When the Hickory Crawdads returned home from a weeklong road trip 6-1 to open the season, they were at the top or near the top of the South Atlantic League team-statistical rankings in nearly every offensive and pitching category.
This is a 180-degree turn from last year’s squad. The 2018 team also began with a weeklong road trip at Greensboro and Delmarva (Md.) and lost all six games that were played often in abnormally cold conditions for early April. The pitching had trouble with control and the lineup limped home at .182/.239/.251 and were last in runs scored.
In talking to manager Matt Hagen Thursday, he said this year’s team seems to have a better handle on how to handle the troubles that minor league teams must face. The Crawdads started the season with an 11-hour bus ride to New Jersey, then played the first two games in cool, damp weather with temperatures that stayed in the low-40s.
“I think I’m probably most pleased with the way they went about their business despite the adversity with the cold weather,” said Hagen. “We had a rainout, then a doubleheader and then a 10:45 a.m. game. We got punched right away with some odd circumstances, but they responded really well.”
Catcher Sam Huff is one of four current Crawdads that were on the team at the start of last year. In comparing the vibe of the clubhouse from last year to now, he feels this group has more a bond at this point.
“I think, as a team,” said Huff. “We’re more of a family, where each one of us are fighting for everybody. We’re not just one guy fighting for some guys; we’re all family. As a team, we play as a team. It’s not an individual person.”
Huff senses that part of the camaraderie comes from a group that spent much of the year at short-season Spokane in 2018. Thirteen of the players on the current Crawdads roster were a part of the Indians team that went to the Northwest League championship series last season. And it is a core from that group which has helped to create a cohesive group that carries throughout a long season.
“They all pretty much knew each other,” Huff said. “We all have good chemistry. We don’t disagree with anybody, and if we do, we confront them.”
While it’s nice that everyone gets along, the players still have to produce and to this point they have done so. Before the season, Hagen touted a lineup was deep and so far it has not disappointed. Now at 7-1 after the home-opening win over Kannapolis, the Crawdads are second in the SAL in batting avg. (.273), on-base pct. (.341). slugging pct. (.443), OPS (.784), hits, runs scored, doubles, home runs and steals.
“We had a couple of games where the top half of our lineup carried us,” Hagen said. “Then, we had a couple of games where the bottom half of the lineup really stepped up. I think that speaks to the length that we have. On any given night, the guys batting seventh or eighth for us would be batting third or fourth for some of the other teams.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise over the first eight games has been the pitching. Currently, Hickory is first in ERA (1.41), WHIP (0.86), strikeouts, tied for the fewest walks allowed. Jake Latz, who struck out eight over five innings against Kannapolis on Thursday to pick up his second win in as many starts, said the pitching staff was challenged from the start to be in the attack mode.
“(Pitching coach Jose) Jaimes and Hagen, and really all of the coaches, have done a good job of preaching to us, just be aggressive and trust our stuff,” said Latz. “Go right after the hitters and put them in the defensive mode.”
Because of the hot start by the pitching staff, Hagen said he joked with them that was now going to be the norm.
“I told the guys that they messed up,” Hagen said. “Because now, that’s going to be the expectation.”
Of course, it’s hard to take the small sample size and determine how the team will do and how the season will play out. Last year’s team picked up in the second half and were in the hunt for the second-half title and finished above .500 overall.
This season’s team may have its own turnaround, in the other direction, as there are still 132 games to go. Or, this team just may be this good.