Results tagged ‘ Corey Ragsdale ’

In Control: An Interview with Tyler Phillips

When Tyler Phillips was a member of the 2017 Hickory Crawdads, the outings were painful to watch. A 6.39 ERA over 25.1 innings and a .280 OBA quickly showed that Phillips was not ready for class Low-A. The five hit batters and 9 walks over that stretch showed he didn’t trust the stuff he had.

A demotion to the Texas Rangers extended spring was an awakening for the then-19-year-old from Pennsauken, N.J. Dealing with the anger over the demotion, Phillips, who was 18-0 during his high school career, was also dealing with the reality that he was experiencing failure and needed to make mental changes.

The start of the short-season Northwestern League at Spokane (Wash.) had its ups and downs, including a three-walk over a four-inning start on June 23. Since then, Phillips has made 26 pro starts. He’s walked more than one in a start just once. That came on opening night 2018 to back-to-back hitters at Greensboro.

Over his last eight starts with Spokane, the right-hander in 49 innings allowed 47 hits, 13 earned runs (2.39 ERA), one hit batter, 5 walks with 55 strikeouts.

For much of the season, Phillips has been the Crawdads most consistent starter. Following the opening-night loss to the Grasshoppers, Phillips has gone five innings in his remaining 14 starts. All 14 has seen 0 or 1 in the walk column. He has 85 strikeouts to just 10 walks over 88 innings (through July 9).

His fastball is around 91-92 mph consistently, but it’s the changeup that is often his money-maker. In a July 2 start vs. Greensboro, Phillips had, by my count, 16 missed bats out of 54 strikes, 12 of those on changeups.

However good Phillips’ control has been over the last 12 months, that has come, in many ways, through the ability to control some of the fiery emotion he battled on the mound, and to control some self-doubts, regaining his confidence.

The following interview took place the day after the Greensboro start on 7/2/18 and it starts with the outcome of that outing and then weaves through the events of his career over the past year.

 

First of all, last night’s start, I don’t know how you felt about it but it seemed like once you got through the first inning you seemed to find a groove. What was the key for you?

Phillips: To be honest, in that first inning I was pretty gassed. I was down there in the bullpen warming up and the humidity was getting to me and I was sweating, and I couldn’t catch my breath. And there was a little bit of miscommunication in the dugout, so I went out there earlier than I wanted to. That’s kind of the whole reason the first inning seemed a little longer than it should’ve been.

After that, me and (Yohel) Pozo – I told him the plan before the game, they’re an aggressive team and they swing a lot. You don’t really see many adjustments made, so I’m just going to keep pitching to my strengths. I said, “Hey, I’ve been watching them and we’re just going to keep them mixed up and let them get themselves out.” As hitters, they’re hitting .250 for a reason and they’re not going to hit it every time. So, I just kept it mixed up and kept making them uncomfortable. That’s why I fell into that groove there. We just stuck to our plan. I just kept making pitches and he was blocking pitches in the dirt. That was a big help from him.

 

A lot of changeups last night. Has that pitch come along for you over the last year?

Phillips: I mean, the changeup is a feel pitch. I guess it was two years ago I started working on it, because it was always too hard. I got it and then I started to lose it a little bit, then I got it back last year when I went back to extended after getting sent down from here. I just practiced that because that’s the last pitch a hitter is going to learn to hit, and it looks just like a fastball, if you throw it right. I just practiced it every single day.

My last three, four outings, it hasn’t really been there. So, like I said, it’s a feel pitch and every day for the past two weeks I’ve been out here every day just tweaking my grip and messing around with different things until I got it back. I was playing catch with A.J. (Alexy) and he was throwing his hard, so I just started throwing mine hard and that’s kind of how I got it to come back. You’ve just got to trust it. That’s been the big pitch for me.

 

Is that the hardest pitch for a starter to learn?

Phillips: I picked it up pretty quickly, but it’s different for every guy. Some guys have more feel than others. It’s just something that I put a lot of time into it. I kind of take pride in that pitch a lot. I know (Alex) Eubanks is working on one right now. Some things will click for some guys and some things won’t. I tried telling him things that I do with mine, but that might not click for him. So, you’ve just got to talk to teammates and talk to coaches, and eventually it’ll come. It’s a tough pitch to come along with.

Tyler Phillips 2

Tyler Phillips from a 2017 start (Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

Who have you seen either on the major league level, or even at this level, that has a changeup that you have looked to, or were impressed by?

Phillips: Probably Cole Ragans. Unfortunately, he got hurt in spring training; I would’ve loved to have had him here. He’s another guy, we’d sit there and we both have similar swing-and-miss changeups. I love watching it because it’s a fun pitch to watch come out of his hand.

I know he models his after Cole Hamels, which – I’m a Phillies fan because I’m from New Jersey, and I’m a Cole Hamels fan, too. Those are the two guys that come to mind when I think about a changeup. Obviously, there’s Pedro Payano, he’s got a good one. There’s a lot of guys, but both of the Coles, they come to mind when you talk about changeups.

 

You mentioned Cole Hamels, have you been able to talk to him any?

Phillips: He talked to us just about routines and stuff, like all of the pitchers. But whenever I see him, we talk about the Eagles basically. I wish I could have a little bit more time with him, just to talk about pitching and all the different aspects to it. He’s a smart guy, obviously. He’s been in the league for a long time and he’s had success. I wish I could talk to him more about it.

 

Is that an awe thing for you? Like, dude, this is Cole Hamels.

Phillips: This was weird how that came about. My assistant high school baseball coach, his brother’s friend sent him these selfies with Cole Hamels, so apparently, they’re friends. Cole came up to me and my heart was pounding, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is Cole Hamels.” It is a little weird, but he’s just another guy, just like us. He just has a little bit more experience.

Tyler Phillips 2018

Tyler Phillips warming up for a 2018 start (Hickory Crawdads)

 

You have a real calm presence on the mound, or at least it looks like that to me sitting up in the press box. I get the impression that you have this cool demeanor on the mound. Is that important for you as a starter? Where did you gather that?

Phillips: That’s another thing that just comes along just talking to older guys and talking to all kinds of people that have been through it.

I know in high school I was successful. I was 18-0 and I didn’t really experience failure. I went to Spokane my first year and struggled there, and there were errors and stuff. I wasn’t really liking that and I was getting fired up on the mound. Then I sat down with Rags (Corey Ragsdale) and he was like, “Hey, man, they’re not perfect and you’re not perfect. You’ve just got to trust it, man. You’re working. You can’t sit there and deny that stuff and you can’t control it. You need to work harder and get better yourself.”

That’s kind of where it started, that and all the peak-performance classes we have with Josiah (Igono), who’s our big-league, peak-performance guy now. He was just like “You don’t want to waste energy out there and it’s not going to do anything by getting upset.”

When I walk guys – I don’t like walking guy, when I walk guys, I get angry – you’ve just got to step off, regather yourself and make your pitches. I try to do that and I try to have a little fire in my eye. It’s just a big confidence thing and it’s what’s making my season better now. I go out there and I walk out there and I think I’m the best one here and no one’s better than me. It’s not true, but you’ve got to fake it until you make it. There are plenty of pitchers out there better than me, but it’s all up in the mind.

 

Did you grow up a lot from when you were here last year?

Phillips: A whole lot (laughing). Maturity, I feel like. A lot of guys and a lot of coaches have said that I’ve become much more mature. I guess I do see it and it’s just like, you just learn things.

My offseason throwing partner (Scott Oberg) – he’s in the big leagues with the Colorado Rockies right now. He talks to me a lot right now about philosophies and Chinese proverbs, and I’m just sitting there just taking it in. I know that he’s in the big leagues, so why not listen to him and take advantage of your resources. And the whole thing with Josiah, just listening to him.

I’m getting older and if I want to move, I’ve got to get mature. Just like Spanish players, you’ve got to learn English. They don’t have to, but it makes a big impact in the game. I feel like it makes me a better person on the field and off the field. It makes it easier to be a pitcher if you’re not worried about that other stuff.

 

I know you saw my tweet about your last 25 starts (Tyler Phillips walked 3 in a start with on 6/23/17. In the 25 starts since, he’s walked more than 1 batter once – back-2-back on opening night 2018. Since then: 144.2 IP 16 walks, 147 Ks), Was there a point where you began to trust your stuff? I know you went down from here last year and learned some things, but there comes a moment where you’ve got to trust what you do. For some guys there’s a moment or a conversation that gets you to trust your stuff.

Phillips: It’s just a big confidence thing. At instructs, Rags asked me, “What’s different?” I came from here and got moved down, and obviously, I’m not going to be happy. Josiah said, “You should take this week to be pissed off. I know you’re going to be angry and you’re going to be upset, but none of these younger guys here in Arizona, they don’t feel bad for you. They see it as an opportunity for them to move up and they’re going to take advantage of that, if they can.”

That kind of really hit home for me and I really starting to get worried, like “What am I doing? Yeah, I’m going to be pissed off, but I’ve got to get back there and I’ve got to keep moving up and keep getting better.” So, I went out there every single day and just worked hard. That’s really all you can do. It just clicked for me there and that’s the big thing. I went out there and started to throw better and started to pitch better and my confidence started to come back up. I realized, “Hey, this is what’s going to make me better than everyone else.” I’ve been there, and I wasn’t confident, and you saw what happened last year at the beginning of the season. That was just a big thing for me.

Was the all-star selection a big moment for you?

Phillips: Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to make it. My last outing wasn’t the best and I was looking at my stats on the milb thing and thought, “Oh man.” But it happened. That was one of my goals for the season.

I told them in my individual meeting, “Yeah, I want to make an all-star game. I want to move up halfway through the season.” Hopefully, that happens, but if it doesn’t, as long as I progress in my pitching and just keep getting better, that’s what I want. But, the All-Star Game was big for me. I was happy about that.

 

Good experience for you?

Phillips: Yeah, it was a really good experience. It was weird being in the clubhouse with all the other teams. Like, you’re trying to beat them as a pitcher and I’m trying to strike them out and I’m trying to get them out. Like I told you, I had that little fire in my eye and I’m thinking of staring guys down. It’s just a mental thing, but I get in the clubhouse with them and I feel like nobody liked me. Like, this is weird. But, it was definitely fun to meet some of those guys and hear some of their stories of the things they’ve done. It was all a good time.

 

What does your path to the major leagues look like? You probably don’t see the whole journey, but you guys are always looking at the next thing, the next step.

Phillips: I mean, I’m still young. I’m only 20-years-old right now. I’m hoping I move up every year from here on out, kind of just keep a steady track. That’s what my goal is. If anything happens before that, great, but I don’t need to rush myself, I don’t think. Because, what’s the point of going up too soon and you risk not having a good season and you just go back to square one? Hopefully that doesn’t happen to where I’ll lose some confidence. I just want to move steadily.

 

Who have you met from the Rangers – I know you mentioned Cole Hamels – but who you’ve met that you’ve gravitated towards?

Phillips: I mentioned Rags. I mentioned Josiah, and I try to talk to him as much as I can. It’s a little different now because he’s pretty busy with the major leaguers. That’s the main one, Josiah.

Everyone says that baseball is 90 percent mental and the other 90 percent is physical, but it’s all mental, I think. This is a grind. I like talking to teammates just to see what they have to say. I try to go towards older guys and put myself out of my comfort zone. I used to be really shy and I didn’t really want to talk to anyone. You’ve just got to force yourself to do some things.

I talked to Kyle Cody last year before I got sent down. I talked to him the short time I was here to get some input from him and his thoughts. I talked to guys my age just to see what they think and compare things and see what works for people. I’m a big observer. I like to watch and not talk as much.

And there’s a time where you can let some stuff out, because you’ve experienced it. I like to experience things through other people’s experiences. That’s really what I do; I don’t really have a set person. I just try to watch people and see what they’ve got going on. There’s a lot of smart guys and I’m not going to get to talk to all of them.

 

You call the call to the major leagues, what do you think that will be like for you? Who do you call?

Phillips: Both of my parents, obviously. My girlfriend, she’d definitely be pretty excited about that.

I wish I had my grandpa around to tell him that. So, I try to pitch for him every time I go out there. If you ever see me behind the mound just staring up, I pick out a cloud out there, a tree or something and just try to talk to him a little bit right before I pitch. That always settles me down. I wish I can call him, but I know he’s watching. That’s one guy, but my parents will tell everyone else and reach out. I’ve got my two best friends that I’d call.

 

What’s your grandpa’s name?

Phillips: Frank Phillips.

 

What did he mean to you?

Phillips: I was young when he passed, probably 9 or 10 years old, but he was one of my heroes. He was in wars, he was in all the wars. He has a purple heart and just had some great stories and just took care of me, whenever my dad would bring me over there. We had fun and he showed me how to pitch and play checkers and do all the things that you teach younger kids how to do. I just loved being around him and he was really a great guy. He was awesome, and I was pretty close to him. I like to try to model myself after him, I think he was a good guy. He taught my dad everything that my dad knows and my dad tries to teach me everything that my grandpa knew. I know he would’ve loved to be there. He’s never seen me pitch. That’s something I wish he could’ve done, but I know he’s up there watching.

SAL Championship Game 2 Story: Asheville at Hickory

For the second straight game, the Hickory Crawdads took an early lead. They then used five pitchers to shut down the Asheville Tourists 3-1 Tuesday night at L.P. Frans Stadium. The Crawdads now lead the best-of-five series 2-0. After a day off Wednesday. the remaining games shift to Asheville’s McCormick Field starting on Thursday with a game time at 7:05 p.m.

The Crawdads are seeking the club’s third SAL title, the first since 2004. Hickory also claimed the 2002 championship.

What Happened?:

Hickory put together four hits to score two in the second against Tourists starter Ryan Castellani. Edwin Garcia and Eduard Pinto sandwiched singles around a fly out. After Juremi Profar struck out, Carlos Arroyo slapped a soft liner into left to score Garcia. Castellani walked Jose Cardona to load the bases and then took a liner from Dylan Moore off the foot that scored Pinto.

In the fourth, Profar reached when Josh Fuentes’ throw short hopped Roberto Ramos at first. A sac bunt from Arroyo and Cardona’s single pushed Profar to third before he scored on Moore’s grounder to third.

Nineteen days after injuring his hip, Brett Martin returned to the hill and threw a brilliant start. He allowed just two hits and struck out four while pitching to just one over the minimum.

Facing Adam Dian, the Tourists put the first two on before a sac bunt put the runners at second and third. Cesar Galvez ripped a run-scoring single to score Roberto Ramos scoring on the play. After a mound visit by Oscar Marin, Dian got Yonathan Daza to hit into a 4-6-3 double play.

The similar script played out in the sixth for the Tourists against reliever Shane McCain. A walk and hit batter put runners and first and second with one out. Again after a mound visit by Marin, McCain got Dom Nunez to roll into a 6-4-3 double play.

That set up Luis Ortiz to enter the game in the seventh and throw two scoreless innings of relief. He struck out three and allowed one hit to earn the scorer’s decision win.

Scott Williams hurled a perfect ninth to get his third save of the playoffs.

Martinized:

After a 19-day layoff, the unknown of what Brett Martin would provide on the mound was the story line prior to the game. It is fair to say that all is well with the 20-year-old as he retired the first seven hitters of the game and 11 of the 13 he faced.

“After the first throw I had in warmups, I knew I was going to be fine,” Martin said. “Everything felt right and was going well. The hip fell great and then I got up there on the mound and just relaxed and stayed calm and did what I know to do.”

His most dominant inning came in the second when he struck out the side – the last two on six pitches. By my count, Martin finished with 52 pitches, throwing 37 strikes. He missed 11 bats with the changeup especially effective, garnering six of the swing-and-misses (4 on fastballs at 91-93, 1 curve).

“I threw it a lot more playing catch the past three weeks that probably I have all season,” said Martin. “I’m just trying to get comfortable with that pitch again. I knew I was going to need it against them to keep them off balance.”

His dominance didn’t go unnoticed by manager Corey Ragsdale, who had said prior to the game Martin would be limited to four innings.

Said Ragsdale of Martin’s outing, “Wow! Coming back and throwing like that, that’s obviously huge setting the tone.”

Middle Management:

Unused in the playoffs prior to Tuesday night, Adam Dian and Shane McCain were put into a tight ball game following Martin’s brilliant work. Their job was simply to bridge the gap to Luis Ortiz in the seventh. The two relievers shook off the rust and made big pitches to get out of jams in the fifth and sixth innings.

Dian – eight days removed from his last appearance – was shaky at the start and it seemed the Tourists line was glad to see someone other than Martin. Roberto Ramos lined an 0-1 slider to right before Dian walked Josh Fuentes on four pitches.

“It didn’t start out the way that I wanted it to,” said Dian. “But I was pretty happy the way that I was able to work out of it and at least limit the damage. It’s pretty tough to pitch when you haven’t thrown in a while, but it’s not an excuse. I thought I made some good pitches off the bat, but I was up a little bit and they took advantage of that. “

After Galvez’s RBI single, Oscar Marin made a mound visit to help Dian gather himself.

“He just told me to take a deep breath and trust my stuff,” Dian said. “He was thinking that I was kind of letting the game get to me a little bit. It was speeding up; you get two runners on right off the bat and it’s a little tough for you to calm down and stay focused on what you need to do. He just wanted to give me a breather and make sure I had my mind straight before I faced that next hitter.”

Dian served up a 2-1 fastball away to Yonathan Daza to get the 4-6-3 double play and keep the Tourists at bay 3-1.

After 11 days off, lefty Shane McCain came in and also struggled at first with fastball command and then the slider in putting two men on.

“I was a little tight,” McCain said. “It did feel a little weird to be out there. I hadn’t been out there in a week or so, or maybe more. I really just had to trust my stuff. I was having trouble keeping my slider in the zone. That’s been my best pitch. I wasn’t able to start it where I wanted to, where I needed to.”

Another mound visit by Marin brought on an adjustment by McCain with the slider.

“I knew I had to start my slider more behind the lefthanders,” said McCain. “Once I did that, I got the two ground balls that I needed and luckily I got out of it.”

Facing LH hitter Dom Nunez with one out after the mound visit, McCain’s slider away was rolled to Edwin Garcia at short for the easy twin-killing.

“Those two guys right there, they went through the heart of the lineup,” said Ragsdale. “So, those two guys were huge for us tonight.”

Dian said that although he and McCain were both out of sorts after not pitching in a regular routine, they were still expected to do their jobs in the ball game.

Dian said, “That’s what Ragsdale asks of us, to come and to our job. It’s nice when you don’t have to have somebody come bail you out and you’re able to finish your inning. Obviously, it could’ve gone a number of different ways for both of us. I thought we both did a good job. We just gutted it out. We didn’t have our best stuff today, but we were able to minimize the damage. Shane did a hell of a job getting out of that situation.”

Ortiz Breaking Down Wall:

Luis Ortiz didn’t have the sharp command of his fastball, but he didn’t need to either. Omar Carrizales was able to expose that in the seventh when he worked the count full and then drilled a high slider for a single. Ortiz got out of the inning with no further damage.

Ortiz then cranked up the slider in the eighth, using three straight to fan Daza. He got away with a poorly placed fastball that Rogers lined hard to second to bring up Forrest Wall, the number 4 second base prospect in the minors (mlb.com). Ortiz struck out Wall on three pitches, swinging through a changeup, fastball and slider.

Domineering Williams:

After getting Shane Hoelscher to fly to right, Williams worked through a nine-pitch battle with Dom Nunez, finally getting him to undercut a high fastball that went lazily to right. A first-pitch slider to Ramos was rolled easily to second.

Moore and Moore:

Dylan Moore continues a strong playoff run with a couple of hits and an RBI. He stayed on Castellani’s slider in the first for a single, then was able to gear up for the fastball that was lined off Castellani’s foot for the RBI hit. Moore pulled off an away fastball in the fourth, but got enough on it to score the runner from third.

Castellani’s Early Struggles:

The 19-year-old threw a fastball that ranged 93-95 mph that at times had a slider look. However, he is a pitcher that relies on keeping the ball down (1.30 GO/AO) and the inability to do that early cost him. Six of the nine hits against him were hard liners with seven of his outs coming on liners or fly outs. He dodged a bullet in the fifth when Juremi Profar ripped a line drive that went straight to Fuentes at third. The catch likely saved two runs.

Defensive Woes Continue:

A lazy throw by Fuentes to first allowed Profar to reach and score in the fourth to make it a three-run lead. In the fifth with Beras at first, Pinto lifted a bloop single to left center. Beras running on contact made it easily to third, the left fielder Carrizales threw to third anyway, which allowed Pinto to move up to second.

Small Ball, Small Expectations:

Down two runs in the fourth, the Tourists got a base hit from Wes Rogers to start the inning. Rather than taking a chance with leading base stealer (46 steals) to try and get to second on his own, Asheville chose to use Wall – the number one draft pick and No. 4 second base prospect, who had a .288/.355/.438 slash as a 19-year-old – as a bunter. The sacrifice worked, but Rogers advanced no further.

In the fifth after the Tourists put the first two runners on, they chose to use their SAL all-star leftfielder – who as a 20-year-old posted a .286/.333/.410 slash and hit into one double play all year – as a bunter. The sacrifice was successful and a run was scored, but it also proved crucial when a double play ended the inning.

It seems to me those were opportunities for the Tourists to try and siphon some momentum by letting a player make a play. But managers manage to a fault at times and this appeared to be a case of overmanaging.

Shutting down the running game:

Not enough can be said as to how well the Crawdads during the series have shut down the running game of the Tourists, who stole 258 bases this season. The pitchers have been relentless at keeping the runners close and allowing the catcher Trevino to make plays. He’s thrown out both runners trying to steal in the series, including the lone attempt on Wednesday.

Ragsdale Looks Ahead to Playoff Series

The Hickory Crawdads open their tenth playoff run in 23 seasons as they start a three-game series with the West Virginia Power. Game one is at Appalachian Power Park in Charleston, WV with games two and three coming to L.P. Frans Stadium Friday and, if necessary, Saturday.

I took a moment to talk with Crawdads manager Corey Ragsdale about the series, as well as how the team ended the regular season heading into the playoffs.

You guys have been waiting for the playoffs since June and here we are finally. First, let me ask how did the guys adjust to the second half when they knew they were going to be in the playoffs? There wasn’t really anything to play for, although they’re playing for development purposes.

Ragsdale: I think they’ve done good. Yes, coming out of the break and had won the first half, it’s tough when the team goes and they decided at some point we’re going to win this thing and they win it. They completed their mission right there. It took a few days to kind of get back in line and refocus.

They know now that there’s still work to do. There’s a job to do and I’ve got to get better for myself and continue to get better as a player. So it took a few days, but they’ve done very well. Obviously, we haven’t won as many ballgames this half as we did the first half, but overall they competed well and the efforts been there. Honestly, I’ve got no complaints.

Obviously the big story of the year has been pitching, pitching, pitching. I’m guessing that looking ahead to West Virginia, that will be the make or break for y’all.

Ragsdale: We’ve been very fortunate, yes. Our starters, our pitching has been very good all year. The first half of the year we were so good, primarily because of pitching and defense and timely hitting and things like that. But there’s no doubt that pitching and defense carried us. Going into the playoffs, we like our chances. We’re running out three guys that have had very good years. Whatever happens is going to happen, but we’ve got as good a shot as anybody.

This first round we’re running Yohander (Mendez), (Ariel) Jurado and (Collin) Wiles out there 1-2-3. We like our chances.

When y’all get here on Saturday, you’re going to win this because____?

Ragsdale: In any playoff situation pitching and defense is always number one. We’re running three guys out there that we have a lot of confidence in and we’ve also got to play defense behind them. If we do that and take care of things that we need to, we’ve got a pretty good shot.

You played West Virginia a couple of weeks ago after not seeing them since the first half, what did they bring that maybe has concerns for you?

Ragsdale: I know we’re going to see (Yeudy) Garcia and (Stephen) Tarpley one-two. Obviously they’re two of the better pitchers in the league. So they’ve got some good arms going out as well. They probably do a little bit of the same stuff we do. Their pitching has probably carried them a little bit. I think they’ve swung it a little bit lately.

When we played them the last time, we definitely weren’t playing our best. But, that’s no excuse. We’re definitely going to have to be on our A game. They’re playing very well. They’re steamrolling everybody they’ve played. We’re definitely going to have to come out and play our best games and play a good series to win. But, I think we’ll be alright. It’ll be a fun series.

In the first half you had a pretty set group of guys but in the second half for various reasons you’ve had a lot of in and out.

Ragsdale: We lost some of the guys in the first half, which is good. Some guys went up that did well. It is stuff, not necessarily about finding players. That group in the first half, they were all playing for the same thing. When you get an influx of new guys coming in there and switching around and all that stuff, it’s tough to make sure everybody’s on the same page all the time. That’s tough, but I think the guys that have come in, we’ve had great guys come in, guys that pretty much fall in line that want to do good and be good teammates. It hasn’t been hard on me or anything like that. I just think for them there’s a little bit of an adjustment for each guy having new teammates in and getting them comfortable.

On the infield, I know you’ve toyed around with some different arrangements, especially at first, and trying to find a mix and the lineup. How do you see this playing out?

Ragsdale: To be honest, the alignment took a hit the other day when (shortstop Michael) De Leon went down. With Dylan (Moore) coming in, we have a chance to move some things around. To be honest, at first base we’re still trying to figure that out. The other three positions, it’s probably going to look like what it looks like tonight. We’re trying to figure out just what gives us the best options and who’s most comfortable where. Obviously De Leon and J-Mo going down, that’s two very good defenders – two guys on the left side of the infield that were very good for us. It’s a little swift kick, but I think we’ve got guys that can step up and fill the void. It’s kind of like, “next man up, here we go.”

In the outfield (Luke) Tendler, (Jairo) Beras, (Jose) Cardona with (Eduard) Pinto at DH?

Ragsdale: I think Eric (Jenkins) gives us a nice new dimension. He’s obviously playing very well. He’ll be a guy that can possibly come off the bench and do something like that. He can run; he has very good speed. He’s shown some very good at bats and has shown some spark being in the leadoff position… he gives us something that, to be honest, we don’t have. So we’ll see over the next couple of days how that plays in and how that mixes in. We may try to get him some at bats and get him in there as well.

We’ve still got a couple of days. With those new guys, we’ll just see what they can and what they can’t do. It’s not exactly the position you want to be in going into the playoffs, but we’ll get it done.

Developing to Win: An Interview with Corey Ragsdale

The Hickory Crawdads scored three runs over the first two innings and made them stand up Wednesday night in a 3-2 road win over the Hagerstown (Md.) Suns.

The victory was a milestone win for Crawdads manager Corey Ragsdale, as he set the club’s all-time mark for managerial wins at 229. The record was formerly held by Ragsdale’s predecessor Bill Richardson, who managed the team from 2010 to 2012. Ragsdale’s record with Hickory currently stands at 229-169.

The native of Jonesboro, AR played with the Crawdads to conclude his career in 2009. He returned in 2011 as an assistant under Richardson, before taking the managerial reins for the first time in 2012 at Arizona Summer League Rangers, where the club won the league title.

In Ragsdale’s first season as the manager in 2013, the Crawdads went 76-63, highlighted by a SAL record 178 homers by the power-laden lineup that included soon-to-be major leaguers Ryan Rua and Joey Gallo.

Last season, the Crawdads won 80 games for the first time since 2004.

This year, the team has already clinched its first playoff spot since 2011 and currently holds the South Atlantic League’s best record. He was rewarded this season with a selection to manage the Northern Division in the SAL All-Star Game.

Last week, I took a moment to interview Ragsdale about the impending record-breaking win, what he’s learned along the way over three seasons, and about some of the players that have already broken into the big leagues.

Corey Ragsdale picked up win #229 with a victory at Hagerstown, Md. Wednesday and now holds the club record for wins by a manager (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

Corey Ragsdale picked up win #229 with a victory at Hagerstown, Md. Wednesday and now holds the club record for wins by a manager (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

I know you are going to play this down, but you’re coming up on the club mark for wins by a manager. I know you’re not going to say,” It’s not my wins and losses,” but it’s still a nice thing. You’ve had some guys that have come in here and played hard for you and that’s no small thing. A lot of that comes from what you and the coaching staff do.

Ragsdale: I couldn’t care less about it, to be honest. I think what I do appreciate, as I look back on the last three years, is a couple of things. The players have done a great job. Obviously, they go out and perform. From the first year of that talented team, they went out played, and last year winning 80 games with the club. This year making the playoffs and winning the first half and are continuing to play pretty well, at times. I’ve had a lot of good players and a lot of good kids that play hard.

And I think, as an organization, they’ve done a great job of getting players that can play. I’ve just been fortunate that I’m at a level where I’ve had a bunch of guys that are pretty good come through here the last three years. As far as the wins and losses go, I’ve just reaped some of the benefits of what the players and the organization as a whole has done. I’m lucky. I’m just here as a small part of it. I’m happy for the kids and happy they’ve won a lot of baseball games.

What do you know now that you didn’t know three years ago, or how do you think you’ve gotten better?

Ragsdale: Probably just with each individual player how tough it is a times and how you have to relate to each guy individually. You can’t just blanket certain ideas over everybody and expect guys to be able to react. You’ve got to be able to get into each and every guy and have different ways to say the same thing so that it clicks with certain guys. You’ve got to find out what motivates one guy and what motivates the next guy.

I try to get them go out and compete every day because it’s a hard game. It’s a long, long season and these kids don’t necessarily know how to go about it each and every day. So, you’ve got to help them along the way. That’s what we’re here for. I think that’s probably the big thing is figuring out how to get each and every guy ready to go every day. We don’t get the job done every day, but most days, they go out and they’re ready to play and they’re motivated. Most days it’s pretty good.

What did you learn from Bill when you were here in 2011?

Ragsdale: A lot of stuff. Whether it was on-field stuff and how to go about things and just adding on to how to get guys ready at this level, being with him. Whether it’d be days off and whether it’d when to work out and when not to work out. Things like that – everyday things – everything from writing a lineup out. I remember how he used to write the lineup out and I still do it the same way.

There’s a lot of things I take from him and I take from other guys that I’ve been around and that I’ve played for in the 16 years that I’ve been doing this. Bill helped me out a lot. He kind of took me under his wing a little bit and I am very appreciative of everything he did for me and allowed me to do when I was here with him.

You want to keep doing this a few more years?

Ragsdale: I love it. It’s a challenge some days. It’s a long season, but when you see the kids, when it clicks for those guys and they get the thing that you’ve been working on and they have success, it just makes you feel good. It’s fun to watch. It’s fun to be a part of. It’s fun to stand in the third-base box and to be a small part of the game still. Not that wins and losses matter, but we do put value in wins and kids learning how to win and kids wanting to win. So, it is fun to still be out there and have a small part of the game that goes on every day and to see the kids have success. It’s fun and I enjoy it a lot.

How cool is it now to see the Claudios and Ruas and Gallos, etc. get to the big leagues and you having a part of it way back when?

Ragsdale: I’m just happy for those guys and it does put a smile on your face when you see guys that work hard and see guys that have some talent and finally put some things together.

You see guys like Claudio that maybe the talent wasn’t anything that jumped off the table, but he always came in and competed and you’re so happy for guys like that that have been able to have success and continued success and reach the big leagues and stay there, and hopefully stay there for a long time.

It puts a smile on your face. I enjoy watching the games on TV – all those guys. Hopefully that’s the case for a lot of more years and a lot of more players can continue up the ladder and help our big league club win ballgames.

Corey Ragsdale posted a 2.43 ERA over 29.2 innings in 2009. (photo by John Setzler, Jr.)

Corey Ragsdale posted a 2.43 ERA over 29.2 innings in 2009. (photo by John Setzler, Jr.)

Crawdads Mid-Season Assessment: An Interview with Rangers VP Mike Daly

The Hickory Crawdads currently has the best record in the South Atlantic League at 50-29 (through July 5). While the Crawdads cruised to the first-half Northern Division title – clinching a playoff berth in September – the name of the game is first and foremost player development. In that aspect, the Texas Rangers have much to celebrate with the Crawdads roster, especially where the pitching staff is concerned.

Mike Daly, the Senior Vice President for Scouting and Player Development of the Texas Rangers, was in town during the recent weeklong homestand to get an extended look at the Crawdads in action.

The following is an interview I did with Daly during which he talked about some of the top pitchers on the staff – and assigning them to High Desert – a few of the top hitters, as well as the on-going struggles with Jairo Beras.

In the first half of the season the Crawdads were the best team in the South Atlantic League by record, and a lot of days, the best team on the field. The Rangers brass had to be excited with how the team played in the first half.

Mike Daly: Yeah, we’re certainly proud of the players and the staff. I think it starts with Corey Ragsdale, an outstanding manager who’s closing in on the all-time record for number of wins here – not only for the number of wins in Hickory – but with what he’s done taking on a really young group of players and bringing them together.

Each of the players get better individually but also as a collective group. They’re playing for each other, pulling for each other and ultimately winning a bunch of games. We’re very pleased and very proud of the group here in Hickory.

You mentioned the staff and Rags is here for the third year and seems a lot more comfortable with himself. You see the growth from him over the three years. It’s obvious that he’s in charge and the guys like playing for him, to a man.

Daly: Absolutely. Corey does a number of things very well. First, he has outstanding baseball knowledge. He knows the ins and outs of a baseball game. He has a very keen eye for what players need to do and how they need to develop on the field.

But then off the field, he has presence and he knows how to handle the clubhouse and the players. They respect him and enjoy playing for him, but otherwise they know who is in charge. We’re thrilled to have Corey in the organization and we’re very, very happy with what he’s done with the club so far in 2015.

As far as the first half the pitching staff, almost night in and night out, is getting five, six, seven innings in every night and then turns it over to a what’s been a pretty good bullpen for the most part.

Daly: I think that was reflected there in the all-star game with how many selections we had off our pitching staff. I think what’s really good is these guys push one another. So, when Ariel Jurado goes out and has a good outing, now Brett Martin wants to go out there and top him. Then Luis Ortiz, he wants to go out there and do better and Yohander Mendez wants to show where he’s at. Nick Gardewine wants to do that and Collin Wiles wants to do it better.

So it’s a real good internal competition amongst these guys each and every night. It certainly gives our ballclub an opportunity to win and it always starts with the starting pitching. These guys have really stepped up. It’s really, really fun to watch these guys compete against one another.

Jurado was not somebody that people read a lot about before this season. He took the ball the first night and for the most part at every start he toes the rubber and goes seven innings.

Daly: He’s been outstanding. He was one of the six starters that we wanted to send out here. That’s a big credit to Brian Shouse, who is our pitching coach in the Arizona League and pitched a number of years in the major leagues. He dropped down Jurado’s slot from a high slot to more of a low three-quarters slot, which he throws now and really helps his fastball move. He gets a ton of ground balls with his sinker. He throws a lot of strikes and mixes in his breaking balls and his changeups very well.

He’s throwing a curveball now, which is another nice toy for him?

Daly: Absolutely, and he has a real good feel. When guys have power – nd he has a fastball that he can run up there over 90 miles an hour – and then he’s able to break out his offspeed pitches, it really puts hitters on their heels. His sinker is obviously his money pitch and when he’s able to throw the other offspeed pitches for strikes, it puts hitters on their heels. We’ve seen that with the performance of Jurado.

Luis Ortiz has had a couple of wrinkles, but numbers wise he has a low ERA, good WHIP, a ton of strikeouts. I know you’re kind of pacing him along, especially with the arm fatigue. What is your evaluation of him at this point?

Daly: We’re really happy with Luis. I think our goal was for him to get out here on opening day and to get through the whole season. A player learns a ton, especially a player coming out of high school, going out for the first time and getting through a full season at a full-season club. We’re really happy with what he’s done throughout the year.

Obviously there’s a little bit of a setback here with the arm fatigue. We’re looking to get him back here probably in about a month or so. But we’re really happy with where Luis is. He’s working on all his pitches. His changeup continues to develop as does the power fastball and a good breaking ball.

Collin Wiles is another guy that has been good night in and night out. I’m honestly a little surprised he’s still here. Let me ask you about his development and where he goes from here.

Daly: We give Collin a ton of credit. He had a very good offseason. I think he really took ownership in his offseason program and really invested in where he was at in his career and it’s paying dividends on the field. He’s able to throw all of his pitches for strikes at anytime in the count. He has an extreme amount of confidence on the mound and that come through.  I think that’s due in large part to the work that he did in the offseason. He came into spring training very, very focused and that’s carried through here in the season.

We have had some conversations about challenging him at the next level, but we’re really happy with where he’s at, how he’s pitching and how he’s performing. With his age, as a high-school player coming out of Kansas City, we still feel that there’s some challenges for him here at the low-A level. But we’re really happy where he’s at.

This is not necessarily about Collin, but just in general. How much does the High Desert situation play into you advancing guys and not wanting to tax them at that spot versus maybe they need that challenge?

Daly: I don’t think it’s so much about High Desert. I think it’s more about the individual player and where he needs to be challenged or where he’s at in his career.

If you look back when Arizona was at High Desert, they sent John Patterson and Brandon Webb and Brad Penny. So there have been pitchers that have been very successful major league pitchers that have gone through High Desert.

But I think our decisions are based more on the individual player and what they need and where we see they’re at in their careers in terms of promoting them or having them go through High Desert or not.

We’ve had some success. Frank Lopez is a guy who pitched here and had some success early on at High Desert and he earned a promotion up to Frisco. There are pitchers that can go out there and have had some success. I think it’s a very good learning experience if you’re able to pitch in High Desert in those type of conditions.

Is there a mental component that plays into that at times, where you might be hesitant to send somebody there because if they get lit up with the easy home run, you worry about the psyche?

Daly: I think that’s part of like each individual guy. I think our coaches have a very good feel for each individual player. We do talk about it amongst our staff, amongst our coaches about what’s best for each individual player. Some guys have gone out there and taken on that challenge and were able to overcome High Desert. That usually bodes pretty well for success at the next level.

Let me ask you about one other guy and that’s Yohander Mendez. He was here and there last year because of the shoulder and other injuries health wise. He had a good year out of the bullpen, but I know the object has always been to get him back into the rotation. You’ve got to be pleased with where he is at this point.

Daly: We’re very happy with Yohander. We had a couple of setbacks with some injuries in his career. I think the goal was to start him out in the pen this year with some short stints to try to keep him healthy. He’s done that and has been able to post every time that we’ve asked him to pitch.

Now, I think, his goal has changed in terms of, can we build strength. He’s done a nice job with Wade Lamont, our strength and conditioning coach, in terms of putting more weight on his body. I know it doesn’t really show, but he’s up to over 200 pounds. That’s a huge credit to Yohander and the tireless efforts of Lamont. Obviously Oscar Marin (Crawdads pitching coach) has done a real nice job with him last year and this year. We’re really happy with where Yohander is at and obviously it’s showing on the field.

Let me go to the hitting side of the team and start with Josh Morgan, who had a rough start getting his feet wet, but the last two months has done well.

Daly: Definitely, he’s certainly found it. He’s one of the guys going through his first full-season year. I think in April the hits weren’t falling, but he continued to have an outstanding makeup. He’s a very, very hard worker. He believes in the talent and we believe in the talent as well. I think that we’ve seen that over the past couple of months with the consistent approach and the consistent work ethic and those hits are falling. Obviously, he’s been a huge part of the 2015 Crawdads.

A guy that has been the glue or spark plug, or whatever cliché you want to use, has been Jose Trevino. I know it’s been his first full year of catching and I know that’s gone well. But all around he’s a guy that keeps the clubhouse together.

Daly: We’re very, very, very happy with Jose Trevino, not only defensively, but offensively. There’s a lot of stuff as a catcher that you need to work on in terms of your own defensive, knowing the pitching staff , being able to help your pitchers get through each count. But then he’s able to step into the box with his bat and be very productive in the middle of the lineup. So, we’re really happy with the things that Jose has accomplished so far both offensively and defensively. You see the makeup and you see how he’s able to keep his focus together.

I’m going to go to Jairo Beras, who had the rough start not running out a batted ball the first night. He had a good couple of weeks here where it seemed like he was seeing everything, but then he gets into another thing last night where he doesn’t run it out. Let me ask you about him and what is a tough situation.

Daly: Jairo is somebody there have been some ups and been some downs. I know last year he had a very good second half here in Hickory. It looked like he was going on that path again here and have another strong second half in 2015.

Part of the process is not about numbers, but part of the process is about playing the game the right way. I think Corey’s done a really good job of handling the situation with Jairo.

We’re still very excited about Jairo and I think he’s still going to be a big part of this Crawdads team over the last couple of months. I think his at bats are getting more consistent. He’s seeing balls batter and he’s using the whole field. He had a nice double down the right field line. He’s walking a little more. I think that there’s some stuff, just with player in development, there’s some ups and some downs, but we’re still very bullish on where Jairo is and his status in the organization.

You mentioned that you’re excited about Jairo and the Rangers are excited about Jairo. Is there a point where Jairo is excited about Jairo and there are not the mental lapses?

Daly: You hope so, yes. I would fully expect that to happen. When that happens, I’m not sure that anybody knows. 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. I think it’s really up to Jairo. 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.

Michael De Leon. The hitting is still not quite there. He’s still only 18 and the strength is getting there, but defensively, what a wizard.

Daly: With Michael last year, it was really the year of opportunity. When we signed him in 2013, nobody thought that in 2014 that he would play the majority of his games in Hickory. None of our guys that we had signed in their first year – Jurickson Profar, Rougned Odor – none of those guys spent any time in Hickory. There was an opportunity last year with the number of injuries. To his credit, he took advantage.

I think there are still challenges for Michael here at this level, but he’s done an outstanding job. When he can play defense like he can play defense at shortstop, he’s always going to have the opportunity to play. The manager is going to want to get you in the lineup based on the defense that he provides.

He hits at the top of the lineup and makes a ton of contact. He’s going to get bigger and stronger. I know that Wade Lamont is working with him relentless to try to get him faster and try to get him bigger and stronger. But, when you have a shortstop that can play that type of defense, the pitchers really appreciate you, and the manager’s always going to find a way to get you into the lineup. That’s his calling card is his defense right now.

Let me ask you about one more guy and that’s Tendler. He had a hot start and then went into the slump, but you get the feeling that he’s coming out of some things.

Daly: I give Luke a ton of credit. Luke came into the organization last year and right away has been all about baseball. After Spokane – he had a real nice year there – he spent the winter in Columbia. He went down there on his own and went to the Columbian Winter League. The first time we’ve ever had a player right out of the draft make the decision on his own to go down to Colombia. So, he really invested in his career. He really wants to be as good as he can.

I know that he came into Hickory this year and was on fire in April and in May. He was producing maybe better than he thought that he was. Right now in the slump, he’s better than he’s showing now.

We’re really happy with Luke. Once again, a guy going through his first full season and it’s hard. A hundred-and-forty games is a long season; it’s a grind. He’s done a real nice job. He’s a big part of the Crawdads team. I know that Corey has a lot of confidence in him and we’re going to continue to run him out there and he’s going to figure it out and be a big part of the team here.

Who has surprised you that maybe you didn’t expect to put together the season they have?

I think like the back end of the bullpen was really good. Parks and Fasola, both of those guys, especially Fasola, coming in and closing the door and saving a lot of games. I know that Corey had a ton of confidence looking down there in the eighth or ninth inning and bring in big John to close out the game.

Obviously, John pitched very well and earned himself a promotion up to High Desert. So, I think John Fasola coming in and taking the reins of the closer role and earning a promotion was the biggest surprise here so far.

(Eduard) Pinto?:

Daly: Been good. He can always hit. He hit close to .400 in the Dominican Summer League his first summer out. I think his big key is staying healthy. That’s something he continues to manage each and every day. He can hit, but his ability to on the field is the key.

Game Story: Greenville at Hickory July 1

In one of the weirder games of the season, the Hickory Crawdads rallied twice late to steal a 4-3 win over the Greenville (SC) Drive at L.P. Frans Stadium.

Stymied in the first seven innings, the Crawdads scored single runs in the eighth and ninth to tie it. After falling behind again in the tenth, Greenville contributed to its own demise in the game with a “non-error” botched double play and a passed ball that factored into the outcome. Rock Shoulders force play tied it in the ninth and his blooper scored the tying and winning runs in the tenth.

The game had two pitchers pinch-running and a third in the on-deck circle during the final two innings.

What Happened:?

It looked like a ho-hum night for the Crawdads offense as Drive starter Reed Reilley (seventh round, 2014 out of Cal-Poly San Louis Obispo) shut down the offense. He allowed four hits and walked one over 6.2 scoreless innings with four strikeouts.

Meanwhile, the Drive scored twice in the fourth on back-to-back RBI doubles by Javier Guerra and Joseph Monge against starter Nick Gardewine.

The Crawdads got a run back in the eighth when Josh Morgan singled in Jose Cardona.

In the ninth, Luke Tendler tripled to start the inning. After Jonathan Meyer was hit by a pitch – and pinch-ran for by Chris Dula – Rock Shoulders hit a grounder deep into the hole a second for a force play that allowed Tendler to score. Juremi Profar’s single put runners on the corners, but Kuehl McEachern got Jose Cardona to fly out.

Rafael Devers put the Drive ahead in the tenth with a solo homer to right off Scott Williams.

Then, things got strange in the bottom of the inning. Josh Morgan greeted reliever Ryan Harris with an opposite field single to right. Jairo Beras struck out and Jose Trevino hit into what should have been a game-ending double play. However, shortstop Javier Guerra botched the grounder and had to settle for a lone out at first. A passed ball by David Sopilka put Morgan at third. With pitcher Scott Williams on deck (the DH was killed when Meyer left the game and Trevino was inserted behind the plate), Greenville chose to walk Tendler intentionally to get to Williams.

However, Michael De Leon – who did not start because of a sore quad – pinch-hit and took a four-pitch walk. Shoulders then worked an 0-2 even before hitting a blooper into shallow left. A trio of Drive players chased it down before Devers got to the ball for what looked like a game-ending, over-the-shoulder catch. However, the ball hit off of Devers glove for a single that scored two runs to give Hickory the win.

The Good:

Rock Shoulders: Both the game-tying and game-winning at-bats came out of 0-2 counts. In the ninth, he caught enough of an 0-2 fastball to steer it well to the left of second baseman Yoan Moncada, who fielded cleanly and threw to second for an out. In the tenth, he ignored a fastball and a change just off the outside corner and then looped a fastball opposite field to left.

Kelvin Vasquez: Threw his second-straight solid outing of the homestand Wednesday. Needed only 45 pitches to complete 3.2 solid innings (2 hits, 1 BB, 4 K). Fastball ran 96-98, but it was the ability to throw offspeed pitches for strikes that set him apart for the second straight outing. Entered the game in the fifth with the bases loaded and one out. Stuck out Mike Meyers on a 96 heater up, then got Nick Longhi to pop up a curveball. He came back in the sixth and got back-to-back Ks on sliders. Missed four bats (by my count) on either curves or sliders, six on fastballs.

Scott Williams: Homer aside in the tenth (on a slider), he’s pitching with more confidence in attacking the strike zone. He is able to throw the slider for called strikes, or just off the plate enough to get hitters to chase. His fastball is ranging 94-96 with good movement.

Josh Morgan: Appeared to make a mid-game adjustment that paid off in the later innings. In the first, he pulled an outside fastball for a 6-3 grounder. In the third, he missed a fastball away for a strikeout and in the sixth it was a breaking ball away that did him in. But in the eighth, he slapped a McEachern fastball away into right for an RBI single. In the 10th, another fastball away that was taken up the middle to start the final rally.

Corey Ragsdale: While low-A games are seemingly devoid of strategy much of the time, he took a chance get the winning run across in the ninth. With his only two bench players (Michael De Leon and Eduard Pinto) nursing leg injuries, Ragsdale sent in pitcher Chris Dula (who was a batting champion in college) to pinch-run for the slow-footed Jonathan Meyer at first. This happened despite the fact that the other catcher, Jose Trevino, was the DH. Hickory tied the game in the ninth, but stranded the go-ahead runner at third. When Tendler came up in the tenth with two outs and a runner on third, Ragsdale sent Williams – the pitcher  – to the on-deck circle. Greenville called the bluff and intentionally walked Tendler. De Leon came in to hit and never saw a strike in loading the bases with a walk. Accentuating that perhaps De Leon could not run well, Ragsdale sent in Joe Filomeno to pinch-run for De Leon. Shoulders followed with the single.

The Not-So-Good:

Jairo Beras: A tough night at the plate after sitting out a game for not running out a fly ball in Monday’s game. Sliders away were the culprit for his three strikeouts. However, on the two comebackers he hit, Beras noticeably busted tail down the line and made both plays close.

Two-strike counts: The inability for both sides to close out hitters was costly. McEachern allowed Shoulders to get enough on an 0-2 fastball to pull it deep in the hole at second and allow the run to score. Shoulders also battled out of an 0-2 hole to get the game-winning bloop hit.

Crawdads starter Nick Gardewine had an especially hard time closing out hitters. Guerra saw ten pitches after starting 1-2 on his AB in the second. On a six-pitch AB in the fourth Guerra finally got a fastball he could handle and sent it into the RCF gap for an RBI double to score Meyers, who had started the inning with a single on an 0-2 fastball. Devers chased Gardewine with a sharp single on a 1-2 change. Gardewine had a 93-95 fastball much of the night that was mixed in with sliders and changes. But many of the pitches were on the outside corner to RH hitters, who eventually were able sit on the pitches and hit them opposite field. All four hits by RH hitters were liners to RCF or RF. Gardewine needed 85 pitches (65 strikes) to get 11 outs.

Devers homer against Williams was on a 1-2 slider that caught a lot of the plate.

The opposition:

Reed Reilly: Not a high-velocity pitcher (sat 89 much of the night) but located the fastball around the plate and mixed in his breaking balls well enough to throw off the Crawdads timing. Mainly stayed away from hitters, but threw enough inside to keep them honest. Only Profar and Meyer really squared anything solid against him.

Javier Guerra: Had a good night at the plate with the long ABs against Gardewine. Drilled a first-pitch 98 mph heater from Vasquez for a single in the eighth and another sharp grounder to first in the 10th. However, a botched double play in the tenth kept the inning alive.

The Celebration in Hickory

In the same manner as the 2011 team did, the Crawdads milled about in left field, waiting to find out if they had indeed clinched a first-half division title and a playoff spot in September.

The Crawdads in LF listening to the West Virginia broadcast (photo Mark Parker)

The Crawdads in LF listening to the West Virginia broadcast (photo Mark Parker)

When the final out in Charleston, WV sealed the Power’s elimination, the celebratory water coolers were spilled and the raucous, rowdy party was on.

The Crawdads begin their celebration as the final out is recorded at West Virginia. (Photo courtesy Tracy Proffitt)

The Crawdads begin their celebration as the final out is recorded at West Virginia. (Photo courtesy Tracy Proffitt)

It was cool to see these toughened, young men melt into excited boys again, delirious at what they had accomplished as a group… and oh, how they celebrated as a group. From the two-year vets, such as Wiles and Beras and Mendez and Pinto – who couldn’t believe he finally homered with Hickory – to the “young pups” Ortiz, and Jurado, and Morgan, to the steady Trevino and Tendler and Martin, to Buckel – who did this same celebration in 2011 – to the newcomers, Arroyo, Shoulders, Filomeno… they all reveled in the spoils of victory.

The Crawdads celebrate on the field. (Photo courtesy Tracy Proffitt)

The Crawdads celebrate on the field. (Photo courtesy Tracy Proffitt)

Whether in English or Spanish, on this field, their words shared a common meaning: champions.

They proudly smiled for the cameras, arms extended with index fingers pointed to the sky to have their baseball moment frozen in time and recorded for a lifetime.

The 2015 SAL first-half Northern Division champions

The 2015 SAL first-half Northern Division champions

They patiently tried to answer my questions, but mostly they spit out words of their happiness… and doused the interviewee.

Caught in the line off fire

Caught in the line of fire (Photo by Mark Parker)

Many congratulations to the 2015 Crawdads on a brilliant first half. Here is some of what they had to say.

Corey Ragsdale:

About the division-clinching game:

It’s a credit to these guys. They just find ways to win. It’s not necessarily the two guys that we would expect to hit home runs right now. Jairo, a single with two outs and Shoulders gets a home run. J-Mo gets a double with two outs; Pinto got him with a home run. Give credit to the guys, they find ways to win.

Favorite memory of the first half:

Just watching the way that the guys played and the way they cheer for each other. You look into the other dugout and you see guys sitting down. You look at ours and guys are cheering for each other and staying on the rail. Just seeing guys who want to win and pull for each other.

Luis Ortiz:

About his start:

My mentality today was to basically go out and compete like I always do and give it my all. I’ve got eight, nine guys behind me protecting me. Attack the zone and they’ll make a play for you. That’s the way it was tonight. I threw the ball over the zone and I felt like everything was working for me.

About his comfort level in the first two innings:

The first and second innings were the hardest ones to get through. It was hot and humid, but I had to go out there and pitch. To become a good pitcher, you’ve got to go through everything. You go through the hot. You go through the cold. You have bad outings. On days you have bad, it’s how you handle it. It’s just pitching, basically putting it altogether and going out there and competing and giving it all you have. If they hit you, it happens. it’s a part of baseball.

Jairo Beras:

About winning the first-half division title:

I’m happy today. I play good. I’m part of the playoffs. We’ll get back at it tomorrow and *&^@-ing win it (Ironically, he did with a homer in the 10th Tuesday night.).

Eduard Pinto:

About his third-inning homer:

I’d never hit a home run with Hickory. My team kept saying to me, “you need a La Bamba; you need a home run. You don’t have one.” I said, “ok, take it easy, take it easy, my brothers.”  Today, home run, I’m happy.

Austin Pettibone:

About the ability for a different player to make a play to win a game each night:

It’s awesome We did this in Spokane last year when we won the first half and it’s cool to do it again and experience it again.

About the team’s success compared to winning last year in Spokane:

We all have another year under our belt of pro ball, so we’ve all improved and gotten better each day. It’s just a lot of fun to do it with these guys.

Jose Trevino:

About the celebration:

This is awesome, but we’re not done yet, though. We’re not even close. We’ve got a whole other half and then we’ve got the whole post season. This is a really good team with a group of really good guys. The pitching staff and hitters, we’re all coming back together.

Josh Morgan:

About his double in the third inning prior to Pinto’s homer

I was just looking for a good pitch to hit. Luckily he gave me one and I was able to square it up, luckily. I’m just happy that we clinched, but we’re not done yet. We’ve got a full half to go, but we’re excited about where we’re at right now.

About the second half:

Hopefully, we can keep going on and keep staying positive we’ll be successful. I’m happy to be here and hopefully we can finish it off.

Rock Shoulders:

About his fourth-inning homer:

At my first at bat, he gave me a first-pitch fastball, so I went up there ready for it. I might’ve been a little bit late, but I still got good wood on it. I did what I wanted to do; I was trying to go the other way with the fastball and hit it into the gap. Luckily I got it up over the fence and got it out.

About coming to the Rangers organization from the Cubs:

At the beginning, I was a little worried, being that it was my first time going to this organization. But this is a great group of guys. When I walked into spring training, they all welcomed me with open hands and open mouths; they were all talking to me and helping me get used to everything. So, when I came here, I knew a bunch of guys already, so it was easy for me to get acclimated.

Crawdads Assessment: Interview with Manager Corey Ragsdale.

The Hickory Crawdads are off to one of the best starts in the 23-season history of the club. Going into Sunday’s game at Augusta – which will mark the halfway point of the “first half” – the Crawdads are 25-9 and sit 5 ½ games ahead of second-place West Virginia Power. Hickory returns home Monday to face the Power in a three-game series.

I spoke to Manager Corey Ragsdale after the finale of the last home stand on Tuesday to get an assessment of his team a quarter of the way through the season.

When the team comes back from this road trip, you’ll be at the halfway point of the first half. I’d like to get your assessment overall. You’re 31 games in and you’re still at single digits in losses (22-9 at the time of the question). Overall, that’s not a bad thing.

Ragsdale:  No, it’s always a good thing when you win some games. Obviously, it’s a credit to the guys the way they’ve been playing. It hasn’t been quite as good as of late, but the pitching has actually picked up a tick lately and carried us a little bit. But, that’s what good teams do, they find a way to win and lately, these guys have grinded out some games and found a way to get it done. I’m not sure how every night, but they’ve been able to do it. It’s a little nerve racking at times, but looking back, yeah, it’s been a pretty good first 30 games.

Let me ask you about the pitching. The starters have pretty much night in and night out given you five or six innings and hold them a lot of times to zero or one run, and no more than two for the most part.

Ragsdale:  The starters have been awesome. Anytime you can get pitching like we have, it makes life a lot easier. Jurado, a 19-year-old kid, has been going out there and working that sinker. All of the other guys have just fit in and followed along and done very well. Collin Wiles putting up zeroes left and right. He’s stepped his game up and is a little bit of a different pitcher that we saw last year. Obviously Ortiz is very talented and has done very well so far this year.

You know what, I think one of the things our guys do is that they compete. That’s been one thing we’ve been trying to work on with these guys is competing for the other guys, even if you don’t have your best stuff – competing for the other guys that are trying their hardest, too. That starts with the starting pitching. Everybody else sees the starters going out there and grinding it out and putting up zeroes and doing the best that the possibly can. It breeds a good feeling. It breeds a winning atmosphere. It breeds a determination where all the guys kind of pull on the rope in the same direction. It’s been really run and we’ll see how long we can keep it going.

What’s been the biggest surprise so far in that area (Pitching)? I know you expect they will all do what they do, but the reality is they don’t.

Ragsdale: You hope they go out and do well. To be honest, at the start of the year I just wasn’t sure  about some of the guys – as it always is at this level, the first year out and a full season and all that stuff – but you’re not quite sure how guys are going to come out of the gate. But for the most part, everybody has been pretty good. All those bullpen pieces that we’re running out there – and a 17-inning game (vs. Savannah on May 9) gets us out of whack a little bit – we’re able to run guys out there every night that are putting up zeroes and holding onto what the starters have done.

I guess the one thing I would say is that no matter who you would put in what situation, they’ve been able to get that job done for the most part. Whether it’s guys you weren’t sure about and they wind up at the back end of the bullpen and they’ve handled it fine, or vice versa. Guys that maybe you thought were going to be a one-inning guy that maybe you’ve had to stretch out and they gave you three zeros and they gave you a chance to win. I think that would be the biggest surprise is that no matter what the situation you’ve been able to put the pitching staff in, they’ve come through.

You mentioned Wiles earlier. He’s sort of seemed to figure out what kind of pitcher he is. He’s not going to blow it by guys and realizes that now, and he’s okay with getting the contact.

Ragsdale: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think he’s just going out there confident in what he has now, knowing what he has, and working what he has. Like you said, he’s not trying to blow fastballs by people. He knows he’s going to be in the low 90s or upper 80s and he’s going to need to mix in the other stuff to go with it. And he’s been able to do that. He’s mixed in three pitches for strikes any time he’s wanted. At this level, if you can do that you’re going to be pretty good. Obviously, he’s still working on some things, but he’s got a feel to pitch and that helps out for sure.

At the start of the year you had seven out of 11 position players that were here before. Then you add (Luke) Tendler and (Jose) Trevino and a couple of nice pieces in that mix. For the most part, this has been a lineup that has done some damage.

Ragsdale: To start the year, they swung the bats well. And you know everybody’s not going to hit .420 all year. So, some of the guys are coming down off of that a little bit. Losing Guzie (first baseman Ronald Guzman), obviously, was good for him, and it’s good for the rest of these guys, too. It gives the other guys a chance to hit in the middle of the order and stuff like that. But, I think losing Guzie and some of those guys kind of coming down off of that high to begin with, they’re kind of finding themselves a little bit more right now. I think they’ll settle back in.

With Luke and Jose and Tripp (Martin) for the most part in the middle of the order and Jairo (Beras) there on the back end, I think they’ll be alright and they’ll be able to put some stuff together. Obviously, Travis (Demeritte) staying up front and in the middle of the lineup. We’ve got some guys that can do some things, for sure. You get those guys in front of them on base, they’ve got a chance to drive in some runs. They’ve got a chance to be good and we’ll see how it continues.

It looks like Trevino has been a keystone in a lot of ways. You see him get a key double today (during a decisive 8th inning rally in a win over Savannah on May 12) and you see him jacking the guys up and suddenly there’s a different feel to that inning.

Ragsdale:  No doubt. He’s a special kid. He likes to compete. You want guys like that behind the plate. He brings good energy. He competes. He wants to win. He wants to make the other guys better. It just so happens he’s swing the bat really well and catching pretty good too. When all of that stuff comes together, you get a pretty good player. That’s what he’s been. He’s been really good for us. He’s been hitting in the four hole most of the year and catching. He’s been a big part of that pitching staff as well. We kind of put a game plan together and he helps those guys follow that game plan and get through it. He’s been a huge part of that success so far.

(Jairo) Beras is back after an extended time away with the quad injury and a brief inactive period. How has his progress been?

Ragsdale:  It’s good. Early, it looked like he was pressing a little bit the first game or two that he played. He had the leg injury. I think what that did is that allowed him to go back to Arizona, rehab that a little bit and allow him to settle down. He got into some games down there to get him ready before he came back. He’s been better.

What we’d like for him to do is to continue to build off that second half he had last year and see where he develops throughout the year. I think he probably put a little pressure on himself early and I think he’s kind of settling down into that. He’s going to be fine.

In the field, you’ve got essentially three shortstops playing in the infield and they’ve done yeoman’s work helping that pitching.

Ragsdale: We’ve talked a lot about that – about how defense gives the pitcher confidence to throw it, and pitchers getting up there and how throwing it keeps the defense in the game. Obviously, with Mikey (Michael De Leon) at shortstop, he’s a special kid with those hands, and then J-Mo at third – just learning to play third, but has done unbelievably and done an outstanding job handling the transition to third. Obviously he’s going to play short, too.

Travis has been really solid at second base making plays to his left, to his right. He’s been a little bit more focused, I think, this year on the defensive end than maybe he was last year. He’s into the game a little bit more on the defensive side. He’s talented and now his talent plays and now he’s ready and now he’s into the game and his talent plays a little bit better. He’s been very good. And then you’ve got Kiner (Isiah Kiner-Falefa) that can play any position on the infield.

For me being an ex-infield guy, it’s a lot of fun to work with those guys and to see those guys.  They have done an outstanding job. Obviously when you pitch like we’ve talked about and you play defense like we’ve talked about, that’s a pretty good recipe to be in a lot of games.

You mentioned De Leon, who is only 18, but in his second year here is carrying self like a little veteran.

Ragsdale: He’s a special kid, for sure.

He has an awareness about him in the field that reminds me of (Jurickson) Profar defensively.

Ragsdale: He’s got the intangibles that go along with the hands and the feet and the defense. A lot of people look at him and see how small he is, and maybe how week he is.

Offensively, he’s never overmatched. He always puts good ABs together. No matter how hard they throw, they can’t get a fastball by him. He’s just offensively and defensively a pesky guy that never goes away and is always in the right spot doing the right thing, it seems like. I think you hit the nail on the head with the intangibles. Kind of what everybody saw in Profar, Mikey definitely has that.