Very few professional baseball players get the chance to play near their childhood home. Even fewer minor leaguers get to do so. Former Hickory Crawdads left-handed reliever Jeffrey Springs got to do just that and he made the most of it in working a promotion this week to high-A High Desert.
Springs is a native of Belmont, N.C. – about a 45 minute drive from Hickory – and was a part of the 2011 state 3A championship team at South Point High.
He was named the state 3A player of the year in 2011 and set the Gaston County record for strikeouts and is tied for wins in the county’s baseball history.
Springs went on to a stellar four-year career at Appalachian State – also about 45 minutes from Hickory – where he posted top-10 career marks in starts, strikeouts and innings pitched for the Mountaineers.
He got his first chance to come home – Springs is the first App State product to pitch for Hickory – late last summer when the Texas Rangers 30th round pick in 2015 was promoted to the Crawdads for the final week of the regular season. He struck out six over 3.1 innings and then punctuated his season with a key moment in the first round of the South Atlantic League playoffs.
With Hickory facing elimination in game two of the Northern Division series, the West Virginia Power rallied to tie the score at 3-3 in the top of the fifth and had the go-ahead run on first. Springs was brought in to face SAL all-star rightfielder Michael Suchy. The lefty needed only one pitch to get Suchy to pop up to second and end the inning. The Power did not score again over the final 13 innings of the series.
This season, Springs was a foundational piece of the Crawdads bullpen prior to his promotion. Springs currently has three pitches – low-90s fastball, a looping curve ball, and a change that Springs uses as his go-to pitch. He is also working on adding a slider to the mix. In 18 outings, Springs struck out 40, walked eight, and posted a 1.16 ERA over 31 innings. The SAL batted .106 against him – the stingiest mark among relievers in the league – which earned him a spot in the SAL all-star game in Lexington, Ky. Springs struck out the only batter he faced to close out the sixth inning.
Below is the interview I did with Springs late last week, just after his addition – strangely, for me, a late addition – to the Northern Division all-star roster.
Obviously you were a late addition to the all-star game. I thought you should’ve been picked originally, but let me get your reaction to your selection to the all-star game.
Springs: Obviously, it’s humbling to be a part of something like that. It’s obviously really good. Like you said, I wasn’t picked in the beginning, but whatever. It is what it is. But I’m really happy to be a part of it and I’m looking forward to spending a couple of days in Kentucky and getting to compete and enjoying it.
What are you looking forward to the most?
Springs: Just being able to pitch against the best hitters in the league and competing to see how you match up, to be honest. Obviously we’re out here to compete and you’d like to see how you match up with the best.
Was there disappointment when you weren’t picked the first time?
Springs: No. It is what it is. I know it’s sometimes tough for relievers to make it. So, I wasn’t really expecting to or not expecting to.
How cool was it to pitch here after coming out of App (Appalachian State)?
Springs: I was excited when they posted the rosters out of spring training. I kind of had my fingers crossed to be in Hickory, not only because that’s moving up for me and getting one step closer, but just being close to home and being on the East Coast where my family can actually get to come and see me play. They weren’t able to come out to Spokane and see me. I’m right up the road from where I went to school for four years. It’s really nice. I feel like I’m playing at home and I’m very comfortable here. It’s definitely an advantage, because I live right down the road and I get to see the mom and dad every once in a while and friends and stuff like that. It’s really nice.
Do you travel down to Gaston County?
Springs: Yeah, I travel there most off-days to visit family and stuff. It’s nice to see them and they come to a good it of games.
You got here last year for the last couple of weeks and the championship run. That was a nice bit of a reward for you.
Springs: It was a great experience, for sure. That team was very good. Obviously, they clinched the first half and it was exciting to be a part of a special thing that they had there at the end. Talent wise and the chemistry within the team, it was really special to be a part of it. They really accepted me with open arms. I contributed the little bit I could whenever they asked me to me to do whatever.
You got a key out in that playoff run.
Springs: I think against West Virginia – we had great starters. Obviously, they pretty much carried the team pretty much the whole year. I came in and threw one pitch to bridge the gap. We had great eighth-inning guys and we had a great closer. If the starters for some reason couldn’t get to the eighth inning, we just kind of bridged the gap. Like I said, our bullpen was stacked with Dillon (Tate) and Lulu (Luis Ortiz) back there and then Scott Williams. If we’d get to the eighth inning, we’re winning the game pretty much.
What was your goal entering this year and how has that progressed for you?
Springs: Just being as consistent as possible. That’s something I tried to do last year at Spokane and carry it over to this year. They talk about staying on the kiddie coaster and being consistent, so when you have good outings and bad outings, they’re not too far apart. Just being consistent and doing whatever role they need me to do – being in the bullpen, or if they need me to be a lefty specialist, or a late-inning guy. Whatever they need me to do, just taking it and running with it and being the best at it.
Did you start at App?
Springs: Yeah, I started my whole career in high school and four years at App. When I got to the Rangers, they said you’re going to be in the bullpen, which is no big deal. It’s kind of an advantage for me because, at most, bullpen guys are two-pitch guys. But being a starter, throwing three and working on a slider now; here’s all three pitchers for a couple of innings and you don’t have to see me twice. It’s kind of nice, to be honest.
The one out-pitch for you has been that curveball. Has that been an advantage for you at the start?
Springs: My changeup really is the one that is an equalizer for me to right-handed hitters. I’m almost more comfortable at times with right handers in the box – I know that’s weird being left handed – but for me, my changeup is what gets me back on course. If I’m missing with fastballs, or whatever it may be, for some reason, when I go to it, it kind of settles everything back down. That’s what I go to. My breaking ball has gotten more consistent and I throw it and bury it 0-0, or whatever I need to do. It’s probably a changeup that has really been my equalizer.
I throw a curveball, but the change is the out pitch that I need right now. It’s not really my out pitch; it’s to get the weak contact, the popups. It really helps my fastball. I don’t throw like some of these guys, 98, or anything like that. I have to change speeds and keep hitters guessing.
Is that slider going to be the key for you moving up?
Springs: I think so. If I can really develop that and learn that, that’ll really hopefully take my game to left-handed hitters to be able to hopefully succeed at getting them out. Obviously, if you’re a left hander and you can’t get left handers out, you’ve got problems. I’ve been working on it a couple of weeks and hopefully if I can nail that down, I’ve got a shot of progressing a little bit more, a little quicker.
Do you have hopes of moving up this year, or are you fine being close to home?
Springs: Whatever they want me to do. If they want me to stay here or if they want me move up, obviously that’s the goal. It’s another step closer to the ultimate goal of making it. If they want me to move, I’ll be more than happy to pack my stuff up whenever they ask.
Is there hope for you that you get a change to start, or are you comfortable coming out of the bullpen?
Springs: Obviously, I started my whole career. That’s kind of where my heart is, whatever you want to call it. But like I said, I just want to keep pitching. If I get to start, that would be icing on the cake. But just getting to pitch, for me, is the biggest thing. I don’t care if we’re up by ten, down by ten, or tied in the ninth, as long as I get to pitch, I’m pretty content with that.
Between you and (Joe) Palumbo – although y’all have run into a bit of a rough patch lately – along with (John ) Werner, it’s been a nice back of the bullpen the first half of the season.
Springs: I feel like as a team, our pitching has been pretty consistent throughout the year. Hitting is going to go in slumps. That’s just how it is. I mean, they’re going to struggle. We feel like as a staff, we have to carry them. We have to keep them in the games, no matter if they’re putting up ten runs or they’re putting up two. For the most part, we did that. We’ve struggled the last few weeks and kind of shot ourselves in the foot trying to win the first half.
Werner’s been nice. It’s another consistent guy who comes in and you know what you’re going to get. Palumbo has been pretty good all year. We feel like we’ve got some guys in the pen that can really finish off games. Our starting staff is really good, and like I said, they’re been really carrying it pretty good.
You get a call to the major leagues, what is your reaction going to be?
Springs: Oh man, I don’t even know. Obviously, you dream of it since you were a little kid. I don’t know what my response will be. You try not to think about it too much during the season, but it’s hard not to wonder when you’re sitting there – even in the offseason – what would it be like. Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you. I’d probably call my parents and just thank God for the opportunity. It’d be so surreal for a guy to really get a grasp on it until you maybe step onto the field. Fingers crossed, we’ll see.
Who’s the first non-family person you’ll call?
Springs: Probably the girlfriend. Obviously, mom and dad, my grandpa and my brothers. There have been a couple of people that have really helped me along the way with the pitching aspect. Devon Lowery, he made it to the big leagues out of Belmont (South Point High), where I’m from. He’s helped me so much along my way. I’ve had so much help. I’ve been fortunate enough to come in contact with people that know a lot about the game and helped me tweak things that I needed to get where I am. There’d be a lot of thanks going out to so many different people.
What’s the one thing that that you’ve gone through that you’ll look back on and say that was worth it?
Springs: Just the sacrifices, like the offseason. What you have to go through to get your body in shape and the arm in shape and all the sacrifices over the years. You can’t go and do normal things like normal people do. All the hard work that you put it would be worth it to reach that ultimate goal. It’d be like, “I’m glad I did everything that I did to get where I am.”