Jose Trevino cracked a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth and then Jairo Beras threw out the game-tying run at the plate to end the game as the Hickory Crawdads held on to defeat the Charleston RiverDogs 5-4 in front of 3,423 fans at L.P. Frans Stadium
Charleston got off to a quick start against Crawdads starter Brett Martin when Devyn Bolasky started the game with a single and Angel Aguilar homered (3) to left to give the RiverDogs a 2-0 lead.
Hickory took the lead after scoring three in the second against RiverDogs hurler David Palladino. Beras started it with his ninth home run of the season. After the Crawdads loaded the bases, Michael De Leon’s single scored Juremi Profar and Eduard Pinto.
An error helped the RiverDogs get even in the fifth. Ryan Lindemuth doubled, stole third and scored when catcher Jose Trevino’s throw went into left. Martin left the game in the inning with a hip injury and his replacement Shane McCain retired nine of the first ten hitters he faced going into the eighth.
But in the eighth, the RiverDogs pieced together three hits after two outs with Isisas Tejeda’s run-scoring single bringing in Austin Aune to put Charleston ahead 4-3.
Hickory retook the lead when Edwin Garcia lined a single to right and Trevino delivered a towering homer (14) to left on a fastball by Brady Koerner.
Facing closer Scott Williams, the RiverDogs threatened to retake the lead in the ninth. Collin Slaybaugh singled and went to second on a passed ball. Ryan Lindemuth walked and Bolasky’s sacrifice moved the runners to second and third before Aguilar was walked to intentionally walked to load the bases. Billy Fleming hit a fly ball to Jairo Beras in medium-shallow right. Beras backed up and made the catch before firing a strike to Trevino at the plate to nail Slaybaugh and end the game.
Jurickson Profar had a single in four trips to the plate with the lone single coming on a change up and away in the first. He was hit by a pitch in the second, bounced to second in the fifth and struck out in the eighth.
Jairo Beras jumped a first-pitch, 95-mph fastball by Palladino and lasered a rope off the batter’s eye. The only question was would the liner be high enough to clear the fence. In looking to make the play, centerfielder Bolasky jogged three steps back before the ball found its target. His throw to end the game was directly on target to Trevino, who had plenty of time to tag Slaybaugh.
Shane McCain used a low-70s change, curveball and an upper 80s fastball to keep the RiverDogs off-balance, as he struck out four of the first six batters he faced. He found a little bad luck with two outs in the eighth when Austin Aune’s soft liner found open grass in center. McCain got away with a fastball up to Vicente Conde that was singled in front of Pinto in left. Tejeda’s seeing-eye single past McCain and second baseman Arroyo scored Aune for the brief lead.
Michael De Leon started a brilliant double play in the third that allowed Martin to complete a shutdown inning and hold the lead for the moment. With runners on the corners and one out, Joey Falcone hit a sharp grounder to De Leon’s right. De Leon made the backhanded grab, quickly fed the ball to Carlos Arroyo at second, who then made the fast turn and throw to nab the speedy Falcone. (Falcone left the game following the game with an undisclosed injury.)
Juremi Profar had a couple of singles and scored a run in the second. However, a key defensive play in the eighth kept the RiverDogs from extending their lead. After Tejada’s single scored the go-ahead run, Profar cut off the throw from Jose Cardona in center and caught Conde in a rundown trying to go to third.
Brett Martin gave up seven hits in 4.2 innings, but many of those were of the bad-luck variety. Bolasky’s leadoff hit in the first was a high chopper to third. The homer by Aguilar and his double in the third appeared to be pitches down and away that Aguilar went after and golfed to left. Tejeda added a broken-bat bloop single in the fourth. Martin retired seven in a row at one point (four grounders and a K) and finished with 63 pitches (45 strikes).
Jose Trevino had a rough night behind the plate committing two throwing errors on steal attempts and a passed ball. Both off-target throws appeared rushed in order to catch runners that took big jump against Martin. His passed ball in the ninth may have been on a pitch from Williams in which he was crossed up, as the two had a meeting following the play.
Carlos Arroyo stuck out three times on Friday after a two-K game on Thursday. He appears to be expanding the strike zone and unable to catch up to fastballs in the zone.
Scott Williams gave up a ground single to Slaybaugh on a fastball down and in. However, he compounded the inning with a four-pitch walk to number-nine hitter Lindemuth. His slider didn’t have the usual bite and was ignored by hitters.
Angel Aguilar, as stated earlier, went down to get a couple of pitches and hit both hard for extra bases. He had four straight hits over a two-game span and his hot streak clearly played into Charleston’s decision in the ninth to have Bolansky sacrifice with no outs after a four-pitch walk and Hickory’s decision to intentionally walk Aguilar.
David Palladino struck out three and gave up eight hits (four in the eighth), but showed good stuff throughout. His fastball hovered around 94-95 much of the game, but it was a tight slider that missed bats and often kept the Crawdads off stride with walk contact.
Philip Walby had the best stuff of any pitcher on both sides when he threw a 1-2-3 seventh. His fastball stayed 98-99 with a high 80s, biting slider. As dominant as he threw (10 pitches, 8 strikes, 4 missed bats), I was surprised that he didn’t come back out for the eighth.
Brody Koerner, the native of nearby Concord, changed speeds well with a leadoff strikeout of Jurickson Profar in the eighth. However, two straight fastballs up to Edward Garcia (single) and Trevino (homer) turned out to be the decisive point of the game.
For the first time since September 27, 2013, Texas Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar suited up for a regular-season game Thursday night when he served as the designated hitter for the Hickory Crawdads during an injury rehab assignment.
Noticeably more filled out and chiseled than he was as the Crawdads shortstop in 2011, the now 22-year-old Profar missed the past two seasons with a torn shoulder muscle that he suffered in a weightlifting session during spring training, according to the Rangers media guide. After unsuccessfully trying to resume baseball activities several times last year, Profar finally underwent shoulder surgery in February 2015.
Profar has been in Hickory since Tuesday and finally hit the field Thursday night against Charlestown (S.C.) as the designated hitter. He is expected to DH again on Friday before the Crawdads hit the road for Delmarva (Md.) for a five-game series with the Shorebirds. It is not yet been determined how long Profar will be with the Crawdads.
In front of several of the Rangers front office brass – which included senior director of player development Mike Daly and senior director of amateur scouting Kip Fagg – Profar went 1-for-4 with a sharply-lined single to right in his final at bat of the game in the seventh prior to his removal for a pinch-runner.
Batting left handed in all four plate appearances, Profar was jammed by a fastball for a 4-3 grounder in the first. He then popped up a fastball to second in the third before topping a curve ball in the fourth for a weak 1-3 comebacker.
“I felt good,” said Profar of his first live action in two seasons. “It’s been a while, but it felt the same. The first couple of ABs my timing was a little bit off, but by the third AB I got it. So, it felt good to be back playing and doing what I love.”
As far as the shoulder goes, Profar said that it felt good and the prescribed throwing program is coming along well. Profar is not expected to do any throwing in games until this fall.
While Profar missed playing the game over the past two seasons, he doesn’t envision a major setback of what was once a fast-track journey to the majors once he resumes playing on a regular basis.
“I just work out every day,” said Profar.” I just believe in myself and when I’m ready it’s going to be the same or even better. It wasn’t that hard because every day I go with a positive mind. Every day is a day closer to be playing. Now I’m here and back to playing.”
Profar understands the full recovery of his shoulder is a long process and that it will take time. Rather than being in an anxious rush back to get back to Arlington, he is content to let the process play out as he gets back onto the field.
“Just being myself and just play. It’s been two years out of baseball, and I’ll come here and just play. Now everything is going to be good. I’m just having fun playing day-to-day.”
One perk of Profar’s time in Hickory is the opportunity to play with his younger brother Juremi, an infielder with the Crawdads.
“It’s good to get to play with my brother. I remember the old days when we used to play in the backyard and now we’re playing pro ball together.”
NOTES: Profar is the sixth major-leaguer to rehab in Hickory. Others included Jason Bere (’96-’97), Jim Abbott (’98), Josias Manzanillo (’02), Adam LaRoche (’08), and Daniel Bard (’14). Profar is the first former player to return to Hickory in a major league assignment… Profar is the 51st player to play for Hickory in 2015. That ties the club record for the most players on a Crawdads roster for a season. The 2008 team also had 51 players… The Profar brothers are the second set of brothers to play for the team at the same time. In 2014, pitchers David and Ryan Ledbetter were on the roster together for the first month of the season. Pitchers Jose and Anyelo Leclerc wore a Crawdads uniform a year apart. Jose pitched for Hickory in 2013 with Anyelo coming a year later…. Profar comes to Hickory at the age of 22-years, five-months. According to Baseball Reference.com, the average age of South Atlantic League hitters is 21.5-years-old, while the average pitcher is 22.0.
How else to explain that for a second-straight season in 2016, the Hickory Crawdads will make three trips to Lakewood, N.J. – with the Crawdads hosting the division rivals just once – but not make a trip to Columbia, S.C., just a little over two hours away.
Here are some other oddities for the 2016 schedule:
*The Crawdads will host only three Northern Division teams in the first half. One of those teams – Greensboro – will come to Hickory for ten of the first 28 home games.
*Hickory will host Rome, Ga. (from the Southern Division) for a four-series from May 12-15. Then after a week-long road trip, the Crawdads come back home for three more against Rome. So in short, 17 of the first 28 home games will be against Rome and Greensboro.
* Hickory will host Rome for 11 home games, more than any other team – yes, more than any in-division team.
*Hickory will play Asheville six total games, all during the final two week of the season. Asheville is 65 minutes away. Yes, Hickory will go 17 MONTHS without seeing Asheville at L.P. Frans.
*It’s Hickory’s year to play Lexington, Ky. After only three games in 2015 against the Legends – another out-of-division team – the Crawdads face Lexington 15 times in 2016 (two trips there, two series here).
The major issue of compiling a schedule in the SAL is the geographic footprint. Lakewood’s closest rival Delmarva is over four hours away. Lexington’s closest Southern Division rival (yes, Southern, it is north over all three of the Northern Division teams that play in North Carolina) is Asheville, just 274 miles away. (Charleston, West Virginia of the Northern Division is 177 miles). Teams must have a day off when traveling more than 500 miles.
With all the travel those clubs have to endure, I’m sure there is little sympathy by the BlueClaws and Legends for the travel woes of other teams. However, when the BlueClaws set up shop after moving from Cape Fear, N.C. – and thus expanding the footprint of the SAL – they and the SAL knew that travel was going to be a major issue. Honestly, given the number of double-digit hour trips that Phillies minor league players would be making – and other teams going to the Jersey shore to play the BlueClaws – I’m surprised that farm directors didn’t raise more of a stink.
Nothing says player development like sitting on a long-distance bus trip.
Lakewood is a AA-sized affiliate playing in a AA-sized park, yet remain in the SAL. Seems to me it’d be a great fit in the Eastern League. However, I know the BlueClaws want to keep a Phillies affiliation and the current AA Phillies affiliate at Reading would fight tooth-and-nail to keep that intact.
Lexington is closer to several Midwest League teams, including in-state Bowling Green – which began its existence in the SAL in 2008 before bolting with Lake County (Ohio) to the MWL – than most of its SAL foes.
The powers that be at MiLB have been talking re-alignment of the various leagues for years to minimize travel. The transfer of Bowling Green and Lake County was to be a part of that, yet it’s gone nowhere since. So year after year, the ridiculous schedules are released and people who follow and cover the SAL laugh in amazement and derision of the finished product.
If the SAL wants to keep its footprint from near New York City to the South Carolina Low Country and out beyond the Appalachians, so be it. But come up with a schedule that makes some sort of sense and has some kind of integrity. Every other bus-travel league that has a large footprint (Texas, Midwest) has figured out how to it. Surely, the SAL can as well.
In fact, I’ll start the conversation:
For each 70-game half:
Each club plays the other six division rivals 7 games (4 at one site, 3 at the other) = 42
Each club plays the seven out-of-division rivals 4 games (facing 3 teams at home, 4 teams away or vice versa) =28
In the space of three seasons, Jerad Eickhoff has gone from low-A starter to a highly-sought trade piece that brought then- Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels to the Texas Rangers. In many ways, the ascension of Eickhoff to major league pitcher is a continuation of a series of events that started at Mater Dei High School in Evansville, Ind.
In many ways, Eickhoff was the normal midwestern kid who played whatever sport was in season at the time, but it was in baseball that he excelled. A third baseman mostly in high school, Eickhoff said he threw only about six innings in junior season before his coaches convinced him to give pitching a longer look. He increased his work load to 45 innings in his senior season before heading off to the junior-college ranks.
After his freshman season at Olney (Ill.) Community College, Eickhoff was the 46th round pick of the Chicago Cubs. However, he chose to return to Olney CC for his sophomore season, during which he struck out 116 in 88.1 innings and earned NJCAA All-American honors. The Rangers picked him up in the 15th round pick in 2011 and signed him away from a commitment to Western Kentucky.
Eickhoff spent his first pro season in the bullpen, splitting time between the Arizona Summer League Rangers and Spokane. He went on to make 25 starts for Hickory in 2012, when he posted a 13-7 mark and a 4.69 ERA in 126.2 innings.
His repertoire with Hickory was a fastball that sat in the 90-94 mph range with an occasional cutter to go with a changeup and curve.
As his pitching career rocketed from a high school junior third baseman to a spot as a major league starting pitcher, Eickhoff’s stop in Hickory was about learning how to understand what he could and could not control.
The start I remember most from Eickhoff’s 2012 season came during a game on July 3rd at Greensboro. Much of the early-inning events worked against Eickhoff.. A misplayed, inning-ending grounder turned into a two-run homer in the first. Two more errors, a passed ball and a disagreement with the umpire’s strike zone led to three more runs in the second. At that point, Hickory Crawdads pitching coach Storm Davis made a mound visit.
“I just wanted to remind him that all that stuff going around him, you can only control what you can control,” said Davis in an interview I did with him the next day. “What can you control? I can control the next pitch I throw, period. I can’t control if the umpire calls it a strike, if we field it, they call him out or safe, none of that. I can’t control where the ball is hit.”
“So we’ve really been pounding that into him all year. Not getting involved in stuff I can’t control, just the stuff I can control.”
Eickhoff eventually battled through five innings and the Crawdads rallied back for a 7-6 win – a victory that manager Bill Richardson said was to that point the highlight game of the season.
“He was player of the game for me,” said Richardson. “With any other pitcher, they couldn’t have hung in there with the umpires and the sloppy defense. He just kept battling and showing that yeoman’s work. I think our offense fed off of that. He wasn’t giving up, so we better get in the fight or we are going to get pummeled here. Yesterday, I was pleased, because, number one, what he went through. That was probably his best stuff. That could’ve easily been zeroes all the way across.”
Eickhoff went on split the 2013 season at high-A Myrtle Beach and AA Frisco and then returned to the RoughRiders in 2014. He was added to the Rangers 40-man roster last winter and spent this season at AAA Round Rock before going to the Phillies chain, with whom he pitched at AAA Lehigh Valley.
Below is an interview I did with Eickhoff, during which he talked about learning to come to terms with what he could and could not control, as well as how he got into pitching.
How did you get started in baseball?
Eickhoff: My dad (Ron) got me swinging a plastic bat at a whiffle ball when I could first walk. He kind of got it kick started. I enjoyed being in sports.
Did all of you play sports?
Eickhoff: Yeah, we did. We had a pretty athletic family…I played football from 5th grade until my freshman year. I put that aside. I didn’t want to get hurt as baseball was my priority. I played baseball and basketball all four years.
What did you play in basketball?
Eickhoff: Shooting guard. I just kind of got some mismatches because I was a taller guy for that position.
How did baseball become a priority for you?
Eickhoff: I guess for me, I just enjoyed me and my dad and my brothers would go out on a Sunday. My grade school had a baseball field there. I just enjoyed taking ground balls and taking fly balls. When you are younger you enjoy, “Dad, see how high you can hit it up; see how high you can hit it and I’ll see if I can catch it,” and stuff like that. I just enjoyed being on the field and enjoyed getting better at it. It helps that I could hold my ground. I could compete and I just liked having fun.
Did you play other positions in high school?
Eickhoff: I actually didn’t pitch. I only pitched six innings my junior year. I pitched like 45 (innings) my senior year. I played more third base.
How did the transformation to the mound get started and what was it like for you?
Eickhoff: It’s kind of funny, because when I was playing in high school summer baseball, I had some coaches tell me, “hey, you’re playing third base now, but I think your future is going to be in pitching.”
You kind of accept that; you don’t think about it then. As the years kind of took place and I didn’t know college was going to be coming about. Some junior colleges started calling and wanted me to pitch and liked me on the mound. That kind of kick started it and I saw my future started opening up. Maybe I could do this in college and see where it takes me. I just needed to get bigger and get more apt to pitching.
What did people see in you and maybe who was the first person to get you started in that direction?
Eickhoff: I think the biggest thing, first of all, was my body type. I was 6-3 at the time, 175 (pounds) and skinny. I had a decent arm. I could get it across the infield from third base. I guess coaches noticed that that I had played with. I had a good motion; (the ball) looked good coming out of the hand. I think that was the starting point for it. Baseball is such a mental game and mentally I was able to do that sort of thing.
Is there somebody that kickstarted you into that direction, or did it evolve?
Eickhoff: I think it just sort of evolved. My high school coaches, Jeff Schulz, and my pitching coach at the time, as well as Buddy Swift. He was my summer coach. They were all three together in the idea that my feature was in pitching.
Did you have the opportunity to go to a four-year school?
Eickhoff: I did have some opportunities to maybe walk-on and get a smaller scholarship. But the way it was panning out was that I’d fight for a spot. It might take two or three years to see some actual playing time. For me, it was important to get playing right away. If I’m playing, I’m getting better. That’s what my coaches always preached from day one, my dad as well. I think that was the biggest thing, just getting to play every day and being a key factor on the team and really contributing.
What were some highlights for you in high school?
Eickhoff: When I was a sophomore (2007), we went to the state finals (against Norwell High). I wasn’t on the varsity team. I was on the reserve and I got moved up. Although I wasn’t on the field, I got to be with the atmosphere of the state finals.
We faced the number 9th overall pick that year, Jarrod Parker, who’s now pitching for the Oakland Athletics. That, for me, was a thing I wanted to experience again when I was on varsity the next two years and try to get to things like that. That was a great experience for me.
When you were drafted by the Rangers, was there a thought of waiting a year to see if you could bump up, or the opportunity was there and you took it?
Eickhoff: It was pretty tough for me and my family. I’ve always been a school guy. I’m pretty apt on the academic side. It was tough to weigh the options. People were saying, “Yeah, there might be more down the road, but you have this chance you have to take right now.” It’s hard to weigh that. The college is upping their scholarship and Texas is calling and wanting you bad. I think I’d been wanting it for so long to play professional baseball and that opportunity was there, I just felt the opportunity was right and I made the decision.
How did the adjustment to pro ball go for you? What were some things that you had to learn pretty quick?
Eickhoff: I think the biggest thing, which I kind of learned of myself, and my junior college coach (Dennis Conley) instilled in me, it’s about yourself and what you can do for yourself as an individual. It’s about a team, but what do you do off the field to get yourself ready for that. That’s what being a profession is all about is taking care of your business. Your individual goals will come together in a team goal.
That’s the biggest thing is taking care of yourself. Keeping your body in check and maintaining your arm care and the conditioning. Take everything upon yourself.
You’ve gotten off to a 10-4 start (at the time of the interview in early July 2012). I know some of that has been run support, but what’s been the key to your success so far?
Eickhoff: I can’t complain about the run support. The defense and offense has been really great for me. I tip my hat to those guys and what they’ve done. I’m just trying to stay consistent and do my best for them as well and get outs and help my team win.
Being a 15th round choice, do you feel like you have to work extra hard because of the draft selection and the coming from a not well-known baseball school?
Eickhoff: Knowing me and my nature, I’ve always worked as hard as I can. If I was a first-round pick I’d work the same amount as I do now. That’s a big thing, to work hard from day one. That’s what my mom and my dad instilled in me. I just continue taking it day by day and keep working to see where things take me.
One of the things Storm Davis said in talking about you is having you learn how to let things go that you can’t control. Has that been a part of the process of learning to be a pro, whereas before you could strike out a bunch of guys?
Eickhoff: Absolutely. Me and Storm talk every day, and D.C. (Rangers minor league pitching coordinator Danny Clark) as well, about focusing on what you can control and that is when the ball leaves my hand. That’s the end of my control. That’s all I can do is do that. I can’t make the plays at shortstop; I can’t make the plays at second. So, what happens, happens. What I can do is make good pitches and hopefully get good results by ground balls and strikeouts. That’s the biggest thing, just letting things pass that I can’t control.
Is that a continuation of learning about letting go of things you can’t control, like being a 15th-round pick?
Eckhoff: Yeah, I wish I was a first-rounder, but that’s passed and what’s happened, happened. I just continue to work every day and do what I can. What I control is conditioning and the effort I put in and the throwing program and things like that and keeping my body in check. I’m a competitive guy and I’m going to do what I can to try to make it in this game.
What’s the thing that you will need to work at most moving up the chain that you’ll have to work hardest at?
Eickhoff: One of the biggest things is just letting things go. No matter how bad things may seem on the field, if I give up six runs or so, just reel it in and work on keeping those innings shorter and keeping those innings from exploding. Maybe keeping it at one or two runs instead of five runs. Just continue to pitch instead of walking out and letting negative things seeping in with doubts. Keeping and staying positive, as skip (Bill Richardons) says, “Stay the course” and continue with what I can do and what I can control and be myself as a pitcher.
What do you think has been the biggest success of your season so far?
Eickhoff: I think the success is, obviously, I’ve been very fortunate to stay healthy. I’m very fortunate for that. I know a lot of guys that have had injuries here and there. I continue to work on things with Storm and Danny Clark and translating that from the bullpen to the game mound when the hitter steps in. I think that’s the biggest thing that has helped me translate the success that I’ve had.
What others said about Eickhoff in 2012:
Rangers minor league pitching coordinator Danny Clark:
The reports we are getting is that he’s a very durable guy. The biggest thing for Jerad is to be able to make adjustments during the game. I think that’s one of the positives he has at a young age. I think his work ethic comes into play during the competition. So, Jerad has got a really high up-ceiling, for him. We see a lot of good things that he’s doing. He’s starting to be able to command the baseball when he’s behind in the count. So, I think there’s a lot of combinations there that’s leading to that success that he has.
Clark on Jerad’s work effect:
With guys at this level, a lot of times quantity is not always quality. I think he separates himself with the quality of work that he puts in along with the quantity. I think that’s the way he looks at it and I think that’s what we see. So, he is separating himself. A lot of times with young pitchers they don’t know how to work. I think he will seek out that information and he’s put it into his play.
What’s the biggest thing he’ll need to work on from here going up the chain?
He’s no different than anybody. Obviously, being able to throw strikes behind in the count is one. Number two, just having overall better command. As you go higher, obviously mistakes are not as forgiving. I think he’ll adjust to that. I think he’s got the capability of adjusting to that and he’s got the aptitude to adjust to that.
Storm Davis on Eickhoff:
What are some things that have set him apart in his first full season?
Jared is a really hard worker, so he’s physically up to the challenge, not that the other guys aren’t. I’d think he’d be the first to tell you that he’s not blessed with a lot gifts that some are blessed with. He’s got a good arm.
He’s retaining better. He’s not fighting himself as much out there. He’s very perfectionist oriented. When things aren’t going perfect, it’s a bit hard for him to slow pitch-to-pitch. He’s getting better at it.
The last few starts, where we’ve been able to score runs for him, he’s felt like he’s not been able to pitch up to what he’s capable of pitching. That’s been good for him because he’s had to learn a) to pitch with a lead and b) to fight those inner demons, so to speak, when it comes to not getting into all the negative thoughts that comes with, “Hey I’ve got this big lead and I’m letting my team down.“
What is the thing he’ll need to work on moving up?
I think physically, he’s going to have to get bigger. I think he’s going to need to put on some weight. He was weighs about mid 220s. He’s going to have to get into the mid 230s, maybe 240 before it’s over with.
I think his stuff, like I tell these guys, mostly their stuff and delivery is going to look the same now as it will five years from now. There’ll be tweaks here and there.
I think he needs to keep commanding the fastball which sets up his cutter and curve ball. When he’s doing that, he’s going to be successful.
The Hickory Crawdads scored three runs over the first two innings and made them stand up Wednesday night in a 3-2 road win over the Hagerstown (Md.) Suns.
The victory was a milestone win for Crawdads manager Corey Ragsdale, as he set the club’s all-time mark for managerial wins at 229. The record was formerly held by Ragsdale’s predecessor Bill Richardson, who managed the team from 2010 to 2012. Ragsdale’s record with Hickory currently stands at 229-169.
The native of Jonesboro, AR played with the Crawdads to conclude his career in 2009. He returned in 2011 as an assistant under Richardson, before taking the managerial reins for the first time in 2012 at Arizona Summer League Rangers, where the club won the league title.
In Ragsdale’s first season as the manager in 2013, the Crawdads went 76-63, highlighted by a SAL record 178 homers by the power-laden lineup that included soon-to-be major leaguers Ryan Rua and Joey Gallo.
Last season, the Crawdads won 80 games for the first time since 2004.
This year, the team has already clinched its first playoff spot since 2011 and currently holds the South Atlantic League’s best record. He was rewarded this season with a selection to manage the Northern Division in the SAL All-Star Game.
Last week, I took a moment to interview Ragsdale about the impending record-breaking win, what he’s learned along the way over three seasons, and about some of the players that have already broken into the big leagues.
I know you are going to play this down, but you’re coming up on the club mark for wins by a manager. I know you’re not going to say,” It’s not my wins and losses,” but it’s still a nice thing. You’ve had some guys that have come in here and played hard for you and that’s no small thing. A lot of that comes from what you and the coaching staff do.
Ragsdale: I couldn’t care less about it, to be honest. I think what I do appreciate, as I look back on the last three years, is a couple of things. The players have done a great job. Obviously, they go out and perform. From the first year of that talented team, they went out played, and last year winning 80 games with the club. This year making the playoffs and winning the first half and are continuing to play pretty well, at times. I’ve had a lot of good players and a lot of good kids that play hard.
And I think, as an organization, they’ve done a great job of getting players that can play. I’ve just been fortunate that I’m at a level where I’ve had a bunch of guys that are pretty good come through here the last three years. As far as the wins and losses go, I’ve just reaped some of the benefits of what the players and the organization as a whole has done. I’m lucky. I’m just here as a small part of it. I’m happy for the kids and happy they’ve won a lot of baseball games.
What do you know now that you didn’t know three years ago, or how do you think you’ve gotten better?
Ragsdale: Probably just with each individual player how tough it is a times and how you have to relate to each guy individually. You can’t just blanket certain ideas over everybody and expect guys to be able to react. You’ve got to be able to get into each and every guy and have different ways to say the same thing so that it clicks with certain guys. You’ve got to find out what motivates one guy and what motivates the next guy.
I try to get them go out and compete every day because it’s a hard game. It’s a long, long season and these kids don’t necessarily know how to go about it each and every day. So, you’ve got to help them along the way. That’s what we’re here for. I think that’s probably the big thing is figuring out how to get each and every guy ready to go every day. We don’t get the job done every day, but most days, they go out and they’re ready to play and they’re motivated. Most days it’s pretty good.
What did you learn from Bill when you were here in 2011?
Ragsdale: A lot of stuff. Whether it was on-field stuff and how to go about things and just adding on to how to get guys ready at this level, being with him. Whether it’d be days off and whether it’d when to work out and when not to work out. Things like that – everyday things – everything from writing a lineup out. I remember how he used to write the lineup out and I still do it the same way.
There’s a lot of things I take from him and I take from other guys that I’ve been around and that I’ve played for in the 16 years that I’ve been doing this. Bill helped me out a lot. He kind of took me under his wing a little bit and I am very appreciative of everything he did for me and allowed me to do when I was here with him.
You want to keep doing this a few more years?
Ragsdale: I love it. It’s a challenge some days. It’s a long season, but when you see the kids, when it clicks for those guys and they get the thing that you’ve been working on and they have success, it just makes you feel good. It’s fun to watch. It’s fun to be a part of. It’s fun to stand in the third-base box and to be a small part of the game still. Not that wins and losses matter, but we do put value in wins and kids learning how to win and kids wanting to win. So, it is fun to still be out there and have a small part of the game that goes on every day and to see the kids have success. It’s fun and I enjoy it a lot.
How cool is it now to see the Claudios and Ruas and Gallos, etc. get to the big leagues and you having a part of it way back when?
Ragsdale: I’m just happy for those guys and it does put a smile on your face when you see guys that work hard and see guys that have some talent and finally put some things together.
You see guys like Claudio that maybe the talent wasn’t anything that jumped off the table, but he always came in and competed and you’re so happy for guys like that that have been able to have success and continued success and reach the big leagues and stay there, and hopefully stay there for a long time.
It puts a smile on your face. I enjoy watching the games on TV – all those guys. Hopefully that’s the case for a lot of more years and a lot of more players can continue up the ladder and help our big league club win ballgames.
As a 19-year-old, Hickory Crawdads infielder Josh Morgan has had a nice season, especially given the slow start to the 2015 campaign.
The third-round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2014 out of Orange (Calif.) Lutheran High School led the Crawdads in hits, walks and on-base percentage (.385) prior to a broken right index finger suffered on August 5 that ended his season.
After a .246/.293/.319 slash in April, Morgan began to settle into the everyday grind and became an integral part of the lineup and finished at .288/.385/.362. In the field, Morgan made just ten errors total in 98 games at short and third.
“He’s been a big part of everything we’ve done,” said Crawdads manager Corey Ragsdale. “A 19-year-old kid that, quite honestly, he’s a guy that’s not going to hit balls farther than anybody. He’s not going to throw it farther than anybody. But the kid’s an all-around baseball player. He can do so many different things and do them well.”
In conversations with scouts, most are pleased with the plate discipline has shown at a young age (53 Ks/ 45 BBs in 416 plate appearances).They’ve been mixed on how much power he will develop, essentially seeing his ceiling as a gap-to-gap hitter. In the field, several scouts see Morgan’s range and feel he will eventually move to second.
However based on work ethic, I wouldn’t doubt the ability of Morgan to achieve much of what he wants to. My first memory of Morgan was taking extra ground balls at third base after the first batting practice session at L.P. Frans Stadium.
In the interviews I’ve done with Morgan this season, I’ve found him to be an articulate young player – more so than most 19-year-old. Most of his answers are not the usual “baseball speak”, but thought out answers.
He is aware of and confident in the baseball talent he possesses and the potential that lies ahead for a successful career in the game. But he is sturdily grounded in his faith and the upbringing he received from his parents. Morgan has the potential to be a leader of people in whatever industry life takes him. For now it is baseball.
I spoke with Morgan during the early-August homestand prior to his injury. When I found out about the injury, I debated on re-recording parts of the interview as some of the questions and answers are now outdated. But I decided to let it stand and so below is my interview with Josh Morgan.
First of all, 14 months ago you walked across a stage with a cap and gown on and you played you last high school game. Now, here you are almost a full season in. What kind of whirlwind has that been over the last 14 months?
Morgan: It’s been crazy. It’s something that I couldn’t have dreamed of, you know walking across the stage and then I see that I’m here in Hickory, N.C. playing the game I love for a living. It’s a little overwhelming, but it’s what I wanted and it’s cool. It’s a blessing to be out here and to be with my friends and to see how far all of us – my family and the guys in the same clubhouse as me – have come. We definitely not done yet. We’re in low-A, so we have a long ways away from our goal. I think we’re all happy with where we’re at right now and we’re going to try to make a push to the playoffs and try to do well in the playoffs.
You talked about being overwhelmed. What have been some of the things for you that have been maybe a little more than you bargained for going in?
Morgan: I think just the long days. Before I signed, I didn’t know that it was going to be this long – just the grind. You always hear all the scouts ask you before you sign, “Are you ready for the grind? Are you ready to do this and to do that?” I’m like, “Yeah, yeah. I’m ready,” because you are. You really don’t understand the grind and you don’t really understand what you go through until you actually live it out. I think that’s different from what all the high school guys are used to.
I think it was a cool process just for me to go to Arizona my first season and then getting moved to Spokane. Now I’m in Hickory in my second season and just about to finish off my first full season, which is real cool. It’s a bittersweet feeling because we still have a month left, but you see everything starting to die down and we’re all starting to focus a little more just as the playoffs come up. I think we’re all excited about how we’re going to do in the playoffs. It’s been a fun season, so hopefully we’ll finish off this last month strong.
Everybody has an introductory moment where they realize that this is a different game. A pitcher might face a batter that sends one by his ear. What was the moment for you that told you that this is now big-boy baseball?
Morgan: I had two. One of them was my third game playing in Arizona last year, I got hit in the ribs by a 98. I was like, “this is happening right now.”
The second time, it was this season. It was the first month, month-and-a-half of the season where I wasn’t hitting as well as I wanted to. I really started to see what the grind was and I really started to see what it took to overcome different struggles. I realized – with Corey Ragsdale’s help and everyone’s help – that it’s a long season and you’re going to go up and you’re going to go down. You want to stay as even as you can and do the best that you can. But you’re not always going to get a hit; you’re not always going to make the play. I think it took a little while for me to understand that it’s such a long season and that there’s a lot of ups and downs.
I’m real happy with how I’ve done and how the team has done. I really thank Rags and Matos and Oscar and Comie and all of our coaching staff that’s helped me. My parents have definitely been number one up there. It’s been good; it’s been fun.
They will talk about “it’s not how you start, but how you finish.” You’ve got to be pleased that though you did start slow, you had a gradual increase throughout the year. Has that been the way you’ve see your season?
Morgan: Obviously, I started slower than I wanted to, but now I see myself finishing strong. From the start until now, I think I’ve done a lot better. I see myself finishing strong and I see our team finishing strong. We’re excited about what’s to come and I think it’s just the focus has to stay there The mental part has to stay there. It’s the dog days. It’s the last month of the season where you’re thinking about home. You’re thinking about home-cooked meals. You’re thinking about your girlfriend and everything like that. You have really stay focused on what you’re trying to accomplish in the season. I think we’re all doing a very good job of finishing strong.
How cool has it been to have your parents out to Hickory a couple of times this season?
It was great. It kind of made it feel like home again. My teammates and our coaching staff make it feel like home, because they’re loving guys. Even if they don’t want to say it, they know how to handle us and they’re good guys. But I think them coming out here was great. I played well in front of them and I was really happy that I got to spend some time with them together. They came out two times, so I was happy that they came and I was spending every minute with them outside of the field. It was good and I can’t wait to see them again.
What do you know now about the game that maybe surprised you?
Morgan: I think maybe the different cultures. I knew there was a lot of Latin guys and different guys here. It’s fun talking and discussing with all the guys who speak different languages. I think that’s really cool and it’s helped me with my Spanish to help them with their English. So, it’s just cool to see what they bring to the table and to see how they work, too. They’re definitely hard workers, too. Just to see where they come from: the Dominican Republic, Curacao, Venezuela, wherever it is. It’s cool to see how hard they work.
The other thing that I was surprised by, like I said, was just how long the season is and how the grind works. It’s all good and I’m taking everything in and seeing how it goes.
What improvements have you made that maybe didn’t seem possible 14 months ago?
Morgan: I’ve made a couple of improvements. I think that my biblical standpoint has improved, just because 14 months ago I didn’t really didn’t struggle that much on the baseball field because it was high school. It was hard and you had to deal with school and grades and then the baseball side of it and the stress of getting drafted. But, on the baseball field, I feel like I was good. Now, I still feel very confident, but it’s just different. I feel comfortable now and I’m happy with how things are going.
Myfirst memory of you was when you guys were out taking BP before the Lenoir-Rhyne exhibition game. Everybody was done and you asked Chad Comer to hit ground balls for you at third. I remember taking pictures of that. Do you feel like you’ve had to make the extra effort, or is it something that was ingrained in you that you want to take the extra groundball or the extra BP? Where does that come out of for you?
Morgan: I work hard. I know that I work hard and I’m going to work hard on and off the field. I’m going to be as healthy as I can. I’m going to put myself in the best situation for me to have success on the field. That comes from my parents working hard and me seeing them do what they do and providing well for me. I think that’s just going to carry on for the rest of my life and for my kid’s life as well.
We’re a working-hard family. We don’t want anything handed to us and so the way I see it, if you want something, you’ve got to go get it. I think me taking extra ground balls and some extra hacks in the cage is just who I am.
I do want to outwork people, but I don’t see anything as a competition like, “I’m going to work harder than him; I hope he fails and I don’t.” No. I’m not going to look at it like that. Everything I see as a competition, yeah, but I’m not going to wish failure upon someone. I want all my friends and everyone to do well and have success, but I work hard and I feel like that’s a plus for me.
When you watch games on TV, do you get a taste of “I’m getting closer”?
Morgan: Yeah. You still think, “That’s the dream. Someday, I want to call myself a big leaguer.” You realize that you’re in the organization for a reason. People have invested in you and you need to work hard and do what you can on and off the field to see yourself there.
Obviously, you have to have a lot of confidence to get there. You have to work hard and do what you can during certain situations. I feel like it’s still a little “Wow”. I still get a little goose bumps when I think about it.
I remember in spring training, I was helping out the big league team with different games and everything and I was hanging out with Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus and all those guys. It wasn’t overwhelming, but it was a wow feeling. I’m next to these guys and it’s cool to see how they work and how they go about the game. They’re all hard workers and they do what they do. You see how they’ve had a lot of success on the field and I just want to be like those guys and work as hard as I can to get to where they are.
Who do you see yourself drawn to that you say to yourself, “this is who I want to be”?
Morgan: It’s easy for me and that’s Derek Jeter. He’s a role model on and off the field. You never see him getting into any trouble or anything. He’s a great leader and he knows what he wants to do. He’s kept his baseball life away from his off-the-field life, which I have a lot of respect for. He’s the captain and you have respect for him. You see him being a role model for, I want to say, everyone in the game. He’s changed the game and he’s a great human being from what I see.
Do you prefer third or short?
Morgan: I don’t prefer either one, as long as I’m in the lineup. I like playing third, short, second. Wherever they put me, I’m going to work hard and do the best I can on that given night. I feel like if you’re in the lineup that night, you don’t have any excuse to not get the job done. So, whatever position you’re playing, wherever you’re batting in the lineup – there’s going to be changes, there’s going to be different positions – but wherever I am, I’m confident that I’m going to get the job done.
What do you feel like is the next step for you in your development? Or, maybe what is the biggest thing you have to develop between now and a big league callup?
Morgan: I think just taking the game in and keeping the game to a certain pace and slowing the game down. Sometimes I tend to speed the game up and get into different situations. I just need to relax and learn from different things and learn from different situations that I’ve already been in. I see myself getting better at that.
When you get a call to the big leagues, what does that moment look like for you?
Morgan: Aw, man. My heart’s going to drop and I’m getting goose bumps. I’m going to call my parents, because it’ll be a dream come true making the big leagues – not only making the big leagues, but staying in the big leagues is what I want to do.
You hear all around our organization that making the big leagues is hard, but staying in the big leagues is harder because there are guys like myself that want to get to the top and grinding to get to the top every single day. But that call is going to be great and I can’t wait for it to happen and I’m confident that it will happen. I’m excited, but I’m going to trust the process. I’m still far away from that, though. I want to make sure I finish every level and finish my duties here. I’m not looking too far ahead, but rather focusing on right here.
Who do you think it will mean the most to?
Morgan: My parents. Myself, obviously, but they’ve seen what I’ve gone through on and off the field and all the struggles. They’ve been with me one-hundred percent of the time. I know my mom and dad will be crying and you might even get a tear from me. It’s going to be a great time and I can’t wait for it to happen. I think they’re all excited and I’m excited as well. I’m confident and I’m going to work hard to get there.
Is there a weight lift, a road trip to Lakewood, or a particular moment that you might look back and say, “okay, this was worth it?”
Morgan: I would say this whole season. It’s not just one moment; it’s kind of the whole season that’s worth it. All the ups and downs, all the friendships that I’ve made just form this team. It’s a great group of guys – one of the best groups of guys that I’ve ever been with.
There are no selfish players. A lot of times you hear of teams that have selfish players and only care about themselves. This team in Hickory, we all care about each other and seeing the team win. So, whatever we have to do, where going to get the job done to help the team win. It’s been a great year overall and hopefully we’ll finish this last month off strong and make some plays in the playoffs.
At 6:01 EDT on Saturday, August 15, 2015 at L.P. Frans Stadium, pitcher Dillon Tate threw his first pitch as a member of the Hickory Crawdads – a 98 mph heater low and away to fellow first-rounder Kevin Newman of West Virginia.
The bespectacled, right-hander went on to throw 15 pitches in his maiden outing as a Crawdad before turning the game over to teammate Brett Martin.
Thirteen of the 15 pitches Tate threw were fastballs, all reading between 97-99 mph on the stadium radar gun (which is currently a tick or two fast). Seven went for strikes and two of those missed bats – both by Jordan Luplow on the only strikeout.
The fourth-overall selection by the Texas Rangers in June 2012, also threw two sliders: one taken for a strike at 90; the other at 92 was swung through.
“He heated up the radar gun that says 99 a few times. Obviously, his stuff is there,” said Crawdads manager Corey Ragsdale. Getting to see it for the first time, it’s obvious why we took him as high as we did. I’m looking forward to watching him grow.”
For his part, Tate was pleased with how the short stint played out.
“I felt pretty good out there. It was fun to be out there. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a W.” (The Crawdads went on to lose to West Virginia 9-0.)
After signing with the Rangers, Tate pitched just two one-inning stints with short-season Spokane, sitting out for six weeks in between the two after resting a tired arm.
The product of UC Santa Barbara threw 103.1 innings during his junior season with the Gauchos. With the amount of work during the college season, the plan for the remainder of the season is to limit the young hurler to one and two-inning stints.
“Right now, with where my body is at, with the amount of throwing that I did previously, I think I’m fine with that for now,” said Tate. “That’s kind of just what my body is telling, that one and two is enough for right now.”
Ragsdale said that the abbreviated starts will enable Tate to adjust to life as a pro.
“With the amount of innings he’s thrown, we’re just trying to get him acclimated a little bit.”
As far as his repertoire goes for now, Tate plans to stick mostly to the two-pitch mix during the short stints while developing his change
Tate said, “Right now, I’m just pitching to my strength. So when my changeup starts to develop a little bit more, I think that’s something that I’ll throw within a one-inning stint or a two-inning stint. I just didn’t think I had the best feel for it at this point, so I’m still working on it.”
Most afternoons when I make my way to the clubhouse to get interviews that I need, it’s inevitable that I will pass two specific players first. Sitting in a chair on top of one of the old picnic tables is Ariel Jurado. To Jurado’s right in another chair is fellow pitcher Yohander Mendez.
It seems fitting that the two are nearly inseparable as they have become a deadly 1-2 punch on the mound in a piggyback arrangement for the Hickory Crawdads during the second half of the season.
Jurado, the right-hander, signed with the Texas Rangers as a free agent in 2012 out of Aguadulce, Panama. Through August 7, Jurado was 11-0 with a 2.21 ERA. He’s shown excellent control with 77 strikeouts and ten walks over 81.1 innings. The 19-year-old earned the start in the South Atlantic League’s All-Star Game is currently ranked by mlb.com as the Rangers’ 19th– best prospect.
A change to a three-quarter arm slot has given Jurado a sinker that one scout said had Kevin Brown qualities. Jurado can use a change up for strikeouts, as well as a slider. He has begun to develop a curveball this season which Jurado has shown a good feel for the pitch.
Mendez, 20, signed with the Rangers in 2011 out of Valencia, Venezuela. The left-hander was limited to 31 innings for Hickory in 2014 due to shoulder and oblique injuries. He started this season in the bullpen to limit his innings before starting the current piggyback arrangement with Jurado on June 14. As of August 7, Mendez has a 1 53 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP with 64 strikeouts and 11 walks over 53 innings. He is the 11th-best Rangers prospect according to mlb.com
Mendez throws a fastball that ranges generally 89-91 mph, but has touched as high as 95. His main secondary pitches are a looping curveball and a change up that with good arm action induces missed bats from hitters.
The two entered the tandem for different reasons: to limit Jurado’s innings – he has already surpassed his career high in innings – and to increase Mendez’s. However, it has also given both hurlers a chance to experience relieving and starting, something that pitching coach Oscar Marin said will serve them well later in their careers.
I talked with both pitchers during the last home stand with the translation help of Marin for both pitchers. Marin also interjected with some of his insights for both pitchers.
First of all, how have the two of you taken to the tandem? How have you adjusted to that?
Mendez: One of the things we came together on was having the same routine. We’ve actually built a very good routine for both of us that works, very similar to what we had already done. The reason why we stay so sharp in what we have to do is we don’t think about whether we are going to relieve or going to start. The whole focus is on going out there and competing and getting people out. The routine itself doesn’t change and we want it that way.
Ariel, you started and had a very good first half of the season. Has it been hard to pull back to just throwing two, three, four innings?
Jurado: Obviously, the routine stayed the same, but the hardest part of doing what I have to do is having to reel back. Not reeling in the way where I am going to slow stuff up or I’m going to turn it on. It’s a different mentality going in to start and knowing I’m going to get deeper into the game rather than just going those three innings.
Yohander, you were injured a lot last year. How have you adjusted going through a full season and staying healthy? What have you been able to do to stay healthy?
Mendez: The biggest thing is working as hard as I possibly can physically and mentally also. The biggest thing that has helped me get through this year and the reason I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing is because of the routine I learned after I got hurt last year. Doing my leg work, doing my dumb bell work, doing all the elbow and shoulder stuff I applied to my routine last year. I just keep doing that now. Now, it’s part of the routine I’m always going to have and I’m lucky that I learned it last year.
Yohander, are you throwing the change up more now than I remember seeing?
Mendez: It’s just a different thing I have to do going from the bullpen to the rotation. Obviously, I have to use that change up a lot more and that’s pretty much the biggest change coming from the bullpen. Before, I’d go to the spinner right away because I was coming in with runners in scoring position and I’m trying to get that out and trying to get that swing-and-miss. Now, it’s a little different. I’m starting to use my fastball and change up a little bit more than I would my curveball.
Ariel, when you are going shorter, do you feel like you have more in the tank at the end of three innings? Do you go harder in your three innings? Are you pacing yourself?
Jurado (laughing): The answer is yes. I feel like I’ve got more in the tank. I know that my arm has to stay healthy. But because of how my arm feels, my stuff has been going up in velocity.
Marin: That’s something that we’ve talked about before. We joke around with it because the harder he throws, the less movement he has. It’s one of those things that from a starting standpoint, he goes in there and works himself into what he’s doing, as opposed to going in there and he knows, “All right, I’ve got a lot in the tank. We’ve got three innings. Let’s go.” He does have more, but that’s been one of the things he’s been working on is maintaining the consistency of what he does with his arm speed.
When I talked to Danny Clark (Rangers minor league pitching coordinator), one of the things he talked about was giving you (Ariel) challenges to where you are not bored. What are some of those different challenges that you are working through? Do you get bored just pitching three innings?
Jurado: I’m taking the challenges well just because I do know that maybe going up into the higher levels possibly, if God willing I get to the big leagues, there is that possibility that I don’t come in as a starter right off the bat. So, I’m going to be in different roles. That’s how I’m taking it now. Maybe I’m not in the rotation, but going out of the bullpen. I’m trying to take those challenges and trying to do those to the best of my ability because you never know where you’re going to be in this game.
When I walk down here to the clubhouse, I notice you two are sitting out here together. Have you two become good friends out of this?
Mendez: That’s one of the things that goes along with piggybacking together and throwing on the same day. We’ve always been good friends, but the biggest thing about why we hang out together is we talk about the lineup. We talk about the hitters and what they’re doing.
Marin: Yohander, being the older guy and kind of being around, he’s pretty much letting Jurado know to pay attention to the game and know what’s going on with the hitters and what they’re doing and what they’re not doing, because that’s going to give you a better idea of how you need to pitch to them.
They kind of share and help each other out with the pitches when they play catch. What they’re seeing, what they’re not seeing. They kind of hold each other accountable. That’s one thing we’ve liked from both of these guys. They haven’t taken this thing as, “Alright, we’re covering each other’s inning.” They’re taking it as, “We’re going help each other out to get to where we need to get.” It’s fun to see from both of these guys.
Ariel, one of the things that both Oscar and Danny both talked about is dropping your arm slot for the sinker this year. How did you come about that in the offseason and develop that?
Jurado: Everything kind of started with a little tweak of the elbow. I had a little small injury. It was nothing major, but I got a couple of days off. When I was in Arizona, one of the things that Brian Shouse (Rangers complex pitching coach) saw was that every time I did a PFP play, my arm slot was at a low three-quarter. So, then he asked me after the injury, just to keep me healthy, “Can you throw from that slot off the mound?” And I did. At the time, it was just a four-seamer with some run. It went well that year. Over the break, I went to the Dominican instructs and the pitching coach there Henderson Lugo goes, “Have you tried using a two-seam from that slot?” I go, “No, I haven’t tried it yet.” That’s where it came from. Every since then, I’ve been using it and I’ve been perfecting it.
Yohander, what is the biggest thing you have to work on between now and then time you hopefully get to the big leagues?
Mendez: The biggest thing I need to work on is my physical appearance – my weight, my strength. It’s coming along and has gotten better, which is one of the reasons why I am where I am right now – maintaining that along with my pitches. The reason I feel really good about my pitches is because I feel strong. So, I want to continue to maintain that.
That other thing is that in-game situations. One of the examples was in last night’s game. The last hitter of that inning, I knew it was going to be my last hitter because of my pitch count. I got into an 0-2 count. I hadn’t overthrown one pitch yet. All off a sudden it came out from there. It’s just understanding the situation with the goal being “We’re going to get this guy out,” as opposed to “We’re going to get this guy out looking pretty.”
Jurado: I still feel like I can get into better shape and still continue to have that repeatable delivery.
Marin: He brought up his fastball to a certain side of the plate, which is fine. He also said, “I need to work on my sinker to the outside corner to a lefty.” I go, “Ok, that’s good. What about your fastball, your sinker to the outside corner (to RH hitters) so you can run that in?” It’s a sinker to both sides of the plate, not just one. He does a good job of throwing the sinker for a strike. He does a good job of throwing the sinker arm side very well when he wants. Can he start it out of the zone and have it come back in? That, I think, is the biggest thing he’s going to have to go from there.
What do you think it is going to be like to get to the big leagues?
Mendez: I imagine myself getting kind of something unexpected, in my mind. Getting a high level of happiness and emotion. It’s something that will be unbelievable.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve gone through so far that you might later say that was worth it?
Mendez: The year that I’m going to remember is the time I spent in the Dominican Republic. Pitching wise, it went fine, but emotionally being a new guy going into the organization, the attitude, that wasn’t completely where I wanted to be. Looking back, I made the adjustment and I’m happy I was there and turned the corner there. It helped me do what I am doing now.
Marin: He’s absolutely right. His routine, his attitude, his stuff in the clubhouse, being a good teammate, he’s great at it. That’s one of the reasons he said that. He learned how to do that over there because he wasn’t so good at that early on.
Jurado: The biggest thing was one of my countrymen, in the Dominican, was from Aguadulce in Panama. I came in not as a high-profile guy, but one of the things the strength coach there told me was, “Work hard, keep moving forward; you have to win yourself a spot.” So, he never let me go out by the wayside. He always pushed me to strive to be better than I thought I could possibly be. That’s one of the things I always keep in mind and keep close to my heart was that he pushed me to get to where I am at now.
Former Hickory Crawdads pitcher Luke Jackson came to the team in May 2011 to make his pro debut. He certainly showed the stuff that made him the 45th overall pick in the 2010 draft: a sharp curve and a mid-90s fastball that missed bats and occasionally missed everything but the backstop. Getting his feet was on the mound back in 2011, he was definitely a work in progress. He struck out 78 in 75 innings, but walked 48.
The game I will remember most from the 2011 season was a game on June 16 at home against Charleston, S.C. The Crawdads entered the final series of the first half in a virtual three-way tie for first with Greensboro and the Bryce Harper-led Hagerstown Suns with four games to play.
Jackson was masterful for most of the five innings he pitched that night. He allowed just two base runners over the first four innings and stuck out nine, including four in the second. Then came the fifth.
Hickory took a 3-0 lead into the inning before Yankees catching prospect Gary Sanchez launched a 2-0 fastball from Jackson that may have orbited the moon on the way before landing beyond left-field fence near the foul pole. (Along with Mike, now known as Giancarlo, Stanton, it was among the most impressive homer by a RH hitter I’ve seen at LP Frans.)
Michael Ferraro then struck out before Kelvin De Leon singled up the middle.
Jackson retired Jeff Farnham on a grounder to second and was poised to get past five innings for the first time as a pro Then, his control fell apart as he walked two with a wild pitch thrown in the mix to load the bases.
With a reliever warming up in a crucial game for the first-half title, manager Bill Richardson made the decision to stay with Jackson. The righty rewarded Richardson’s faith by getting Ramon Flores to fly to center.
Hickory held on to win 5-1 and picked up two games on the Suns after Hagerstown lost a doubleheader. The Crawdads won the first half by .003 percentage points over Greensboro.
Richardson said after the game, “I’ve got to give (Crawdads pitching coach) Storm Davis a lot of credit for having confidence in his pitcher. I asked him and he said let’s see what he’s got right here.”
Jackson said that he had appreciation for his coaches on letting staying in the game.
“I was pretty pumped about that. I struggled and they stuck with me and I was able to get out of it with the help of my defense.”
The coolest thing about seeing kids like Jackson come here at the start of their pro careers is to watch the maturing process, whether it’s athletically or otherwise. By his own admission, Jackson had to grow up in many ways. I remember the stark contrast of watching Jackson in the clubhouse preparing for a start as opposed to the older college kid Nick Tepesch prepare for a start.
With the help of Storm Davis and others, Jackson learned about becoming a pro on and off the field and it was a cool thing to see. By the time Jackson was promoted to high-A Myrtle Beach in mid-June 2012, he was a different pitcher and he was prepared for the challenge.
I did a lengthy interview with Jackson on April 28, 2012 a night after a tough outing against Greensboro, during which he gave up five runs in the second. He talked about how differently he reacted to that start – he pitched into the sixth – compared to how he handled things in 2011. Jackson also spoke with me about the adjustments he had to make coming out of high school into the pro game.
Let me first ask where you are from and where you went to high school?
Jackson: I’m from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. I went to Westminster for my first two high school years and then Calvary Christian for my last two (in Ft. Lauderdale).
Did you sign a letter of intent to pitch in college?
Jackson: I had signed to Miami.
What were the pros/ cons of signing vs. college?
Jackson: I just kind of talked about it with my family and prayed about it. A lot of it was that we set a number and if it was there I was going to go. I liked school. I was a pretty high-skilled student in school. I didn’t mind going to school at all, so that wasn’t a burden at all. The money was there, so I started my career early.
What was drawing you to Miami?
Jackson: Actually, I was pretty much committed to going to UNC (North Carolina-Chapel Hill) before that, but the track record of pitchers and injuries and pitching coaches. I really liked the Miami pitching coach and I had a good relationship with him. JD’s (Pitching coach J.D. Arteaga) a great guy and I had a couple of friends going there as well, so it was a good set up. It was about an hour-and-a-half away from my house, so at least I had a way of getting my clothes washed, so that was good. It was between UNC and Miami and I ended up choosing Miami.
What were some of the conversations that you had with the Rangers?
Jackson: Not really much. It was more of just they wanted me to keep playing ball. Actually, they didn’t want me to play summer ball, but they didn’t mind if I threw a couple of games here and there. I threw a couple of times. We talked a couple of times and communicated. There was kind of a set plan and a set deal. We didn’t really negotiate at all over the time. We were just waiting for the approval.
What made you decide to do this with the Rangers?
Jackson: That was one thing that me and my family talked about. We knew the kind of program that they ran. We got to go over the throwing programs and all that. I got to meet some of the strength coaches and pitching coaches and felt like it would’ve been a great fit. I like the way they ran everything. They pretty much stuck with the same program that I did in high school. That was awesome. It was a little bit of free reins. They didn’t restrict you as much. You were allowed to workout, which I loved. There were a lot of throw-longs, which I loved. There were great coaches and I heard only great things about the Texas organization, so that was kind of a plus.
Did the Nolan Ryan aspect factor in?
Jackson: Yeah, that was pretty cool. Even though we don’t see him a lot or talk to him a lot, we implemented his program and we knew how successful he was. It’s a pretty cool thing.
Was there someone with the Rangers that you talked with?
Jackson: Not really. You could just tell that all around there were a lot of good people from being on the field a couple of times and coming to my house and talking with my family. It seemed like they were people I could trust. It was probably the best choice I could make.
You went to instructionals in 2010 and then came here last year (2011) to start pro ball. What was it like coming to pro ball for the first time?
Jackson: It’s kind of weird. I felt like last year, I was a thrower in high school and that got me through everything. When I got out here I had to learn how to pitch. That’s kind of what (Crawdads pitching coach) Storm Davis and (Crawdads manager) Bill Richardson and all our pitching coaches tried to teach me as fast as possible. Coming back here a second time, I can tell I’ve turned a corner maturity wise learning the game, learning how to pitch instead of throw.
What was the first reality-check for you?
Jackson: I think it was the strike zone, that was the biggest thing. I thought I could throw the ball anywhere near the plate and it would be a strike. In high school and even in spring training and in instructs there was a pretty big zone and everyone was swinging at everything. You get here and you realize at that point that the pitch you thought were strikes and they are balls. It kind of shocks you a little bit and you think, “I really have got to throw it closer to the hitter.” That was probably the biggest thing for me.
What were the adjustments you had to make from being a thrower to a pitcher?
Jackson: Actually locating pitches low and away and not just raring back and throwing it low and away. But actually bear down right here and I’ve got to throw it away. I’ve got to get a changeup over for a strike, got to get a first pitch curve ball for a strike. You’ve got to mix your pitches well and sequences. I think Storm helps us so much with sequences and the mental part. He knows my delivery probably better than anyone.
What have you learned about the mental part of it?
Jackson: You’ve got to accept failure. I’d go from a bad start and I would carry it over to the next start. Whereas now when I struggle, you’ve got to shake it off, put it all behind you and come back and play again. You’re going to have bad starts. Last night was one of them. I’ll come out here to face the same team next week and put it all out there with a vengeance.
To be honest, last year I’d be so mad when I’d give up a base hit on a garbage pitch and I’d be so mad and Storm would be like, “Calm down, focus in and throw a first pitch strike on the next batter.” He breaks it down for me pretty easy, so that helps a lot.
Stormy has talked about how you’ve had to learn to pitch to contact. How have you’ve gone about figuring that out?
Jackson: In high school, you don’t have your best players in the field and in the outfield. So, I mean you’ve got a guy at second; you’re trying to strike everyone out. You don’t want anyone getting on base or any ball hit pretty hard. It’s pretty much going to be a base hit. So in high school, I pitched for people to not to be able to hit the ball.
But here, you have a pitch count. You’ve got to learn how to get through innings. If you’re getting through seven innings, you’re going to make a pretty good career for yourself. So, you’ve got to keep that pitch count down. First-pitch outs, first-pitch strikes, and getting guys to swing at your pitches. I still don’t like people hitting the ball hard, but pitching to contact is probably the biggest thing.
When I talked to Storm Davis about you, the first sentence from him about was about your maturity: What was Luke Jackson like last year vs. Luke Jackson this year?
Jackson: Last year was my first year being out of a structured situation. You’re living on your own and all that stuff and finding a good routine. Last year I’d stay awake real late and then get up and get in here. You’ve got to put yourself to sleep. You’ve got to get into bed and force yourself to get to sleep so you can wake up and get your breakfast and get that nourishment in.
Last year, I was waking up at 1, showering, yawn and get to the field and be kind of sluggish all day. Now, it’s I’ve got to get up, get my meal. They give us a structured plan, so that’s pretty easy. This year I’ve kind of turned the corner on that.
That’s been a real big thing as in coming back for a second time now. I’m 20 and it’s my second time here and I feel like I’ve been pushed into a leader role, even though I’m a younger kid.
I kind of have to step up and, not show them the ropes, but lead the other guys out there. I’m trying to put that on my shoulders a little bit and learn how to do that more and more every day.
Do you think you would have responded to a game like last night differently last year than you do now? If so, how.
Jackson: Guaranteed. Last year, I would not have made it out of the second. I don’t have all of my pitches, I don’t know what I can do. I’ll just throw it by everyone. Last night, I was able to bear down and say, “I’ve got to throw strikes.” You’re going to give up hits, but, inside, outside, mix in your curve ball, get it over for a strike.
I felt I was able to get the ball in play and was starting to get some outs and starting rolling finally in the fifth. Those five runs early really just got tacked on. What I’ll do different for this next start is that I’ll study in these off days and get back at them next week.
How would you handle it at a maturity level?
Jackson: This year, I just kind of shake it off. You’ve got to write off that inning. Right when I walked off that mound and got in that dugout, Storm said, “It’s just one of those days. The ball is finding holes and it’s got eyes tonight. Just keep pitching and get that first out next inning,” And I said, “That’s what I’m going for.”
Last year, I would’ve come off the mound all flustered and going, “What just happened?” and let it roll on into the next inning.
What’s it like working with Storm?
Jackson: He is my first pitching coach. I didn’t have a pitching coach in high school. I get out here and he’s a guy that you’re with every day. He’s teaching you every day; you’re really learning. He becomes pretty much a mentor of pitching. You call him up and talk to about pitching. I’ll probably give him a call a home this week after stuff and talk about what I need to do and how to get my mind right. He’s a mentor to me on the pitching side of things.
I know that Storm has his sayings and different things he gives to you guys. What does that sort of thing do for you?
Jackson: He’s a quiet guy, but he pushes you. He encourages you. He’s always on your side, always has your back, always helping you out. He’s never bringing you down, which is pretty cool. There’s always someone there. You may have had a bad outing, but he’ll look at the positives of it and bring you out of it. That helps a lot.
He post motivational stuff to keep us focused and keep us on track and keep our goals going and keep pushing us.
What are your goals for this year?
Jackson: To be honest: Short term, it’s going with the same game plan I went with the last game and going with it the next game. Keep the same routine. Stop thinking about striking everyone out. Stop thinking about walking anyone. Just throw that first pitch strike. Keep throwing that first pitch to the first batter.
Last year I’d come out and think, maybe I’d get five innings here and then struggle in the first and start thinking I’m not going to get to five and get all flustered early. Whereas, now it’s go out and get that first batter out. If he didn’t get out, then get that second batter out. Just kind of break it down and simplify it. I think that’s helped a lot. That’s probably a big thing for me that I’ve matured about.
Did you always feel you had to go seven in high school?
Jackson: I knew I had to go seven, but seven in high school is a walk in the park. I’d wake up in the morning and play kickball for five hours at school and then throw the football for an hour and then get on the mound and throw fastballs and maybe throw an off-speed pitch. It was competitive, but I could throw in high school. God blessed me with a good enough arm to just throw the baseball and that’s what I did. I didn’t care about offspeed or walking anyone. I’d maybe walk a batter or hit a batter, but that’s pretty much how high school was. Learning in pro ball has been a huge adjustment.
Where you disappointed to come back here?
Jackson: I felt like I kind of needed it, to be honest. I would’ve loved to have been at Myrtle Beach. I had a good spring training and everything went well. On the field was great, but last year I didn’t put up the numbers probably they wanted to see. My walks were way up there. It was probably a lesson that I needed to throw strikes. I’m working on getting out of here, but I can’t control anything but each outing going out there and pitch. The higher-ups control that stuff.
The lineup: All nine hitters had at least one hit with Jose Trevino and Juremi Profar getting at least two. Hickory, especially the right-handers, continues to be pitched to on or just off the outside corner of the plate. For the most part, the hitters have been able to discern balls/ strikes –and attack or lay off appropriately – or it pitches up the middle or away.
The few pitches that made their way over the inner half of the plate were hammered hard. None of the Suns trio of pitchers (Dave Van Orden, Luis Torres or Andrew Cooper) were able to present breaking pitches often enough to keep Crawdads hitters off stride, so it was easy pickings at times.
Xavier Turner: His first two games with Hickory have certainly had its moments. In his first game last week at Asheville, he reportedly dislocated his shoulder on the first play of the first inning.
Returning from the disabled list, Turner crushed a fastball to medium left-center. Thinking triple out of the box, he caught sight of Corey Ragsdale’s stop sign after rounding the bag at second. As he put the brakes on, he slipped and stumbled. With the throw coming into the second behind him, Turner made it to third and slid around the tag of 3B David Masters.
At 6-1, 205 the Rangers 19th round pick showed good speed on the basepaths. He handled both plays in the field without concerns.
Juremi Profar: Had a pair of doubles, both on off-speed pitches away, and would’ve had a third if not for a brilliant catch in right by Dale Carey on a leaping dive on the track.
7th inning ABs: Facing reliever Luis Torres, Josh Morgan spoiled fastball after fastball away before succumbing on a fastball low and in on the tenth pitch. Eduard Pinto then worked a nine-pitch AB into a walk, again spoiling a bushel (correct term?) of fastballs. Able to watch this sequence, Jose Trevino spit on a fastball off the plate and then crushed the next one out of the park in left.
Yohander Mendez: Fastball command was a bit spotty, but he showed good arm action with the changeup that baffled the Suns hitters all night. Had 12 missed bats in 4.2 innings, all but two by my count coming on offspeeds. Didn’t use the curve as much on Friday, and what he did use was a bit loopy. But the change was definitely on. Finished at 77 pitches (49 strikes).
Scott Williams: For me the pitcher that has taken the largest step forward in the second half is Williams. Friday night was mostly fastballs with an occasionally slider mixed it. Fastball 94-96 has life but the biggest thing is simply confidence to attack hitters with it.
Chris Dula: A hit batter on the first pitch of the eighth, a single and two walks made Dula’s night a short one. Fastball is 94-96, but there is no control as to where it is going. Have to wonder if it at some point he makes a trip to Arizona.
Ariel Jurado: Just never looked comfortable all night. He usually is a get the ball and let’s go kind of pitcher, but on Friday there was much more walking around the mound than I recall. Fastball seemed a tick down and did not have the usual precision, as he walked two in an appearance for only the second time this season.