(The following was a column I wrote in 2012 for the Hickory Daily Record to open the season. I updated some of the names and such, but the words are still as heartfelt then as now.)
There’s nothing like a first visit to a ballpark. It’s an invigorating scene: The cut of freshly-mown grass, the smell of grilled hot dogs or popcorn wafting through the concourse, fresh-squeezed ice cold lemonade, the pop of the catcher’s mitt from a 90-plus miles- per-hour fastball, the chatter of crowd noise that crescendos until game time.
Tonight begins the 26th season of Hickory Crawdads baseball at L.P. Frans Stadium. Over 4.2 million fans have entered the ballpark to delight in an annual rite of summer. For most, there is nothing like a first visit to a stadium and the sounds and sights that surround once the turnstile has been turned. It certainly was for me.
I attended my first Hickory Crawdads game on July 29, 2002 – a Monday – and it was a night that began what is now a 16-year connection with the team.
Honestly, I never saw it coming.
I was in town that summer to interview for a job at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, driving up from Columbus, Ga. that morning and leaving the next morning to drive to a church in Troy, Mo. for another interview. It was fairly certain that I would have job offers from both places and so I faced deciding which move my family would make based on my only visit to each town.
My only memory of the Crawdads game was a hamstring injury suffered by catcher Ryan Doumit, who in a few years would go on to play in the major leagues.
The promotion that night at L.P. Frans Stadium — where the crowd was a decent one considering a pre-game thunderstorm had delayed things — was a contest between cheerleading squads.
As the evening unfolded before me from my seat behind the third base dugout, I called home to my wife by the eighth inning to simply say, “I could see us living here.”
There was something about the community that had gathered that night, and it far beyond the cheers of the crowd for players that hailed from different parts of the planet.
It was beyond baseball.
It was looking at the young faces of Little Leaguers as they ran onto the field with the Crawdads players to stand at attention for the national anthem.
It was watching the crowd cheer on their own youth and others from different schools as they demonstrated their cheer routines on the field. While Maiden’s squad cheered, I learned a little about the town billed as “The Biggest Little Football Town in the World.”
It was observing the signboards from the different companies that supported the team, those who obviously felt baseball was important enough to a small town to pour money into the coffers of the Crawdads and help fund the team’s operations.
My hosts for that night told me what an important asset the Crawdads were to the community.
I saw it in action that night – a hometown team.
Along with the SALT Block and the symphony, the Crawdads sold me on Hickory. It showed me that this was a small town that wanted more from life than a 9-to-5 routine and then to go home.
It showed me it was a city that wanted a quality of life for its families that included sports and the arts and learning.
I moved to Hickory, based partially on that steamy July night at a stadium nestled into the woods off Clement Blvd.
The city has lived up to its promise of a community that wanted a certain quality of life for its residents.
Three years later, I began a five-season stint of working for the Crawdads. I sold tickets and sponsorships, pulled tarp, organized game scripts and played music and video clips.
Two of my kids have donned mascot costumes and my third child has had the run of L.P. Frans Stadium since she was a toddler. Prom pictures have been taken there with the third child’s yet to come. It’s a Parker tradition.
The stadium has become a part of my family’s life in the summer.
Now entering its 26th season, the stadium has been an integral part of the fabric of life in Hickory.
Quite simply, there are no strangers at a ballpark.
It’s a place where school children meet up at the playground or, try as they may, to catch a foul ball.
It’s a place where people who’ve never met talk baseball; they relive their own youths when they played the game.
It’s a place where fans line the fences before and after a game to meet players and maybe get an autograph from players who reside in Nicaragua, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, or Venezuela.
We may share in their dream of making it to the big leagues and being able to say, “I remember when that guy played in Hickory; I have his autograph.”
On Tuesday, I congratulated a former Crawdads infielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa on his initial big league callup to the Texas Rangers. Three years ago, I’d interviewed him by the clubhouse after a weird play in which he attempted to steal home in the 10th inning. (A balk was called and the game was over.)
After five seasons of 100-plus hour weeks during the season, I have moved on. But I still find my way to L.P. Frans a lot, covering the team for the Hickory Daily Record, working as an official scorer and keeping track of the Crawdads’ alumni.
I do so partly because of my love for the game.
But mostly, I do so for the same reason as I became smitten with the city that July night nearly 16 years ago – because of its people and the bond they have for one another.
When we come out to the ballgame, we may celebrate the Crawdads in their victories. But more importantly, when the fans come out to the ballgame, we celebrate ourselves as a community.
Hickory Crawdads (Texas Rangers) (0-3) at Delmarva Shorebirds (Baltimore Orioles) (4-0)
The Crawdads play the second series of a two-city, season-opening road trip with three games at Arthur W. Purdue Stadium in Salisbury, Md.
If you plan to go:
GAME TIMES: Games Monday and Tuesday are at 7:05 p.m., then Wednesday morning at 10:35 a.m. All games are streamed live on the web through milb.com or the Delmarva Shorebirds website.
TICKETS: Ticket prices range from $8-$13 in advance, $1 more on game day. Upper reserved are $2 on Monday.
PARKING: Parking at the ballpark is $4.
CONCESSIONS: Purdue Stadium offers standard ballpark fare (hot dogs, peanuts, popcorn, etc. The Bird’s Eye Café has BBQ sandwiches, crab dip and shrimp salad. The Angus Stand serves Angus Burgers, BBQ sandwiches and steak subs. Vegetarian, gluten-free options are also available.
Where is it?:
From Salisbury, take U.S. 50 east towards Ocean City. Turn right onto Hobbs Rd.
Monday: RHP Reid Anderson vs. LHP Zac Lowther
Tuesday: RHP Tyree Thompson vs. LHP DL Hall
Wednesday: RHP Tyler Phillips vs. RHP Michael Baumann
Recent Series History:
Hickory took the 2017 season-series 7-4, which included a 4-3 advantage at Purdue Stadium. During the Crawdads affiliation with the Rangers, Hickory is 72-45 overall, 33-26 at Delmarva. The Crawdads have lost one season series to Delmarva since 2009. Oddly that came in 2015, the season Hickory won the SAL title.
Entering the series:
While Hickory was swept by Greensboro in a rain-shortened, three-game series over the weekend, Delmarva punished Asheville in a four-game sweep by a 40-17 margin. The 40 runs are the most scored by a SAL team over the weekend while the Crawdads scored a SAL- low of 7. Four of the seven runs by Hickory came on homers.
Prospects to watch- Hickory:
CF Pedro Gonzalez (No. 10): 2018 stats: 4-for-12, two-run HR, 7 Ks. Came to the Rangers in a trade for C Jonathan Lucory. Originally signed with Rockies in 2015. Native of Santo Domingo, D.R.
RHP AJ Alexy (No. 17): 2018 stats: 1 start, 4 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 4 BB, 4 K. Joined the Crawdads after a trade that sent Yu Darvish to the Dodgers. Originally 11th round pick of Dodgers out of Twin Valley HS, Elverson, Pa.
RF Miguel Aparicio (No. 18): 2018 stats: 4-for-14, 2 K. Signed with the Rangers in 2015. Native of San Carlos, Venezuela.
RHP Alex Speas (No. 23): 2018 stats: 1 game, 1.1 IP, 1 H, 3 BB, 2 K. Second round pick of Rangers in 2016 out of McEachern HS (Powder Springs, GA).
C-1B Sam Huff (No. 25): 2018 stats 1-for-7, 1 HR, 2 K. Seventh round pick of Rangers in 2016 out of Arcadia HS (Phoenix, Ariz.).
Others to watch – Hickory:
RHP Tyler Phillips: 2018 stats: 1 start, 3.2 IP, 6 H, 5 ER,l 2 BB, 4 K. Native of Lumberton, N.J. 16th round pick in 2015 by the Rangers out of Bishop Eustace, Pennsauken , N.J.
C/1B Yohel Pozo: 2018 stats: 3-for-12, 2B, 2 K. Native of Maracaibo, Venz.
LF Eric Jenkins: 2018 stats: 4-for-12, 1 BB, 4 K, 2 SB. Second round pick of the Rangers out of West Columbus HS, Cerro Gordo, N.C.
2B Kole Enright: 2018 stats: 3-for-10, 2 doubles, 1 HR, 1 BB, 2K. Third-round pick of the Rangers out of West Orange, HS, Winter Garden, Fla.
RHP Reid Anderson: 2017 stats: 28 games (13 starts) 88.1 IP, 32 BBs, 65 Ks, 5.30 ERA, .272 OBA, 1.45 WHIP with Hickory. 17th round pick of the Rangers in 2016 out of Millersville Univ.
RHP Tyree Thompson: 2017 stats: 13 games (all starts) 68.2 IP, 22 BBs, 44 Ks, 3.15 ERA, .245 OBA, 1.24 WHIP at Spokane. 26th round pick by Rangers in 2016 out of Edna Karr HS in New Orleans, La.
Notes of interest: This was the second-straight season the Crawdads lost 3-for-4 in the opening series of the year at Greensboro,
Prospects to watch-Delmarva:
LHP D.L. Hall (No. 5): 2017 stats: 5 games (all starts), 10.1 IP, 10 BBs, 12 Ks, .263 OBA, 1.94 WHIP with rookie GCL Orioles. First-round pick (21st overall) of the Orioles in 2017 out of Valdosta (Ga.) High. Signed away from a commitment to Florida St.
RHP Brenan Hanifee (No.10): 2017 stats: 12 games (all starts), 68.2 IP, 12 BBs, 44 Ks .249 OBA, 1.12 WHIP at SS-A Aberdeen. Fourth-round pick of the Orioles in 2016 out of Ashby High in Bridgewater, Va. Signed away from a commitment to East Carolina. Named to New York-Penn League All-Star Game and tabbed as an Orioles organizational all-star by MILB.com.
RHP Michael Baumann (No. 15): 2017 stats: 11 games (10 starts), 42.1 IP 19 BBs, 43 Ks .175 OBA, 1.09 WHIP between GCL Orioles and Aberdeen. Third-round pick of the Orioles in 2017 out of Jacksonville Univ. Native of Mahtomedi, Minn. and pitched in HS there. In his opening night start, threw four-hit shutout over five innings with 10 Ks and a walk.
LHP Cameron Bishop (No. 16): 2017 stats: 9 games (all starts), 37.2 IP, 16 BBs, 39 Ks, .162 OBA, 0.98 OBA between GCL Orioles and Aberdeen. Was 26th-round pick of Orioles in 2017 out of Univ. of California-Irvine. Attended Brea-Olinda HS (Calif.). Allowed two runs (1 earned) on four hits and three walks with 6 Ks over 6 innings on Friday. Named Atlantic Sun Conference pitcher of the year in 2017.
LHP Zac Lowther (No. 17): 2017 stats: 12 games (11 starts) 54.1 IP, 11 BBs, 75 Ks, .182 OBA, 0.85 WHIP at Aberdeen. Was Orioles second pick in competitive balance round in 2017 out of Xavier. Was Baseball America short-season all-star and New York-Penn League All-Star. Led Big East in Ks in 2017.
RHP Gary Fenter (No. 23): 2017 starts: 11 games (all starts), 30.1 IP, 10 BBs, 34 Ks, .187 OBA, 0.99 WHIP. Seventh-round pick of the Orioles in 2015 out of West Memphis (AR) High. Signed away from commitment to Mississippi St.
SS Mason McCoy (No. 29): 2017 stats:.301/.382/.409 slash with 15 XBHs in 53 games at Aberdeen. Sixth-round pick in 2017 out of Univ. of Iowa. Named to New York-Peen A native of Peoria, Ill.
RHP Matthew Dietz (No. 30): 2017 stats: 26 games (all starts) 129.2 IP, 50 BBs, 92 Ks, .282 OBA, 1.50 WHIP at Delmarva. Second-round pick of Orioles out of John A. Logan CC (Ill.). In first start on Saturday: 5.1 IP, 8 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 6 K.
Others to watch-Delmarva:
C Ben Breazeale: 2017 stats: .318/.428/.467 slash with 19 XBHs in 57 games at Aberdeen. Seventh-round pick of Orioles in 2017 out of Wake Forest. New York-Penn player of the month in July 2017. All-Star game selection in that same league and named Baseball America SS-A all-star.
1B Ryen Ripken: 2017 starts .287.323/.378 slash with 11 XBHs in 51 games at Aberdeen. Signed free agent deal with Orioles in 2017. Played previously in SAL with Hagerstown (Washington) in 2016. Son of Cal Ripken, Jr.
RF Zack Jarrett: 2017 stats: /.201/.252/.288 slash with 8 XBHs in 45 games at Aberdeen. 28th-round pick of the Orioles in 2017 out of UNC Charlotte. Played his high school ball at Hickory High.
Notes of Interest: Both of the Shorebirds assistant coaches have ties to the Crawdads. Hitting coach Bobby Rose served in the same role with Hickory in 2014. Justin Lord made two starts for the Crawdads in 2004…Shorebirds manager Buck Britton is the brother of Orioles close Zach Britton. Buck was the hitting coach for Delmarva in 2017…TJ Nichting was a teammate of Jarrett at UNC Charlotte. Will Robertson played college ball at Davidson… Delmarva’s sweep over the week is the first to open the season since at least 2005. However, it is the 10th time in 14 seasons the team won at least 3 games in the opening series of the season.
The line will show that Hickory left-hander Sal Mendez had a rough seventh inning, and certainly he contributed to his demise on the mound. However, a couple of unlucky breaks did him in, and in turn it proved to be the difference in a 4-3 loss to the Greensboro Grasshoppers Sunday afternoon at First National Bank Field.
Hickory took a 3-1 lead into the seventh-inning stretch and after Sal Mendez dominated Greensboro in the sixth, the Grasshoppers got their revenge when they sent eight to the plate to score the decisive three runs.
JC Millan started the inning with a solidly lined single to right. With the middle infielders playing at double play depth, Micah Brown hit a medium-speed grounder to the hole at second. Kole Enright from his second base position ranged far to his left, made a diving stop of the ball, but from the seated position he wasn’t able to get enough on the throw to first for the out.
Michael Hernandez then line a shot through the box – I thought it might have hit Mendez – and zoomed into center to score Millan. Zach Sullivan’s sacrifice put runners at second and third before Mendez walked Aaron Knapp.
The tying run scored when Sam Castro hit a checked-swing grounder between the mound and first. First baseman Sam Huff charged the ball but he had no play at home for the force. He turned to get the out at first, however no one covered the bag and the bases remained loaded. That proved crucial as the next hitter Isael Soto hit a high chopper that the 6-4 Huff leapt to snag and then step on first for the out.. However, that made it only two outs and Hernandez score the go-ahead and subsequent deciding run.
The Crawdads took a 2-0 lead in the first on Pedro Gonzalez’s two-run blast to right off the scoreboard.
Hickory started Noah Bremer but was pulled after the first with an oblique injury. A.J. Alexy entered in the second and gave up a lone run on a double play grounder in the fourth. Huff’s first homer of the season accounted for the Crawdads other run in the sixth.
After the blast, Hickory had just two more baserunners. Yohel Pozo doubled to start the seventh. From there, Remey Reed, RJ Peace and Tyler Frohwirth combined to retire the next seven straight, which ended with Gonzalez’s check-swing single. Pozo hit the next pitch for a 6-4-3 double play.
The offense is offensive: Just five hits on Sunday, two of those left the yard, and the Crawdads leave First National Bank Field with a .214/.267/.337 slash. Hickory fanned 11 times today and have Ks in over 25% of its at-bats.
I do wonder how different this weekend would have been had the team scored in the first two innings of the opening game of the season. Having the bases loaded twice, the Crawdads came up empty both times and needed a ninth-inning HR by Enright to avoid the shutout. After going 5-for-20 RISP, they only had three opportunities Sunday afternoon and went hitless.
There are a couple of members struggling to make contact. Gonzalez is 4-for-12, but 7 of his 8 outs are Ks. Tyler Ratliff is 0-for-10 with 5 whiffs and Chad Smith is 0-for-7 with 4 Ks. But strikeouts aside, the issue I saw on Thursday and a little this afternoon, is the inability to take advantage of opportunities. When Greensboro starter Brady Puckett got into those opening-inning jams, Hickory went first-pitch hacking and let him off the hook.
This afternoon, speedy Eric Jenkins in the eighth went up 3-0, then swung through three straight pitches. In the ninth after Pedro Gonzalez reached on a checked-swing single, Yohel Pozo went first-pitch hacking and hit into a game-ending double play.
I think this team will hit and do it well and score some runs. But, they need that spark. Unfortunately, guys are trying to force the issue.
AJ’s day: I’m guessing Alexy had planned to pitch today, but not as early as the second inning and perhaps he wasn’t loose, etc.
According the Marlins pitch fx guy, Alexy was around 92 mph with the fastball. He appeared to have trouble spotting the pitch consistently, especially from the stretch. By my count – there was no stringer for Greensboro today, so I kept my own pitch count – Alexy threw just 43 strikes out of 75 pitches in four innings. He missed 10 bats, only one on the fastball (at least it appeared to be a fastball from my vantage point in the pressbox, located in the ionosphere. The curveball seemed to have good bite to it.
Sal Mendez: I’m guessing I like Sal Mendez more than most and it’s because of innings like the sixth that appeal to me. The lefty breaks a bat on a fastball to start the inning. He then gets back-to-back strikeouts on a swing-through change and a curveball for a called third-strike. Then there are those moments like the seventh when weird things happen and he is unable to minimize the damage.
He is able to get outs, but his stuff is such that there is a small margin of error to get outs or to get hit. Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes loves Mendez’ changeup and it is an outstanding pitch when he can keep it down and miss bats. When he misses his spots, he’s very vulnerable.
Defensive gems: Hickory has been almost flawless in the field. Through the first three games, the lone two errors have come of pickoff throws by pitchers. The group covers a lot of ground and, at least to this point, are sure-handed.
Jenkins in left went back and to his left to make a diving catch of a liner off the bat of Millan in the second. SS Yonny Hernandez bailed out catcher Yohel Pozo’s off-line throw on a steal attempt. Hernandez had to cross the bag and avoid the sliding runner, but he managed to make the catch and slap a tag on Sullivan, who was sliding in.
When Tyler Phillips last pitched for Hickory, it was at home against Greensboro on May 14. The pitching line for that game: 3.2 innings, 4 H, 5 R (2 ER), 3 hit batters, 1 BB, 3 Ks and a wild pitch. Of the 40 pitches he threw, 25 went for strikes.
Fast forward to the South Atlantic League opener on Thursday, against Greensboro on the road. The pitching line: 3.2 IP, 6 H, 5 R (all earned), 2 BB, 4 K, 68 pitches, 45 strikes.
While the pitching lines are similar, where Phillips is in comparison to the 2017 season is far different.
“I think last year was a big learning year for him,” said Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes in an interview earlier this week. “He had a good spring training. He showed up this spring stronger, bigger, but most important, more mature.”
The Rangers 16th-round pick in 2015 seemed almost out-of-place with the Crawdads and there seemed to be a timid approach to hitters by the then 19-year-old hurler. In 25.1 innings, he struck out just 15, but walked nine, hit five more and the SAL hit .280 against him.
There was none of that at Thursday night’s opener as he attacked hitters from the start.
In comparing the two circumstances from last year to this, Phillips feels more of a sense of belonging on the Crawdads roster this season.
“Yeah, it’s a lot different than last year,” said Phillips. “I came in and wasn’t really expecting to be here in Hickory. This year, I came in here and I was the opening-day starter, so it was pretty cool.”
After his re-assignment from Hickory, Phillips put the struggles behind him and put together a strong short-season at Spokane. With the Indians, he posted a 3.45 ERA in 73 innings with 78 strikeouts to just 11 walks.
The changes since leaving Hickory last May, Phillips said, were twofold.
Going to Surprise, Ariz., Phillips looked to re-center himself mechanically. Listed at 6-5, 200 pounds, he worked to find control of a fastball that ranged from 92-94 mph on Thursday. With the aid of Rangers pitching coaches at the team’s extended spring training complex, Phillips found some answers on video.
“What I did find out was at the beginning at Hickory,” Phillips said. “I got away from my routine and I changed a bunch of things with my mechanics. I got around the ball, around the side of it. So, I did fix my fastball; I got more on top of the ball and I was able to bring it down. My changeup has always been there. The curveball has always been a work in progress; I changed my grip up a little bit. So, I’m always trying to improve something.”
Mechanics and repertoire aside, there was perhaps an underlying issue at hand: believing he pitch.
“When I went back to Spokane, honestly, it was a big mindset thing,” said Phillips. “Just going out and being more confident with every pitch that I had, knowing that I could get guys out, knowing that I was good. I definitely found out that baseball is just a game and you’ve got to make it fun.”
With tools and a new outlook, Phillips took to the mound on Thursday and went after hitters. Of the 68 pitches he threw, 18 missed bats, including all three pitches during a second-inning plate appearance by Eric Gutierrez, and on two of the three pitches thrown to Isael Soto, who was caught looking in the third.
Phillips said that as his mechanics improved, the increase in swings-and-misses increased.
“It kind of just started when I got to Spokane,” he said. “A lot of those are the changeup. I kind of developed that, keeping the same arm speed as my fastball. The fastball, this year, it’s harder because I got into my lower half better, so that’s another thing I’m fiddling around with.”
So, while the numbers between the final start with Hickory the first are the similar, Phillips left Thursday’s start feeling more assured of where he is as a pitcher.
“The results, obviously, were not what I wanted them to be,” Phillips said. “But I feel like I accomplished the things I wanted to work on.”
Hickory Crawdads (Texas Rangers) (0-0) at Greensboro Grasshoppers (Miami Marlins) (0-0)
The Hickory Crawdads and Greensboro Grasshoppers open the 2018 South Atlantic League season with a four-game series at First National Bank Field in Greensboro.
If you plan to go:
GAME TIMES: Games Thursday through Saturday are at 7:00 EDT with a 2 p.m. start on Sunday.
TICKETS: Ticket prices range from $7-11.
PARKING: Parking at the ballpark is $5. There are independently operated parking lots nearby that charge a varied amount. Metered parking about a block away from the outfield is free after 6 p.m., on weekdays and is free on weekends.
CONCESSIONS: First National Bank Field is more of a AA park and so the concession offerings are a vast upgrade from what a smaller Low-A ball park provides. Other than basic ballpark fare, there is a BBQ stand, Sausage Shack, Pimento Cheese along with veggie options. Here is the entire menu
Where is it?:
From Hickory, take I-40 East to exit 218 B / Freeman Mill Road. That will turn into Edgeworth St. and the ballpark will be on the right. (Edgeworth and Bellemeade St.)
Thursday: RHP Tyler Phillips vs. RHP Brady Puckett
Friday: RHP Alex Eubanks vs. RHP Tyler Kolek
Saturday: RHP AJ Alexy vs. RHP Ryan Lillie
Sunday: RHP Noah Bremer vs. RHP Taylor Braley
Recent Series History:
The Grasshoppers won the 2017 season-series 13-9, which included a 4-7 mark at First National Bank Field. Since the stadium opened in 2005, Greensboro is 62-42 at home vs. the Crawdads, 42-38 during the Rangers affiliation (since 2009).
Prospects to watch- Hickory:
CF Pedro Gonzalez (No. 10): 2017 stats: .294/.364/.475 in 2017, 25 XBHs in 51 games between rookie Grand Junction (Col.) with the Rockies and SS-A Spokane (Tex.). Came to the Rangers in a trade for C Jonathan Lucory. Originally signed with Rockies in 2015. Native of Santo Domingo, D.R.
RHP AJ Alexy (No. 17): 2017 stats: 24 starts, 94.1 IP, 3.53 ERA, 113 Ks, 52 BBs, .180 OBA, 1.18 WHIP with Low-A Great Lakes (LA Dodgers) and Hickory. Joined the Crawdads after a trade that sent Yu Darvish to the Dodgers. Originally 11th round pick of Dodgers out of Twin Valley HS, Elverson, Pa.
RF Miguel Aparicio (No. 18): 2017 stats: .266/.315/.361, 19 XBHs in 95 games between Hickory and Spokane. Signed with the Rangers in 2015. Native of San Carlos, Venezuela.
RHP Alex Speas (No. 23): 2017 stats: 16 games (7 starts), 33.2 IP, 6.15 ERA, 45 Ks, 25 BBs, .223 OBA, 1.60 WHIP with Spokane. Second round pick of Rangers in 2016 out of McEarchern HS (Powder Springs, GA).
C-1B Sam Huff (No. 25): 2017 stats: .249/.329/.452, 20 XBHs in 49 games at AZL Rangers. Tied for AZL lead in HRs last season. Seventh round pick of Rangers in 2016 out of Arcadia HS (Phoenix, Ariz.)
Others to watch – Hickory:
RHP Tyler Phillips: 2017 stats: 20 games (17 starts), 98.1 IP, 4.21 ERA, 93 Ks, 20 BBs, .269 OBA, 1.28 WHIP between Hickory and Spokane.
C/1B Yohel Pozo: 2017 stats: .323/.351/.478, 21 XBHs in 54 games between Hickory and Spokane. Signed with Rangers in 2013, AZL post-season all-star in 2016. Native of Maracaibo, Venz.
LF Eric Jenkins: 2017 stats: .207/.264/.289, 15 XBHs in 73 games at Hickory. Second round pick of the Rangers out of West Columbus HS, Cerro Gordo, N.C.
Prospects to watch-Greensboro:
RHP Edward Cabrera (No. 13): 2017 stats: 13 games (6 starts) 35.2 IP, 5.30 ERA, 32 Ks, 8 BBs, .286 OBA, 1.40 WHIP with SS-A Batavia (N.Y.) Native of Santiago, D.R., signed with Marlins in 2015.
OF Isael Soto (No. 27): Missed entire 2017 season with fractured foot, his third leg injury in three seasons. 2016 stats: .247/.320/.399, 38 XBHs in 113 games at Greensboro. Signed with Marlins in 2013. Native of Bani, D.R.
RHP Tyler Kolek (No. 28): 2017 stats: 5 games (4 starts) 3.2 IP, 29.45 ERA, 1 K, 14 BBs, .286 OBA, 4.91 WHIP with rookie GCL Marlins. Missed all of 2016 and much of 2017 after “Tommy John” surgery. First round pick (2nd overall) of Miami 2014 out of Shepherd HS, (Tex.)
Others to watch-Greensboro:
RHP Reilly Hovis: 2017 stats: 22 games, 29.1 IP, 3.38 ERA, 8 BBs, 35 Ks .205 OBA, 1.06 ERA. Ninth round pick of the Marlins in 2015 out of Miami. Played high school baseball at Forestview in Gastonia.
RHP Brady Puckett: 2017 stats: 12 games (5 starts), 47.1 IP, 2.92 ERA, 35 Ks, 9 BBs, .280 OBA, 1.28 WHIP with GCL Marlins and Batavia (NY). Native of Murfreesboro, Tenn. Was 15th round pick out of Lipscomb Univ.
Notes of Interest: Hickory’s Matt Hagen makes his managerial debut with Hickory after leading the SS-A Spokane Indians to the 2017 NW League playoffs. Hagen was an assistant with Hickory in 2016 …. Greensboro RHP Brandon Miller and Hickory RHP Reid Anderson were teammates at Division II Millersville (Pa.) Univ. and were both drafted in 2016… Grasshoppers CF Aaron Knapp is the brother of Philadelphia Phillies catcher Andrew Knapp… Grasshoppers manager Todd Pratt, a 14-year major league veteran, played for the old Greensboro Hornets in 1986, then an affiliate with the Boston Red Sox. Pratt is in his second season with the Grasshoppers… This is the second straight season the Crawdads have opened a season at Greensboro and the third time in 5 seasons. Hickory has opened the season against a North Carolina rival seven of the last 8 seasons (Hagerstown at home 2015).
The first half of the 2017 Hickory Crawdads season was a tough one to watch. Most of the games were blowouts early as pitchers were under an organizational mandate to throw fastballs and learn how to use the pitch before infusing secondary pitches. Some of them figured it out and moved on – Kyle Cody being the best example – others struggled with the concept and went down to Spokane for more seasoning.
Of the pitchers to start the 2018 season, eight spent time at L.P. Frans Stadium last year. Tyler Phillips and Demarcus Evans figured out some things at lower levels and are back again with Phillips snagging a top-30 prospect ranking along the way.
With the returnees and a healthy load of college pitchers, the 2018 version could – and should? – be better equipped to handle what is being asked of them: place the fastball correctly, throw strikes and get outs. A group of eight of them did that during Monday night’s exhibition game against Catawba Valley Community College. Save for a second-inning hiccup by Alex Eubanks, the group that pitched threw gas and made quick work of the overmatched JUCO club.
Starting with Phillips on Thursday at a hitter’s park at Greensboro, we’ll begin to see where he and the Crawdads are to start the 2018 season.
I interviewed Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes about the pitching staff and basically went down the list to get a sense of where everyone is at the start. At least until he had to get to on-field workouts before we could finish.
So below is an overview of many, but not all, of the Crawdads pitchers to start the season.
That was impressive last night. There was no gun, but I’m guessing you ran guys out there throwing 93, 94, 95 pretty much all along the line last night.
Jaimes: Yeah, it was exciting. We have a pretty exciting group. Starting with our rotation, our rotation is a little more experience than last year, so that’s going to make a difference. We’ve got a few college guys and that’s going to help the young kids. Then, when you look to the bullpen, everybody’s around the mid-90s, which is exciting. Hopefully, they can do what you saw yesterday and keep getting better.
There was a lot of talk last year about the Rangers wanting the guys to work fastball, fastball, fastball. They had to spot it so many times, or whatever percentage was set before they started to bring in the secondaries. Are they staying with that or is it being tweaked any?
Jaimes: It’s still going to be a priority to control the fastball. That’s still the number one thing, so we’re going to keep preaching that. Definitely, we’re making some adjustments on the plan, but for the most part it’s going to stay the same. It’s fastball and they’ll learn how to use it and learn how to get outs with it and learn to how to play with it. You’ve got basically six pitches with the fastball – going down and away, down and in, up and in, up and away, middle – so you can do anything you want with your fastball. That’s going to be the main focus again this year. I think with the group that we have this year, they have more experience and a little better command than last year.
Will it be as strict the first time through the order as it was last year?
Jaimes: (hesitating) No, no, no.
I don’t mean to have you give away things, but it at almost seemed like last year, “You will throw the fastball to everybody pretty much the first time through the order.” Like you said, it’s six pitches, but still guys are sitting on it.
Jaimes: Yes, it was tough and you saw it. But it’s a great plan and we saw it pay off towards the end of the year in the second half. Guys learned how to use their fastball and learned how to get outs with it and once they implemented the other pitches, it made a huge difference. I think that was one of the biggest turnarounds that we had in the second half of last year, because they were able to pitch with it. They relied too much on their secondary stuff, so again, that’s going to be a main thing.
The rotation, is it still going to be six guys?
Jaimes: Yes, it’s still a six-man rotation. Tyler Phillips will be our opening-night guy. Alex Eubanks will be our second guy. AJ Alexy, that you saw last year, Noah Bremer. Reid Anderson is going to join the rotation and then Tyree Thompson will be the sixth guy.
I’m just going to go down the list and if you can give me a little bit about their stuff and your expectations for them. I’ll just start with Tyler. He just seemed overmatched here last year when he started. Like Miguel (Aparcio), he seemed overmatched and then found himself when he went to Spokane. What do you see from him coming back here that he learned from last year?
Jaimes: I think last year was a big learning year for him. He had a good spring training. He showed up this spring stronger, bigger, but most important, more mature. So, I’m expecting him to lead the rotation and be that guy that’s going to teach the young kids. Stuff wise, I was watching down in Arizona, he was 94-95 (mph) fastball. He’s got a really good changeup and a breaking ball. I think he’s come really far physically and mentally and I’m expecting good things about him this year.
Jaimes: Curveball and it’s improved a lot since last year.
Jaimes: A strike thrower. He’s a very mature guy. I love the way that he handles himself on the mound. It seems like nothing bothers him when he doesn’t have his best stuff. You saw him last night, the second inning he gave up three hits in four pitches. He never lost his composure; he stayed within himself and minimized the damage. So, that’s him. He’s going to be that guy that’s going to be able to bounce back quick. I love the stuff that he brings. He has good movement on his fastball and a really good changeup, cutter and slider. Good command of every pitch.
AJ, he came here and was pretty impressive for a guy who got bounced from his first organization all of a sudden. He had some moments, but all in all not a bad August.
Jaimes: No, he was actually one of our best guys in August. We’re going to continue to build onto what he did towards the end of the year. He had a good spring training, too, so again he’s another guy that’s bigger and stronger, which is good for him. Command wise, it definitely has improved from last year. Again, it’s another guy that we have a lot expectations for.
Curveball for his breaking ball, if I remember?
Jaimes: Yes, curveball and it’s a pretty good one and a really good fastball, which is mid-90s that looks harder than what it is.
Jaimes: He’s a funky guy delivery wise. He hides the ball really well – I think that’s his biggest weapon – the hitters don’t really get a good pickup of the ball. Again, he’s another gut that can play with his fastball on each side of the plate. He has a really good changeup and a nice breaking ball, too. He’s kind of like what you’re going to see from Eubanks; they’re pretty similar guys.
Reid Anderson. He pitched better in the second half, but he always seemed to be the guy that had the one quirky inning or the one quirky moment that would fell him. He’d get 5 2/3 and we could see you’re trying to get him through six and he’d have that one moment where the guy would hit the ball out of the ballpark and you’d be like, “doggone it.” Did he grow up from that last year?
Jaimes: I think so. In spring training at one of his last games, it was the first time he was going to five innings. He got through four innings without any issues, really good. He got to the fifth, the first two pitches he spiked the fastball and threw one over the catcher’s head and went to 3-0. I’m thinking, maybe it’s going to happen what happened last year and he’s not going to get through the fifth and he’ll lose everything. But he did. He went to a 3-0 count and then came back with two good fastballs and struck the guy out and then retired the next two guys with no issues. The next outing, he went six innings without any problem.
So, again, he’s another guy that learned a lot from last year. He knows that he needs to keep the game simple. He knows that he’s preparing himself not to pitch five innings; he’s preparing himself to pitch nine innings. I think that was his main issue last year; he knew that he was about to be done and doubt set in and he couldn’t control it. He’s doing a better job with it.
Remind me of his stuff:
Jaimes: Fastball, changeup, curveball and a cutter.
Jaimes: He’s a real competitor. I love what he brings. I love that he’s a strike thrower. Maybe he’s not that big of a stuff guy, but he’s a pitcher with a fastball, curveball and a changeup. His biggest weapon is that he competes no matter what the situation is. So, I’m excited about having him on the staff and I think he’ll be a big part of it.
Tell me about Alex Speas. I read the stuff about his big fastball, but he doesn’t always know where it’s going. After getting used to things last night, he settled in and pitched a good inning.
Jaimes: I think by him being in the bullpen he’s going to be able to keep the game simple. Definitely, he has some command issues at times, but I think he has improved a lot since last year. He had a really good year in Spokane when he went to the bullpen. Yesterday with the first guy, he was guiding the ball, then he just let it go and you saw it, he had really good stuff. He has a good fastball and a really, really good slider. I think he’s going to be a big part of the back end of the bullpen for us.
Sal Mendez is back. When you and I talked at this same time last year, I asked you who had the best secondary stuff among your staff. You said Sal Mendez’s changeup. How is his progression from last year and what is he coming back to do?
Jaimes: He’s going to be helping to be the leader of the bullpen. He’s going to have the same role that he played last year – a long man, then he’ll spot start here and there. He’s a big changeup guy, but this year’s it’s going to be more of finding a breaking ball. I think it’s doing better, but I think that’s going to be his priority, having the breaking ball to face left-handed hitters.
Going down the list of who was here last year. Joe Kuzia had a cup of coffee and got hit around a bit, but like Phillips, once he got back to Spokane he found himself in the bullpen. He seems like he will be a key bullpen guy that will give you some innings.
Jaimes: Yeah, I’m excited about him. Like you said, when he came up I felt like he wasn’t ready for the competition here. He went down to Spokane and worked on some reliever’s stuff and he got back into a rhythm and had a really good spring training. He’s ready to go.
As you have time, run down a quick couple of things about the bullpen guys.
Jaimes: Demarcus Evans. We had him last year.
He looked more controlled last night, as far as his delivery.
Jaimes: Yeah, I think he’s going to be our guy. I’m excited for him and I think it’s going to be a good thing for him now to be a part of the bullpen and being able to pitch more often is going to help him. Definitely, command wise, it is the main thing that needs work, but he’s doing better. I’m excited to work with him because I know that whenever he finds it, he’s going to be pretty special.
The 2018 Hickory Crawdads start the season Thursday night at Greensboro and the assembled roster of position players had a chance to get their feet wet Monday night in an exhibition game against Catawba Valley Community College after arriving from the Texas Rangers spring training complex at Surprise, Ariz. last weekend.
The game itself was a blowout (12-2 Hickory), but it gave the hitters a chance to see the ballpark for the first time, get some cuts in during a live-game setting and to give local fans a taste of what’s to come at L.P. Frans Stadium.
At first glance, it’s a group that seems to have a decent balance between power and speed, perhaps exemplified best by Miguel Aparicio. Sam Huff had the highlight with a light-tower blast to left center and Yonny Hernandez scampered around the bases impressively. Yohel Pozo slapped the ball around the field and Melvin Novoa hit as low liner for a homer. It was a lot to nod yes at, but the real action begins Thursday.
We got a glimpse of what should be the everyday lineup – though there will be some moving parts as will be discussed below – and the tools each of the players should bring to the field.
In the afternoon following the exhibition I had a chance to sit down with Crawdads manager Matt Hagen and walk through many of the individual players currently on the roster and some of the expectations for 2018. I also explored briefly the absence of both Rangers 2017 first-round picks and the presence of long time college coach Turtle Thomas on the staff.
How was spring training?
Hagen: Spring training was good. You get down to the last week or so and the pitchers are getting their innings in and trying to keep guys healthy and rested for the grind that is our 140-game season.
The lineup looks like it’s going to be a good one. You’ve got some guys that can put the ball on the bat and drive it well, and there looks to be a good mix of speed and power and guys that can put the ball in play.
Hagen: We have a lot of guys that have a lot of potential, which is a nice way of saying, “You haven’t done anything, yet.” Some guys have one or two good months to their name, so far. So, this is their first opportunity to actually go out and put together five full months of good baseball. Some guys have had a good rookie ball season or a good year in the Dominican, which is only 50 games. Some guys had a great year in Spokane last year, but they only played in 60-something games. Now, we’re talking about doubling that workload. It’s really the first true test for a lot of them.
Looking at the roster, you have four catchers, but you’re obviously not going to use all four catchers – usually you put someone on the inactive to be ready on the spot. But there’s some pieces your going to have to move around with Novoa and Huff and Pozo. How do you see that mix playing out?
Hagen: It’ll be a revolving door. Those guys are all going to get playing time. These three that are going to be on the roster are getting a lot of playing time. They’re going to have to get some at bats in the DH spot and some at bats at first base. We’re going to ask some kids that haven’t played a lot at first base to play first base. At the end of the year, they’ll be ready to become better hitters just by getting better at bats. We don’t care if it comes as a DH, first base, catcher or whatever. We’ll let those guys catch a couple of times a week, but try to at least play four or five times a week.
Do you see one or two of the three guys doing the regular catching duties, or will split it among all three?
Hagen: It’s probably going to be split between all three, which is kind of rare. All three deserve a chance to play. They all bring different and unique things to the table. Some are a little bit more offensive minded and others are more defensive minded. But they all bring enough to the table to make themselves a prospect.
Huff looks like a hoss (6-4, 215 lbs) – a big kid.
Hagen: The scary thing is he’s not even close to being done growing. He’s going to continue to fill out. Heck, he’s 20-years-old. I still grew another inch after I was 20-years-old, so who knows how big he’s going to be. The ball he hit last night was pretty special. There’s not a lot of guys playing that can hit the ball that far. So, it’s just trying to help him to remember that he doesn’t need to do that every night. He’s just got to put the bat on the ball.
Yohel was pretty cool to watch last year. Pretty athletic behind the plate, he looked like he had a plan of how to put the ball into play. What do you see him doing this year?
Hagen: I think Pozo is one of the tougher outs in our whole organization. He makes adjustments at the plate. He can hit offspeed pitches. He hits to all fields. It’s pretty hard to get him off balance. In fact, there’s a lot of things that he does naturally as a hitter that others have to work really hard to do. So, I would look to see him plugged into the middle of our order somewhere, every day that he’s available.
Novoa showed what he had with a one-iron to left that I’m not sure went more than ten feet off the ground.
Hagen: Melvin is a lot of what you look for when you look at catchers. Compact, strong body, great arm, very physically and mentally tough. He will take a beating and keep coming back for more. His raw strength enables him to do what he did yesterday, which is basically hit a line drive that went out of the ballpark.
So, hence the reason that all three of those guys are getting playing time.
(Yonny) Hernandez was kind of a pest last night and was impressive. Given the competition, it’s hard to judge, but he can run a little bit and drove the ball to the wall and looked sharp at short with the few plays he had. He was intriguing to watch.
Hagen: He’s probably the most fun player to watch on our team. He’s going to be the captain of that infield, no doubt about it. He makes the routine plays and he makes some really exciting plays. He’s a very intelligent player, which you want from your shortstop, obviously.
At the plate, (hitting coach) Chase (Lambin) came up with a new nickname for him; he calls him “The Mosquito”. At the end of the of the day, you’re out there in the jungle and you’re worrying about the lions getting you. It’s the mosquito at the bottom of the order that does it.
At the end of the game, he’s made nine plays at shortstop. He got a bunt down to move a runner over and ends up beating it. He’s pesky and the kind of guy you love to have on your team. You hate to pitch against him because he’s not an easy out. He can bunt. He can hit-and-run. He can slash. He’s going to do a good job for us.
Admittedly, (Tyler) Ratliff is a name I’ve read, but I know nothing about. What can you tell me about him?
Hagen: Defensively, he is, even from last last year at Spokane until now, he’s vastly improved. He’s got raw power. He’s got a great arm that you’ll see when he needs to show it to you. Otherwise, he just makes routine throws and then when he has to let it go, he’s really got a strong arm. He’s got a chance to be that prototypical third baseman with a good glove, a strong arm and some power in his bat.
Hagen: Kole is going to play a lot at second base for us this year. He’s a switch-hitter, which is great to have in the lineup because it gives you some flexibility. You don’t have to worry about taking him out against a righty or a lefty. From last year to this year, you can tell he’s put a lot of work into his swing. It’s a lot shorter. He’s put in a lot of hard work and I’m excited to see what he does.
Will he play some short or third?
Hagen: He may play a little bit at third, but he’s going to be our everyday second baseman.
Hagen: J.J. is a jack-of-all-trades. He puts together quality at bats from the left side, which is nice to plug in. He can play anywhere on the field. He’s average to above average anywhere you put him. He can play the corner outfield spots. He can make the routine plays at short, at third and second.
Hagen: He’s a player I hadn’t seen at all until spring training this year and he’s a pleasant surprise for me. I was like, “Who is this guy?” I didn’t really have any expectations. He turns the double play really well at second base. He has a very strong arm. We got to see him a little bit last night at third base with a couple of throws. And that laser beam he hit to left last night that the guy ended up dropping. He’s got a nice stroke. He’s a kid that came out of college with the reputation of, “this guy hits, no matter what level you put him at.” So far, he’s doing the job and he’s going to be guy that’s going to bounce around a little bit, too, to give the other guys a little bit of rest.
The three guys that you had in the outfield last night, how hard is it going to be to hit a ball into the gap?
Hagen: It’s three centerfielders. It’s a luxury that every manager wishes he had and every pitching coach wishes he had. You hear loud contact as a pitching coach and you think, “Oh no.” Then you look up and you see these three gazelles in the outfield just running balls down. We have a chance to have a pretty special outfield.
Is this this a crucial year for Eric Jenkins? It’s his third full season here, but he was hurt last year and had the full year here the year before that.
Hagen: I would say that it’s Eric’s year. The expectations now are going to be what Eric puts on himself, and I mean that in a healthy way. Last year, kind of being hurt, up and down, the year before being the young guy in the league. Now he comes into Hickory going, “I know this level. I know I can be successful at this level.” He’s just got to go out and prove it.
My expectations for him are to lead the world in stolen bases. Every time he gets on, I want him thinking he can impact the game with his feet. What you saw last night with the home run – not that we’re looking for a ton of home runs from him. Actually, the two-strikes single up the middle is more what we want, when it’s easy to give up plate appearances and be a little bit pesky and bunt a little bit more.
That was my next question: the first pitch of the game, he squared around and drew in the third baseman. I’ve thought for a couple of years, I wish he’d do that more.
Hagen: I think he’s opened up to it more. I think he understands now that it’s got to be a part of his game. Other guys may have to slug their way to the big leagues. He doesn’t have to. He needs to get on base and be a disrupter. He can really do that if he can get on base. The ability to bunt, whether for a hit or to move a guy over really creates value for him.
Pedro Gonzalez, the 190 pounds looks a little light for him. He looks more like 200 to 210 and he appears to be able to carry another 20 or 30 pounds.
Hagen: He’s another one that’s growing. He’s a premium athlete playing center field. He’s just starting to grow into his body and into his power, and he’s only going to mature more. Like you said, I think the frame will probably carry another 20 or 30 pounds at some point. The 190 is probably what he weighed in at two years ago.
He can impact the game with all five tools. He’s that kind of player.
What is the tool he will need to work on this year?
Hagen: You know, he’s only been playing outfield for a couple of years, but already he’s shown the ability to make some quick adjustments out there and learn pretty quickly. He’s shown some good power this spring as he’s gotten stronger. He can steal some bases. He was really excited when he looked at big league guys, when he was at spring training and around these guys. Pedro kind of walked through and physically he’s of that mold – big and fast and strong athlete.
What tool of his is the loudest right now to you?
Hagen: He’s a center fielder that can hit. In the minor leagues, most center fielders can defend but maybe they can’t hit. He can actually do both. You were spoiled last year with Leody, who can do the same thing. It’s kind of fun to watch both those guys in spring training competing against each other in outfield drills, because they both want to be the best guy. They kind of push each other when they’re on the same field and it’s kind of fun to watch. A true center fielder that can hit is pretty special.
Miguel (Aparicio) was here a little bit last year and was a bit overmatched. Obviously, he got well with you over in Spokane. When he got to you, was there a sense that he had something to put behind him or was there a sense of, “Let’s go, I’m where I belong”?
Hagen: Last spring training, he was on fire and couldn’t do anything wrong, which is why he came to Hickory. Then, as young players do when they start struggling a little bit, he put some pressure on himself and felt like he was going to get himself through that slump with every swing. He came down to Arizona and then he came to Spokane with us and kind of got a clean slate and a fresh start after the experience of being here for almost a month. He took off and really excelled. He’s got the ability to put the bat on the ball at his age better than most kids his age can.
What will stand out about him for folks seeing him for the first time?
Hagen: The power for him kind of came on the second half of the season at Spokane, really the last month of the season because the season is so short. The last month, he started to drive the ball a little better and he carried that over into spring training. So, we think he’s going to drive the ball better than he did last year.
In the area of base running, he’s an athletic kid that is learning how to run the bases and learning what his limits are. His mistakes are, fortunately, on the aggressive side. He’s starting to do a better job of running with his head up and being more aware of what’s going on on the field. He just needs reps. He needs to be on base with guys on with him. He needs to be on base when a guy hits a ground ball. He needs reps stealing bases and getting jumps. “Was that a good jump or a bad jump and why?” He’s a pretty athletic kid, but his stolen bases numbers last year didn’t show. Hopefully this year, we can get him a little bit closer to understanding when to steal.
Hagen: Chad, before he got hurt last year at Spokane, might have been our best player. I think he might have led our team in stolen bases, even though he was hurt the last month of the year. He hit a bunch of doubles last year, so he can hit for some power. He can steal some bases. A left-handed bat, which is nice to be able to put into the order. He’s got a pretty good eye and can go deep into counts, which can lead to some strikeouts but it can also lead to walks. He’s going to be that swing man in the outfield for us. He might play two days a week in left and two days a week in right and DH when we need him.
I want to ask you about a couple of guys that we were hoping to see this year that weren’t assigned here. The first is Bubba Thompson. Usually, when the Rangers have drafted first-rounders, we see them the next spring. Right now. he’s unassigned. Are the Rangers looking to delay guys a little bit to slow the aggressiveness of the assignment or are there too many outfielders here?
Hagen: I think part of it is who’s already here. The fact is that Bubba didn’t get a whole lot of playing time last year at Arizona. So, they want to get him some at bats and let him go down there and play every day instead of coming up here where we already have four outfielders. He’s there and he’s going to play every day. Whenever they decide the time is right for him to move, they’ll move him.
It is our goal in the organization to challenge our kids to play against older competition because in the long run it helps them become better, quicker going against those guys.
Chris Seise is another player that did not advance here, though I understand there is a shoulder injury. Is he someone we may see later in the year, or like Bubba, will he need some more playing time?
Hagen: Playing time and the health. We want to make sure he’s fully healthy before they send him anywhere. I had Chris the last two or three weeks last year at Spokane and he’s a heck of an athlete. He’s fun to watch. He’s another guy where the sky is the limit for this guy.
If fact, I think that he and Bubba have a chance to be really special athletes and that’s why they were taken so early in the draft. We’re going to give them a little more seasoning before they come on up.
There is always one guy that sticks out and makes a run, maybe not quite to a big league level, but takes some steps to begin standing out. Who is that for you?
Hagen: I would say our two utility infielders (Dorow and Jacobs). They’re going to get playing time. They’re a little bit under the radar – even though they have great track records of producing at every level they’ve been at. They won’t come into the season getting a ton of at bats, but as you know, sooner or later somebody goes some place and one or both of them are going to step into a role and get a ton of playing time.
What are your expectations this year for these guys? You get some year like 2013 where the power is off the charts and 2016 where guys were all over the bases. This looks a bit more balanced.
Hagen: We’ve got some pop in our bats and that’s Chase’s department and he does a great job with the guys as far as staying with the reps and staying with the plan. We’ve got a few guys that can run, but the depth of our lineup and the depth of our rotation and bullpen is really going to be our strength. We have guys that are going to hit seventh or eighth one night and then will be batting third or fourth the next night. We’re just that deep. There’s not a huge drop off between our three-hole hitter and our eight-hole hitter. The guy batting ninth – Yonny – could be batting first or second for a lot of teams. We just happen to have two pretty good 1-2 guys.
The guys that come off the bench are not your typical play-the-guy-once-a-week bench players. They have a lot to offer.
In our six-man rotation this year, our sixth man, Tyree Thompson, was second in the league (Northwest League) last year in ERA. So, we have a lot of expectation for those guys.
What you saw from our bullpen last night, where it was a lot of really hard fastballs, one guy after another. If we can just get those guys lined up, if we’re getting close or have the lead, I expect to those guys to be pretty tough to score on late in the game, as long as they’re throwing strikes.
I want to ask you about one of your coaches, and that is Turtle Thomas, who had a long career as a head coach and the Rangers have brought him on. What are you and the Rangers looking to do as far as a guy that has seen a lot of baseball?
Hagen: I know the Rangers are cashing in on a lifetime of baseball experience. Usually, your four coaches are guys like myself, who a couple of years ago were just getting into the pro game as a coach. We’re going to help out with whatever you can help out with.
Turtle comes in here with more experience than anybody and his catching is really his specialty. So, he’ll spend a lot of time with the catchers and coaching first base. At the same time, you can say, “Hey Turtle, can you take the first basemen and work with them and the outfielders?” And he’s got an encyclopedia worth of drills that he can use with these guys.
We bounce things off of him a lot of times to get his perspective that we don’t have because we’re in our up-to-date, greatest, latest craze when it comes to analytics and sabermetrics. We’ll get his perspective of something he learned coaching 20 or 30 years ago that we’ve forgotten or don’t know. We’ll sit here and go, “Yeah, that was a really good point.”
A case in point, we’ll run a team fundamental in spring training, and say we’re doing rundowns for example. We’ll hit all nine points of the rundown points. And you’ll go, “Turtle, do you have anything to add?” And he’ll draw out two pieces of gold right there that didn’t even cross our minds.
To have him as a fourth coach, I think puts us slightly ahead of everybody in our league.
What are you looking for this year, as far as your growth? You’re like everybody else in wanting to move up the ladder and at some point get to the big leagues. What is your marker?
Hagen: You don’t want to look back at the end of the year and see guys didn’t get better. That’s where I’ll feel like it’s been a bad year or I’ll have been a failure, if there are guys in the clubhouse that didn’t take steps to get to the big leagues. There is no staying put. You’re either taking a step back or taking a step forward. So, if I can look up and down that roster of 25 guys and say that all of them took that one step, or two or three steps, whatever the case may be to get to the big leagues, then I’ll feel like our staff has done our job.
There are so many other things that are completely out of your control. You don’t know what the circumstances are going to be, as far as who gets moved up, who gets moved down, injuries that happen, guys that overperform, guys that underperform. If they play hard every day and they learn to love the process of the game, not just the three hours of the game, but the three hours that lead up to it, then I’ll feel like we’ve been successful.
After the top of the second, my first thought was, “Again?”
For those that don’t know the Hickory Crawdads recent history against local colleges, it hasn’t been a good run. With a team that had Andrew McCutchen and Steven Pearce in 2006, the Crawdads needed a 7th-inning rally to defeat Lenoir-Rhyne College, as the school was known as then.
One year later, LRC and Hickory tied and then the series was put on hold until 2015.
Now known as Lenoir-Rhyne University, the Bears used a big game by future LA Dodgers draftee Ivan Vieitez to defeat the Crawdads – a team that won the 2015 South Atlantic League title – 4-3.
One year later, LRU got a ninth-inning homer to defeat the Crawdads 7-4. The game was rained out last year.
This year, the Crawdads scheduled a game with Catawba Valley Community College, one of the better Division II JUCO programs.
The Red Hawks entered the game 24-9 and after an inning-and-a-half they held a 2-0 lead and were the aggressors.
So, you understand my thinking: “Again?” But then the roof caved in and Hickory scored in seven-straight innings to rout CVCC 12-2.
“They’re there because of who they are and our guys are trying to get to that level,” said CVCC head coach Paul Rozelle after the game. “So, it was nice to come out early and put some hits together and get a lead there early.
“That was a positive for us, but they’re pretty good and we just didn’t have enough for them coming down the stretch. That’s a credit to them and how good they are, but what an unbelievable experience for our guys to come out here and get this valuable lesson during the midweek. There’s no team we’re going to play this year that are going to look better than them.”
Red Hawks starter Matthew Dailey used a good mix of pitches and speeds to frustrate the Crawdads lineup early, fanning four of the first seven hitters.
Meanwhile, CVCC scored what turned out to be its only two runs in the second. After Crawdads starter Alex Eubanks needed only nine pitches to get through the first, Graham Mitchell lined a high fastball to left. David Graves sent right fielder Miguel Aparicio sprinting to the wall in right to retrieve a double. Aparicio retraced his same path for the next batter Kyran Russ, whose double scored both runners.
After a walk, Eubanks settled down to strike out the next two and then escaped further damage by getting Cory Watt to ground to second.
The game turned on a basic play in bottom of the second. With two outs and a runner at first, Kole Enright hit a slow, rolling comebacker to the box. Dailey mishandled the grounder for an error and he paid for it when Yonny Hernandez knocked a ball off the wall in left for a two-run triple.
The Crawdads then put together four straight hits in the third and scored them all on Yohel Pozo’s singled and Melvin Novoa’s three-run homer.
“They had a good pitcher,” said Crawdads manager Matt Hagen of Dailey. “He kept the ball down and changed speeds. He’s got a breaking ball and a changeup that he can throw for a strike or throw below the zone if he needs to. It took us a while to figure him out and get him timed up, so give our guys credit.”
Aparicio added a two-run shot in the fourth and the rout was on.
Sam Huff added a mammoth blast in the sixth and Eric Jenkins cleared the 32-foot-high fence in right during the eighth for the Crawdads fourth homer and final run.
The Crawdads sent eight pitchers to the mound – with only the starter Eubanks going two innings -and retired 24 of the last 26 they faced. Together, they struck out 12 and gave up just the three hits in the second. AJ Alexy and Demarcus Evans each fanned two in their lone inning of work.
“We showed everything we’ve got in the bullpen tonight, except for a couple of guys, Hagen said. “We’ve got some good fastballs coming out of the bullpen. That’s the formula for success, get a lead and have those guys throw strikes.”
**The Crawdads starting lineup was the following: Jenkins-7, Aparicio-9, Pedro Gonzalez-8, Pozo-3, Novoa-2, Tyler Ratliff-5, Chad Smith-D, Enright-4, Hernandez-6.
When asked if that would be the general lineup, Hagen responded, “What we threw out there tonight is close to what our starting lineup is going to look like, with the exception of a couple of guys that will rotate in. We’ve got good depth.”
**Rozelle said the difference for his starter Dailey was the inability to adjust to the hitters the second and especially the third time through the order.
“You saw Dailey come out and have success early and punched out a bunch of different guys and changed speeds and his locations were good,” said Rozelle. “But that second and third time through the lineup, they’ve now seen him and now we’ve got to execute even more. We left a couple of pitches up in the zone and good hitters hit them out.”
**Hagen was especially in awe of Huff’s solo homer in the sixth, a towering blast to left center that left the Red Hawks outfielders flat-footed.
“Huff hit a ball that half the stadium couldn’t find,” he said. “It was halfway up the lights in left center.”
**Rozelle was impressed with the run of arms the Crawdads marched to the mound. He said the experience will be valuable for his hitters as they continue through the college season.
“For our hitters, they’re not going to see much like that. In our league, we’re going to see one or two arms a weekend that are going to look like that. It’s understanding how to compete in those at bats and how to grind out and understand which pitches to swing at. They did a great job of getting strike one, and now they’re in control and they can dictate the at bat and we expand the zone, swinging at balls in the dirt because we’re put in the defensive position.”
Arms: Hard to really get a read on the Crawdads pitchers facing an overmatched lineup. They did throw pitches for strikes and, as Rozelle stated, controlled the zone for the ballgame. Eubanks was fantastic in the first, then left pitches up in the second that were spanked. Speas appeared to have the more electric fastball – there was no one in the stands with the speed gun – but control at times was spotty. But in all, those two, along with Noah Bremer, Alexy, Speas, Evans, Jean Casanova, Joe Barlow and Grant Zawadzki were never really extended. Only Eubanks second inning (22 pitches) went past 15 pitches in a single inning.
Bats: As mentioned above, the Crawdads group had trouble with the young, lefty starter at first, then adjusted as Dailey started getting pitches up. However, in what is admittedly inferior competition, the players seemed to go to the plate with a plan, rather than flail-and-bail if it’s close.
What will make Hickory more interesting on offense than the 2017 version are the wheels. They ran the bases well this evening, especially a play in which Hernandez read a play that turned into a diving catch that allowed him to go second to third and eventually score on a wild pitch. It’s not the total team-speed of the 2016 squad, but they’ll make things uncomfortable for opposing pitchers while on the bases, leading to hittable mistakes.
CVCC: There’s a reason they are 24-9 in its classification. They do a lot well on the field and know where to be. CF Cory Watt made a highlight-reel play on an over-the-shoulder diving play. They get the ball in quickly and appear to communicate well.
Dailey looks like a pitcher to watch at higher levels. He did mix speeds well and used the breaking ball to miss bats and until his error was in control of the hitters.