Archive for the ‘ On the Field ’ Category

Comfortable in His Own Stuff, Tim Brennan Strives to Keep Hitters Off-Balance

When Hickory Crawdads pitcher Tim Brennan made his last start a week ago, he faced the South Atlantic League’s best offense in the Asheville Tourists. Entering that three-games series against Hickory, the Tourists had the top mark in the SAL in all three slash statistical categories (batting avg., on-base pct., and slugging), and were second in home runs. Asheville also had the reigning SAL hitter of the week in Willie MacIver.

Making just his second pro start, it didn’t appear that Brennan, the Texas Rangers’ seventh-round pick last June out of St. Joseph’s, would be a good matchup against the powerful Tourists lineup. And it certainly wasn’t – for the Tourists.

Brennan retired the first 12 hitters and held the Tourists hitless through five on the way to a 2-0 win last Monday.

Entering the start, the right-hander said the plan was to use the aggressive nature of the Tourists lineup against them.

“I like when teams swing early,” said Brennan, who gave up one walk, one hit and struck out three for the win. “I want to get ahead, and I’m just going to try and miss barrels. I think I had 16 out of 20 batters with four pitches or less last night, which is exactly what I’m looking for to go deep into games.”

Compared to much of the Crawdads staff, Brennan, 22, doesn’t have the eye-popping velocity that catches the eye. The right-hander’s sinking fastball zips around 87-89 mph, which is relatively pedestrian to several other Crawdads pitchers that hit the gun regularly from 95-99. Brennan, who throws a slider and changeup as his secondaries, is comfortable with who he is.

“I know what I have and I know how it plays,” said the native of Philadelphia. “I’ve studied guys that throw similarly. I’ve watched a lot of Kyle Hendricks with the Cubs…I’ve had the same stuff since college and obviously my stuff has gotten a little better and I’ve tinkered with things. But, I’ve thrown the same way for the last four or five years and I’m comfortable with it. Now, I’m just trying to master it.”

After his selection last June, with a cold, college season at St. Joseph’s behind him and a touch of shoulder inflammation, Brennan sat out the summer before throwing some at instructionals last fall. He finally got his first official action in a start at Greensboro on April 9, when he allowed a run on three hits, with one walk and two strikeouts.

Along with getting his shoulder ready for this season, he prepared for his season and that first start by getting some advice from other pro pitchers. The advice he got mirrored that of the trust he has in his stuff – to be who he is.

“The biggest advice I got was to have fun and be yourself,” said Brennan. “If you try to do too much and be somebody you’re not, then you’re not going to be as effective. Go with what you’ve got and go out there and own it.  That’s what I try to do.”

Along with understanding what he has and using it to his advantage, Brennan thinks his style of pitching is advantage in the bigger picture of a game, when the high-velocity arms of the bullpen enter.

“The chances are the guys in our bullpen are going to be completely different,” Brennan explained. “There’s going to be different arm slots and 95-plus. Our bullpen has been absolutely electric this year. The goal is to get through the lineup three times, be winning the game and then turn it over to them, and then, we’re probably going to win.”

Looking at the rest of this season, Brennan, who says he manipulates his slider at times to give it the appearance of a curveball, wants to develop a fastball that stays up in the zone.

“With throwing all sinkers in college,” said Brennan. “I didn’t try and go up at all. Now, it’s just go up to get them off my fastball down and my offspeed. I’m getting more and more comfortable with it and I think that’ll be a big weapon for me down the road.”

Reunion on the Diamond: Former Teammates Whatley and Varnell Now Rivals as Pros

It is always a special moment when former teammates from college or high school meet in pro ball for the first time as opponents. Knowing the foxholes that they both went through as teammates, there’s an extra level of respect that exists that is a notch above any other opponent. It’s an even deeper respect for former battery mates.

Kannapolis Intimidators pitcher Taylor Varnell experienced such a moment last Thursday when Hickory Crawdads Matt Whatley, his catcher from their days at Oral Roberts Univ., strolled to the plate to hit in the first inning. It was a moment that didn’t seem fated to happen when the Crawdads posted their lineup earlier that afternoon.

“I came into the clubhouse,” Whatley recalled. “And I didn’t see my name in the lineup. So, I go, ‘okay, I’ve got a day off.’ Then I see that Taylor’s pitching and I go, ‘Man, it’d be kind of fun to face him.’”

However, when a couple of Hickory players came down with minor ailments and were late scratches, Whatley was pressed into duty as the team’s designated hitter. Having already seen the lineup, Varnell, like Whatley, had thought his former ORU teammate was getting the day off.

“When he came walking up there,” said Varnell. “I was kind of surprised. It was hard not to smile a little bit at him.”

Seeing the moment at hand, Whatley tipped his helmet to the pitcher he caught for two seasons in college. “It was fun getting to face Taylor,” said Whatley with a smile. “The last time I got an at-bat off of him was my sophomore fall (season).”

During their time together at Oral Roberts, the two held a genuine respect for each other. In fact, Varnell, who pitched at Western Oklahoma State as a freshman before transferring to ORU, already knew about Whatley when he joined the team.

“From the first time I got on campus, I knew that he was going to be a high draft pick,” Varnell remembered. “I had heard all about him. He’s great behind the dish and a good hitter. I hadn’t seen him behind the plate yet, but he was crazy good back there.”

He credited Whatley, who eventually was the Texas Rangers third-round pick in 2017, for his strike-zone framing abilities, to which, as he said, “got me so many strikes that I wouldn’t have got otherwise.”

After his senior season, Varnell went on to become the 29th-round pick of the Chicago White Sox. Despite some ups-and-downs in his teammate’s career, Whatley thought the left-hander had the ability and would get a chance to go pro.

“It’s fun to see where he’s at from college until now,” said the Crawdads backstop. “He had the stuff, but he was a little inconsistent in college. Now, he’s way more consistent.”

Having thrown to Whatley for two seasons, as they faced each other last Thursday, Varnell knew that he would have to go about his approach to this hitter differently.

“It was kind of hard to attack him in the usual way,” said Varnell. “Because, he knows how I like to pitch. So, I tried to kind of mix it up a little bit.”

The mix of pitches got the better of Whatley in the first when Varnell struck him out. However, in the fourth, Whatley found a pitch he could handle. Unfortunately for Whatley, the line drive to the left side of the infield found the glove of third baseman Bryce Bush.

“It’s baseball,” said Whatley in reaction to the hard out. “Sometimes, you’re going to barrel some stuff up and not get some hits.”

Varnell agreed that Whatley got the better of him the second time.

“That’s a good play by my third baseman,” Varnell admitted. “That one was on me, he should’ve had the hit, honestly.”

In getting to the pros, both players gave credit to another Crawdads alum, Sean Snedeker, who was the pitching coach for Hickory in 1998 during the White Sox affiliation era and later went on to Duke and ORU.

“Sned is one of the best humans I know,” Whatley recalled. “He’s always wanting the best for both of us, but for everyone he’s ever coached. I couldn’t be more happy to have had Sean Snedeker as a pitching coach.”

Varnell said Snedeker, now the pitching coach at Lamar Univ. in Texas, was instrumental in getting his potential pro career on track.

“Going into college, I was a bit of a head case,” Varnell said. “I’d speed it up too fast in my head. He would help me out with the mental part, which is what I needed.”

 

Matt Whatley Taylor Varnell

Crawdads catcher Matt Whatley (right) and Kannapolis pitcher Taylor Varnell were teammates for two seasons at Oral Roberts Univ.

Confident, Cohesive Group Has Crawdads off and Running

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.

#RakersWhoPitch: Bolin’s night on the Mound

After the Hickory Crawdads were involved in so many lengthy extra-inning games last year, the Texas Rangers decided to limit the use of their pitchers in such marathon games. The result of that will be the use of position players on the mound once the game gets to a certain point. Enter Travis Bolin during Thursday night’s 12-inning win over the Kannapolis Intimidators.

Travis Bolin pitching - Lin

Travis Bolin as he prepares to deliver the pitch during Thursday night’s game vs. Kannapolis (Crystal Lin / Hickory Crawdads)

Bolin got an inkling a few days prior to Thursday’s game that he could be used as a pitcher at some point during the season, if the situation called for it. Then, it happened and no one was more surprised that Bolin.

“I came out here (to the bullpen) and threw about 20 pitches,” said Bolin. “Then they called me in. I thought they were joking at first. The last out came and the pitching coach (Jose Jaimes) called me and said, ‘Hey, you’re going in.’ And I was like, ‘Are you guys serious? You guys are actually letting me go out and throw?’ Yeah, I went out there and had a good time.”

A good time, indeed. Bolin pitched, despite the tie game and his scoreless inning was enough to get the win as Hickory scored a run for the 2-1 walk-off victory.

“That is pretty cool,” said Bolin of the decision. “I was just happy about my first strikeout, the first batter. I thought it was pretty cool.”

Bolin said he hadn’t pitched since high school and threw just a few innings then. His brother was a pitcher, and so in watching him, Bolin had some sense of pitching out of the windup, which was fairly seamless.

Travis Bolin windup - Lin

Travis Bolin windup (Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

“I’m pretty accurate when I’m trying to hit my spots,” said Bolin. “I did a pretty good  job of it last night.”

The strikeout came as the inning’s leadoff hitter Zach Remillard swung through a 2-2 fastball. Grant Massey sent then a 2-0 fastball (heck, they were all fastballs) for a 6-3 grounder.

The one wrinkle came on a walk issued to Tyler Sullivan, an at-bat Bolin said he thought the umpire squeezed him on a pitch.

Bolin said, “Man, I painted one right on the corner and he didn’t give it to me. But that’s how it goes with pitching.”

The inning ended with a groundout to second by Joel Booker. Bolin threw all fastballs – topping out at 85, though he said he could gas up to 92, but was told to keep it eased back so as to not hurt his arm – but he was prepared to use a slider if needed.

“Actually, I was going to go to throwing a slider, or a real cut-fastball, but we ended up getting the guy out on the next pitch anyway, so we didn’t have to go to that.”

The response from teammates was described by Bolin as ecstatic and the opportunity may indeed arise again to pitch.

“I asked Spike today, I said ‘Hey, now that that actually happened, is that going to happen again?’ He said, ‘Of course, that was a test. Good job.’ I was like, ‘OK, I’m ready to go.’”

Travis Bolin gets win - Lin

Travis Bolin receives congratulations as the Crawdads close on the win vs. Kannapolis (Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

Crawdads position players pitching:

It rarely happened in the early years of the club’s history, but as major league teams become more cautious about over using pitchers and keeping them in a routine, position players throwing in games is becoming more common.

Over the first 15 seasons, just five position players pitched for Hickory. None did until 1999 and then from 2007 until 2013, but since 2014 it’s happened ten times, five of those in 2016.

Below is an overview of those position players who have climbed the hill.

1999: 1B Carlos Rivera – and a future big leaguer – mopped up in a game during which he gave up a run on two hits in an inning.

2000: 1B/ OF Jason Landreth allowed three hits and walk, all of which scored during his lone inning.

2000: C Jose Hernandez walked the only batter he faced and took the loss.

May 15, 2005: 2B Dan Schwartzbauer. The Crawdads were completing a suspended game from the night before against Lake County (OH), which eventually went to extra innings. After the Captains scored three in the 11th – and with another full nine-inning game to go – Crawdads manager Jeff Branson brought in Schwartzbauer, who struck out the only batter he faced.

Schwartzbauer 2

Dan Schwartzbauer fanned the only player he faced in 2005.

June 28, 2007: 2B Jose J. De Los Santos. In the night cap of a doubleheader against Kannapolis, the Crawdads had blown a 5-2 lead and ran out of available arms to pitch in extra innings. De Los Santos was brought in and gave up six runs to take the loss in an 11-5 defeat.

May 23, 2013: LF Nick Vickerson. In one of the wildest games in Crawdads history – both managers were ejected and a walk-off homer was reversed – the Kannapolis Intimidators scored four runs in the top of the 12th to take the lead. Vickerson got Justin Jirschele – the current Intimidators manager – to hit into a fielder’s choice. The Crawdads went on to score five in the bottom of the inning for a 7-6 win.

June 25, 2014: IF Janluis Castro. In mop-up duty vs. Kannapolis, Castro retired all four batters he faced, fanning two.

July 8, 2014: IF Janluis Castro. Became the first Crawdads position player to pitch twice as he entered a game during a blowout loss to the Lexington Legends. Gave up two hits, but struck out two during a scoreless ninth inning.

Janluis Castro

Normally an infielder, Janluis Castro pitched in three times in 2014, including back-to-back games. (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

July 9, 2014: 2B Janluis Casto. The Legends scored three in the top of the 14th and rather than waste a pitcher, Castro moved over from second and strike out the only batter he faced. For the season, Castro allowed two hits and struck out five of the ten hitters he faced.

August 8, 2015: C Jonathan Meyer. Became the first position player to pitch on the road since 2000. Gave up a walk-off, three-run homer at Lakewood in the 18th inning for the loss.

May 15, 2016: 1B Dylan Moore. Back-to-back errors on what should’ve been inning-ending double play balls played a big role in seven unearned runs during a 9-2 loss to the Rome Braves in 19 innings.

Dylan Moore pitching

Dylan Moore vs. Rome (Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

June 6, 2016: OF Josh Altman. The utilityman worked around two hits in the 13th inning during a game with Greensboro. However, two errors were costly in the 14th as Hickory dropped a 6-5 loss to the Grasshoppers.

Josh Altmann pitching - Lin

Josh Altmann holds a runner on while pitching during an extra-inning game vs. Greensboro (Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

July 15, 2016. C Chuck Moorman. The starting catcher entered the game during a blowout loss to West Virginia and retired both batters he faced with one strikeout.

Chuck Moorman pitching

Normally a catch, Chuck Moorman catches the view from the mound (Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

July 24, 2016. OF Connor McKay. A 15-3 blowout at Lakewood precipitated the use of McKay in the ninth, who retired all three batters he faced.

July 30, 2016. OF Connor McKay. After the Crawdads gave up four runs in the top of the 10th against Hagerstown, McKay was brought in and he retired the lone batter he faced.

Connor McKay pitching - Lin

Connor McKay pitched twice for the Crawdads in 2016 (Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

The Slide: Dylan Moore’s Elusiveness Gains ‘Dads Win

The play-by-play log from Sunday (May 1) afternoon’s 4-3 win by Hickory over Lexington shows the play that turned out to be the winning run occurred in the bottom of the seventh inning. It simply reads:

  • Dylan Moore doubles (3) on a line drive to right fielder Amalani Fukofuka.
  • With Yeyson Yrizarri batting, passed ball by Chase Vallot, Dylan Moore to 3rd.
  • Yeyson Yrizarri out on a sacrifice fly to center fielder Cody Jones. Dylan Moore scores.

However, the ability of Dylan Moore to deftly run the bases doesn’t show up in the box score, but it turned out to be a key part of the game’s decisive play.

The score was tied at 3-3 with one out in the bottom of the seventh when Moore took a fastball away from Legends reliever Yunior Marte and slapped it down the line in right. Running hard out of the box, Moore slide in ahead of the throw to second for a double.

For the reader going forward, it’s important to note just how smart a baserunner Moore has proven to be in his young pro career. So far in 2016, Moore is second in the South Atlantic League with 12 steals (teammate Eric Jenkins has 15) and has yet to be caught stealing. Looking back further in Moore’s pro career, now in its second season, he has been caught once in 28 attempts. That one came when Eugene (OR) left-handed pitcher Kyle Twomey – a teammate of Moore in high school at El Dorado High in Placentia, CA – picked him off first and Moore was caught in a subsequent run down. The pickoff/ caught stealing occurred on July 29, 2015 in his fourth overall pro attempt. Since then, Moore has stolen 24 straight bases in a row.

While not as fast as the seemingly winged-footed Eric Jenkins, Moore picks his spots, as if he’s attempting to avoid a spotlight going from building to building in the dark during a late-night prison escape.Always on his toes, Moore continually looks to move on the slightest mistake.

Dylan Moore at second

Dylan Moore looks to advance to third at a moment’s notice. (Photo by Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

He got one as a breaking ball from Marte skipped off the back-handed mitt of Chase Vallot for a passed ball, which allowed Moore to scamper to third.

Dylan Moore slide 1

Crawdads manager Steve Mintz gives instructions from the third-base box to Dylan Moore. (Crystal Moore/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

The batter at the plate was Yeyson Yrizarri, who at 19 has proven to be a tough-hitter with two strikes and that turned out to be key for the play to come. During a weekend in which the Legends challenged him with a steady diet of secondary pitches, Yrizarri got a changeup up and away and lofted it into medium centerfield towards Cody Jones for the second out of the inning.

Ever the riverboat gambler with baserunners in 2016, Mintz sent Moore toward home for the potential go-ahead sacrifice fly. The throw from Jones got to the catcher Vallot ahead of Moore and it seemed the play would be an inning-ending double play, as Vallot caught the ball and turned to tag Moore.

 

Dylan Moore Slide 2

Catcher Chase Vallot with the ball turns to tag Moore (6), while he slides toward the plate (Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

Perhaps, Moore sees Vallot juggle the throw, or not. However, in a move that would make a contortionist proud, Moore ducks under the oncoming glove of Vallot and in the same motion reaches his left hand for the plate to score the run, as the ball drops to the ground.

Dylan Moore slide 3

Dylan Moore (6) puts a hand out to catch the plate during the winning play against Lexington (Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

Dylan Moore slide 4

(Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

While the play seemed mundane in the box score, or even the play-by-play log, it’s one of those plays that had much more going for it that a simply sacrifice fly.

(Note: Thanks to Crystal Lin of the Crawdads for allowing me to use her pics. Masterful job of photography.)

The Throw: Beras’ Tools on Display in SAL Playoffs

Before the first game of the opening round series 2015 South Atlantic League playoffs between Hickory and West Virginia, I ran a tweet that said,

“Going to give a prediction that Jairo Beras has a huge series. It’s time he takes the work he’s done in the 2nd half and do big things”

Jairo Beras did indeed do big things throughout the playoffs and his game-saving throw in the seventh inning during the decisive game three of the SAL Championship Series was a key play for the Hickory Crawdads in closing out a three-game sweep of the Asheville Tourists.

Championship-caliber play didn’t seem likely on the second game of the season when the native of San Pedro de Macoris, D.R. continued a behavioral pattern that happened occasionally in 2014 – lack of hustle on pop-ups or groundballs. After getting sent to baseball purgatory for a month – extended spring training in Arizona – a hamstring injury upon his return cost him two more weeks.

Another “lack of hustle” incident occurred in a game on June 29, this time in front of Texas Rangers senior director of player development Mike Daly. Beras was benched for a game.

During an interview I did with Daly after the June 29 game, I asked him about the continued disinterest that Beras seemed to have in his own abilities.

“It’s really up to the player to decide that they’re going to do the things each and every day that’s part of being a professional player…” Daly said in June. “Our job as an organization is to support him and when he doesn’t do the things that he’s supposed to do to correct them and teach him and to make sure he learns from him. Ultimately, it’s up to Jairo to make those changes.”

Beras did indeed make those changes in putting up a 21-game hitting streak in the second half, which included a hustle single that broke up a fledgling prefect-game bid on July 20.

He carried his strong second half into the playoffs with a two-hit game – including a homer – in game one at West Virginia. In the final game of that series, he threw out Power runner Kevin Newman in the first inning of what turned out to be 1-0 win for Hickory.

In the championship series, he reached base four times over the first two games and knocked in three runs, but it is his throw in the final game that had the Crawdads players, coaches and players in awe.

The right field wall at Asheville’s McCormick Field is measured at 297 feet from home plate to the foul pole, 320 in the gap – the approximate distance of a football field.

It is from that distance that right fielder Jairo Beras made what Hickory Crawdads radio voice Jason Patterson called on the air “a throw Beras will tell his children and grandchildren about.”

The play developed with Nunez at first and two outs. Tourists hitter Roberto Ramos hit a low line drive to Beras in right for single. Trying to come up the ball, it skipped past Beras and rolled to the wall. Beras sprinted back to recover from the mistake, gathered the ball, and from the wall, fired an on-target throw that hit catcher Jose Trevino chest high and easily beat the runner by several steps.

“He fired an absolute laser,” said Crawdads manager Corey Ragsdale. “I just stood in awe and watched it. It was unbelievable.”

Said pitcher Shane McCain in the locker room, “I’ve never seen a throw like that before.”

Players that go onto the majors seem to have those moments that springboard them toward that level. Those that watched Beras in the 2015 playoffs may have just seen that leap.

SAL championship celebration

Jairo Beras (5) far right, celebrates with his teammates at the conclusion of the Hickory Crawdads sweep of Asheville in the SAL Championship Series (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

SAL Championship celebration photos

I missed the clinching game, but I did get a few pics of the celebration and a snapshot with the SAL trophy.

Welcome to McCormick (Photo by Mark Parker)

Welcome to McCormick (Photo by Mark Parker)

SAL Game three lineup (photo by Mark Parker)

SAL Game three lineup (photo by Mark Parker)

Pedro Payano (center) and Kelvin Vasquez (R) celebrating the SAL title (photo by Mark Parker

Pedro Payano (center) and Kelvin Vasquez (R) celebrating the SAL title (photo by Mark Parker

Scott Williams (L) and Luke Tendler (photo by Mark Parker)

Scott Williams (L) and Luke Tendler (photo by Mark Parker)

Hitting coach Francisco Matos (L) and Eduard Pinto (photo by Mark Parker

Hitting coach Francisco Matos (L) and Eduard Pinto (photo by Mark Parker

(L to R) Eduard Pinto, Juremi Profar, Edwin Garcia, Michael DeLeon (photo by Mark Parker

(L to R) Eduard Pinto, Juremi Profar, Edwin Garcia, Michael DeLeon (photo by Mark Parker

Jose Trevino (L) and Mark Parker (photo by Mark Parker)

Jose Trevino (L) and Mark Parker (photo by Mark Parker)

Clubhouse celebration (photo by Mark Parker)

Clubhouse celebration (photo by Mark Parker)

MGR Corey Ragsdale addressing the players (L to R) Jairo Beras, Austin Pettibone, Nick Gardewine, Pedro Payano, Luke Tendler Edwin Garcia (photo by Mark Parker)

MGR Corey Ragsdale addressing the players (L to R) Jairo Beras, Austin Pettibone, Nick Gardewine, Pedro Payano, Luke Tendler Edwin Garcia (photo by Mark Parker)

(L to R) Collin Wiles, Brett Martin, Shane McCain (photo by Mark Parker)

(L to R) Collin Wiles, Brett Martin, Shane McCain (photo by Mark Parker)

Players back to front: Carlos Arroyo, Yohander Mendez, Ariel Jurado, Kelvin Vasquez, Eduard Pinto, Josh Morgan, Jose Cardona, (unknown), Luis Ortiz (photo by Mark Parker)

Players back to front: Carlos Arroyo, Yohander Mendez, Ariel Jurado, Kelvin Vasquez, Eduard Pinto, Josh Morgan, Jose Cardona, (unknown), Luis Ortiz (photo by Mark Parker)

A pic with the SAL trophy (photo by Mark Parker)

A pic with the SAL trophy (photo by Mark Parker)

The Anthem Singer: An Undefeated Season at LP Frans

(The following does not represent the views of the Hickory Crawdads, its management, staff or players, nor of Crawdadsbeat.com, or its blogger… it’s tongue-n-cheek, enjoy)

Most of my time at the ballpark is spent as the official scorer for the Hickory Crawdads. I make decisions that affect the livelihoods of ball players, manager and coaches all across the South Atlantic League. I carefully weigh the pros and cons of every call and rule with an iron first. I am firm, but fair, leaving all parties basking in the glow of my baseball knowledge and wisdom.

But a side task is the infrequent rendering of the National Anthem. It is a task in which I feel great honor in performing. I’m usually called upon when there is a no-show, or a night when they couldn’t get a live body to come out. So I sing.

My offering of the anthem is short, sweet, and to the point. There are no 47-note melismas per line, no three-syllable words for “by: (buh-eye-ee), no five seconds to sing the word “light” (Lie –hah-hah-huh- high-ee-yi).

There are no key changes when it gets too high. I do not sing it as a rock ballad, or a song you might use to bury your mother to. There is nowhere that Francis Scott Key is to believe to have said, “I spent half the night awake afraid for my life, but we kicked the British’s tails, so I wrote this poem. I hope someone writes a mournful dirge to it.” I sing it in 3/4 time, not 4/4.

It is for this reason that I believe I am the favorite anthem singers of ball players everywhere around the South Atlantic League. I know all the words, and the other than the occasional battle with phlegm and a gnat flying around my face, there is no drama. I get on, gather everyone for 65 seconds of their time, and then hand the microphone back and go sit back in the press box for my scorekeeping duties. Long ago, I have come to terms that no one has paid so much as a nickel to hear me sing the national anthem.

I’ve done this for 11 years now, but this year something magical has happened with the anthem. I believe I may have had a hand in the SAL championship run. You see, this season, the Hickory Crawdads went 13-0 when I sang the anthem.

I first noticed this trend about a month ago when I was 6-0. I told the community relations director Megan Meade about this and so we began to test the luck as the playoffs approached.

First try with the knowledge of the streak vs. Charleston on Aug. 28… winner.

Two separate games vs. Rome in the final five games of the season … winners both.

It was soon playoff time, but not without fear. Down one game to none against West Virginia and the tough Stephen Tarpley, I sang. It was a see-saw battle, but the righteousness of my anthem lingered over the field. And the Crawdads were inspired and they won.

In the decisive game three, against pitcher of the year Yeudys Garcia, the notes stayed into the hearts of the brave boys on the field. And they won… 1-0.  I was greeted in the clubhouse with a hero’s welcome. It went something along the lines of, “You are (blanking) singing the (blanking) anthem against Asheville, right?”

So I put my 11-0 record on the line Monday in game one of the SAL championship series… and they won. And the chants grew, “Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark!”… or maybe it was a player yelling at me in the clubhouse (Yeah, you Joe Filomeno!).

On Tuesday, the legend had grown to 12-0. Would it be an unlucky 13th game that would do us all in? Not on your life! Another win in the final home game of the season!  13-0.

The last I saw of Megan Meade, sh was in a conversation with the Asheville GM as to whether or not they had an anthem slot open for the games at McCormick Field.

I have suggested that should the Crawdads go on to win the SAL championship, two things should happen. One, I get a ring. I mean… 13-0. And two, the microphone is permanently retired, dipped in gold and hung in the press box for all to see and recall the miracle at Frans.

And if the Crawdads lose on Thursday, I may show up unannounced on the field at McCormick and hijack the anthem.

Looking at my best side, I put my spell upon the unwittingly vexed Asheville Tourists in the SAL Championship opener. (photo courtesy of Crystal Cook)

Looking at my best side, I put my spell upon the unwittingly vexed Asheville Tourists in the SAL Championship opener. (photo courtesy of Crystal Cook)

Eric Jenkins Debuts in Hickory

It was an adventure at times, but overall the first full game with the Hickory for Texas Rangers 2015 second-round selection Eric Jenkins was a success as the Crawdads rallied for a 9-4 win over the visiting Rome (Ga.) Braves to open a five-game series at L.P. Frans Stadium.

The product of West Columbus High in Cerro Gordo, NC cracked a go-ahead RBI double in the eighth and also scored in the inning. Batting leadoff for the Crawdads, Jenkins, 18, scored also walked and struck out twice.

Jenkins had a tougher night in the field as he misjudged a pair a fly balls hit toward the centerfielder. The first play came in the fourth when Jenkins went back on a ball hit by Rome’s Luke Dykstra. The ball landed just past the glove of shortstop Edwin Garcia, who had retreated into short left. One inning later, a homer by Luis Valenzuela landed 30 feet to the left of where Jenkins had tracked into straight away center.

“When it was twilight, it’s kind of hard to judge the ball at that time of the day,” said Jenkins of the plays. “I talked to my teammates about it and they understand that because it’s my first time playing in Hickory. It was a good experience being that it’s my first game here.”

At the plate, Jenkins struck out in the first and fifth innings with both Ks coming on off-speed pitches. He worked a walk in the third and was called during a sacrifice bunt in the seventh as he was hit by a throw from catcher Bryan De La Rosa as Jenkins ran inside the 45-foot lane on the way to first.

However in the eighth, Jenkins showed his mettle for the go-ahead score. With the bases loaded and the Crawdads down 4-3, Jenkins at-bat got a fortunate start when Braves pitcher Taylor Cockrell was called for a balk prior to the first pitch. After Carlos Arroyo scored on the play, Jenkins swung through a 91 mph fastball from Cockrell and then fouled another off to the left.

The left-handed hitter then laid off back-to-back sliders just off the inside corner before driving a fastball over the head over centerfielder Stephen Gaylor, who had played Jenkins in shallow center field.

“I knew I had to make up for that fly ball I misjudged in the outfield,” Jenkins said. “I knew I had to redeem myself at the plate. I hit a good pitch with two strikes and just drove the pitch.”

Jenkins said the high-pressure situation was eased by the Cockrell’s balk.

Jenkins said, “Most definitely… I’m only 18-years-old, so the pressure’s on the line with bases loaded, so the balk kind of helped me.”

Jenkins then showed his speed as he easily scored from second on a two-run single by Jurickson Profar.

The young Jenkins, who put up a .249/.342/.339 slash in 51 games in the Arizona Summer League, was a bit surprised to get the call to Hickory after the AZL season ended.

Crawdads manager Corey Ragsdale expects Jenkins to give the team the opportunity to rest some regulars leading into next week’s South Atlantic League playoffs and to give Ragsdale options to use him as a runner in late-game situations.

However he is to be used, Jenkins said that his mission is clear and simple.

“They said I’m going to play in the next few games and to just play hard.”

Jurickson Profar Begins another Journey to Arlington from Hickory

For the first time since September 27, 2013, Texas Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar suited up for a regular-season game Thursday night when he served as the designated hitter for the Hickory Crawdads during an injury rehab assignment.

Noticeably more filled out and chiseled than he was as the Crawdads shortstop in 2011, the now 22-year-old Profar missed the past two seasons with a torn shoulder muscle that he suffered in a weightlifting session during spring training, according to the Rangers media guide. After unsuccessfully trying to resume baseball activities several times last year, Profar finally underwent shoulder surgery in February 2015.

Profar has been in Hickory since Tuesday and finally hit the field Thursday night against Charlestown (S.C.) as the designated hitter. He is expected to DH again on Friday before the Crawdads hit the road for Delmarva (Md.) for a five-game series with the Shorebirds. It is not yet been determined how long Profar will be with the Crawdads.

Jurickson Profar played his first game in two seasons wihen he suited up for Hickory on Thursday (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

Jurickson Profar played his first game in two seasons wihen he suited up for Hickory on Thursday (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

In front of several of the Rangers front office brass – which included senior director of player development Mike Daly and senior director of amateur scouting Kip Fagg – Profar went 1-for-4  with a sharply-lined single to right in his final at bat of the game in the seventh prior to his removal for a pinch-runner.

Batting left handed in all four plate appearances, Profar was jammed by a fastball for a 4-3 grounder in the first. He then popped up a fastball to second in the third before topping a curve ball in the fourth for a weak 1-3 comebacker.

“I felt good,” said Profar of his first live action in two seasons. “It’s been a while, but it felt the same. The first couple of ABs my timing was a little bit off, but by the third AB I got it. So, it felt good to be back playing and doing what I love.”

As far as the shoulder goes, Profar said that it felt good and the prescribed throwing program is coming along well.  Profar is not expected to do any throwing in games until this fall.

While Profar missed playing the game over the past two seasons, he doesn’t envision a major setback of what was once a fast-track journey to the majors once he resumes playing on a regular basis.

“I just work out every day,” said Profar.” I just believe in myself and when I’m ready it’s going to be the same or even better. It wasn’t that hard because every day I go with a positive mind. Every day is a day closer to be playing. Now I’m here and back to playing.”

Profar understands the full recovery of his shoulder is a long process and that it will take time. Rather than being in an anxious rush back to get back to Arlington, he is content to let the process play out as he gets back onto the field.

“Just being myself and just play. It’s been two years out of baseball, and I’ll come here and just play. Now everything is going to be good. I’m just having fun playing day-to-day.”

One perk of Profar’s time in Hickory is the opportunity to play with his younger brother Juremi, an infielder with the Crawdads.

“It’s good to get to play with my brother. I remember the old days when we used to play in the backyard and now we’re playing pro ball together.”

Jurickson Profar (second from left) observes action from 3B dugout (L-R Luis  Ortiz, Profar, Carlos Arroyo, Josh Morgan, Brett Martin, Dillon Tate, photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

Jurickson Profar (second from left) observes action from 3B dugout (L-R Luis Ortiz, Profar, Carlos Arroyo, Josh Morgan, Brett Martin, Dillon Tate, photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

NOTES: Profar is the sixth major-leaguer to rehab in Hickory. Others included Jason Bere (’96-’97), Jim Abbott (’98), Josias Manzanillo (’02), Adam LaRoche (’08), and Daniel Bard (’14). Profar is the first former player to return to Hickory in a major league assignment… Profar is the 51st player to play for Hickory in 2015. That ties the club record for the most players on a Crawdads roster for a season. The 2008 team also had 51 players… The Profar brothers are the second set of brothers to play for the team at the same time. In 2014, pitchers David and Ryan Ledbetter were on the roster together for the first month of the season. Pitchers Jose and Anyelo Leclerc wore a Crawdads uniform a year apart. Jose pitched for Hickory in 2013 with Anyelo coming a year later…. Profar comes to Hickory at the age of 22-years, five-months. According to Baseball Reference.com, the average age of South Atlantic League hitters is 21.5-years-old, while the average pitcher is 22.0.