question of those two, I think they’ll have to stay on those things just from the innings standpoint.

Let me get an update on Luis Ortiz’s progress after being out the past month.

Clark: He went to Dr. (Keith) Meistner, our team doctor today. He should be back. We got good reports from him. We didn’t think it was nothing severe in anyway. We’re going to start seeing him do his throwing program next week and he’s going to start doing bullpens. So, we’re probably looking to see him realistically sometime in mid-August.

Stuff wise, for the most part, he looked really good.

Clark: Obviously, he’s got stuff. He was drafted in the first round for a reason. Our job is to not worry about stuff, but to cultivate all the maturity things that goes in to being a starting pitcher at a high level. So that’s the process that he’s going through. He’s doing a lot better in his workouts.

He’s doing a lot better, really, just paying attention to detail that goes into it. Obviously, we have a high ceiling for Luis. We think a lot of Luis. It’s just the process that he and a lot of guys have to go through.

Collin Wiles. Everyone I’ve talked to raved about his off-season work and how he put it into practice this year. What sort of challenges does he have left at this level before he moves up? Or has he shown you that he’s about ready?

Clark: In some ways, yes he has. I go back to Collin finally committed to having ownership of his career. I think it started there. I don’t think there was no one that was involved other than Collin.

Going forward, I do see sometimes, do we challenge Collin and send him to High Desert? I think it goes back to the philosophy of what we build the pitching rotations around, competing against each other more than the opposition. So we’ve decided to keep those same six guys together. Could he go? Yes, he probably could, but I think long term it allows him to compete against this team.

Let me ask you about a couple of guys of interest to me. Scott Williams was a guy that didn’t pitch a lot in college. He had trouble hitting the strike zone last year and a little bit at the start this year. Since early June, he’s found a groove and found the plate. He seems more comfortable with the off-speed pitches. Your view on him.

He’s a converted guy, who was a position player in college. So, anytime you convert someone it’s usually a year process before you start seeing more fluidity as a pitcher. Last year, he kind of threw like a position player.

I think Oscar’s done a good job as far as getting his hands more relaxed on the mound and getting his body in a better position, and then obviously confidence and results. When you have good results, confidence builds it, and it continues to go for him.

Yesterday, I was very impressed with him. More than anything, yes I saw the velocity, but I saw the easiness of the delivery. It wasn’t compared to last year, where I thought he forced a lot of things on the mound and tried to muscle the ball there, versus allowing his arm to carry the ball.

Let me ask you about Cody Buckel and his ups and downs. I know it’s been a long process. He’ll have some good days and he’ll have some not good days. Where do you see him in that process?

We all know Cody and he had a lot of success at an early age. Sometimes, that’s a fault, because we push him and he goes to big league camp as a 19-year-old and flies through A ball and AA.

Cody’s in a situation right now where I’m more concerned with how Cody is as a person. I focus on those things with Cody. We don’t try to focus on what he’s doing on the mound. Cody’s an outstanding person, a young man that’s got a lot of upside in whatever he does after baseball. So, I think we focus more on that with him right now and try to get some of the attention off of him, as far as being a pitcher, but just being an everyday person.

You’ve got a couple of guys sent here in Erik Swanson and Shane McClain. McClain seems to be a guy that can be used in various roles. Swanson at the back end can throw some heat. What are they here to work on?

Swanson, we held him back coming out of spring training. I see him as a starter eventually, so you’ll probably see him the next six weeks start building into more of a starter role, as we do some different things with some of the starters, maybe giving some guys some breaks. I do like his fastball. He does have to do some things to keep himself in top shape.

I think McClain is a guy who had a very good spring. He signed as a free agent last year after the draft. We felt like maybe we could push him a little bit to High Desert. Probably looking back, and I have told Shane this, we should have started him at Hickory and let him get his feet wet before we sent him going forward. So I take the blame for that more than anything. We can use Shane in a lot of different roles. He started for us in High Desert for a couple of spot starts. He can give his length and multiple innings, back-to-back days. So, he’s a very versatile pitcher.

Austin Pettibone has been interesting coming into the rotation. I know he started for you before. He can throw low to mid-90s and he’s talked about developing his changeup. What can you say about his development?

Austin was a starter in college. Coming out of spring training, you can only send six starters to a full-season club, so we had him starting in extended knowing that at some point that we were going to send him here. We just had to find the right time.

I see him as a sinkerballer, groundball type guy, He’s a mature guy. He’s a mature college pitcher. So, we kind of expect some of these things to happen here. We’re just now getting him stretched out. Really, in my mind, it’s a little early to make a decision on Austin whether he is going to the bullpen or if he is going to be a starter.

Let me ask you of one other guy and that’s Nick Gardewine. Another guy, like Pettibone, who started in the bullpen before coming to the rotation. He’s had some ups-and-downs, but had a nice last outing.

Nicky was a guy coming out of spring training who got hampered with a foot issue. So, we brought him here out of the bullpen. He was building up as a starter, so I felt like he got behind the eight ball there for about the first month. Nicky, for me, if his slider is on, he’s going to go deep in the game. He’s got to be able to have a better feel for his change. Until he can do that, I feel like that he, right now, is a two-pitch pitcher from what I saw a couple of days ago. He knows that and that’s things that he’s got to work on.

I still think Nicky’s a young guy – he’s a little older than most of the starters here – but when we get some innings on him, I foresee him down the road. Could he be a starter? Yes. Could he go into the bullpen? There’s a lot of options there because he does have a good fastball.

This year has been the first year, I can recall, of having a six-man rotation, with the idea that you’re not going to skip starts in the middle of the year like what has happened in the past. Has that gotten the results that you were looking for, as far as keeping guys healthy for the year?

We hope so. I don’t want to speak too quick on it because we’re doing it here and High Desert and Spokane. We’re doing it at all our lower levels. I’ve seen, as far as our velocity goes, more consistent velocity going across the board.

Typically in a five-man rotation at the lower levels, you hit June and August, you start seeing velocity drop. So, I haven’t seen the drastic drop as I have in the past. So, that’s one thing. Obviously being healthy, we’re seeing good signs of that. There’s a lot of positives to it. I think if you ask me the same question when the season’s complete and we start getting more concrete data, I might have a different opinion about it. As of right now, I like the flow of it. I like what I’m hearing from the pitchers and from the pitching coaches.

I’ve got to ask you about Brett Martin. He had a rough time in his last outing, but was obviously very sharp tonight (July 16 vs. Greensboro). He talked about having to stay within himself to make things work for him.

I thought he showed stuff early. Then after his stuff early, around the fifth inning he had to work himself out of some jams. I thought Martin’s fastball obviously was probably 93-95 tonight. His breaking ball for me was probably the least pitch of the secondaries. He tended to pitch to his changeup.

Brett’s got a very high ceiling. What I don’t think a lot of people understand with Brett is that you don’t teach the things that Brett has and he’s got a lot of God-given talent.

To me, I was more pleased to see him finish the seventh. I went out there to basically talk to him and see where he was at. He said he wanted to finish the seventh, and so I thought it was a huge development for him.

Game story: Quotes and Notes from Augusta at Hickory, July 18

The Hickory Crawdads (56-45 overall, 12-11 second half) matched zeros with the Augusta (Ga.) GreenJackets (44-49, 11-12). for seven innings before scratching out three in the eighth for a 3-0 Saturday night at L.P. Frans Stadium.

The Crawdads have won three straight and four of five on the current homestand. They are now a South Atlantic League-best 32-16 at home this season. Augusta has lost three in a row and four of five on its two-city, seven-day road swing.

What Happened?:

Hickory’s Collin Wiles and Augusta’s D.J. Snelten dueled through seven shutout innings, each dominating the opposing lineups.

Wiles needed just 79 pitches (55 strikes) to get through 23 hitters. He allowed just two hits and one walk with five strikeouts.

Greenjacktets Southpaw Snelten threw 97 pitches (70 strikes) to 26 hitters, allowing three hits, two walks and struck out seven.

The Crawdads scored the only runs of the game in the eighth against Augusta reliever Reyes Moronta (1-7). Jose Cardona extended his hitting streak to nine straight with a double to right with one. A fly ball by Eduard Pinto moved Cardona to third before Moronta walked Josh Morgan, Jose Trevino and Luke Tendler, the final two on four straight to score Cardona.

Jairo Beras’ added insurance with a two-run single to right.

Hickory’s Ricardo Rodriguez (1-0) surrendered a double to Chuckie Jones in the eighth – the only extra-base hit for Augusta, but retired the final two hitters in the inning before hurling a perfect ninth.

The Good:

Collin Wiles: Facing a team that likes the fastball early, Wiles and catcher Jose Trevino came up with a game plan to take advantage of the GreenJackets aggressiveness. Only three hitters the first time through the order saw a first-pitch fastball.

“That was kind of Jose’s plan from the start,” said Wiles. “He told me in our pre-game meeting that this is a team that likes the fastball, so stay with me. I trust him 100% and we put up seven zeros.”

Wiles said his fastball command wasn’t sharp, forcing him to stay with the cutter and work in his other speed offerings.

“That was cool to see,” Wiles said. “This was the first game my fastball command hasn’t been there and the cutter has been. Other games, it’s the fastball command has been there and it’s trying to decide when do I put in this little cutter. It was a big pitch tonight and it was the pitch that made the difference.”

Jairo Beras: Had a questionable swing after Moronta threw 11 straight balls, fouling off a first-pitch change. He laid off the next two fastballs off the plate before serving a 99 mph offering to right.

“He threw a changeup sometimes and a fastball away,” said Beras. “The other people, he threw a fastball down. I got one away and I was able to hit it away.”

Beras had one of the Crawdads three hits against Snelten, that coming in the second on a fastball up and away. That, too, went solidly to right.

Jose Cardona: Started the winning rally with the double to right in the eighth. Saw the previous hitter, Juremi Profar, had all fastballs away at 98-99. Cardona saw similar pitches in his AB and got a pitch he could hit hard. Had two other hard outs, including a drive to the wall in left in the third.

Josh Morgan: Picked up a single in the third, but it was his walk in the eighth after falling behind 1-2 with two outs that kept the inning alive.

Ricardo Rodriguez: Gave up the double to Jones, but got Andrew Cain to pop up a first-pitch fastball and then got Richardo Rodriguez to ground out on a curve.

Defense: In the middle of charging a bouncer, Josh Morgan had to shift quickly on a bad-hop off the cut of the grass. Morgan made the bear-hand grab and threw out Jonah Arenado… Jonathan Meyer rambled after a short pop foul and made the catch over the photographer’s well along the first base dugout.

The opposition:

DJ Snelten: Used a sharp curve and change (8 missed bats by my count) as consistent out pitches. Threw a fastball that stayed in the 91-93 range much of the evening. He struck out seven for the seventh-straight start (51 in 37 innings). Moved the ball around the plate all night.

“Hats off to him,” said Wiles of Snelten. “He kept our hitters off-balance. He had the same kind of approach the first time through as I did, not letting hitters get on that first-pitch fastball. That was a fun game.”

Reyes Moronta: Threw his only curveball to Cardona, that was swung through and two changes. Otherwise, it was all 98-99 mph fastballs- all at or off the plate to RH hitters. He never missed a bat with it in pitching to eight hitters and the Crawdads hitters either ignored the pitches off the plate or put it into plate.

Brett Martin: Developing Consistency

Hickory Crawdads’ starting pitcher Brett Martin hasn’t put up the flashy numbers that his fellow rotation members have this season. However, they’re nothing to sneeze at either for a 20-year-old in his first full season, having posted a 3.31 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP in 68 innings (14 starts).

The native of Morristown, Tenn has for the most part been a steady presence on the mound much of the season, missing a lone start this year because of a brief bout with a sore back.

Martin was the fourth-round pick of the Texas Rangers out of Walters St. Community College in Tenn. in June of 2014. His 6-foot-4, 190 lbs. (listed weight) build has room to fill out, but he uses the frame to present a tall, almost like a town-square military-like figure on the mound

A scout I talked with after his start on July 16 vs. Greensboro raved about how the tall frame was imposing as the fastball (93-95 in his last start) shot from over the top and downward. Martin will occasionally cut the fastball and mix in a sharp curve and a developing changeup that is gaining his confidence.

Scouts rave about the downward angle Martin brings from over the top on his fastball

Scouts rave about the downward angle Martin brings from over the top on his fastball. (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

Like most pitchers starting professionally, Martin is looking to establish who he is as a pitcher. He can bring a seven-inning, six-strikeout game on occasion, but Martin is content to pitch to contact and let his defense work behind him. When he stays at that mindset, the opposition is usually in for a long night. When he doesn’t, it’s a quick night.

Such as has been the case in his last three starts. On July 3 against Greenville – the South Atlantic League’s best hitting team – Martin carried a two-hitter into the seventh before the defense cost him the game. He only struck out three, but got 11 ground ball outs in 6.2 innings. In the next start at Lakewood, a barrage of liners sent him to the showers after recording s season-low of five outs.

In the Greensboro start, he cruised much of the night before tiring in the seventh with five strikeouts. It was how he got through the seventh that impressed Rangers minor league pitching coordinator Danny Clark, who managed the game in place of Corey Ragsdale.

After Martin gave up a walk and RBI double in the inning, Clark made a quick visit to the mound, knowing Martin was likely out of gas. Martin was left in and gassed a 92 mph fastball up-and-away to the right-handed Rony Cabrera for an easy flyout.

“I was more pleased to see him finish the seventh,” Clark said. “I went out there to basically talk to him and see where he was at. He said he wanted to finish the seventh, and so I thought it was a huge development for him.”

Clark said that Martin has the ability to have a stellar career in the future.

“Brett’s got a very high ceiling,” said Clark. “What I don’t think a lot of people understand with Brett is that you don’t teach the things that Brett has and he’s got a lot of God-given talent.”

I talked with Martin after his start at Lakewood about his season and the development of his stuff, as well his consistency.

Brett Martin has a 3.31 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 14 starts thru July 16

Brett Martin has a 3.31 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 14 starts thru July 16 (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

First of all, give me your feedback on how you think your season is going overall.

Martin: As far as the season is going, it’s doing well right now. I have my ups and downs and I’m trying to work through all of that. I just try to stay consistent with the things the help me get better as the season goes along. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of pitcher I am and trying to hone my craft and stay consistent for the most part.

You talked about figuring out what kind of pitcher you are, how has that progressed for you this season? What are you figuring out about yourself at this point?

Martin: Just staying within myself and doing what I am capable of doing. I’m not trying to go up on the mound and be like a power pitcher that throws 98. I’m just staying within myself and throwing the ball over the plate, throwing strikes and letting the defense play defense. That’s what I’ve figured out that worked for me, so why change?

What have you been working on as far as your stuff since this time last year?

Martin: Staying more consistent with throwing strikes and like I said, throwing the ball over the plate. My offspeeds have come a long way. I’ve been able to trust it and use it in any count. Like last year, when I’d get into a 3-2 count you’d call a changeup, I had a hard time wanting to throw it. This year, I’m not afraid to throw it on any count. I have a lot more confidence in all of my pitches.

You’ve talked about being more consistent and that’s one of the things I’ve wanted to ask you about. You’ve had a couple of starts where you’ve had two-hitters over seven innings. Then you had a start that was headed that way in the Greenville game that got away from you. The next start at Lakewood wasn’t probably what you wanted it to be. What’s been the fine line for you to have success or not?

Martin: Just staying within myself and trusting my stuff. Last night, I just didn’t have it. I did the best I could, but sometimes you don’t have it, no matter what you do. It was just one of those nights. It’s in the past now, so you’ve just got to get to the next start.

Can you tell at a given point when it is going to be a night that you don’t have it?

Martin: Not really. I think you’re just kind of blind until go time when you’re actually out on the mound and you find out if your stuff is good or not. You can throw a really good bullpen and not miss one spot. That doesn’t really mean much until you get out on the mound and start pitching, because it’s go time right then.

I know the first full season is a big milestone for you guys. What have you been able to figure out to help you get through the long haul as far as your arm, your body and stuff like that?

Martin: It’s a marathon and not a sprint, so just being careful with the arm and make sure we do all of our arm care and just staying healthy and making sure we do what we need to do other than throwing, like working out and other stuff like that.  Taking care of our business and I think we’ll be fine. It’s such a long season and so you can’t really try to do too much while you’re in season and get tired out from that. We’ve still got a couple of more months left.

You went to Walters State, which has turned out a few guys – one of those was Chad Bell who pitched here. Tell me about the program and what that program has turned out and what you learned from that in becoming a pro?

Martin: As near as I can remember, I always knew they were good. When I was coming up in high school, they were good and I knew that they had been.

We had a good season. There were three other guys that were drafted along with me. Brent Honeywell went to the Rays and there were two other guys that decided to go back for another year. One went to Alabama, as a matter of fact. They had a lot this year that were drafted as well and had some guys go to bigger D-1 colleges. What they’ve done there, they’ve figured it out.

At the end of the year, what does a successful year look like for you?

Martin: Winning the playoffs is our main goal – trying to take the championship is our main goal – but we each have our individual goals. I want to finish the season strong and healthy and to show that I have done something to better myself as a pitcher.

When you get a call to the major leagues, what will that mean to you and who will it mean the most to?

Martin: Shoot. That’s still a few years away, but we all dream about it. If that does ever happen, it’ll be a dream come true. It’ll probably mean the most to my family, but I will appreciate it as much as they did. But that’s still a ways a way and I want to focus on now and try to make the most of now.

Will there be something that you will look back on – maybe a weightlift, an outing or maybe a tough time – that you’ll say that this was worth it?

Martin: Yeah. When I was at Tennessee, I was hurt (shoulder tendinitis). I couldn’t really pitch and I was kind of down on myself – not to where I was wanting to give up, but I was like, ‘this sucks; this is tough’ and I was worried that I wasn’t going to make it back, or if I did, that I wouldn’t be pitching well.

When I was hurt, I was still busting my butt doing everything I can to get back healthy again, where I could’ve just laid down and quit.

Surviving Low-A: Confidence in the Midst of Failure

Seemingly, baseball is a simple game to understand and follow. He who has the ability to perform in a superior manner on the field will succeed in the game. Yet, how a player gains that superiority is done in a vastly different manner in baseball than it is in other sports.

Generally in football, if you are physically strong and tough, and/or can run quickly, you are more likely to succeed. In basketball, athletic ability – the running and jumping and agility – is essential. Soccer, hockey, track and field, you name it, superiority in the physical realm is necessary for success.

While it helps to have the physical tools – and scouts make a nice living finding players with athletic tools to play the game at a high level – there is the mental side of the game that cannot be ignored. In many ways, the success of a baseball player’s career is tied to the ability to develop the mental tools to enable the physical tools to play out. That development is first cultivated in places like Hickory.

It was in my first 140-game season with a minor league front office in 2005 that I learned the phrase, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Physically that’s true – tarp pulls will teach that to you quickly – but I learned mentally that’s true when you close out the final day of nine-straight, 17-hour days, and customers are unhappy and don’t really care at 10:30 p.m. that you arrived at 8 that morning for a tarp pull and your only food was a hot dog from concessions.

But the effects of the mental side of the game on player performance never really crossed my mind until I began covering the Hickory Crawdads in 2010.

It’s not just the physical effects played out on weary-eyed athletes, who pull into the clubhouse just a few hours after coming home at 6 a.m. from an overnight bus trip… after losing a game… during which some poor soul probably had a coach, manager, rover, teammate chew on them for some sin committed on the field… in a game that expects success despite the overwhelming odds of failure… And they do it up to 30 straight days without a day off.

With the physically-draining weariness, there comes the stresses of life: making ends meet at home… wondering about families and girlfriends miles away… facing sudden upheaval and uprooting after a promotion, demotion or trade – or a release…worrying about doing enough to stay on the team… earning the respect of teammates.

Many of the players who come to Hickory deal with the extended baseball season for the first time. With all of the stresses that are listed above, still they play 140 games in 152 days and they are expected to perform well.

My epiphany moment in this came when I interviewed pitcher Neil Ramirez – now with the Chicago Cubs – back in the summer of 2010. Ramirez, the first round pick of the Rangers in 2007, came to the Crawdads in 2009. The former high school player of the year in Virginia came to Hickory with worlds of ability. But with control issues, much of that time he was a hittable pitcher that searched in vain for the magic he once had over hitters. Ramirez returned in 2010 and it was more of the same until he found a groove over the second half of the season and things clicked.

As I asked and walked through his struggles, it suddenly dawned on me to ask this question:

“Is this game more mental than you thought it would be when you were drafted?”

Ramirez’s answer was interesting to me:

“Yeah! Unbelievably more mental than I thought it would be.  Everybody talks about it before you get drafted; it’s the 90% mental, 10% physical sort of thing. 

You think that, oh, my ability will speak for itself.  It doesn’t matter whether you throw 95, or 87, like Greg Maddux did, and he was successful. That’s because they was so headstrong mentally. They knew what they wanted to do with the pitch and they knew they were going to execute it.

 That takes a mentally strong person to go about your business the right way.  Mentally, it’s tough, but I think that’s what makes it fun.  That’s what makes baseball such a great game.” 

I thought of Neil as I glanced through a series of interviews I did with this crop of players over the past week – two pitchers and two hitters. The key word that popped up over and over again was confidence.

Eight games ago, Jose Cardona was struggling as a number-nine hitter. One week later, he’s at the top of the order due to an injury to Michael De Leon and suddenly he’s on a 16-for-30 streak. He talked of his mindset and how confident he felt at the plate. His tools and routine hasn’t changed, just the results.

After hitting .236 in June, CF Jose Cardona is in the midst of a 16-for-30 streak with 11 R and 10  over eight games

After hitting .236 in June, CF Jose Cardona is in the midst of a 16-for-30 streak with 11 R and 10 over eight games (Photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

A week ago, the collective lineup looked limp during a 1-5 stretch. Suddenly, they have 38 runs in four games and double-digit hit totals in five straight. Cardona talked about how much confidence that team has right now at the plate.

A month ago, Luke Tendler struggled to hit a fastball. A homer in the all-star game last month seemingly set him afire and now pitchers can’t get a fastball by him. In several interviews I’ve done with Luke, he’s harped on trusting his abilities and staying the course and it will succeed. It’s easy to do that when you are hitting .320, harder to do so at .220. To his credit, he has seen the process through.

Brett Martin talked about having the confidence to throw a changeup at any point in the count. Last year, he was afraid to throw it.

Nick Gardewine talked of the confidence to challenge the same lineup that battered him around six days prior.

The players that come to Hickory (or any A-ball team) have the ability to do their assigned tasks on the field: hit a fastball, learn and throw a new pitch, etc. They wouldn’t be here without those pure baseball abilities. But like Ramirez said, it’s the ability to have confidence in what they can do, even in the face of adversity that will set them apart down the road.

If you want to figure out the players that will go on to bigger and better things, look at how they fail, in a game of failure. It’s easy to stand tall in baseball when things are going well. But those who stand tall while getting shelled – which happens in baseball often – and shake it off prior to the next outing or at bat, those are likely the players to look for in the multi-tiered stadiums at a later time.

Series Preview Augusta at Hickory July 17-20

The Augusta (Ga.) Greenjackets pay their lone visit to L.P. Frans Stadium this weekend for a four-game series.

Probables (Augusta / Hickory):

Friday: Mark Reyes (LH, 4-3, 1.66) and Ariel Jurado (RH, 10-0, 2.06) or Yohander Mendez (LH, 1-1, 1.32); Saturday: DJ Snelten (LH, 2-2 3.05) and Collin Wiles (RH, 9-3, 2.41); Sunday: TBA and Austin Pettibone (RH, 1-2, 4.84); Monday: Sam Coonrod (5-3, 2.69) and Nick Gardewine (RH, 5-6, 4.38).

Recent Series History:

Hickory smoked the GreenJackets in a four-game, road sweep in May. Last year, the Crawdads were 4-3, including a 2-2 split at L.P. Frans. Since 2009, the beginning of the Crawdads- Rangers affiliation, the GreenJackets are 23-20 overall 12-8 at Hickory.

Entering the Series – Hickory:

The Crawdads (54-35 overall, 10-11 second half) took two of three at home from Greensboro and improved their SAL-best home record to 30-16.

The lineup scored 26 runs in the three games and has double-digit hit totals in four straight and five of the last six games.

The team ERA of 2.97, as well as the 1.18 team WHIP are both tops in the SAL.

Hickory leads the SAL with 65 homers and are still tops in the league in fielding.

Entering the series- Augusta:

The Greenjackets (44-46, 11-10) lost two of three at Greenville (S.C.), but still owns the SAL’s best road mark at 27-21.

The pitching staff is one that pounds the strike zone. They lead the SAL in strikeouts and have surrendered the third fewest walks in the league. Because they are around the zone, the Greenjackets give up a fair share of hits. They are third in the SAL in that area, but minimize the damage as they have the fifth fewest runs allowed. Augusta has surrendered a SAL-low of 29 homers.

At the plate, the GreenJackets strike out a bunch (third in SAL) and are near the bottom of the league in many statistical categories, but their speed (109 steals) helps generate offense.

Defensively, they are next to last in fielding pct. having committed 118 errors in 81 games.

 

Players to watch- Hickory:

Ps Yohander Mendez and Ariel Jurado: They will pitch in a tandem for the foreseeable future and thus far the pairing has worked well. In their last four outings together, the duo has allowed 28 baserunners and struck out 29 in 26.2 innings.

SP Collin Wiles: Pitched into the eighth inning for the first time in his career in his last start. He leads the SAL in WHIP (0.99) and OBA (.212). In his lone start against Augusta, he allowed one run on five hits, but walked a season high of four in five innings.

OF Luke Tendler: Red hot in the second half, Tendler has a .357/.420/.614 slash in 20 games since the all-star break and has reached base in 17 of the past 18 games.

2B Carlos Arroyo: Has 14 multiple-hit outings in his last 30 games and has a 11-game on-base streak. Is hitting .342 in the second half.

SS Josh Morgan: Has held down shortstop in the aftermath of the injury to Michael De Leon. At the plate, he has reached base twice in five of the last six games.

Players to watch- Augusta:

SP Mark Reyes: The San Francisco Giants 22nd round pick in 2014 out of Crowder JC, MO leads the SAL in ERA and is third in WHIP (1.08).

SP Sam Coonrod: The Giants 5th round selection in 2014 out of Southern Illinois leads the SAL in strikeouts (83 in 80 innings) and is sixth in ERA and eight in WHIP.

C Aramis Garcia: Currently listed as the Giants top prospect to play for Augusta (No. 14 by mlb.com). He was the Conference USA player of the year in 2014 before his selection in the second round by the Giants out of Florida International. He is second in the SAL in catching base stealers. At the plate, Garcia is second in homers (13) and seventh in slugging (.475).

3B Jonah Arenado: Is the brother of Colorado Rockies 3B Nolan Arenado. He leads the SAL in games played, at bats, and is third in hits. He was the Giants 16th round choice in 2013 out of El Toro (CA) High.

CF Johneshwy Fargas: The 11th round pick out of Trujillo Alto, PR has 45 steals (second in the SAL) and is fourth in runs.

2B/ LF Will Callaway: Attended Appalachian State and was the 37th round pick of the Giants in 2013. He is batting .400 (14-for-35) in his last ten games.