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.
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.
“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.’”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
I missed the clinching game, but I did get a few pics of the celebration and a snapshot with the SAL trophy.
(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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
At 6:01 EDT on Saturday, August 15, 2015 at L.P. Frans Stadium, pitcher Dillon Tate threw his first pitch as a member of the Hickory Crawdads – a 98 mph heater low and away to fellow first-rounder Kevin Newman of West Virginia.
The bespectacled, right-hander went on to throw 15 pitches in his maiden outing as a Crawdad before turning the game over to teammate Brett Martin.
Thirteen of the 15 pitches Tate threw were fastballs, all reading between 97-99 mph on the stadium radar gun (which is currently a tick or two fast). Seven went for strikes and two of those missed bats – both by Jordan Luplow on the only strikeout.
The fourth-overall selection by the Texas Rangers in June 2012, also threw two sliders: one taken for a strike at 90; the other at 92 was swung through.
“He heated up the radar gun that says 99 a few times. Obviously, his stuff is there,” said Crawdads manager Corey Ragsdale. Getting to see it for the first time, it’s obvious why we took him as high as we did. I’m looking forward to watching him grow.”
For his part, Tate was pleased with how the short stint played out.
“I felt pretty good out there. It was fun to be out there. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a W.” (The Crawdads went on to lose to West Virginia 9-0.)
After signing with the Rangers, Tate pitched just two one-inning stints with short-season Spokane, sitting out for six weeks in between the two after resting a tired arm.
The product of UC Santa Barbara threw 103.1 innings during his junior season with the Gauchos. With the amount of work during the college season, the plan for the remainder of the season is to limit the young hurler to one and two-inning stints.
“Right now, with where my body is at, with the amount of throwing that I did previously, I think I’m fine with that for now,” said Tate. “That’s kind of just what my body is telling, that one and two is enough for right now.”
Ragsdale said that the abbreviated starts will enable Tate to adjust to life as a pro.
“With the amount of innings he’s thrown, we’re just trying to get him acclimated a little bit.”
As far as his repertoire goes for now, Tate plans to stick mostly to the two-pitch mix during the short stints while developing his change
Tate said, “Right now, I’m just pitching to my strength. So when my changeup starts to develop a little bit more, I think that’s something that I’ll throw within a one-inning stint or a two-inning stint. I just didn’t think I had the best feel for it at this point, so I’m still working on it.”
I keep getting asked, how does Beras look? There’s no way I can describe what I am seeing in a 140-character tweet. So, I will try here.
Now, I will preface the comments below by reminding the readers that I am not a scout, or even a pretend one. There are a zillion people smarter at seeing and describing the baseball tools they see and give it the proper context than I am. With that said, here is what I see.
The biggest thing I can see over the past 4-6 weeks is the ability to not force himself upon the game, but rather let it come to him. What I mean, he is more willing to “do what the game asks him to do”, as the saying goes.
For July he put up a .326/.369/.471 slash with ten of his 34 hits going for extra bases. It’s how he got there that gives indicators that he is figuring out some things.
In June, I put out a couple of tweets that I expected him to have a big second half.
He’s better suited to avoid sliders low-and-away and if he gets a pitch away (fastball or otherwise) he can handle out there, he will serve it to right. With that said, he is ready to crush inside fastballs with authority.
In his first at bat on Friday, he fouled off a fastball away, then took a fastball just off the plate. The next pitch from Van Orden was a fastball in and down – not a bad pitch, it appeared – that Beras pulled the hands in for muscled it well out to left-center – a no-doubter.
With two quick outs in the sixth on five pitches, Beras took a great approach to what could’ve been a ho-hum at-bat in a no pressure situation. He took a curveball away for a strike, then another that bounced for a ball. A 94 mph fastball off the plate was taken for a 2-1 count and then Beras ignored a back-to-back sliders to bring the count full before taking a fastball just off the plate for a walk. His patience there to take what the game showed him took a banal 1-2-3 inning into a three-run inning that turned out to be huge in the game.
One inning later, Beras slapped a fastball away into a sharply hit 4-1 grounder.
Thursday night’s 4-for-5 night – his lone out was a rocket to first – it was a fastball in for a single, a change away for a single, and in the eighth got enough on a 95 mph heater in to steer it through the hole at short. With two outs in the ninth, he scorched a fastball away for a single.
Plate appearances are no longer given away.
There are still some fits-and-spits in the field on occasion, but for now there is not the harried need to make every play a highlight-reel play. Throws are strong and on target to where they need to be. There’s no longer a rush to try and make a play that’s not there when a runner rounds first on a hit.
It’s cool to see players figure it out. The month of June 2014 for Nomar Mazara, which prompted his promotion to AA, will live in my memory bank for a long time. As good as he was in July, if Beras holds up in the August heat… well.
Seemingly, baseball is a simple game to understand and follow. He who has the ability to perform in a superior manner on the field will succeed in the game. Yet, how a player gains that superiority is done in a vastly different manner in baseball than it is in other sports.
Generally in football, if you are physically strong and tough, and/or can run quickly, you are more likely to succeed. In basketball, athletic ability – the running and jumping and agility – is essential. Soccer, hockey, track and field, you name it, superiority in the physical realm is necessary for success.
While it helps to have the physical tools – and scouts make a nice living finding players with athletic tools to play the game at a high level – there is the mental side of the game that cannot be ignored. In many ways, the success of a baseball player’s career is tied to the ability to develop the mental tools to enable the physical tools to play out. That development is first cultivated in places like Hickory.
It was in my first 140-game season with a minor league front office in 2005 that I learned the phrase, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Physically that’s true – tarp pulls will teach that to you quickly – but I learned mentally that’s true when you close out the final day of nine-straight, 17-hour days, and customers are unhappy and don’t really care at 10:30 p.m. that you arrived at 8 that morning for a tarp pull and your only food was a hot dog from concessions.
But the effects of the mental side of the game on player performance never really crossed my mind until I began covering the Hickory Crawdads in 2010.
It’s not just the physical effects played out on weary-eyed athletes, who pull into the clubhouse just a few hours after coming home at 6 a.m. from an overnight bus trip… after losing a game… during which some poor soul probably had a coach, manager, rover, teammate chew on them for some sin committed on the field… in a game that expects success despite the overwhelming odds of failure… And they do it up to 30 straight days without a day off.
With the physically-draining weariness, there comes the stresses of life: making ends meet at home… wondering about families and girlfriends miles away… facing sudden upheaval and uprooting after a promotion, demotion or trade – or a release…worrying about doing enough to stay on the team… earning the respect of teammates.
Many of the players who come to Hickory deal with the extended baseball season for the first time. With all of the stresses that are listed above, still they play 140 games in 152 days and they are expected to perform well.
My epiphany moment in this came when I interviewed pitcher Neil Ramirez – now with the Chicago Cubs – back in the summer of 2010. Ramirez, the first round pick of the Rangers in 2007, came to the Crawdads in 2009. The former high school player of the year in Virginia came to Hickory with worlds of ability. But with control issues, much of that time he was a hittable pitcher that searched in vain for the magic he once had over hitters. Ramirez returned in 2010 and it was more of the same until he found a groove over the second half of the season and things clicked.
As I asked and walked through his struggles, it suddenly dawned on me to ask this question:
“Is this game more mental than you thought it would be when you were drafted?”
Ramirez’s answer was interesting to me:
“Yeah! Unbelievably more mental than I thought it would be. Everybody talks about it before you get drafted; it’s the 90% mental, 10% physical sort of thing.
You think that, oh, my ability will speak for itself. It doesn’t matter whether you throw 95, or 87, like Greg Maddux did, and he was successful. That’s because they was so headstrong mentally. They knew what they wanted to do with the pitch and they knew they were going to execute it.
That takes a mentally strong person to go about your business the right way. Mentally, it’s tough, but I think that’s what makes it fun. That’s what makes baseball such a great game.”
I thought of Neil as I glanced through a series of interviews I did with this crop of players over the past week – two pitchers and two hitters. The key word that popped up over and over again was confidence.
Eight games ago, Jose Cardona was struggling as a number-nine hitter. One week later, he’s at the top of the order due to an injury to Michael De Leon and suddenly he’s on a 16-for-30 streak. He talked of his mindset and how confident he felt at the plate. His tools and routine hasn’t changed, just the results.
A week ago, the collective lineup looked limp during a 1-5 stretch. Suddenly, they have 38 runs in four games and double-digit hit totals in five straight. Cardona talked about how much confidence that team has right now at the plate.
A month ago, Luke Tendler struggled to hit a fastball. A homer in the all-star game last month seemingly set him afire and now pitchers can’t get a fastball by him. In several interviews I’ve done with Luke, he’s harped on trusting his abilities and staying the course and it will succeed. It’s easy to do that when you are hitting .320, harder to do so at .220. To his credit, he has seen the process through.
Brett Martin talked about having the confidence to throw a changeup at any point in the count. Last year, he was afraid to throw it.
Nick Gardewine talked of the confidence to challenge the same lineup that battered him around six days prior.
The players that come to Hickory (or any A-ball team) have the ability to do their assigned tasks on the field: hit a fastball, learn and throw a new pitch, etc. They wouldn’t be here without those pure baseball abilities. But like Ramirez said, it’s the ability to have confidence in what they can do, even in the face of adversity that will set them apart down the road.
If you want to figure out the players that will go on to bigger and better things, look at how they fail, in a game of failure. It’s easy to stand tall in baseball when things are going well. But those who stand tall while getting shelled – which happens in baseball often – and shake it off prior to the next outing or at bat, those are likely the players to look for in the multi-tiered stadiums at a later time.