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.