April 2017

Transition Game: An Interview with Crawdads reliever Tyler Ferguson

Life is full of transitions and over the past several years, Hickory Crawdads reliever Tyler Ferguson has had several. Growing up in Fresno, CA – he attended West Clovis High – a chance-pitching appearance while overcoming an illness led to a spot with one of the premier college baseball programs at Vanderbilt in Nashville, TN.

A “Sunday starter” with the Commodore in 2014, the opportunity to pitch out of the bullpen in key spots during the team’s run to the College World Series title has since led to a pro career in that role.

The Rangers sixth-round pick in 2015, Ferguson, now 23, struggled with control (9 walks in 4.2 innings) in the Arizona Summer League, but he returned to have a brilliant stay with short-season Spokane (WA) in 2016. Posting 46 Ks to 10 BBs over 30.1 IP, he made the Northwest League all-star team before getting a promotion to Hickory. Another transition at hand in a league with better hitters, Ferguson reverted to his control issues with 18 walks to only 10 Ks over 13.1 innings.

A fresh start in 2017 has been mostly fruitful for the right-hander. He has a 6.14 ERA to date, but all of that came in one bad outing on April 17. Otherwise, he’s been nearly flawless, going scoreless during his other four outings. More importantly for his development, Ferguson has fanned 12 and walked only three over 7.1 innings.

A power pitcher on the mound – mid-to-upper 90s fastball and slider – he’s a cerebral person in his craft on the field and his approach off the field. This is no bull-in-the-china shop, off-kilter reliever. He’s a three-time All-SEC Academic honoree and has a bright future in the game once his on-the-field days are finished.

 

Tyler Ferguson - Proffitt (2)

Tyler Ferguson in a game vs. Columbia 4/28/17 (photo courtesy Tracy Proffitt)

 

First of all, I’m curious. You grew up in Fresno, if I recall correctly. How did you wind up at Vanderbilt?

Ferguson: So, I happened to play out with the Area Code teams down in Los Angeles. I didn’t really get recruited a ton until the junior summer going into my senior year. I hadn’t visited anywhere. I actually ended up getting shingles and was sick for like the first four days and pitched on the last day. That’s when Tim Corbin, the head coach of Vanderbilt, saw me. I did pretty well and then he called me and I had a conversation with him. After that, I decided to wait as long as I could and took all my official visits. So I got to go out there and check it out and I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with the coaches, the school, the baseball program, which was on the rise. I hadn’t really heard of it before he actually called me, other than seeing them on TV maybe one time.

 

It’s a pretty big program, especially the last decade with a lot of guys coming out of there. David Price is the one that comes off the top of my head. Did you talk to any of those guys in making your decision?

Ferguson: No, I didn’t really talk to any of the guys that had come out of the university before I got there. For me, it was kind of, I went there to visit with my mom and I just had a really good feeling about the school and where it was headed. The pitching coach Derek Johnson was there and that was huge. The pitching coach was a huge reason for me to choose the school. Now he’s the Brewers pitching coach – it took him three years to get there. So, it was kind one of those things where you fell in love with the school, fell in love with everything about it. I had a really good feeling about it.

 

What were some of the adjustments you had to make when moving to the south from California?

I didn’t really feel like it was much of an adjustment. My sister transferred to play volleyball at Belmont, which is right down the street. So, I had my sister there, and so, it was kind of like having a family member. It wasn’t like I was just moving across the country by myself. It really nice to have her there with me.

 

Let me ask you about your College World Series experience, getting to go there a couple of times and getting a ring.

Ferguson: So, the crazy thing is, the time we didn’t go to Omaha, my freshman year, might be one of the best college teams ever. It is quietly, because we went 26-3 in the SEC, which will probably never be broken. It was just a lot of seniors. A couple of guys on the teams have played in the big leagues already. That team was unbelievable.

My sophomore year, we had another really good team. That was an unbelievable experience. I pitched on Sundays that year. We had a great team. We were up and down throughout the year and hit stride at the right time. We caught fire and were able to pull it off.

My junior year, another really good team. We played great all year, but couldn’t win one of the last two.

 

You had a couple of successes. You pitched in the Super Regional against Stanford?

Ferguson: Tyler Beede started that one. We got off to a little bit of a lead and then he kind of struggled and then I came in and threw pretty well, I think 2.2 (IP). I held us there long enough to where we could maintain that momentum and win that first game in the Super Regional, which is huge in a best two-out-of-three.

 

You had a tough outing against Texas in the College World Series, but then you get to come back and pitch a huge inning.

Ferguson: Yeah, a tough start there. Luckily, we kept that one close and we were able to beat them and then move on to Virginia. There, I pitched one inning against Virginia. I threw well and pitched a quick inning.

 

How did you make the conversion from a starter to a reliever?

Ferguson: So, I just struggled over the last couple of years with command, and so, making that adjustment’s been alright. It took a little while for me to mentally just accept that role. It’s a little bit less of a routine; you don’t always know when you’re throwing. But, I’ve come to really enjoy it over the last year.

Pitching in that situation, coming in with the bases loaded the other night, it was huge adrenaline rush. I didn’t throw a lot of pitches. I was able to get that out and save Tyler (Phillips) a couple of runs. So, that was fun.

 

Coming out of the bullpen, does that fit your personality more?

Ferguson: I don’t know if it’s a personality thing, whether it fits or doesn’t fit. I think it’s just one of those things where you adjust. That’s a tough question.

 

There are certain times a role fits a personality. Joe Filomeno, when he was here, was a guy that was gregarious, bull-in-the-china-shop sort of person. Then you’ve got somebody else more reserved and the tactician sort of thinker in putting a start together.

Ferguson: Yeah, I’d say it does fit my kind of personality. I’m all arms and legs coming at you and I’m just to throw it hard and throw past you, and throw a good slider and make you miss. So, I kind of like that. I’m just coming at you with what I’ve got here and now. So, I’m starting to really like that, because for most of my pitching career, my first four or five years, I was a starter. I was always in that role and it’s taken a little bit of an adjustment. Now, it’s not, I’m setting a guy up for later, necessarily, it’s I’m coming at you with what I’ve got and I’m going to beat you with my stuff. It’s a more important time of the game.

Tyler Ferguson 2-lin

Ferguson in a September 2016 game with Hickory (Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

You went to Spokane last year and had a good run there and made the All-Star Game team and pitched in that. Then you came here and struggled with control. What was the switch that flipped from Spokane to here?

Ferguson: Last year, I got hurt in spring training. So I was out and then I finally got healthy right before Spokane and then I went there and had a lot of success. It couldn’t have gone better there, honestly.

I then came here and to jump to that level, I just kind of tried to do too much. I tried to overthrow. I felt like I needed to throw harder and throw better breaking balls instead of just being myself and doing what I do best. So, when I stay in control and don’t try to overdo it – I know I throw hard and I don’t need to try and throw it harder. It’s something I’m still working on and it’s always a struggle.

When you come into certain big situations, you’re trying to throw it hard and make better pitches. When you stay within yourself and you stay relaxed and make the right pitch, it’s going to go out in your favor most of the time.

 

I saw that you were All-Academic in the SEC three times.

Ferguson: Yeah, I’m a little bit of a nerd. I always did well in high school and got two really nice plaques in Omaha, because I had the highest GPA on the team. So, I got some really nice plaques for my parents to hang up, so they really like that, too.

 

What was your major in college?

Ferguson: It’s an interdisciplinary major. They don’t have a business major at Vanderbilt, so I had a basically created major that would be called Sports Management and Finance. It’s basically finance management and whatever sports classes they have there and kind of put it together. After baseball, I see myself working in baseball still on the business side or financial side.

 

Maybe an agent?

Ferguson: No, I don’t think an agent. I think I’d rather work for an organization.

 

What was the bigger thrill, getting to throw in the College World Series or getting All-SEC Academic?

Ferguson: (laughs) I’m going to take the World Series ring. It’s hard to beat that. We had 50 people within our Vanderbilt family, so only 50 people get a ring every year. I think that’s a little bit more special to me.

 

What are the goals for the remainder of the year?

Ferguson: I haven’t really set out any goals. For me, it’s getting into a routine, being into the bullpen and just being as consistent as possible out of the bullpen. I don’t want to be someone that’s up and down all year. I want to be as consistent as possible throughout the year. So, doing the same things every day and working out on the same days each week, whether I’m throwing or not throwing. Just, creating consistency throughout my day-to-day and that way, I’ll see consistency out on the field.

 

How will it mean the most to when you get a call up to the major leagues?

Ferguson: My parents. They gone through all the struggles with me. They’ve been in all those phone calls when (crap) hits the fan. Whenever I get that call, I want to be able to call them. I think they’ll feel as excited as I am.

 

What do you think your reaction will be?

Ferguson: Tears. Probably, yeah.

 

Who’s the next person you’ll call after your parents?
Ferguson:
My sister. Family first.

 

You guys do all the bus rides and do all the lifts, and so on. What is the thing you’ll look back on and say, “that was worth it”?

Ferguson: All this situation isn’t the best, it’s not the nicest, but when you harp on that, it brings you down and it makes you negative. I just enjoy what we have here. It’s nice. Then, as it gets nicer, you just kind of appreciate all the little things that you get. You get to fly on nice planes and get nicer food. You’ve just got the appreciate what’s in front of you.

Tyler Ferguson - Lin

Tyler Ferguson from 2016 (Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

Game Story 4/29/17: Crawdads Rally, Defeat Fireflies in Extras

The Hickory Crawdads shook off the Columbia (S.C.) Fireflies with a tying run in the ninth and a walk-off RBI double by Preston Scott in the tenth to claim a 9-8 win in front of 4,325 fans at L.P. Frans Stadium.

The win for the Crawdads (9-14) is the third in a row during the four-game series, which concludes Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. Columbia (12-12) has dropped four of its last five games and six of eight.

 

What happened?:

Columbia’s outfielder Tim Tebow did not play. The crowd behaved and were quite well-mannered. Only one chant of Tebow occurred in the ninth inning.

 

What really happened?:

For the third straight game, the Crawdads offense got in gear and carried the team to the walk-off win. After scoring just 22 runs over its first 10 home games, Hickory now has 28 over the last three.

Columbia took a 3-0 lead after its first two at-bats. In the first, Andres Gimenez, the New York Mets No. 8 prospect (MLB.com) who was just added to the Fireflies roster, homered in his first stateside at-bat, a towering blast over the 32-foot high billboards in rightfield. Gene Cone added a two-run double in the second.

The Crawdads, who lead the Sally League in homers, added two in the second as Yanio Perez and Preston Scott snacked back-to-back solo blasts to left against starter Harol Gonzalez.

The Fireflies got the two runs back in the fourth. Jay Jabs singled and Desmond Lindsay walked before a passed ball moved both runners up. Ali Sanchez slammed a liner off the back of starting pitcher Argenis Rodriguez. 3B Ti’Quan Forbes scooped the ball up and made the play to first, but Jabs scored on the play. Milton Ramos doubled in Lindsay.

Yanio Perez then continued his assault on Fireflies pitching with a three-run homer to left to tie the game at 5-all. For the season, Perez is now 10-for-20 in six games with a double, four homers, four walks, 8 runs scored and 11 RBIs.

Hickory took the lead in the fifth as Yeyson Yrizarri singled in Eric Jenkins and scored himself on Forbes’ groundout.

The see-saw affair continued in the sixth when Columbia scored three times to take an 8-7 lead. Sanchez singled in two runs before Cone’s grounder brought in Lindsay for the go-ahead run.

The score remained there until the bottom of the ninth when Anderson Tejeda doubled to start the inning. One out later, Yrizarri squeezed in a single through the left side of the infield. Taveras then lofted a blooper just beyond the reach of the shortstop Gimenez, who had retreated to center, to score Tejeda.  Matt Blackham then struck out Forbes and Ricky Valencia to end the inning and send the game to the tenth.

A perilous moment occurred in the tenth, when Ramos drove a deep fly to left. Eric Jenkins trotted back to the track, then dropped the ball and allowed Ramos to reach second. However, C.D. Pelham recovered to strike out Cone looking to end the threat.

In the bottom of the tenth against new reliever Joseph Zanghi (0-2), Perez got his third hit of the game with a hard single to left. Scott then lasered a double to the wall in left center to score the winning run.

Pelham (1-0) pitched two-hit ball over three scoreless innings with three strikeouts to keep the Fireflies at bay. Jake Lemoine preceded Pelham’s work with two shutout innings of his own.

 

Tejeda base savvy:

I have to make note of a couple of brilliant base-running plays by Anderson Tejeda in the game, both occurring on second-to-third plays.

In the third, Yeyson Yrizarri hit a grounder to Ramos at third. Ramos made the diving stop to his left and threw to first on his knees for the out. Watching the play, Tejeda crept off the bag at second and then scrambled to third ahead of the return throw.

After he doubled in the ninth, Yrizarri’s grounder was just out of the reach of Ramos and Gimenez at short. Tejeda, anxious initially, waited until the play developed before making his move to third.

 

A near disaster in the OF Part 1:

Columbia’s Luis Carpio lined a shot to the gap in right-center field. Perez from right and Taveras from center both tracked the ball with neither calling the other off. The two converged and bumped, but Taveras made the catch and held on. The two had a conversation before returning to their positions. For a brief moment, it looked scary.

 

A near disaster in the OF Part 2, or Jenkins part 1:

There’s no gentle way to put this. On the play in left in the tenth, Jenkins trotted and pranced to the track and then put the glove up for the nonchalant catch. Except he didn’t make the catch. It didn’t look good.

 

Jenkins part 2:

In talking with Eric some on Saturday, he talked about some of his adjustments, especially in addressing the strikeouts from 2016. He talked about not following the swing high, but keeping the swing up the middle. An emphasis on working the count is also a part of his approach. For the most part, he’s done well with getting deep into counts and putting the ball in play. Though the average hadn’t shown it, he hadn’t been giving away at bats.

The two steps forward this week is now a step back. First AB was a one-pitch, weak grounder to 1B. The second AB was a one-pitch fly to LF. He reached on an infield hit in the fifth, then was looking on three pitches in the seventh and tried to muscle up a pitch in the ninth and struck out.

 

Taveras mastery at the plate:

In this homestand, Taveras has seen 102 pitches. He has swung and missed just five. Think about that when considering this is an 18-year-old. Three of those were vs. Braves No. 6 (MLB.com) prospect Ian Anderson.

One of those was tonight in the ninth when he wailed violently at a 1-0 fastball from Matt Blackham with runners on the corner. He settled down, worked the count full, then put the bat to the ball. It wasn’t a full-swing, but he made enough contact to loft the ball into short center for the game-tying RBI single.

In the fifth, he yanked an 0-2 off-speed pitch to RF for a single. Two innings later, it was an 0-2 fastball off the plate that he served to left.

Looking back through my mind’s eye, I remember how good Jurickson Profar was as an 18-year-old here. More walks than Ks, he would spoil two-strike pitches to the point of driving opposing pitchers batty. At 17 and early 18, Nomar Mazara, though he fanned a good bit, would battle and battle with two strikes. For me, at least for now, Taveras is right up there as far as strike-zone judgment.

 

Perez zeroed in:

After the two homers, he saw only curveballs during a full-count walk in the fifth. In the eighth, he crushed a change which wondered over the plate that Gimenez made a leaping catch of. The single in the tenth, also a fastball, was smoked to left.

 

Baserunning rally killers:

Both teams made curious decisions on the bases that stunted run-scoring innings. In the fourth, Columbia scored two and took a 5-2 lead with seemingly more on the way. With one out and Cone at the plate, Ramos wondered off the bag at second as Cone bunted through a pitch. Alex Kowalczyk saw the play and calmly threw to second for the pickoff. Cone then struck out to end the inning.

Hickory took a 7-5 lead with two in the fifth and had runners at the corners with two outs. With the count 2-2 to Preston Scott, Perez took off from first. When the throw from the catcher Sanchez went to second, Taveras scrambled for home. Luis Carpio cut off the throw at second and easily gunned down Taveras at the plate.

 

Walk-off remembered:

The walk-off win is the second of the season for the Crawdads and the first over the Mets Low-A affiliate since a 17-inning win over Savannah on 5/9/15, when Jose Cardona lined a homer into the leftfield corner. The day after, manager Jose Leger, who had argued Cardona’s homer was foul, was ejected during the home-plate meeting.

Game Stories 4/27 & 4/28: Crawdads Fog and Awe into two wins

The Hickory Crawdads played just nine innings, but picked up two wins over the Columbia (S.C.) Fireflies on Friday. The first was awarded Friday morning when the South Atlantic League office declared Hickory the winner of a suspended game Thursday night. The umpires suspended the game in the bottom of the eighth due to fog with the Crawdads leading 8-7.

The second win came when Hickory picked up six runs in the first and used that to again defeat the Fireflies 11-7.

Hickory (8-14) improved to 2-3 during the current homestand, which continues Saturday night at L.P. Frans Stadium. Columbia (12-11) has lost three of four and five of its last seven games.

 

What happened on Thursday?:

Two expected stories converged at L.P. Frans Stadium on Thursday, but Mother Nature decided to make her presence felt and she played the ultimate role in the game’s outcome.

Former University of Florida and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow came to L.P. Frans Stadium and many of the 4,225 in attendance were there to see the football-turned-baseball player.

The Crawdads had their own story in the form of Duke University product and Rangers third-round pick Michael Matuella. A potential first-overall pick in the 2015 draft before suffering problems and then undergoing Tommy John surgery, the 6-6 right-hander made only his second pro appearance on Thursday. And he didn’t disappoint.

A persistent rainstorm delayed the start 97 minutes before the teams finally took the field.

After play resumed, Matuella used a fastball staying in the 94-96 mph range to work around a one-out double and fan the side. He struck out two more in the second – including a 94 mph pitch on the outside corner to catch Tebow looking – but Columbia touched him for a run. Reed Gamache led off the inning with a double to the wall. Two outs later, Desmond Lindsay’s broken-bat blooper went far enough to clear the infield and bring in Gamache.

Matuella threw 46 pitches, thirty for strikes before he was pulled after two innings.

The Crawdads took the lead for good in the third with six runs. Kevin Scott double to left and advanced to third on Yeyson Yrizarri’s single to left. Anderson Tejeda lofted a fly ball to center that Gene Cone tracked down and then lost. Scott scored and Tejeda reached on the error. Eric Jenkins walked to load the bases and they remained loaded after Franklin Rollin bounced to third, which turned into a force play at home. Ti’Quan Forbes saved the rally when he steered a bouncer past the bag at first for a two-run double. One out later, Yanio Perez lined a two-run single to center to complete the scoring.

Two Fireflies errors allowed Hickory to add two runs in the fifth. Rollin reached on an error and Forbes doubled him to third. With two outs in the inning, Perez bounced a single to short. Taveras scored on the play and Forbes rumbled home after Michael Paez’s throw got away at first.

Down 8-1, Columbia took a chunk out of its deficit in the sixth. Dash Winningham and Milton Ramos singled to lead off the inning. After Tebow popped to third, Jose Medina topped a bouncer to Anderson Tejeda at short. Tejeda fielded the ball and threw to third, but Forbes dropped the ball, allowing the runners to advance.

Sal Mendez walked Lindsay before Ali Sanchez singled in two more.

Mendez, who replaced Matuella in the third, pitched into the eighth before running out of gas. With fog drifted onto the field, Mendez hit Tebow with a pitch and Medina lined a single to center. After Matt Ball replaced Mendez, Lindsay clubbed a three-run homer to center that Leody Taveras never saw, nor responded to.

At that point, Crawdads manager Spike Owen got the umpires to stop play until the fog cleared 21 minutes later. When play again resumed, Jake Lemoine replaced Ball and Sanchez greeted him with a single. Sanchez moved to second on a wild pitch, but Lemoine stemmed the rally, the final out on a strikeout of Michael Paez.

Preston Scott reached on an infield hit before the umpires again halted play. After 20 more minutes, the umpires suspended play.

The next morning, the South Atlantic League office awarded the Crawdads the win. In an email sent to the teams, league president Eric Krupa stated:

“Last night’s game in Hickory was suspended in the bottom of the 8th inning due to fog with Hickory leading 8-7.

“Fog is a weather event, not a darkness event.

“Therefore, according to the Official Baseball Rule 7.02 (b)(4)(A), this game is an official/ regulation game with Hickory being declared the winner.”

“That was crazy,” said Crawdads manager Spike Owen. “That fog rolled in and the umpires thought we could suspend it because of darkness, because fog is not in the rule book… It’s a win and obviously we’ll take it.”

 

What Happened Friday?:

The Crawdads bats picked up where they left off Thursday with a six-run first inning, aided by a key defensive miscue.

With one out, Rollin got a broken-bat single to leftfield, moved to second on a wild pitch and scored on Leody Taveras’ single to right. The key play of the inning came when a potential inning-ending double play blew up as the throw by Ramos at third short-hopped the bag at second and allowed both runners to advance. Ricky Valencia and Perez each had RBI singles before Yrizarri cleared the bases with a homer to left-center.

Tebow singled ahead of Lindsay’s second homer in two days to cut the Fireflies deficit to 6-2. They got another run back in the third on Winningham’s RBI single.

Perez’s two-run blast in the third pushed Hickory ahead 8-3.

An errant pickoff by Hickory’s Kaleb Fontenot led to Ramos’ RBI single in the fourth. However, Columbia repaid the favor in the bottom of the inning when pitcher Blake Taylor’s throw to third on a sacrifice attempt sailed into left field and allowed two runs to score.

The Crawdads eventually made it 11-4 before Paez’s two run homer in the seventh and Ramos’ RBI triple accounted for the final runs.

 

Crawdads bats dry out and charge up:

As a group Hickory scored 22 runs over 10 home games entering the season. The Crawdads have scored 19 the last two nights.

“It’s good to see the bats come alive and scoring some runs.” said Owen after Friday’s game. “We needed every one of them last night and tonight. It got a little closer than we wanted it to.”

In talking around the cage with hitting coach Kenny Hook, he mentioned the long layoff, due to the past week’s rainstorms, set some of the hitters back because of the inability to get onto the field. Owen agreed with that assessment.

“We went five consecutive days without doing anything on the field,” said Owen. “We did get some ground balls a couple of days ago, but with all the rain and the weather, it’s been tough at home. That’s really where you get your extra work in, not only hitting wise, but on the field, as well, with fundamental stuff. We just haven’t been able to do it because of the weather.”

One of the frustrations of the team has been the inability of hitters to take advantage of counts and situations when the hitters have the advantage. That has improved in recent days.

“We’ve had a lot better at bats the last couple of nights,” said Owen. “That’s all we’re looking for is quality at bats. They’re young and they’re chasing hits, which you can’t do in this game. You’ve just got to put a good at bat together and hit a ball hard somewhere. It’s young and they’re looking at averages and things, which is human nature and part of the game. But, they’ll get it.”

Roster Moves: Matuella heads list of new Crawdads

The Texas Rangers announced several moves today regarding the roster of the Hickory Crawdads. They are as follows.

Added to the Hickory roster:

RHP Michael Matuella, RHP Ismel Lopez, LHP Sal Mendez, C Alex Kowalczyk

Matuella was the third-round pick of the Rangers in 2015 out of Duke University. The 22-year-old was a potential first-round pick before suffering spondylosis, an issue involving vertebrae in the lower back, and then undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015. He had one appearance with Spokane in 2015, which lasted three innings before he was pulled due elbow tenderness.

Lopez signed with the Rangers as an international free agent in 2013 from Carupano, Venezuela. The 22-year-old is making his stateside debut after pitching the last three seasons in the Dominican Summer League. There, he struck out 114 in 111.1 innings over 52 appearances out of the bullpen. He has been a heavy groundball pitcher with a GO/AO ration of 2.38 in his career. Opposing batters hit .262 against him.

Kowalczyk was drafted in the 12th round by the Rangers in 2016 out of Pittsburgh. The 23-year-old native of Landsdale, PA put up a .288/.331/.432 slash in 31 games for short-season Spokane. Defensively last year, he threw out 8 of 38 baserunners attempting to steal. He will likely split catching duties with Ricky Valencia.

Mendez’s addition is a paper move.

 

Going to extended spring:

LHP Christian Torres, C Isaias Quiroz, RHP Luke Lanphere, RHP Jonathan Hernandez

Torres posted a 3.86 ERA in six games over 9.1 innings. He struck out ten and walked three with 8 hits allowed. Had a couple of rough outings in the past week vs. West Virginia and at Kannapolis. Otherwise, he had four other scoreless outings, but for now, it was not enough. I’m guessing he’ll show up on the Spokane roster in June unless the need arises again for bullpen help at Hickory. The move leaves just CD Pelham as the lone lefty in the pen, as Sal Mendez appears to be the piggy-back option for Matuella.

Quiroz was 3-for-23 (.043) in seven games with the Crawdads. Had served as the backup to Valencia behind the plate, but with Kowalczyk on the roster that playing time has evaporated. I would think he’ll play in Arizona this summer.

Lanphere posted a 12.60 ERA and South Atlantic hit a robust .429 against the righty. A third trip to Spokane this summer appears to be in the cards for the 21-year-old.

Hernandez’s move is on paper and he is expected to make his next start on Tuesday.

Series Preview: Columbia (S.C.) at Hickory April 27-30

Columbia Fireflies (New York Mets) (12-9, 3rd SAL Southern Division) at Hickory Crawdads (Texas Rangers) (6-14, 7th SAL Northern)

The Hickory Crawdads continue a weeklong homestand with a four-game series against the Columbia Fireflies at L.P. Frans Stadium in South Atlantic League action.

 

If you plan to go:

GAME TIMES: Thursday-Friday at 7:00 p.m., Saturday at 6:00 p.m., Sunday at 3:00 p.m.

 

Promotions: Thursday – “Thirsty Thursday”, NFL Draft Party

Friday – Post-game fireworks, Dynamic Duo Night

Saturday – Ladies Night, featuring Luke Pell from The Bachelorette, Replica Jersey giveaway to first 1,000 through the gate.

Sunday – Church Bulletin Sunday (Bring church bulletin for $6 ticket. The Crawdads will donate $4 back to respective church.)

 

TICKETS: $9 dollars for regular seats, $14 for VIP section. Games Thursday through Saturday are sold out.

 

Where is it?: Clement Blvd., 1 mile west of U.S. Hwy 321, near entrance to Hickory Airport.

 

PARKING: All parking is $3.

 

CONCESSIONS: L.P. Frans Stadium has two main concession areas plus the Crawdads Café. The concession stands have your basic ballpark food: Hot dogs, burgers, chicken sandwich, BBQ, etc. The Crawdad Café has a menu that features more diverse items, including the Mac & Crawdog, Banana Foster Bites, Fried Pickles, Sloppy Burger, and more. Click here for the menu http://www.milb.com/documents/3/3/4/185907334/cafe_menu_6eeko6n2.pdf

 

Probables (Columbia / Hickory):

Thursday: RHP Colin Holderman vs. RHP Michael Matuella

Friday: LHP Blake Taylor vs. RHP Edgar Arredondo

Saturday: RHP Jordan Humphries vs. RHP Argenis Rodriguez

Sunday: RHP Gabriel Llanes vs Demarcus Evans

 

Recent Series History:

The Crawdads took two of three at Columbia during the opening week of the season. In the only series played last year, the Fireflies held a 2-1 advantage.

 

About the Crawdads:

The Crawdads are struggling to find any sort of groove to kickstart their season and they hope the Fireflies will provide that start. Hickory’s only series win in 2017 was at Columbia April 10-12. Since then, the Crawdads are 3-10. Overall, the Crawdads have lost four straight after a three-game sweep by Rome (Ga.) this week. At home, the Crawdads are 2-8 and have scored a total of 22 runs … At the plate, the Crawdads lineup continues to be all-or-nothing. They are tied for the SAL-lead with 19 homers and have the most Ks in the league. They are third in slugging (.385), but 11th in batting (.230) … A good series vs. Rome brought the Crawdads team ERA below five, but the 4.91 ERA is still last in the league. The team has surrendered the most hits, runs, earned runs, the second most walks and the team WHIP of 1.61 is easily the worst in the SAL. However, the Crawdads allowed just nine runs in three games against the first-place Braves and have shown signs of progress in the starting rotation as of late.

 

Prospects to watch- Hickory:

CF Leody Taveras (No. 1 MLB.com and Baseball America, No. 51 MLB.com top-100 prospects): Signed as international free agent 2015 out of Tenares, Dominican Republic. Went 0-5 for to close out the Rome series, but did have a pair of walks in Wednesday’s game. Continues to show a discerning eye at the plate for his age (18) with nine walks. Has struck out 22.4 percent of the time (20 Ks in 89 plate appearances), which is not out of the norm at this level for a player so young. Shows good speed out of the box and covering ground in center, but has been timid to use it on the bases. Has only two steals (both on 4/22) in five attempts.

SS Anderson Tejeda (No. 7 MLB.com, No. 16 Baseball America). Signed as an international free agent in 2015 out of Bani, D.R. Has a higher walk ratio than Taveras (14.3% to 10.1), but is striking out a ton. His 27 Ks is one behind a trio of leaders in the stat and is at an unsustainable ratio of 43%. Thus far, Tejeda has struck out at least once in all 15 games in which he has played. Defensively, Tejeda has rebounded from a slow start. Committed two errors in the first game of the season and just two more since.

OF Eric Jenkins (No. 14 MLB.com, No.26 Baseball America). Second-round pick in 2015 out of West Columbus High (Cerro Gordo, N.C.).  Made his first appearance after coming to Hickory this week from extended-spring training. Has a double and two walks over seven plate appearances. Jenkins will have to cut down on the Ks after piling up 154 in 2016. An elite base stealer, Jenkins was third in all the minors with 51 last year. Took in several deep counts during the Rome series, reaching twice after being down 0-2.

OF Yanio Perez (No. 15 MLB.com, 27 Baseball America): Signed as an international free agent out of Havana, Cuba. In the midst of a mini four-game hitting streak (6-for-14, with 2 walks), Perez collected his second homer of the season on Tuesday when he drove a ball in on the hands out to right field. Tends to collect strikeouts in bunches. Of the 19 games he has played, Perez has six multi-strikeout games and 10 other games with none.

2B Yeyson Yrizarri (No. 17 MLB.com): Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of the D.R. After a 1-for-39 funk (.065) Yrizarri has begun to show signs of life at the plate. He has reached base in five of the last seven games and is 8-for-28 in those games. Is battling to lay off breaking balls low and away. Went three straight games without a whiff, but K’d twice in Wednesday’s game.

RHP Michael Matuella (No. 19 Baseball America, No. 20 MLB.com). Third-round pick in 2015 out of Duke Univ. Was on the path of becoming a first-overall pick in 2015 before back troubles and then Tommy John surgery derailed that promise. He pitched in only three injuries last summer at short-season Spokane before further elbow tenderness caused the Rangers to shut him down. Will be extremely limited in order for him to gain his stamina and to simply get him through low-A ball healthy.

RF Jose Almonte (No. 29 MLB.com): Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of Santo Domingo, D.R. After just nine walks all last season, Almonte has five already in 15 games. Was 1-for-13 before sitting out of Wednesday’s contest.

RHP Tyler Ferguson (No. 30 Baseball America): Sixth-round pick in 2015 out of Vanderbilt. Of his four relief outings so far, three of those were scoreless for the 6-4 right hander. His one blowup outing (5 ER over 1.2 IP) has his 2017 ERA at 7.50 with his OBA at .304. Control will be his make or break. Has walked just three of 31 hitters, but has hit four more. Conversely, he has fanned 10 to date over six innings.

 

Others to watch – Hickory:

3B Ti’Quan Forbes: Second-round pick 2014 out of Columbia (MS) High. Might be due for a day off after he went 0-for-10 during the Rome series with six Ks. Has started to chase breaking balls of the plate. He is still tied for first with five homers, but has not gone deep since April 17.

SP Matt Ball: Obtained in a trade with the White Sox in 2016. Posted a 1.60 ERA in 50.2 IP with Hickory after the trade by the Rangers. Throws a heavy sinker that gets ground balls and thus, relies on his defense to make plays. Had nearly two-and-a-half groundball outs for every fly out with Hickory.

 

 

About the Fireflies:

Managed by Jose Leger in his third season (163-135) with the Mets Low-A affiliate. (The Fireflies were based at Savannah, Ga. prior to 2016… Columbia took two of three against Asheville, but were 3-4 overall during the just concluded homestand… Offense has been the struggle for the Fireflies as they were shut out three times during the last homestand and scored a total of 15 runs. Columbia’s .221 batting average is 13th in the 14-team league. The Fireflies provide little power with just six homers as a team and are tied for the fewest extra-base hits in the SAL. However, it is a patient team. Their 86 walks are the most in the SAL and they often use those to manufacture runs. Columbia is third in steals and sixth in runs scored… The Fireflies do bring an impressive group of arms to Hickory. Six of the 12 wins are by shutouts and overall, the 2.56 ERA is third in the SAL. They have surrendered the fewest walks and lead the SAL with a 1.03 WHIP. Only five homers have been hit vs. Fireflies pitching. The pitching staff is backed by a league-best defensive unit that has given up just 15 errors and has thrown out 45.8 percent of base stealers, second in the SAL.

 

Prospects to watch –Columbia:

CF Desmond Lindsey (No. 4 Baseball America, No. 5 MLB.com). Second-round pick 2015 out of Out-of-Door Academy, Sarasota, FL. Struggled with hamstring issues, missing much of his high school senior season. He again suffered the same injury and was limited to 37 games during the 2016 season at two short-season stops. Currently at .143/.286/.186. Seeing a lot of pitches, but it could be perhaps that he’s not seeing the ball with discernment. Has 23 Ks – at least one in 16 of the 17 games he’s played in – and 11 BBs in 70 plate appearances.

2B/SS Luis Carpio (No. 15 MLB.com, 20 Baseball America) Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of Caracas, Venezuela. Missed much of 2016 after surgery for a torn labrum. Came back late in the 2016 season, but was exclusively a DH. Has played mostly 2B this season. In the midst of a 2-for-25 skid with six Ks, he was 5-for-9 against the Crawdads in early April with two steals.

C Ali Sanchez (No. 20 MLB.com, 27 Baseball America) Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of Carora, Venezuela. At this point, Sanchez is defensively ahead of the offensive side of his game. Is currently third in the SAL in nabbing base stealers. Entered this season with 24 passed balls in just 111 games, but has just one so far this year and has yet to commit an error. At the plate, however, he is 6-for-47 with just two walks.

3B/ SS Milton Ramos (No. 22 MLB.com) Third-round pick in 2014 out of Heritage High School (Plantation, FL). In his second season with the Fireflies, he has found full-season leagues tough to solve. After posting a .220/.292/.273 slash in 2016, it’s even worse this season as he is at .179/.233/.179 at the start of this season (10-for-56). Ramos did have a four-game hitting streak from April 18-21, but that has fizzled to an 0-for-10 his last three games. He does put the ball in play (12 Ks in 60 PAs), but with little authority. Defensively, he’s yet to commit an error.

3B Blake Tiberi (No. 29 MLB.com) Third-round pick in 2016 out of Louisville. Missed two weeks with an undisclosed injury, returning 4/24/ Currently 3-for-18 with a double.

 

 

Others to watch – Columbia:

LF Tim Tebow: Signed as a free agent in 2016 out of the SEC Network. Went 9-for-20 during the recent homestand with three doubles and a triple – his total for the season. Had two homers in his first three games, but has not homered since. Hickory held him to 1-for-10 with four Ks and a double play at Columbia

2B/SS Michael Paez: 4th round pick out of Coastal Carolina. Played for the Chanticleers during the team’s run to the 2016 College World Series title. Has two of the team’s six homers this season, including a solo shot during Wednesday’s win.

RHP Colin Holderman: 9th round pick out of Heartland CC (IL). Threw six shutout innings with 11 Ks against Hickory on April 10. Has lasted just seven total innings over his last two starts with four total whiffs.

RHP Jordan Humphries: 18th round pick out of Crystal River High (FL). Currently 2nd in the SAL with 34 Ks, 4th in WHIP (0.71), and 10th in the SAL with a 1.42 ERA. Fanned 12 over 6.2 innings in his last start on Monday.

 

Notes: The Crawdads are assured its worst April since before 2002. As a Rangers affiliate, the worst April start was a 11-12 mark in 2014. They went 10-11 in 2009. As a Pirates affiliate, the worst mark was a 10-13 record in 2006… Hickory is also on pace to break its own SAL record for strikeouts in a season, which was set by the 2013 squad with 1,403.  The current pace would take them to 1,421… RHP Emerson Martinez was promoted to High-A Down East. OF Travis Bollin and IF Brallan Perez were both sent to Rangers extended spring… Top-30 prospect RHP Harol Gonzalez was placed on the disabled list by the Fireflies.

Developing Tebow the Baseball Player: An Interview with Columbia manager Jose Leger

Tim Tebow is easily the biggest larger-than-life figure to come to Hickory as an athlete in at least a decade. When South Caldwell product Madison Bumgarner pitched for Augusta (Ga.) against Hickory in April 2008, the Crawdads drew a crowd of  4,805 for a Thursday night game. As I type this, already three of the four games for the series to begin today are sold out, with the Sunday game having only a couple of hundred tickets left. Without having records prior to 2005 to back it up, I’m guessing it’ll be the most-attended four-game series at L.P. Frans Stadium since the 1990s.

There is quite the fervor with Tebow. When I attended the game on April 10 at Columbia, S.C. Tebow jerseys were everywhere. When he came to bat in the seventh with runners on, the chant of “Te-bow, Te-bow” reverberated throughout Spirit Communication Park. It was a fascinating scene to watch rabid SEC fans in Columbia that hate everything non-Gamecocks, especially the vitriol they have for things University of Florida football, celebrate Tebow.

Love him or hate him, there’s been nothing like him to come to the South Atlantic League and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for fans to see a transcendent athlete that for most they have only seen on a TV screen.

The expectation from some is that Tebow will rise quickly to the New York Mets. That’s not how baseball works. It’s called a grind for a reason. Sure, there is the occasional homer, but there is also the baserunning blunder – he overran second and was caught in a rundown in the game I saw.

170411_Fireflies_058_Tebow

(photo courtesy of Tom Priddy/ Columbia Fireflies)

 

The big story is Tim Tebow being in the league and is one of the biggest figures to come to the South Atlantic League since at least Bryce Harper played with Hagerstown. First of all, what was your reaction and what was your team’s reaction would you found out you were going to have Tebow on the roster this year?

Leger: To me, as a manager, it’s a challenge, because we’re speaking of an athlete that has had some success in a different sport and now coming to playing baseball, and being a little new to him, due to the fact that he was away from the game for such a long time.

So, I say a challenge because it’s my job to try and get him better and try to get him to the next level. I know that just as it is a challenge for us to get all the players better. For me with him it was going to be, okay, I’ve got to get him better, but I’ve also got to make sure that he knows the little things about the game that he probably hasn’t gone through in the past couple of years: game situations, base running, how to approach different leads, his rhythm at the plate, his throwing, the everyday grind and opposed to when you’re in football you play once or twice a week. I knew it was going to be a challenge.

The reaction of the fans and the city and the other players has been great. I know the other players get a lot out of him due to a guy having such a good career in a sport like football and being a leader in another sport, and bringing that leadership with him, and for them to see his work habits. Guys can see that and were looking forward to this. The city was actually looking forward to seeing him playing baseball. The excitement we had this past week has been awesome. It’s been a great experience.

 

He’s had a career where he’s had pressure – a big time SEC quarterback at Florida, winning the Heisman Trophy, going into the NFL. Is there a different kind of pressure for him coming into this at 29 and playing a different sport, or is he – in the time you’ve been around him – been impervious to that?

Leger: I don’t think there’s pressure at all. He’s enjoying what he’s doing. He’s taking it day by day. He’s working very hard and he’s already seeing progress and we are seeing progress. So, it’s going to be a journey and he’s enjoying it. He’s going day by day to see what happens. He’s trying to control the things within his control, within his reach.

I think he’s not worried about it. There’s no pressure at all. He’s done a lot already, showing that he can hit a little bit – he’s hit two home runs in this past series. He’s getting better defensively and I think the sky’s the limit on him getting the best out of his ability.

170411_Fireflies_015_Tebow

(photo courtesy of Tom Priddy/ Columbia Fireflies)

 

Is he in a situation where he can help your guys with pressure – with the pressure of playing in a full 140-game season? For a lot of these guys, it’s their first full season and the bus rides and all that comes with that. Do you see him having a role in dealing with that pressure?

Leger: Yes, he could be “that guy” that the guys look up to, just because he’s leads by example and the things he does. Right now, as we speak, he’s in the cage hitting with our hitting coach. He was here early shagging balls on the field while three other players were getting extra work. So that tells me, he didn’t need to be there, but he wanted to be out there catching extra fly balls. And now he’s taking extra swings in the cage.

Yeah, he knows he’s got some catching up to do, but he’s doing his best and the guys see this. So, the guys see that this guy is working hard and say, “Who am I not to work hard?” So, he leads by example and he always says the right things to the guys. Every now and then when he talks to the guys, you don’t even notice it, but he’s getting everybody’s ear on how to go about their business and how to be a professional.

 

A lot of guys, this is their first 140-game season and they’re getting on that bus ride to Lakewood, N.J. and Delmarva (Md.) and all of those places that you guys have to go this year. Is he more prepared for that sort of grind than maybe the average 19 or 20-year old that’s starting out in a full season?

Leger: What can I say, I don’t know. We shall see how he’s going to respond to that. I know the guys see his body and his built – he’s very strong. So, I don’t think there’s a concern about his body holding up and being able to go through the bus rides and then wake up the next day and go and /play baseball. It is a challenge for everybody. It’s hard for me as a manager and I don’t play.

I know it’s going to be a little tough for some of these young kids as well, and the travel and all that. It’s a game of adjustments and we’re going to be ready for that. I know that Tim’s got to go through the travels and it’s some of the grind that you’ve got to go through when you’re in the minor leagues.

 

What’s the biggest thing at this point that Tebow will have to go through? You mentioned it -a little bit, as far as the intricacies that he’s had to deal with, that you don’t deal with as a high school player. Give me some examples of what he’ll have to pick up at this level.

Leger: I think his base running and getting more reps in the outfield. If you think about when he played in high school, it was aluminum bats and the ball coming off the bat and it’s a different read, because you kind of go off the sound. The same thing you do in baseball with wooden bat and I think he’s still getting used to it.

I think the more reps he gets in the outfield and base running and knowing when to run and when not to run, and all this. The more he plays at this level, the better he’s going to feel. The more reps he gets, the better he’s going to get.

The guy is smart and he gets it. He knows that it’s a matter of paying attention and just going through it and doing drills and all that. Hopefully, at the end, he understands, “this is how I’ve got to run the bases. This is what I need to do defensively.” Once he puts it all together, I think it’s just going to be going to the next level and start doing the same thing.

 

One of the things that kills a lot of people at this level is they can hit fastballs, but then struggle once they face pitchers that can spin the baseball a little bit. How has he adjusting to that, so far?

Leger: He’s done well. He’s seeing the breaking ball. He’s taken some good breaking balls in the dirt for balls and he hasn’t swung. His strike-zone vision has been actually pretty good. I think it’s, like I said, just a matter of repetition for him.

 

For all the guys, you and the Mets have goals where you’d like to see this player at A, B and C at the end of the year. What are the goals for Tebow by the time he’s going home from wherever in September?

Leger: We don’t have like stats or numbers set for him in order to move to the next level. We’re kind of paying attention to the little details like, talking the proper path in the outfield, knowing where to throw the ball in different situations – when to throw to second or when to throw to the plate to keep the double play in order – running the bases, all these little details. Once you see that, okay, he can go up. You check boxes. Okay, so, he’s doing this right, he’s doing this right.

On top of that, his at bats, the consistency of his at bats at the plate. The more consistency we see with the strike zone, the better chance he has. Once he accomplishes all that, I think they’re going to move him to the next level. I don’t know if it’s sooner or later. He might be here with me the whole time or he might be gone the next month. It’s not my call. My job is to try to get him better. But, I think that’s what they’re looking at. They’re looking at him getting better in those areas and hopefully getting him promoted soon.

 

There has been football players that have come in – guys that were good two-sport athletes that decided to play baseball and not football coming out of high school – and they struggled with putting the athletic ability to baseball ability. What’s the thing Tebow will have to figure out as far as putting that baseball ability with the athleticism?

Leger: I’ve had players like this. Last year, I had a player Ivan Wilson, who was good at football and baseball. You see him practice and he was impressive, but he never translated to the game and he decided to retire. I had another player in Bradley Marquez for two years at Kingsport (Tenn.) and it was the same thing. Sometimes, the ability doesn’t translate to the sport, but you’ll never find out until you throw him into the fire to see what he’s got. So far, he’s proven that he can play. I think that time is going to dictate that.

Game Story 4/26/17: Third verse, same as the first – Rome completes sweep

Another day, same story. The Rome (Ga.) Braves took advantage of sloppy defensive early and never trailed during a 3-1 defeat of the Hickory Crawdads Wednesday afternoon at L.P. Frans Stadium.

The win completed a 6-1 road trip for the defending South Atlantic League champion Braves (14-6), who now return home to open a weekend series against West Virginia. Rome is now 11-2 away from home this season and has won 9 of the last 11 played at Hickory over the last two seasons.

Hickory (6-14) has lost four in a row and is now 2-8 at home, scoring a total of 22 runs.

 

What happened?:

The game turned out to be decided by the fifth batter of the game when the Braves scored two runs with the help of sloppy Crawdads defense. Anfernee Seymour singled to right to start the game. Derian Cruz then laid down a bunt in front of home plate. Catcher Ricky Valencia pounced to the ball, then overthrew first baseman Preston Scott, which allowed the runners to advance to second and third.

Kyle Cody (0-2) then got Tanner Murphy to fly out to shallow centerfield before inducing Juan Yepez to hit a dribbler up the first base line. Scott fielded the play, but misconnected on a soft toss to Cody covering first on the play, as Seymour scored the first run. Anthony Concepcion’s sacrifice fly to center made it 2-0.

Hickory got its only run of the game in the second inning. With one out, Valencia was hit by a pitch and Yanio Perez dropped a bloop single into short left. Scott’s fielder’s choice moved to Valencia to third, from where he scored when Yeyson Yrizarri chopped a grounder to shallow third. However, the Crawdads ran themselves out of the innings when Scott overran the bag at second and was caught in a rundown between second and third.

Ian Anderson (2-1) kept the Crawdads in check for the most part over his five innings on the mound. The right-hander allowed the lone run on three hits, two walks and struck out six.

Cody pitched into the sixth for Hickory and allowed just the two unearned runs on five hits, two walks and fanned two.

Rome added an insurance run against reliever Reid Anderson in the seventh when Randy Ventura doubled and scored one out later on Cruz’s single through a drawn-in infield.

A trio of Ian Anderson, Tucker Davidson and Brandon White combined for 13 strikeouts of Crawdads hitters, who put together just three runs on 16 hits over the three-game series.

 

Cody deserved better:

Firing at 95-96 early and dropping to 93 by the end of the outing, Cody kept the Braves shut down for the most part. The Seymour hit was a roller that found a hole and a Brett Cumberland dribbler was unable to be scooped up by Yanio Perez at third. He finished the game with 2 outs in the sixth (He should’ve finished the sixth but for a poor call by the umps on a checked-swing that turned into a single and then a four-pitch walk. Threw mostly changeups (it appeared, no speed gun) for secondaries, as well as a few sliders that missed bats. Finished with 88 pitches, of which 60 were strikes).

 

Doing too much:

Hickory ran out of a couple of innings early. In the first, Eric Jenkins walked then tried to advance to second when Franklin Rollin sliced a pop fly that Ventura caught just on the foul side of the line in right. Ventura made the catch and recorded the out when Jenkins slid past the bag at second.

On the Yrizarri dribbler in the second, Scott saw that third base was uncovered on the play. However, 20 feet from his trek at second, he realized a defender was nearer than believed and was eventually run down. It turned out to be the last time Hickory had two runners reach in an inning.

 

Prospect vs. Prospect

Ian Anderson (81) and Leody Taveras offered a top-100 prospect (MLB.com) matchup, of which Anderson won both. In the first, Anderson broke off a 1-2 curveball down that Taveras swung through. In the third, Anderson missed with a fastball low and away to the left-handed hitter. Then he proceeded to get Tavares to swing through a change and a fastball, before missing with a fastball in that Taveras grounded sharply to first.

Game Stories 4/25/17: Rome builds two in a day; Sweeps DH

The Rome (Ga.) Braves took the lead early in both games went on to sweep the Hickory Crawdads 2-1 and 4-1 Tuesday night at L.P. Frans Stadium.

The wins pushed the Braves (13-6) to a 5-1 record during their current road trip and improved the road record to 10-2 for the season. Rome has won 8 of their last 10 games at L.P. Frans over the last two seasons. The Crawdads (6-13) have lost three straight and are now 2-7 at home, where they’ve scored 21 total runs.

The teams conclude the series on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.

 

What happened?:

Game 1:

Rome took advantage of a rough start by Crawdads starter Jonathan Hernandez to get on the board in the first. Randy Ventura lined a single to center, moved to second on Derian Cruz’s sacrifice and then to third by Cristian Pasche’s single. Juan Yepez’s fly ball to left was deep enough to score Ventura, but Pasche was out on the play as he failed to retouch second on his way back to first.

The Braves added a run in the third. Lucas Herbert and Kurt Hoekstra singled back-to-back to start the inning. Ventura bunted into a strikeout (I still don’t get that one) and then one out later, Pache squeezed a grounder past the dive of Ti’Quan Forbes at third to score Herbert.

The Crawdads put five runners on over the first three innings, but Rome’s starter Jeremy Wilson (Gardner Webb Univ. product) faced only two over the minimum in that stretch. Eric Jenkins led off the first with a double, but was doubled off second on a sharp liner by Leody Taveras to short. Hickory loaded the bases with one out in the second, but Jose Almonte hit into a double play. Anderson Tejeda opened the third with a single, but was then caught stealing.

Hernandez (0-3) settled down and had his longest start of the season, going into the sixth. The Crawdads right-hander allowed just the two runs on eight hits – five of those in the first three innings – over 5.2 innings with six Ks and – more importantly – no walks.

Hickory finally scratched a run across in the seventh against Rome reliever Jon Kennedy. Ricky Valencia doubled and went to third on Yanio Perez’s single. Preston Scott whistled a sharp grounder up the middle through Kennedy’s legs, but the Braves were able to get an out at second while Valencia scored. Scott eventually stole second and third, but Almonte and Tejeda both struck out to end the game.

 

Game 2:

Hickory took its only lead of the doubleheader in the second inning when Yanio Perez hit his second homer of the season, a high fly ball to right after it appeared he was jammed.

However, Rome quickly and swiftly took the lead back in the third. Kevin Josephina lined a Tyler Phillips (1-1) 0-2 pitch to center and stole second. Ventura singled Josephina to third and then himself stole second. Anfernee Seymour singled in Josephina and advanced moved up to second. Ventura and Seymour scored on back-to-back grounders to make it 3-0.

The Braves added an unearned run in the sixth as a botched pickoff at first set up Seymour’s second RBI single of the game.

Hickory managed only three hits against starter Oriel Caicedo (4-0) over his five innings of work. Matt Custred gave up two hits and fanned two over his two-shutout innings for his first save of the season.

 

Jenkins returns:

Last year’s starting centerfielder Eric Jenkins played in his first game of the season with Hickory. In his first AB, he fell behind 0-2, the proceeded to spoil a couple of fastballs and spit on breaking balls off the plate to get the count full. The 8-pitch plate appearance ended when he turned on a fastball and shot it into the rightfield corner.

The second time up, he waved through a low breaking ball, but then recovered to work the count full before again turning on a fastball. Only this time, it was a liner to first. After 157 Ks last year, job one is to make contact to take advantage of his speed.

One thing of note to me was not that Jenkins played left in game one, but when Leody Taveras went into the DH role in game two, Jenkins did not play in center. It’s probably nothing, but it grabbed my curiosity.

 

Taking advantage of the advantage:

I’ll admit it. It’s frustrating to watch the lineup miss opportunities to cash in runs. It’s a young lineup, I know, but it feels like this team never feels like it has the advantage. When it has the opposing team against the wall, it feels like Hickory is standing by the wall with them.

In game one, Hickory had the starter Walker on the ropes in the second inning. Struggling with control, Walker loaded the bases after back-to-back, five-pitch walks with one out. A mound visit ensued after which Jose Almonte tried to pull a fastball away, which turned into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play.

From there, Hickory had just three more baserunners until the seventh. In that inning, Valencia doubled and Scott worked a walk out of an 0-2 count. Almonte fanned and then with Anderson Tejeda at the plate, Scott – the tying run – stole second and third. However, Tejeda went fence chasing and turned a 2-0 count into a full-count K and ended the ballgame.

It was more of the same in game two. Hickory was gifted an error and a hit batter in the fourth. However, a 2-0 count with runners at second and third turned into an Almonte K. Hickory had just one other baserunner the remainder of the night.

 

Hernandez night

Hernandez has struggled with fastball command so far this season and it was more of the same at the onset on Tuesday.

An 0-2 fastball was lined to center by Ventura to start the night. One out later, Hernandez went 3-1 to Pache before losing the battle on a fastball. He also struggled to get his change over the plate. But suddenly in the fourth, he found a groove with both pitches and with a slider mixed in, Hernandez began to take command. The most impressive AB was the fourth-inning sequence to Brett Cumberland. Facing last year’s Pac-12 home run champ, Hernandez got the left-handed hitter to chase a pair of changeups off the plate, then ran a fastball (93-96 mph on the night) in on the hands for the Ks.

His fate though was sealed in the third when .140 hitter Lucas Herbert lined a 2-0 fastball for a single and .182 Kurt Hoekstra fought back from 0-2 to also single. Later, Hernandez made a good pitch (low-and-in fastball) to Pache that needed 75 hops to find a hole through the left side of the infield.

 

That was… different:

Hickory got out of further damage in the first when on Yepez’s sacrifice fly to left, Pache went well past second and then on the return trip, cut through the inside cut of the grass near the second base bag. This wasn’t an attempt to cut a corner. He took the most direct route back to first.

After Herbert and Hoekstra singled in the third, Ventura (.368) was asked to bunt… not once… not twice… but on every pitch, including for strike three.

 

Phillips looking for the out-pitch:

Tyler Phillips used sinker/ change to get the Braves hitters to beat the ball into the ground. Four straight outs and a ground single stretched from the first through all the second inning. But in the third, Phillips couldn’t find a put-away pitch and eventually that put Phillips away. Josephine’s single was on 0-2. Ventura’s single was on 1-2. Seymour’s on 0-2… All on what looked to be off-speed pitches away to the left-handed hitters… All of whom used shortened swings to politely serve them into center and left. Phillips threw 39 pitches in the third before manager Spike Owen took him out.

 

Evans hurls the spheroid:

Listed at 6-4, 270, Demarcus Evans gassing it at 95 can be intimidating. He fanned five of the 14 hitters he faced Tuesday and for the season K’d 16 of 48. But, with two walks this evening he now has walked 11 to go with 2 HBPs.

His offspeed I thought was a slider, but the Rangers pitch trackers say it’s more of a curve at 80. Whatever it is, it stays up and was quite hittable. Also, to my untrained eye, Evans seems to slow everything down when he throws anything offspeed. I could tell it was coming.

Catching Up: 2014-2015 Crawdads pitcher Luis Ortiz

During the playoff run that took the Hickory Crawdads to the 2015 South Atlantic League championship, circumstances put first rounders Luis Ortiz and Dillon Tate into the bullpen as part of a bridge crew between consistent strong starting pitching and closer Scott Williams.

Ortiz had missed much of the second half with a shoulder injury, but then returned the final week of the regular season to allow one hit over three innings. Tate was held to short appearances after a heavy workload in college prior to being drafted by the Texas Rangers.

In game two of the Northern Division series, Tate threw two scoreless innings with two Ks. One night later with Hickory holding a 1-0 lead in the decisive game three, Ortiz threw two perfect innings, striking out four to set up Williams to close out the series.

Three nights later, Ortiz closed out his 2015 season in game two of the championship series. Pitching the seventh and eighth innings, Ortiz allowed one hit and fanned three. Tate pitched a scoreless inning in game three to help Hickory finish the 3-0 series sweep.

Luis Ortiz playoffs

From a playoff appearance vs. West Virginia on 9/12/15, Ortiz struck out four of the six batters he faced (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

“The playoff atmosphere, it’s going to happen,” said Ortiz looking back at his performance in the 2015 Sally League playoffs.  “It’s very tense at the moment, so basically you try to get it and get it done.”

Performances aside, baseball – especially minor league baseball – is a sport where things change fast and for Ortiz those changes came out of nowhere. Nearly eleven months after their playoff heroics, Ortiz and Tate were both traded on the same day in separate deals. Tate struggled with control issues and was sent to the New York Yankees for Carlos Beltran. Ortiz, along with another former first rounder, 2013-2014 Crawdads outfielder Lewis Brinson, was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers as part of a deal that brought catcher Jonathan Lucroy to Texas.

“I was sitting in the training room in Frisco (AA club of the Rangers),” recalled Ortiz on learning of the trade. “I had a bullpen that day. It was me, Brinson and a couple of other guys in there. I was getting ready to go outside and (pitching coach) Brian Shouse comes up to me and tells me, ‘We’re not going to go out there until the trade’s over.’

“So, I kind of knew there was something going on. From right there, I just waited for my name to be called. Brinson already knew. So, it was basically a matter of time when it was going to happen.”

Ortiz had a strong start to the 2016 season, pitching in the ballpark of doom at High-A High Desert in the California League. The ballpark, located in Adelanto, CA, was a hitter’s paradise with its high altitude, arid conditions and favorable wins. But with his family located within a short drive in Sanger, CA, Ortiz adapted nicely to the conditions, posting a 2.60 ERA and fanning 28 in 27.2 innings.

“It was awesome being in California and being a couple of hours from home,” Ortiz said of his Cal League stint. “I had family come out all the time and it was amazing. I already knew how to pitch in California. Every talks about High Desert.  ‘High Desert’s this.’ If you can pitch, you can pitch. If you can pitch straight out, you can pitch there.”

After seven appearances (six starts), Ortiz got a promotion to AA Frisco, where the change of scenery and tougher hitters found Ortiz looking for answers.

“When I got to AA, it was basically knowing how to pitch to hitters,” said Ortiz, who posted a 4.08 ERA over 39.2 innings with a .296 OBA. “I struggled with Texas at AA. I struggled and I struggled. I know you’re going to have your downfalls, but (you’re) learning from it.”

His final outing with Frisco was a benign two-inning start during which he allowed a one run on two hits and K’d four on just 34 pitches. Three days later, he was a Milwaukee Brewer and a surprised Ortiz struggled to make sense of what was happening.

“My reaction was basically like everyone else that got traded,” recalled Ortiz. “I just thought I had a good start. At first I was thinking, ‘What did I do wrong?’… Now it’s a new start for me and a better opportunity for me.”

Ortiz has seized that opportunity with the Brewers and it started soon after joining their AA team at Biloxi. He posted a 1.93 ERA over 23. 1 innings, though his WHIP took a hit a 1.54.

In getting a chance to speak with Ortiz last week, he’s matured physically since he was a Crawdad. He now sports facial hair that his 19-year-old baby face wouldn’t support during that 2015 playoff mastery. Ortiz also has a one-year-old son named Santiago, in honor of Luis’s late grandfather, who played a huge role in his life growing up.

With growing maturity under his belt, Ortiz also sees the opportunities of bigger things ahead, some of what was made possible by the trade.

“Texas developed me very well and now they gave me an opportunity with a new team, the Milwaukee Brewers,” said Ortiz. “I take it as a new start. Right now, I’m loving it.”

Luis Ortiz at Biloxi

Luis Ortiz charting pitches as a member of the Biloxi Shuckers, the Milwaukee Brewers AA club. (Mark Parker) 

Series Preview: Rome Braves at Hickory Crawdads April 24-26

Rome Braves (Atlanta Braves) (11-6, 1st SAL Southern Division) at Hickory Crawdads (Texas Rangers) (6-11, 7th SAL Northern)

The Hickory Crawdads open a seven-game homestand with three South Atlantic League games against the Rome Braves at Hickory’s L.P. Frans Stadium.

Leody Taveras - Lin

Leody Taveras looks to continue his hot streak (5-for-11) as Hickory begins a three-game series with the Rome (Ga.) Braves

 

If you plan to go:

GAME TIMES: Monday-Tuesday at 6 p.m., Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.

Promotions: Monday – Make a Difference Monday: Receive a free ticket with requested items valued at $5 or more: Requested items include Pencils, Markers, Loose-leaf papers (wide ruled), Pencil sharpeners, Erasers, Highlighters, Dry-erase markers (Expo Markers), Permanent markers, Three-ring binders (any kind of size), Black & Blue pack of pens, Paint Brushes, Acrylic Paints, Washable Paints, Construction papers, Drawing sketch pad for arts & crafts, Yarns, Scissors, Glue Sticks, Hula hoops, Jump ropes, Football/ Soccer ball/ Basketball /Volleyball, and any Toys for boys/girls ages 6-17. Items go to Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club.

Tuesday – 25th Anniversary Celebration: If the Crawdads score five runs in the fifth inning, one lucky fan in attendance will win $25,000. T-shirt Giveaway: First 500 fans in attendance will receive a free Crawdads replica jersey T-shirt.

Dollar Dog Tuesday: Bring pet to the game for $1 each. Dog show each Tuesday night. $1 hot dogs, $2 craft pints and Pepsi products.

Wednesday – Business Card Special: Show your business card at the Ticket Office for a $5 ticket.

 

TICKETS: $9 dollars for regular seats, $14 for VIP section.

 Where is it?: Clement Blvd., 1 mile west of U.S. Hwy 321, near entrance to Hickory Airport.

PARKING: All parking is $3.

CONCESSIONS: L.P. Frans Stadium has two main concession areas plus the Crawdads Café. The concession stands have your basic ballpark food: Hot dogs, burgers, chicken sandwich, BBQ, etc. The Crawdad Café has a menu that features more diverse items, including the Mac & Crawdog, Banana Foster Bites, Fried Pickles, Sloppy Burger, and more. Click here for the menu

 

Probables (Rome / Hickory):

Monday: RHP Jeremy Walker vs. RHP Argenis Rodriguez

Tuesday: RHP Ian Anderson vs. RHP Tyler Phillips

Wednesday: LHP Joey Wentz vs. Jonathan Hernandez

 

Recent Series History:

The Crawdads and Braves split the 2016 season series 9-9 with each club taking charge at the other’s ballpark. Rome held a 7-4 advantage at L.P. Frans, while the Crawdads were 5-2 at the State Mutual Stadium.

 

About the Crawdads:

The Crawdads return home after a 1-2 trip to Kannapolis. Hickory was 2-5 during last week’s homestand… After the Hickory lineup limped to Kannapolis near the bottom of many of the SAL statistical standings, the Crawdads charged ahead to 24 runs over the last two games. When the Crawdads are churning, it usually involves the longball. Hickory leads the SAL with 18 homers and is third in slugging (.400).  However, their 73 runs are seventh in the league … Awakened from a dormant state on Saturday was the running game. The Crawdads had seven for the season entering Saturday’s game at Kannapolis, then ripped off a single-game, club-record eight in four innings… The pitching, however, continues to struggle. Currently, they are last in the SAL with a 5.30 ERA, which is nearly a run more than the next lowest. Greensboro is at 4.47. Hickory is also last in hits allowed, total runs allowed and WHIP, as well as second in walks allowed… The Crawdads fate is usually determined by the sixth inning. They are 6-1 when ahead or tied after six innings, 0-10 when trailing. The one loss came in the last game, when the bullpen coughed up an 8-1 lead.

 

Prospects to watch- Hickory:

CF Leody Taveras (No. 1 MLB.com and Baseball America, No. 51 MLB.com top-100 prospects): Signed as international free agent 2015 out of Tenares, Dominican Republic. After posting a 3-for-28 skid during the last homestand, Tejeda started to heat up at Kannapolis. Enters the Rome series with 5 hits in his last 11 ABs. Got his first two steals of the season on Saturday.

SS Anderson Tejeda (No. 7 MLB.com, No. 16 Baseball America). Signed as an international free agent in 2015 out of Bani, D.R. Returned to action last Wednesday after bruising his forearm on a hit-by-pitch. Hit a three-run homer on Friday and then singled on Saturday. Perhaps the most encouraging part of the weekend at Kannapolis was a three-walk game on Saturday. Has eight walks already in 2017 after just 18 all last season in 66 games.

OF Yanio Perez (No. 15 MLB.com, 27 Baseball America): Signed as an international free agent out of Havana, Cuba. Sat out Friday’s game at Kannapolis following an 0-for-9 drought, then went 2-for-5 with a walk on Saturday. Normally makes good contact, though he can run up Ks in bunches. Has 2 whiffs in each of his last two games after having none the previous five.

RHP Jonathan Hernandez (No. 17 Baseball America, No. 18 MLB.com). Signed as an international free agent in 2013 from the D.R. Arguably the Crawdads best starter down the stretch in 2016, Hernandez has struggled to put it together out of the gate in April. Has yet to make it out of the fourth in his previous three starts, he has six walks in ten innings so far. Opponents are hitting .386 against Hernandez.

2B Yeyson Yrizarri (No. 17 MLB.com): Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of the D.R. After starting the season 1-for-39 stretch and hitting .065 over his first 12 games, Yrizarri has begun to show signs of life at the plate. He doubled and homered during the last home game on Wednesday, and then went 4-for-13 the last two games of the Kannapolis series. Yrizarri has scored five runs and knocked in three over his last four games.

RF Jose Almonte (No. 29 MLB.com): Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of Santo Domingo, D.R. After just nine walks all of last season, Almonte has five already in 15 games. Went 0-for-7 in the Kannapolis series with a walk and three Ks.

RHP Tyler Ferguson (No. 30 Baseball America): Sixth-round pick in 2015 out of Vanderbilt. Can he maintain control? That will separate him from success and failure. In his first outing (4/14), Ferguson threw a perfect inning with two Ks. Three days later, he walked one and hit two of the 12 batters he faced, and along with four hits allowed, he gave up five runs over 1.2 IP. On Friday, he walked one, hit two more, but fanned five over two shutout innings.

 

Others to watch – Hickory:

3B Ti’Quan Forbes: Second-round pick 2014 out of Columbia (MS) High. After a brief cooling-off period after a hot start, Forbes is back at it again with four hits in his last two games, three for extra bases. Among the top-ten in the SAL, Forbes is tied for first with five homers, one hit behind the league leader, second in total bases and in slugging (.647), third in OPS (1.044) and tied for 6th in RBI (12).

LF Franklin Rollin: Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of La Romana, D.R. As the leadoff man, went 9-for-17 over his last three games with six runs scored, two homers and seven RBI. Has also been a spark plug with four steals.

1B Preston Scott: 34th round pick in 2016 out of Fresno Pacific Univ. Sat out last Wednesday’s game following a 1-for-22 drought, then went 5-for-11 in the Kannapolis series. Has just 2 RBI over his last 12 games.

 

About the Braves:

Managed by South Atlantic League, Hall-of-Fame manager Randy Ingle in his 10th overall season (592-675) with Rome during his third stint with the class Low-A club. The Braves are the defending SAL champs and were named “Team of the Year” for the 2016 season by Baseball America … Rome is on the second leg of a two-city road trip, which started over the weekend at Greenville (S.C.) where the Braves took two of three in a rain-shortened series … Rome is 8-2 on the road this season… The Braves lead the SAL with 31 steals and have been caught just five times … As it does most years, Rome relies on a strong pitching staff. The staff has allowed just three homers in 17 games and its 2.30 ERA is second in the SAL and they are second in Ks. They have allowed the third fewest hits in the SAL, but control has been an issue, as they have allowed the third most walks. Rome has given up three or fewer runs in 12 of 17 games.

 

Prospects to watch – Rome:

LHP Ian Anderson (No. 5 Baseball America, No. 6 MLB.com, No. 81 MLB.com top-100) First-round pick (third overall) in 2016 out of Shenendehowa High (Ballston Lake, NY). Had a 2.04 ERA over ten starts at two rookie-level affiliates in 2016, Anderson currently has a 1.98 ERA after three starts this year. SAL hitters are hitting just .133 against Anderson, who has 23 Ks to 8 walks over 13.2 innings. Braves signed him away from a Vanderbilt commitment.

RHP Joey Wentz (No. 13 MLB.com, No. 15 Baseball America) First-round pick (40th overall) in 2016 out of Shawnee Mission East High (Prairie Village, KS). Didn’t allow a run over four starts with the rookie Gulf Coast League Braves, then moved up to Danville (VA) where he struggled with control (20 walks in 32 innings). Has curtailed the wildness in the early going (19 Ks to 3 BBs in 14 innings), but the SAL is hitting .333 against him. Signed out of a commitment to Virginia.

CF Cristian Pache (No. 13 Baseball America, No. 14 MLB.com) Signed as international free agent in 2015 out of Santo Domingo, D.R. Speedy 18-year-old could potentially be the Braves centerfielder of the future, though at this point he has yet to put the speed to use on the basepaths (3 steals in 16 games this year.) Showed the ability to make contact at rookie levels – 24 Ks in 220 ABs – but struggling so far this year, with already 14 Ks in 61 ABs.

SS Derian Cruz (No. 20 MLB.com, No. 22 Baseball America) Signed as international free agent in 2015 out of Puerto Plata, D.R. A natural right-handed hitter, is toying with switch-hitting. Enters the series at .167/.215/.250 as much of his struggles have come from making contact. (16 Ks/ 2 BBs in 60 ABs). He is also working to slow down the game, as he has nine errors in 14 games. The Braves will be patient with the 18-year-old in his first full season.

C Brett Cumberland (No. 23 Baseball America, No. 29 MLB.com) Second-round pick in 2016 out of California. Led the Pac-12 Conference in homers in 2016. A bat-first catcher for now, as caught just three games and DH’d the other seven. Hitting at a .143/.333/286 slash.

C Lucas Herbert (No. 28 MLB.com, No. 30 Baseball America) Second-round pick in 2015 out of San Clemente High (CA). Returns to Rome after splitting time behind the plate for the team in 2016. A defensive-first catcher to date, he has struggled to hit and make contact and enters the series 1 for his last 29 with 15 Ks.

OF Anfernee Seymour (No. 30 MLB.com) Traded to the Braves from Miami in 2016. Was an 2015 all-star pick in the short-season New York-Penn League and one of the speedier shortstops (37 SBs) in the SAL when with Greensboro. But the Braves have chosen to shift him to the outfield. Strikes out too much, given his speed – 118 times in 491 ABs – the Braves are working to cut that ratio and to raise his walk pct. in order to make him into a leadoff hitter.

 

Others to watch – Rome:

RHP Jeremy Walker: Fifth-round pick in 2016 out of Gardner Webb Univ. Had 37 Ks in 39.2 innings with Danville last year,but has just 5 Ks and 5 walks so far in 12.1 IP. Relies on his defense to soak up grounders, has a ratio of two groundouts to airouts in his pro career.

IF Marcus Mooney: 10th round pick in 2016 out of South Carolina. Had 7 hits in his first 10 ABs at Greenville, currently at .378/.462/.444 with the Braves. Among the top-ten in the SAL in runs (6th), hits, Batting Avg. (6th) and on-base pct. (7th).