Results tagged ‘ Hickory Crawdads ’

A New Appreciation: An interview with Walker Weickel

It was a long fall for Walker Weickel from first-round stardom to his release five years later. The native of Orlando, Fla, Weickel was taken as the 55th overall selection by the San Diego Padres out of Olympia High School. With a 6-6 frame that had room to fill, the right-hander presented a 91-94 fastball with a curve. With seasoning in the minors, Weickel would likely land at Petco Field before too many years. At least, that’s what he thought.

He went through a tough, first full-season in 2013 and took some poundings at Low-A Ft. Wayne (IN), as many pitchers do. But the rough outings continued the next season and he finished the 2014 season at short-season Eugene (OR).

The Padres challenged him with an assignment to high-A Lake Elsinore (CA) before six weeks into the season he heard the three words feared by every pitcher: Tommy John surgery. After a little over a year at rehab, he made pitched ten innings at the Padres short-season and rookie affiliates with mixed results. This spring, he was released.

Sitting on the sidelines and rehabbing gave Weickel time to think about how his career had gone to that point, and consider how much effort he had put into his development. Not just effort, but honest effort.

With time to reflect, Weickel adjusted his attitude and recaptured his love for the game. Weickel took on his release from the Padres as a matter-of-fact business decision and dedicated himself to the next opportunity. That door-knocker came with the Texas Rangers, with whom he signed this April.

Since joining the Crawdads on June 3, Weickel has gotten deeper into games and, in the process, dominated South Atlantic League opponents. His OBA is currently at .170 with a 0.89 WHIP. Over the last two starts, Weickel has allowed five hits, walked two and struck out 12 over 13.2 innings. He threw a two-hitter over seven innings against Kannapolis on July 4 in front of a packed house. Weickel’s outing was punctuated with an emphatic fist pump after fanning the final two hitters in the seventh.

Below is part of his story.

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Walker Weickel delivers a pitch during a 7/4/17 contest vs. Kannapolis (Crystal Lin)

 

First question for you: the first thing I noticed when you came off the mound after the last strikeout was a huge first pump. Reading your story a bit about your Tommy John surgery and then you get released by the Padres, and then you pitch well before a big crowd here, how much of that was the moment itself or you’re finally getting some things going in your career?

Weickel: I think it was a culmination of things. July 4th has always kind of an interesting day for me in my career. I’ve been scheduled to pitch July 4th two times, but it’s been rearranged for numerous reasons, and this prior to surgery. So, now in my first complete season from Tommy John and with a new team an having an opportunity to pitch on July 4th, it’s always been kind of a career checkpoint for me to pitch. Growing up as a kid and watching The Sandlot, you see the scene where everyone’s playing baseball under the fireworks; it’s something I’ve always wanted to experience and definitely wanted to get a win out of.

I was feeling good on the fourth, and yeah, that last strikeout, it was a culmination of all that. It was also their number four hitter (Kannapolis rightfielder Micker Adolfo). He had kind of given me a little bit of a tricky out the first two times before, so I finally got him on that third at-bat. It felt like a nice little way to end off the outing.

 

It looked like you had all four pitches going: fastball, change, curve and slider. Did I read that right?

Weickel: For me, I heavily run a two-seam fastball and try to sink the ball a lot and then pitch a changeup and curveball off of that. I change speeds on my curveball, so sometimes it’s big and sometimes it’s tighter and gets mistaken for a slider. I was pretty pleased with how my pitches were working. Ricky (Valencia) had a good game plan going into the outing and I was able to stick to it. Ricky did a great job calling pitches all night and kept me comfortable and kept me fluid.

I think I had seven flyouts and six ground outs. So, it definitely helped that the hitters put the ball in play quick and let the defense make plays quickly and get back into the dugout and back to the bats. I was pleased with the overall efficiency and quickness of the game.

 

I’m guessing the answer to the next question might take up the rest of the interview. Describe how good it feels for you finally to get back into a rotation and you are taking the ball every six games.

Weickel: It’s tough to put into words. It almost feels like my career is starting over again. I was a starter out of high school and then my first couple of years in pro ball. I’ve definitely had some battles and some ups and downs. Then the Tommy John was a big point in my career and I really felt that allowed me to mentally collect myself and figure out who I was as a pitcher. It allowed me to craft my process for off the field, in terms of preparation and in terms of how I go about my business.

So, it’s been really rewarding getting a chance here and I’m so thankful the Rangers gave me an opportunity to put all that work into play and to see where it goes from here.

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Crawdads right-hander Walker Weickel (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

What was the journey like going from first-round pick to Tommy John and then your release essentially four seasons after your selection?

Weickel: It was ups and downs and a lot of emotions. It was definitely not something I planned for, that’s for sure. I think everyone has the grand idea of signing and then maybe a couple of stops in the minors and then right up to the big leagues. I would say that’s not quite the path, but at the same time there is no set path for anyone. Everyone kind of has their own journey and battle.

Even though I’ve had quite the ups and downs, and I’ve dealt with injuries and I had to sit out a year-and-a-half for recovery, quite frankly, I don’t think I’d put it any other way. It’s really allowed me to develop, I think, at the right time and it’s allowed me to really enjoy certain aspects of my career and different opportunities. But now to be back playing, to be fully healthy, knowing that my arm is secure and stable, knowing that I’ve had these past 24 months of just hunger and preparation to get back on the mound and prove that I’m still able to get out there and do the job, I couldn’t be more excited.

 

You talk about how everybody has their own path. There are guys that get into the game and realize that it’s much more of a mental game. You guys are growing up, especially if you’re drafted out of high school. There are some guys that are arrogant; there are some guys that are still little boys in many ways. Maybe the question I have to ask is what is the adjustment mental-wise or lifestyle-wise that you had to make?

Weickel: It’s easy to get caught up into the day-to-day activities of being at the park and spending 12 to 16 hours a day, roughly, at or on the baseball field and then essentially your home, your apartment or hotel to sleep and then back to the field. So, it’s easy to kind of fall into a rep versus routine.

You do the rep thing, you show up and kind of go through the motions. You play catch, or you take batting practice, whatever it might be. You actually physically do the practice, but you might not have definitive points that you’re working on or things you’re trying to get out of it. You might not necessarily be challenging yourself at practice. I thought I fell victim to that a little bit. I fell victim to potentially practicing some mechanical adjustments that weren’t quite right for my body, and for how I pitch in my game as a pitcher. So, over the course of time, failure definitely teaches you a lesson; it’s whether or not you want to listen to it.

When I actually had the surgery, and had to sit there on the sidelines, it really gave me nothing but time to think about all the things I’ve practiced, all the things I’ve done, the approaches to the game that I had taken, and really narrow down what was really working and what really wasn’t. I felt like I was able to sit down and craft a new approach for when I finally got healthy and was able to get back out there. So far, it’s been a much more efficient and a much more manageable process for the day-to-day grind.

 

What’s the biggest appreciation you have for the game now that you maybe didn’t have before?

Weickel: Just the fun that comes with playing baseball. I think a lot of guys, when you get into pro ball, it immediately becomes this business. There’s obviously that aspect to it, but it’s a game.

If you can’t get joy out of showing up to the baseball field and playing the game and putting on a uniform and getting excited about fireworks and pitching in front of fans, just the camaraderie with the guys in the clubhouse, or the jokes, or being around batting practice, the competition on the field and the childish fun that you get from this game, you’re doing something wrong. You’re not getting the full value of the game. Coming back and getting a second chance, it’s definitely been a lot more enjoyable and a lot more fun playing.

 

What was the bigger reality check, getting released or having the Tommy John surgery?

Weickel: I would definitely say Tommy John. Like I said, baseball is a business. At the end of the day, teams they have plans and you can’t take it personal. It is what it is.

For the injury, that was something I could control. I could really buy into my rehab and buy into my time down and get something out of it, or I could just go through the motions. When I had the surgery, my mentality towards a lot of things, not just baseball, but my approach in general of how things could change unexpectedly. It really kind of gave me more of an appreciation for game activities, to interactions, friendships, time available with family and friends, and time to work.

I feel like that really was to me was the greatest challenge and greatest test of my willpower and my dedication to the game, to sit through all the rehabs, to sit through maybe the minor setbacks and discomforts and negative thoughts during the rehab process and come out victorious on the other side.

 

Tell me about the Rangers contact and how that all came together.

Weickel: I was let go the last week of spring training. I had some calls out and was looking to see if any teams had any interest. It’s a tough time right then and there because a lot of teams are looking to finalize rosters and it’s tough to make additions.

I actually went home for a couple of weeks and never once had a doubt that I was going to be out of baseball. I felt like that after all the work that I had put in rehab and the work I had done to come back and prove myself – and I felt like I was at a stronger point than in my previous years before surgery. So I was able to actually get home and work a little bit and continued throwing bullpens, and stay sharp and stay strong.

I was able to finalize a workout with the Rangers scout back home. It was great because immediately he was excited and pumped and full of enthusiasm. To see that from the team really made me excited that they would give me an opportunity. When things finalized and came together, I was able to get out to Phoenix and join the club at extended spring for a couple of weeks and get my feet wet and adjusted to the organization. It was just all positives from the get go.

I feel like I was able to jump right in and continue my work and continue getting better with the coaching staff and the training staff down there, and really get a strong foothold into getting myself ready to come here and give the Crawdads a shot at winning some ballgames.

 

When you get a call to the major leagues, what do you think that will be like for you?

Weickel: I can’t imagine. I really can’t imagine it. It would definitely be surreal. I honestly don’t even know what I would say on the phone to my parents, or my girlfriend or my parents or anyone. I guess it’s going to have to be an in-the-moment experience.

But, I got carried away early in my career trying to think too far into my future. And now, I think about the next hour, the next two hours, the ballgame that night, and then go to sleep and wake up and try to do it all again tomorrow. I pitch from inning-to-inning, start-to-start and then go from there and try not to get too ahead of myself.

 

 You have you, you have (Matt) Smoral, who was a former first-round pick with the Blue Jays who’s come here. You’ve got (Michael) Matuella, who was going to be a potential first-round pick, but then had the Tommy John and dropped to third. You’ve got (Jake) Lemoine, who battled injuries. Do you guys trade stories, in the sense that you have similar experiences?

Weickel: Yeah, it’s actually kind of funny, because all four of us are roommates. I feel like between the four of us, we definitely have a collection of experience and knowledge in just about every aspect, in terms of struggles and triumphs and things going not the way we’d planned for them to go. But, I’ll tell you what, I’ve never met a more positive group of guys. Guys that are willing to come out and give everything that they have each and every day, for their hunger to be better each and every time on the mound.

And that goes for the whole team. I think it’s exemplified in some of our performances this second half. They’ve really bought into the process. We have a fantastic team here – the pitching staff and the infield and outfield. It’s impressive.

If you get here during b.p. and watch some of the batting practice that goes on and some of the infield work, flashes of it are here in the game, but there’s some serious talent on this team. It’s enjoyable to pitch and to have solid defense behind me – guys that are going to bust their butts and do whatever it takes to win a ballgame. Our bullpen and coaching staff wants the exact same thing. So, it’s really refreshing being here with a winning team and a winning environment and a winning organization.

Walker Weickel - Proffitt

Walter Weickel delivers a pitch during a June 23 game vs. Augusta (Tracy Proffitt)

Wildcat on a Mission: An Interview with Kyle Cody

The Texas Rangers over the past several years have had good luck with drafting mid-round college level pitchers that have midwestern roots and seeing them develop into major league talent. Nick Tepesch (14th round from Missouri), Jerad Eickhoff (15th round Olney Central College) are a couple that come to mind. Connor Sadzeck (11th round Howard College) is another that’s on the doorstep currently at AA Frisco (Tex.). They’re like pre-packaged foods, in a sense: 6-foot-6ish 240 pounds with mid-90s fastballs, well-developed breaking balls and fledgling changeups. Just add seasoning and they’re ready to pitch.

At 6-7, 245 pounds with three pitches in hand Kyle Cody may be the soon on line at the major league buffet.

The Chippewa Falls, Wisc. native was the sixth-round pick of the Rangers in 2016 out of Kentucky. The Gatorade player of the year in Wisconsin his senior season pitched four seasons for the Wildcats, spurning the chance to turn pro out of high school with the Philadelphia Phillies (33rd round) in 2012 and with the Minnesota Twins (73rd pick overall) in 2015. Cody, 22, comes with a fastball that tops 96 mph, slider and a changeup that he admits is a work in progress. He’s been a constant force in the rotation as of late. A one-hit, eight-strikeout, eight-inning affair at Lakewood (NJ) on June 17 earned him South Atlantic League pitcher of the week honors. Two starts later on July 3, he gave up one unearned run on one hit and fanned 10 at West Virginia. The SAL is hitting .132 against him so far in the second half with 19 Ks in 11 innings.

In talking with Cody for this interview, there is that quiet, midwestern manner that has an unmistakable, matter-of-fact confidence. He’s faced some of the SEC’s best over the past four years with the Wildcats and there is a sense, as he has seen those former foes attain major league dreams, that Cody feels he belongs with that group and soon.  Yet, for now, he knows there is work to be done in gaining consistency, not only from game-to-game, but pitch-to-pitch.

In the interview below, Cody talked about his progression this season, some of his experiences with the SEC that has gotten him to the point, as well as his current dream matchup in the majors.

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Crawdads RHP Kyle Cody from a game on May 16 vs. Greensboro when he fanned 10. (Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

First question I have for you is what was it like pitching for Lexington? I know you went to UK (Kentucky) and unfortunately had a rain-shortened deal.

Cody: It was pretty cool to go back and get to see some friends back at school. It wasn’t like how it usually was, where you get the college atmosphere. There was no one there pretty much because school was out, but it was still nice to see some familiar faces and just to get back in that area. I love that place. It’s a beautiful area. It was cool to get back to some of the restaurants there and stuff. It was pretty fun.

 

How many tickets did you leave?

Cody: When I started, I think I left 15 tickets. It kind of sucked that I only got to pitch two innings. Because everyone left, because of the rain,  I didn’t really get to see anyone, but, it is what it is and things happen.

 

Did the folks with the Legends give you any recognition or did they just let it slide?

Cody: When I was on the mound the first time they played the fight song when I pitched, but nothing unusual. They said that I had pitched at University of Kentucky and a few of the fans clapped, so that’s about it.

 

You pitched at a high school in Wisconsin, so how did you wind up going to Kentucky?

Cody: I was offered by Minnesota, Ohio State and Kentucky. It was just I left like it was the best offer. They really took me in there and it felt like home. It just felt like I had a good connection with all the coaches and I felt like it was the best decision for me.

 

What was it like to pitch in the SEC?

Cody:  It was pretty cool. At first, it was kind of a tough adjustment coming from a small high school where I was pitching in front of 15 or 20 people, all the way to 12,000 the next year. So, it was kind of tough at first, but it was quite an experience to play there and you get used to it and get better.

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Kyle Cody from an April 13 appearance vs. Kannapolis (Crystal Lin)

 

What was the biggest adjustment as far as going to college from high school? Obviously, the competition was different, but as far as pitching wise, what did you have to do?

Cody: Locating my fastball on both sides of the plate. In high school, I just kind of threw it by everyone. That was the big thing was command of the fastball and then having a second pitch, and getting better with that, and then developing a changeup, which I’m still trying to do now and still trying to get better with that. In college, you’ve got to try and show one (changeup) for a strike and then now, you’ve got to get outs with it.

 

What was your second pitch in college?

Cody: Slider

 

Are you still developing that or are you pretty comfortable with that?

Cody: I’m pretty comfortable with my slider, now. It’s gotten a lot better the past year or so, I’d say. It’s little more sharp and has a little more velocity than it used to. So, I’m pretty happy with where that’s at right now.

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Kyle Cody on a tag play at third during a home game vs. Lexington (KY.) (Crystal Lin)

 

Let me stay on the adjustment thread. Coming to pro ball, what were some adjustments you had to make?

Cody: From college, I worked a lot on my stride length and getting that a little bit longer. At college, it wasn’t very long and then last year in Spokane. And now, I’ve been working on that so I can get a little more extension with my pitches and get a little bit closer to the plate. So, that’s one thing I worked on. Also, just messing around with the changeup and trying to find a comfortable grip and get some velocity off of that pitch.

 

You had some games where you had some double-digit strikeout totals and then some where you didn’t, but you’re getting outs. Are you more comfortable as a strikeout pitcher or getting your groundballs and letting your defense work?

Cody: I don’t really have what I would prefer. I would say I just get outs anyway I can. The name of the game is to get outs any way possible. If one day it’s strikeouts and the next day it’s groundballs, I’ll take it. It doesn’t matter to me. If my pitches are working and I’m striking people out, I’m happy with that. If my fastball is working that day and I’m getting groundballs, then I’m happy with that, too.

 

Do you have a sense early if something is working that this is going to be a good day, versus, maybe it’s going to be a little tougher today?

Cody: Yeah, there’s been a few games already where I don’t really have command of my fastball early and then I have to work off my slider and get a few swings, and my changeup. There’s other times where I won’t have my offspeed pitches and I’ll have to just pound the fastball in and out. Those are days you have to battle just to try and get groundball outs and try to keep yourself in the game to save the bullpen.

 

What was the first reality check in pro ball when you realized that this is a whole different level?

Cody: I think it was my second outing. I came out of the bullpen and I just got roughed around a little bit. I think we were playing Everett and they had their first-rounder on the team – I think his name was Kyle Lewis. He hit a ball pretty hard off of me into the gap. I kind of feel like that was the moment where I was like, “Okay, it’s for real now. I’m ready to go. Let’s go.”

 

Was there a moment – and maybe it was that one – where a guy hit what you thought was a good pitch?:

Cody: Oh yeah, that happens a lot. You think you make a pitch and all of a sudden it’s in the gap or over the fence. So, that’s just something where you tip your cap and say, “they hit my pitch where I wanted it to be located.” You’ve just got to live with.

 

Talk to me about mental adjustments. Everyone I talk to says that when they get to the pro level there it’s much more of a mental game than a physical game. Have you found that to be true to this point?

Cody: In college, my coach preached that about the mental aspects of baseball. He always talked about being positive with yourself when on the mound and telling yourself where you’re going to make the pitch, where the pitch is going and stuff like that and keeping it simple. Right now, I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job of just keeping it simple and just focusing on executing pitches when I’m on the mound. That’s all I’m going to focus on right now is where the next pitch is going to be.

 

Is this more of a mental game than you thought it would be at this level?

Cody: Oh yeah, definitely.

 

How so?

Cody: (laughing) I mean, I feel like the whole thing is mental until you just execute a pitch. Off the field, you’ve got to talk to yourself a certain way and do the same stuff every day and just having a routine and going about your business. I feel like the mental side is what keeps you going, too, and what drives you in baseball.

 

How much did SEC play prepare you for the pro level?

Cody: I’d like to say quite a bit. You see all of the talent that comes out of the SEC and just all the pro players that are already in the big leagues and guys that I’ve faced already that are from the SEC. I’d like to say that it helped me to get where I’m at now. I’ve just got to keep working and hopefully move on and keep moving up.

 

Have you faced a guy in the pros that you faced in college where you’ve nodded and said, This is pretty cool; we’re both here.”?

Cody: I faced Dansby Swanson (Vanderbilt) in college. I faced Alex Bregman (LSU) in college. My teammate A.J. Reed, he went to the bigs, but he’s in AAA right now. Just guys like that, you kind of look back and you’re like, “Wow, two years ago I was pitching against him in college. Now he’s in the big leagues getting paid.” It’s kind of a reality check when you think about that for a second. Like, they’re already there and you’re still working to get there yourself. It kind of makes you work harder.

 

What’s the thing you’re most proud of as far as your progression this year?

Cody: I’d say, one thing I’ve been lacking in the past is consistency. As the season’s gone on, I’ve gotten more consistent with each start. I used to be up-and-down a little bit, a good start here and then a bad start and then a good start. Now I’m getting into a trend where I’m getting five or six innings almost every start. So, I’d say that’s the thing I’m most happy with now.

 

What’s the thing you’re working on next?

Cody: Limiting the walks. I’ve heard that if you want to move up, you’ve got to be able to throw the ball over the plate and not walk as many people. I think I lead the team in walks right now, so I want to cut some of those out.

 

You get a call to the major leagues, what is that like for you, do you think?

Cody: I feel like that will be a dream come true. Hopefully it’s not that long away, but it could be two or three years away. If that time comes, I’ll just be ecstatic to share that with my family and friends and just be very fortunate to be able to do that.

 

Is there a mentor that’s helped you along?

Cody: My parents have honestly gotten me so far and helped me be the person like I am today. They’ve helped me with anything and everything off the field. I can go to them about anything, so it’s something I’m very fortunate to have.

 

Who’s the big leaguer you’re looking forward to facing? Whether he gets a bomb off you or not, who do you want to face?

Cody: I want to face Bryce Harper, just because there’s a lot of hype there. I feel like he carries himself into the batter’s box like he’s going to hit a home run every time. I just want to look at him and be like, “I’m here, too.” I feel like that would be fun at bat.

 

Kyle Cody mug

Series Preview: Kannapolis at Hickory July 4-6

Kannapolis Intimidators (Chicago White Sox) (43-37 overall, 4-8 second half, tied for 6th South Atlantic League Northern Division) at Hickory Crawdads (Texas Rangers) (34-48 overall, 7-5 3rd SAL Northern)

The Hickory Crawdads begin a weeklong homestand with a three-game series against in-state rival Kannapolis.

 

If you plan to go:

GAME TIMES: Tuesday – Thursday at 7:00 p.m.

PROMOTIONS:

Tuesday – Independence Day Celebration and Post-Game Fireworks

Wednesday – Kids Win Wednesday: All kids 12 and under admitted free, also get vouchers for free meal, bounce house, speed pitch and carousel;

Thursday – Thirsty Thursday; Rudy Wright Night

 

TICKETS: $9 dollars for regular seats, $14 for VIP section. NOTE: Tickets for July 4 are $12 for regular seats, $17 for VIP section… while supplies last!

WHERE IS IT?: Clement Blvd., 1 mile west of U.S. Hwy 321, near entrance to Hickory Airport.

PARKING: All parking is $3.

CONCESSIONS: L.P. Frans Stadium has two main concession areas plus the Crawdads Café. The concession stands have your basic ballpark food: Hot dogs, burgers, chicken sandwich, BBQ, etc. The Crawdad Café has a menu that features more diverse items, including the Mac & Crawdog, Banana Foster Bites, Fried Pickles, Sloppy Burger, and more. Click here for the menu http://www.milb.com/documents/3/3/4/185907334/cafe_menu_6eeko6n2.pdf

 

Probables (Kannapplis/ Hickory):

Tuesday: RHP Yelmison Peralta vs. RHP Walker Weickel

Wednesday: RHP Blake Hickman vs. RHP Edgar Arredondo

Thursday: RHP Luis Martinez vs. RHP Reid Anderson

 

Recent Series History:

In 2017, Hickory is 10-9 as the teams enter the final series vs. Kannapolis this season. The Crawdads have not lost a season series against Kannapolis since 2010 (7-9). The Intimidators hold a 4-3 edge in games played at L.P. Frans this season and are looking to win its season-series at Hickory since 2008 (3-1).

 

About the Crawdads:

The Crawdads hope to springboard off a successful road trip and use that momentum to improve upon a 15-24 home record. They return home after their first winning road trip (5-3) of the season. Hickory won 3 of 4 at Kannapolis last week and then earned a split of a four-game series at West Virginia by winning Monday night’s finale… At the plate, the Crawdads are fourth in the SAL in total bases, supported by a league-leading 28 triples and 56 homers, which is fourth in the league. However, that has not added up to tallies on the scoreboard as the Crawdads are ninth in runs scored. Some of that has been due to impatience at the plate. Hickory is tied for last in walks received and next to last overall in on-base percentage (.305) …The Crawdads remain last in the SAL in ERA, but the trend continues towards improvement as the club is under five (4.87) and is no longer on pace to set a club record. Hickory is last in WHIP, and next to last in both walks and hits allowed.

 

Prospects to watch- Hickory:

CF Leody Taveras (No. 1 MLB.com and Baseball America, No. 43 Baseball America top-100 prospects, No. 51 MLB.com top-100): Signed as international free agent 2015 out of Tenares, Dominican Republic. Went 3-for-11 at West Virginia and has a .302/.415/.372 slash for the second half. Has just four extra-base hits since May 30. Tied for first in triples (5), second in ABs, 5th in games played, 8th in runs scored, tied for 9th in hits

SS Anderson Tejeda (No. 7 MLB.com). Signed as an international free agent in 2015 out of Bani, D.R. Went 2-for-11 in series at West Virginia. Has shifted mostly to 2B, playing just four games at SS since May 30. Tied for 6th in SAL with 4 triples. Is tied for 4th in Ks and has 13 in 52 plate appearances (31%) in the second half.

2B Yeyson Yrizarri (No. 17 MLB.com): Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of the D.R. Went 6-for-15 at West Virginia with a homer and 5 RBI. Has hits in 9 of 11 games in the second half, including the last six. Hitting .325/.333/.550 in the second half.

RF Jose Almonte (No. 28 MLB.com): Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of Santo Domingo, D.R. Has struggled all season (.186/.248/.305) and is now losing playing time, seeing action in just 7 of 12 games. Went 1-for-14 on the road trip and is 2-for-22 with 7 Ks in the second half.

 

Others to watch – Hickory:

C Ricky Valencia: Signed as an international free agent in 2011 out of Valencia, Venezuela. Named to the SAL All-Star Game as a reserve catcher. Went 4-for-11 at West Virginia and has hits in 6 of his last 8 games. Looking for his first extra-base hit since June 12.

1B Carlos Garay: Signed as an international free agent in 2012 out of La Victoria, Venezuela. Has settled into the starting first base slot since joining the Crawdads on May 20. Has hits in 10 of his last 11 games and multi-hit games in five of the last seven (14-for-32). Very much a contact hitter, has just 3 Ks over the last 11 games, but no walks. Overall, he has just 4 walks in 40 games, but just 14 Ks.

3B Ti’Quan Forbes: Second-round pick in 2014 out of Columbia High (MS). Has missed just three of 82 games. Went 5-for-15 at West Virginia and has 9 hits in 20 ABs. Is hitting just .217/.255/.319 at home.

C Alex Kowalczyk: 12th-round pick in 2016 out of Pittsburgh. Went 3-for-13 at West Virginia. Is at .333/.368/.417 in the second half. At home, Kowalczyk is .368/.403/.559. Has had trouble however behind the plate with a SAL-high of 9 errors and four passed balls in just 28 games.

RHP Walker Weickel: Signed as a free agent in 2017 out of the San Diego Padres organization with which he was a first-round pick. In his last start at Kannapolis, allowed three hits, a walk and struck out seven over 6.2 innings.

RHP Edgar Arredondo: Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico. Allowed two earned runs over five innings with five hits and three Ks at Kannapolis in his last starter. Has given up one for fewer earned runs in five of his last eight starts.

RHP Kaleb Fontenot: 21st-round pick in 2016 out of McNeese St. Pitched in three of the four games (2 saves) at West Virginia and has four straight scoreless outings.

 

About the Drive:

Managed by former Kannapolis infielder Justin Jirschele. The Intimidators won six of seven to close out the first half, which included a four-game sweep of then-first place Hagerstown (Md.) to claim the first half Northern Division title. Kannapolis will make its first playoff appearance this September since 2009…Winning the first half earned promotions for several players (six of the seven all-stars received promotions) and for now it has left Kannapolis scrambling for answers. At the plate, about 40% of the homers (21 of 52), one-third of the RBI, and nearly one-third of the hits are elsewhere. In losing the final seven games of its just-concluded homestand, Kannapolis scored 16 runs. It’s a team that doesn’t run much – a league low 50 steal attempts – and relies on station-to-station and situational hitting… The same holds true on the mound as players that made 48 of the 80 starts for Kannapolis are now elsewhere. Only one pitcher currently on the roster (Yosmen Solorzano) has made more than six starts (15).

 

Prospects to watch – Kannapolis:   

RF Micker Adolfo (No. 21 mlb.com): Signed as an international free agent in 2013 out of San Pedro de Macoris, D.R. Went 3-for-16 vs. Delmarva in the last series. Had a 16-game hitting streak (24-for-66) in May and was named the White Sox minor-league player of the month in May and June. He had ten homers, 19 doubles and 37 RBI during that stretch. He is tied for first in the SAL with 24 doubles, fifth in total bases and ninth in slugging (.483).

RHP Luis Martinez (No. 22 mlb.com): Signed as an international free agent in 2012 out of Carupano, Venezuela. Had a dominant first start of the season vs. Hickory on May 19 with 9 Ks and one run allowed on four hits over five innings. Bumped up to high-A Winston-Salem, he struggled (16 ERs, 25 hits, 10 BBs over 16 innings), then returned to Kannapolis on June 26 to again dominate Hickory (1 ER, 3 H, 5 K, 6 IP).

 

Others to watch – Kannapolis:

2B Mitch Roman: 12th round pick in 2016 out of Wright St. Went 3-for-19 vs. Delmarva. Named to the SAL all-star game. Shifted to SS after the promotion of Grant Massey. Currently fourth in the SAL in hits.

RHP Blake Hickman: 7th round pick by the White Sox in 2015 out of Iowa. Made his first pro start vs. Hickory on 5/31/17 and allowed one run on five hits and fanned two over six innings. Had a rough outing vs. Delmarva in his last start on June 30 (5.1 IP, 5 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 2 HBP, 4 K.).

 

Hey now, you’re an all-star: An Interview with Ricky Valencia

It takes a special person to wait as long as Ricardo (Ricky) Valencia did for an opportunity to play and sometimes baseball has a way of rewarding that patience.

Valencia’s selection to the South Atlantic League all-star game played at Columbia, S.C. a couple of weeks ago was all that is right with the minor-league baseball world. At 24, the Valencia, Venezuela native, who signed with the Texas Rangers in 2012, has done everything he’s been asked to do. Unfortunately, through the first half of 2016 very little of that had been during games. He played for four of the Rangers affiliates in 2015, but that totaled 15 games. And that was up from seven games in 2014. Over his first four pro seasons, Valencia played in just 78 pro games.

Injuries to several Crawdads got Valencia out of bullpen catching duties and into the lineup on June 11 at Kannapolis. He walked and doubled in that game, then two days later Valencia singled in a run and walked. The next day he added a single and double. Valencia put together a four-hit game on June 28. His season ended with a six-game hitting streak. His run through the second half of 2016 earned him a chance to play on a regular basis this year.

Playing time aside, Valencia is one of those guys that you want to see succeed. He is a kind soul and here is an example of that. In the interview below, Valencia named a list of those who had helped him improved. After the interview, I walked away to my next task. Ricky caught up to me and wanted to make sure I included Crawdads hitting coach Kenny Hook in his list of mentions.

Valencia is about the team – catching the bullpens, or working with a pitcher through a tough outing, or providing a steady presence in the lineup – he will give his best to help the team succeed. It’s guys like that I love seeing get his own recognition. Our interview happened two days after his all-star selection.

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Crawdads all-star catcher Ricky Valencia (Crystal Lin)

 

First of all, what was your reaction when you found out you made the all-star team?

Valencia: First of all, I didn’t know about it until my host family texted me and told me, “Congrats”. I didn’t know and then when I found out, I didn’t believe it. This is my sixth year and the first time I’m playing every day and I’m just doing my best. I knew I had some chance to make it, but I still couldn’t believe it. I was so happy that right away I texted my mom and she was so proud and my dad, too, and all my family were really happy for me.

 

This has to mean a lot more to you because of all the time you put it. You haven’t got to play a lot until this year. Describe what this means to you.

Valencia: it means a lot to me because, first of all, this opportunity I have right now, I’ve been waiting for it since I signed back in 2012. It means a lot to me, because it means that I can actually play. Before, I was only catching bullpens and not even playing was frustrating. But, I knew that I can do it and that’s what I’m showing right now, that I can actually play and do my best every time I go out there on the field. That is a goal that I wanted to achieve this year.

Before the season started and I found out that I was going to be the catcher every day, what I had in my mind was, “okay, I’m going to do my best.” I wasn’t even thinking on making the all-star game, I was just thinking about doing my best for the team. Being the old guy on the team, they expect you to be the leader and talking to the guys, helping them. That was really my focus, to help the team do better every night. That was pretty much what I was thinking from the beginning. But then, when I started good, I was trusting myself that I can do it. This step makes me feel more comfortable and more trusting in myself that I can do good. So, it means a lot to me to make the all-star team.

 

What was it like to sit so much the last few years and watch other people play and not really get an opportunity to play?

Valencia: It was frustrating, because I know who I am and I know I can do good. It wasn’t sad, because I knew in my mind that at some point I’m going to get an opportunity. I was working really hard, even though I knew I wasn’t playing. I was still working every day and getting my work in and keep faith.

 

Who was the people that helped you to keep focused, even when you weren’t playing?

Valencia: My mom and my dad, even though we are apart for seven months. Every day they would tell me, “You are good, keep trusting yourself.” Every day they would talk me because I would go back home and be sad. They would tell me, “Ricardo, you’re good; you’re fine. You’re going to get your opportunity. Just keep working hard and you’ll see. You will get the chance, too.”

 

As far as working on your catching skills, who have you worked with to improve that to get this opportunity.

Valencia: All the catching coaches and coordinators. They focused a lot on me with anything that could help me. Last year, here, I spent a lot of time with Matt Hagen, our assistant coach. He was also our catching coach. I learned a lot from him last year. He talked to me a lot about calling games and all of that.

All the coaches I had before and our old catching coordinator Hector Ortiz, he taught us a lot, and then catching Chris Briones. He was the one that told me to keep working because he knew that I was going to get this opportunity. All of them together, all that information that I got from everybody, it kept me going to get better every day. And then, even though he’s not a catching coach, Sharnol Adriana, anything he could do to help me, he would do it. Also, the pitching coaches, like Jose Jaimes. He helps me a lot with calling games from the pitching side.

 

Did it ever go through your mind that you wouldn’t get the chance to play every day?

Valencia: Yeah, it went through my mind, because I had never got the chance to play. This year, the fact that I finished up last year playing good baseball, and then I went to play winter ball in Venezuela, and I played really good – and I played with some big leaguers – it helped me to say, “I can do this.”

So, I real prepared myself really good because, in my mind, I told myself, “This is going to be a good year.” I don’t know how, but I knew this was going to be the year. So, I prepared myself really good and working hard every single day during the offseason. I went to spring training focused on doing what I do, not saying, “maybe I’m going to play every day.” No, that wasn’t my thinking. My goal was, I’m going to work as hard as I can every day and do my job and see what happens.

 

What was the area of your game that you had to work the hardest on to be able to play every day?

Valencia: My body.  Last year, I went to spring training at 226 pounds and they at the end of the season told me I can play, but I needed to focus on my body. They said if you can drop some pounds, you may have the chance to play more, because your body can handle that. So, I focused on that and came back at 206 pounds. I dropped 20 pounds just working and putting in some strength in my body. I think that impressed the team more to give me the opportunity, because they saw that I was able to do it.

 

Everybody’s goal is to get to the major leagues. What do you see as your path to get there?

Valencia: Baseball is not about skills or about how many tools you have, it’s about your mentality of what you can do in the field. Mostly, for me as a catcher, it’s how you handle a game, how you call a game, how you can help the pitchers. Most of the catchers get to the big leagues as good catchers and then they’ll focus on their hitting. You have to be a plus catcher to get to the big leagues, so that is my focus every single day is to be the best catcher.

 

How’s your throwing?

Valencia: It’s been good. It’s getting better. I’ve been working with Sharnol and Chris Briones. At the beginning of the season I was working on some different things, but then it’s getting altogether and lately it’s been good.

 

When you go home in September and you go to winter, what’s a good year look like for you?

Valencia: First of all, finish up strong here and then go back to Venezuela and rest up a little bit and then have a good winter ball season. They gave me a chance last year to play and this year hopefully I get more of a chance to play there. Winter ball is a pretty tough league because you play with big league guys, but at the same time that’s good experience.

 

Do you see yourself coaching or managing some day?

Valencia: A hundred percent, I see myself coaching. I like baseball a lot. I don’t see myself out of those lines. I’ve doing this my entire life since I was three-years old. At some point at my life, I’ll be coaching and I really like managing. I see myself managing at some point.

 

Have you started to look ahead at those plans and talking to those guys and learning what they do?

Valencia: Not that much. What I do is, I see what they do. I don’t talk that much. I don’t go to them and ask them how they do it, but I see what they do. I’m not going to go to them and say, “Tell me how to coach.” I’m not at that point of my life right now. I want to play as long as I can, but at some point, obviously, in everybody’s career there is an end and that’s when I’ll start asking. But right now, all I see, from any coach and any team I go to, I will take something from them.

 

What catchers have you learned the most from?

Valencia: Robinson Chirinos. Since I got to the states in 2015 for my first spring training, he’s been there. I just listen to him and watch him and all that. This year, we had a meeting with him and Jonathan Lucroy and I starting learning more from them. Last year during winter ball, I learned a lot from Jesus Sucre – he’s the catcher from Tampa Bay – I learned a lot from him last year because he was the catcher for the winter ball team and I was his backup catcher. He taught me a lot how to call games and helped me a lot with pitch sequences. I learned a lot from him.

 

Looking ahead as a possible manager, who do you see yourself being like? Who has impressed you as a manger that you might be like?

Valencia: The one that impressed me the most in the big leagues is Jeff Banister. The way he treats the guys, the way he fights for the guys out on the field. I had the opportunity, he had a meeting in the Dominican a couple of years ago when he had his first year with the Rangers. He went to the Dominican and talked to us the same way he talked to the big league guys. That means a lot because he cares for everybody in the organization. It’s just the way he’s in the game. He’s managing, but at the same time it’s like he’s playing. He’s there for everybody and caring for everybody. He’s strong mentally and that impressed me a lot.

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Luke Can Pitch Now: Catching Up with Luke Jackson

Luke Jackson, the 45th player overall taken in the 2010 first-year-player major league draft by the Texas Rangers, made his pro debut with the Hickory Crawdads in May 2011, in the middle of a playoff drive. He and 2010 second-rounder Cody Buckel – both sporting Justin Bieber-inspired coifs – were both inserted into the Crawdads starting rotation.

The native of Ft. Lauderdale, then just 19, sported a mid-90s fastball and a sharp-breaking curve when he joined the Crawdads. But in many ways, he was like a toddler with a toy tool set. The ability there could be fantastic, but it the results could also be ugly. Jackson admitted at that stage of his career, he had no idea what he was doing.

He had mixed results with the Crawdads. He took the ball every five games and got his first pro win in his fifth start – a one-run, two-hit, five-inning outing at Lexington on June 11. However, it is the next start on June 16 that I will remember most. For it showed what kind of pitcher Luke could be; it also had the chance to be a disaster.

Facing Charleston (S.C.) to start a four-game series to close out the first half – with the team holding a half-game lead in the standings – Jackson was brilliant through four innings. He had struck out eight of the first 12 batters and took a 3-0 lead into the fifth. Gary Sanchez – now with the Yankees – led off the inning with a moonshot homer to the leftfield corner. Jackson sandwiched outs between a single, but then walked two and in the process uncorked a wild pitch that crashed into the plexiglass window in the netting behind home to load the bases. With action in the bullpen, manager Bill Richardson and pitching coach Storm Davis decided it was time to “see what the kid’s got.” Jackson rewarded the trust with a flyout and the Crawdads went on to win 5-1.

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Hickory Crawdads vs Charleston Riverdogs 6/16/2011 – L.P. Frans Stadium – Hickory, North Carolina Photos by John M. Setzler, Jr. Pictured: Luke Jackson

In a lot of ways, that outing summed up Jackson’s career of living on the edge. Jackson came back to Hickory in 2012 to figure some things out and then at Myrtle Beach the following year, he soared. He was the starting pitcher in the Carolina-California all-star game in 2013 and MiLB.com named him the Rangers organizational all-star.

Jackson had similar success at AA with Frisco, but after getting toasted at AAA, the Rangers moved him to the bullpen in 2015. Texas brought him up for a taste of the big leagues in 2015 and 2016, but then shipped him in the offseason to Atlanta, where he is currently pitching out of the Braves bullpen.

Jackson’s personality is perhaps a better fit for the bullpen and it could be that his 2011 teammates knew that then when the “Crawdads Bullpen” – a group that included Ben Rowen, Jimmy Reyes, Jorge Marban, Ben Henry among others that still maintain a social media presence – made him one of their group. The highlight of their antics included an ill-advised swim in the dugout.

It is that story with which I began the interview with Luke in the Atlanta Braves dugout at Sun Trust Field. As it turned out, it was the afternoon prior to his first major league win.

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There’s been a few bridges since we talked last time. I talked with Ben Rowen last year and there was a certain picture of you guys in the dugout and there was a flood.

Jackson: Yes, I have some great memories with those guys. The bullpen down there was quite hilarious. That was the day when there was a light little rain shower that filled up the dugout to about the brim – so about 4 feet deep – and we decided that we were going to go swimming and do laps, race across the dugout doing laps. Once we realized the toilet was under water, we realized it was a horrible idea and then covered our body with hand sanitizer and took showers. It was pretty funny while it was happening.

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Members of the “Crawdads Bullpen” take a swim in the dugout following a 2011 thunderstorm at Hickory’s L.P. Frans Stadium

 

So nobody got e-coli

Jackson: No, we lived – barely – but, we lived. It was pretty interesting.

 

That was an interesting year as far as the whole bullpen crew, and they accepted a starter as a part of that.

Yeah, I actually lived with three of them. That bullpen had some of the funniest antics and routines and things they did throughout the year. I think just because I lived with them they always tried to include me in them and to this day we still – it’s call the Crawdads Bullpen Group Chat – still a text message group that is lively to this morning it was going on – same guys, pretty impressive.

 

Did you guys get under Bill Richardson’s skin?

Jackson: We were playing well at the time when that all started going on so he didn’t say much, but I guarantee it definitely irked him a little bit. Bill’s a great guy.

 

Here you are in the major leagues – what was the call-up like when you went to Texas?

Jackson: In ‘15 yeah, I get called up in July or early August and it was pretty surreal. It was probably the best memory I have of baseball. My whole family got to come up to see me in Seattle. It was awesome. I didn’t pitch in the Seattle series. We ended up going to Anaheim after that I debuted, but it was nothing like I can explain. Then in ’16 playing the big leagues and now this year playing with the Braves.

I mean, I got the chance to play with two different teams. The group here is absolutely amazing: coaching staff, players. The first seven years I spent in the same organization and then I come here and I feel like I’ve been with them for seven years. All unbelievable guys and just all for the same goal of getting better and winning games.

 

There was a hashtag that went around #CanLukepitchnow. Did you get wind of that?

Jackson: (Laughing) Of course, Tepid is one of my favorite guys ever. Michael, I would always see his tweets. He’s a super fun guy and I would always like the way he wrote about guys. He’s super positive and just encouraging. I would always see stuff like that and that would make me laugh. My parents would ask, “Are you going to throw today?” I was like, “I don’t know, I’ve got to do it how it works.” He’s the man; I think he started all that off. He’s a special guy to have on your side.

 

Did you ever wonder if you were going to pitch?

Jackson: There was a point where I was like, “Maybe I’m just here as a prop, or something, just hanging out.” That was kind of funny. It took a little while, but I think expected.

 

What is the memory of you getting called up? What did you do? How did you respond? Who did you call?

Jackson: I was in New Orleans. Actually, my girlfriend had just gotten there. I was just sitting in the hotel room. I had gotten back from the field and I got a phone call and Woody (Round Rock manager Jason Wood) was like, “Hey, I’d just like to be the first one to tell you, congratulations, you’re going to the big leagues.” I was like, “Oh wow, I’m actually going up to the big leagues.”

I called my mom four times, but she didn’t answer. I called my dad a couple of times and he didn’t answer. I was like, “Hmm, maybe I’ll just call in the morning.” But I was like, “I’ve got to tell them.” So, I called my sister because she would wake mom and dad up. So, I called her and she walked over and woke them up and put it on speaker phone. I said, “Hey, I just want to tell you guys that I’m going to the big leagues.” They were pretty pumped; mom was crying.

It was pretty surreal to see stuff like that work out. Every time you see somebody called up for the first time, you know what they’re going through. It’s one of the coolest feelings. You worked your whole life to get to this focal point of your career. Now that you’ve made it, the goals start from here for you to stay.

 

What was your reaction when you got traded?

Jackson: I heard it every year in the middle of the year, even when I was at Hickory. I’d go to high-A I’d hear, “Hey, you’re getting traded at the deadline.” And then next year, “Hey, you’re getting traded at the deadline.” At Frisco, I was hearing the same thing, “you’re probably going to get traded.” My agent calls and tells me, “There’s actually a good chance you’re going to get traded.” I was like, “Every year is something like that.”

So, I get a call from (Texas Rangers general manager) Jon Daniels and he said, “I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded. Best of luck with your endeavors. Thank you so much.” Jon, to this day, is an amazing guy. Whenever I’d talk with him and have a conversation, he was genuine as all get out. He just told me I was going and wished me the best of luck. Then I got a call from (John) Coppolella (Atlanta Braves general manager) and he told me “You’re coming to the Braves. Congratulations and get ready to get the season going.”

It was kind of a surreal whirlwind the night I was traded. I was kind of, “Wow.” I called my parents and told them, “I think I’m with the Braves.” I knew I was, but I wasn’t really sure that how it worked then. It was pretty cool and I’m happy to be here.

 

What do you think about the ballpark?

Jackson: Unbelievable. It’s spectacular. They kind of took the best of every part they found and jumbled it into one and this is what you get. It’s high end, first class: the dugouts, locker rooms, the stadium. The Battery in the outfield is beautiful. Everything they did is just top of the line.

 

Who is the current or former major leaguer that you’ve met that you’ve said, “man, I can’t believe I’m talking to this person”?

Jackson: Bartolo Colon.

Last year, when I was rehabbing in ’16 to start the year. The only people hurt in camp were me and Josh Hamilton. So, I spent every waking day of four weeks riding the bike next to him and talking life and getting to know him. That was a surreal moment in my career. I read his book prior to meeting the guy in high school. There I am rehabbing with him and that was pretty awesome.

And then having PFP groups this spring training with a guy that’s been in the league for 21 years. He’s an unbelievable human being and one of the best teammates you could have in Bartolo. That was pretty awesome.

Just every day, just getting to see people and meet people and come across people and ex-high school teammates and seeing people you came up in the minor leagues with is all so fun to do.

 

What are your expectations for the year?

Jackson: You always set the bar as high as you can and then go out there and post as many zeroes and see how many games this team can win. I think this squad is good and when everything starts to click, I think it’ll be a pretty good run.

 

When you and I had a conversation back in your second year in Hickory and you accepted that you needed to come back to find things. What did you learn out of that experience now that you’ve gotten here?

Jackson: Oh wow. Just looking back at those years, I would say that I didn’t even know what I was doing. The first year out of high school, actually my first year out of high school was low-A, coming in, I didn’t know how to pitch at all. I was just trying to throw the baseball to the plate.

Looking back on it, I think my second year at Myrtle Beach was when I figured I started pitching. Brad Holman helped me a lot with that. I had Storm Davis mentally getting me prepared for all that. That was pretty awesome. The group of coaches and the staff we had along my career, I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done.

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Luke Jackson during a 2012 start (photo by Tracy Proffitt)

Potential Power Ranger: An Interview with Yanio Perez

My first encounter with Yanio Perez was in Columbia, S.C. I went there in early April to interview Fireflies manager Jose Leger about ex-football player Tim Tebow, who plays at Columbia. I arrived early and had a chance to catch some of the Crawdads batting practice and I passed this well-built, I mean solidly-build, hunk of a human being. I remember saying, “Now that’s a football player”

Since the Crawdads hadn’t had a home game to that point, the players and names were still unfamiliar to me, so I made a mental note of the number: 28. When I got to the press box, I looked it up. The name: Yanio Perez.

He’s listed at 6-2, 205, but I’m guessing he’s a little heavier than that. Had circumstances been different for his life, I could imagine him as a linebacker. He has a thick neck, battleship arms and the thighs of a weightlifter.

Looking back in my mind’s eye, the Crawdads player I could best compare him to, as far as the build, is former outfielder Jordan Akins. He doesn’t have Akins speed, but as a baseball player to this point, he is further along.

Perez had a quick start to the season, then slow dropped to a .245/.365/.377 slash by April 20. At that time, the whole club had struggled, some of it due to very little field time because of an unusually rainy period. But for Perez adjustments had to make. He had become jumpy in hitters counts, swinging through fastballs that seemed off the plate.

“For him, I think it’s just his mind set as a hitter,” said Crawdads hitting coach Kenny Hook at the time. “He’s so good at kind of being able to hit breaking balls and offspeed pitches up the middle and the other way to where, he was seeing a lot of them and he was just giving up on fastballs and looking to drive the breaking stuff the other way and get his hits that way.”

Finally, Perez figured out how pitchers were trying to get him out and he had a homestand to remember at the end of April. Over the final eight games of the month, he went 16-for-28 with five homers, a double, four walks, eight runs scored and 15 RBI. He ended the month at .358/.453/.642. Perez was named the South Atlantic League’s hitter of the week and the Texas Rangers tabbed him as their minor league player of the month.

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Yanio Perez shakes the hand of Crawdads manager Spike Owen during a home run trot in a game vs. Columbia (Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

“What you saw in the Columbia series,” said Hook, “And kind of the ongoing thing with him as far as what he needs to improve on, and what we’re preaching is, stay on the fastball timing all the time. Because, at any point, he recognizes well enough to where he can still hit the offspeed the other way. What you saw in that series is, he was looking fastball and he was committed to it, so when they did hang a slider or offspeed, you saw him get the bathead out and pulled more baseballs in that series. When he gets extended and pulls the ball, obviously you’re going to do more damage. So, you saw big power numbers in that series.”

Perez continued to put up good numbers and was in the top-five in the SAL in all three slash categories. (.322/.392/.533). He earned a SAL all-star selection, but a well-earned promotion to high-A Down East has changed those plans.

As well as he’s played, there is a certain sadness that Perez acknowledges: he misses his family. While Perez was able to leave Cuba to come and play baseball in the states, his family is still on the island. He talks to his parents daily, but the 21-year-old hasn’t seen them in two years. He wants to succeed in order to help his family, but behind his infectious smile, the pain from separation is real.

I had a chance to speak with him late last week with the translation help of pitching coach Jose Jaimes. It’s not my best interview and I’ll admit my questions were not the most hard-hitting. We were all rushed for time and it’s hard to get too deep when over half of the 13-minute interview was spent in translation. But for the reader, I hope you get a sense about this kid.

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Yanio Perez (Hickory Crawdads)

 

How do you feel about making the all-star team?

Perez: I feel very happy, more because this is my first year in professional baseball and playing in this league. I feel very proud of what I accomplished.

 

Are you accomplishing this year what you had hoped to?

Perez: I didn’t have as my goal to make the all-star team. My goals were, number one, try to help the team as much as I can. I would like to hit .300 for the year, which I am doing and I’m happy with what I’ve done so far.

 

You signed with the Rangers last October. Has it been a whirlwind getting to the states and then to play ball?

It has been a hurricane to adjust to everything I’ve gone through over the last year – leaving my family, coming here, going to Arizona. So, I’m still going through the process of transition.

 

What’s been the biggest adjustment personally coming to the states?

Perez: The biggest challenge for me is the language and being away from my family. I have my wife with me right now, but everybody else is away. That has been the biggest challenge, the language and the family.

 

What made you decide to leave Cuba to come to the states?

Perez: I played baseball for a while in Cuba, but I felt like coming over to the states I was going to be able to compete in a better environment and I am also able to help my family from here. That was the main reason I left Cuba.

 

Who did you grow watching Cuba?

Perez: I didn’t grow up watching a specific guy. The way that I learned how to play the game was more about thinking I’ve got to get better every single day. It’s easier in Cuba to watch Major League games, so I watched A-Rod and guys like that and names that everybody in Cuba knows. But for the most part, I was just trying to do better every single day with training and listening to coaches.

Yanio Perez - rebel uni

Crawdads 1B/ OF Yani o Perez during a game vs. Kannapolis (Tracy Proffitt)

 

Who is your favorite player?

Perez: Yasiel Puig and Mike Trout

 

What do you like about them?

Perez: About Puig, I like the way that he hits. He’s pretty aggressive with the bat. About Trout, I like the way that he plays the game. He’s very professional and I like the way that he looks on the field.

 

Have you had a chance to meet any of the players that you watched in Cuba?

Perez: I met with Adrian Beltre and Carlos Gomez in spring training, I knew them from Cuba. Those where guys that were famous on the island.

 

What was it like to meet Beltre?

Perez: It was very exciting meet a guy that’s going to be in the Hall of Fame.

 

You talk about missing your family. Do you get to talk with them very much?

Perez: Yes. I talk to them every day. It helps having a cell phone and the apps to make it easier to communicate. But still, I miss them a lot because it’s been two years since I left the country.

 

Is there a time you think your parents will get to see you play?

Perez: I don’t know. We’re working on that.

 

Is it easier now for Cubans to come here and play baseball than in the past?

Perez: It’s easier right now than in the past.

 

What’s the biggest difference playing baseball here than in Cuba?

Perez: The biggest difference is that the games here are faster. The pitchers here throw harder than most of the Cuban pitchers.

 

What do you mean about the game being faster?

Perez: The runners are way faster, but you have to more to think about and more plays you have to be aware of.

 

You hear about baseball in the Latin countries being a party atmosphere. Is it too quiet here?

Perez: I don’t need that. I actually like the people here in this country that actually come to watch the game and enjoy it. With that said, I do miss playing in front of my people, but the craziness and all that, I don’t miss that at all.

 

What is the biggest thing you are working on for the rest of the year?

Perez: I’d like to be faster and keep working on my hitting. That’s something I’m working on, to be consistent every day.

 

Is first base new to you?

Perez: I had first base two times before coming here.

 

First base, third base, outfield before coming here?

Perez: I’ve played almost every position since I was a little kid. I think it’s more valuable to be able to play a lot of positions.

 

When you get a call to go the major leagues, what do you think your reaction will be?

Perez: I’m going to be really happy, but in my mind I know I will have to work hard to stay there as long as I can. That’s my goal.

Yanio Perez - proffitt

Yanio Perez connects during a game vs. Kannapolis (Tracy Proffitt)

Crawdads trim Legends 7-5

The Hickory Crawdads rallied from behind and then held on late to take a 7-5 win over the Lexington (Ky.) Legends Sunday afternoon at L.P. Frans Stadium.

The win was the seconds straight for the Crawdads (25-38) in the four-game series and they will attempt to take just their fourth series win of the first half, the second at home in Monday’s finale. Meanwhile, Lexington (30-33) dropped its fifth in six games on the current road trip, which concludes on Monday at L.P. Frans.

What happened?:

Hickory pounded out 12 hits on Sunday, seven of those for extra bases, and it started with Eric Jenkins’s lead-off triple in the first. Leody Taveras brought him in with an RBI grounder to short.

Kyle Cody retired the first six hitter before running into trouble in the third. Joe Dudek doubled to the track in center. One out later, Rudy Martin singled in Dudek to tie the game.

Lexington grabbed the lead in the fourth with a three-run inning. Angelo Castellano led off with a single. Two outs later, John Brontsema singled and Yeison Melo bounced a double off the bag at third to score Castellano. Dudek’s second hit in two innings was a two-run single.

Alex Kowalczyk’s homer (5) to right got Crawdads within 4-2. Cody (2-6) provided a boost for his team by working out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth. With one out and runners at second and third, Cody intentionally walked Emmanuel Rivera. He then struck out Gabriel Cancel and got Brontsema to fly out to center.

The Crawdads took that momentum to the bottom of the inning and turned it into three runs to retake the lead. Leody Taveras smashed a sharp grounder off the leg off Gomez for a single. Yanio Perez was hit by a pitch. One out later, Forbes doubled off the wall in left to score Taveras. Garay then doubled to the track in center for the other two runs to make it 5-4.

Despite the three-run deficit, Crawdads manager Spike Owen felt confident his club would be able to battle back. “We knew we were in the ballgame,” said Owen. “Especially with the wind blowing out. We put good at-bats on and put men on base and got a big two-out, two-RBI double from Garay.”

Cody pitched a scoreless sixth before Jake Lemoine added two more shutout innings, though he needed a big play to maintain the lead. Melo singled with one out and after Dudek moved him up with a grounder, Mark Sanchez ripped a sharp grounder to left. Eric Jenkins charged the ball aggressively and then hit the catcher Kowalczyk on the fly with a throw that was in time to nab Melo trying to score.

Blaine Prescott cracked his third homer of the season in the bottom of the inning, a two-run shot that made it 7-4.

“Blaine’s home run in the eighth was huge to give us a cushion,” Owen said. Jenkins play in the top of the eighth was big throwing the tying run out at the plate. We made the plays we had to make and got some timely hits.”

Jenkins throw and Prescott’s homer proved crucial has Khalil Lee clubbed his 10th homer of the season in the ninth. Castellano singled to center to bring the tying run to the plate. But Kaleb Fontentot induced Rivera to bounce into a game-ending 6-4-3 double play.

“That was a good ball game, today.” said Owen. “We made all the plays and got some big hits. The pitching kept us in the game. Nice to see it all in one game.”

 

Cody guts out six:

(I preface all this by reminding the reader that I am not a scout, baseball mind, etc. My main job at the games is to be the official scorer and so I see the games with those eyes and I miss some things. These are my observations and they could all be just bunk.)

Even when he retired the first six, I’m not sure that Cody had his best stuff today. Rangers trackers had him at 94-96, but pitches tended to stay up. Normally a groundball pitcher, 1.43 GO/AO, three of the first six outs were in the air. Dudek’s double to start the third was crushed to the CF track. Castellano’s single to start the fourth was a liner and Cody needed a leaping, sprawling grab by Forbes at third to take away a potential double off the bat of Rivera. Cancel then flew out to CF.

After the flyout, Cody did run into a bit of bad luck for the three runs with three straight groundball hits, including Melo’s slow bouncer that found the bag.

He seemed a bit rushed in the fifth on two straight walks as Kowalczyk walked in front of the plate to remind Cody to stay in front on delivery. Forbes made a tough, backhanded play for an out at third to move runners to second and third. An intentional walk to set up a double play seemed to settle him down. He got his footing back on three straight fastballs to K Cancel, before a routine fly to center ended the threat.

Of course, a pitcher will not have his best stuff every time out, but learning what to do in those situations will propel or impede a pitcher’s progress.

The Rangers have had a good run with Midwestern-born, hard-throwing, right-handed pitchers out of college in recent years. Nick Tepesch (Missouri), and Jared Eickhoff (Indiana) made it to the majors. Connor Sadzeck (Illinois) is knocking on the door of the majors, as he is on the Rangers 40-man roster at AA Frisco. With that sinking fastball, slider and change, and a good ability to mix them all, the Wisconsin native is intriguing to me. He’ll take his lumps -Tepesch and Eickhoff did during their year here – but pitching coach Jose Jaimes likes his ability to shrug off those lumps. That’s half the battle as a pro.

 

Defensive gems:

Forbes again, (see the Cody section above)

Cody and Perez: With Martin on first and one out, the Legends sent the speedster on a hit-and-run and the SS Yrizarri covered the bag. Lee put the ball in play and Forbes made a charging play towards the mound to collect the roller and throw to first. With Forbes and Yrizarri both in motion, third base was uncovered. Aware of the situation, Cody sprinted towards the open bag. 1B Yanio Perez, who’s not been reliable with infield throws, hit Cody on the run to third and Cody arrived in time to place a tag on Martin. The play kept the Lexington uprising in the third to just one run.

Jenkins: After a couple of poor performances in key spots on Saturday, his throw to nab Melo at the plate in the eighth was huge.

 

Forbes ready to fly?:

The dude picks it at third every single game. He’s made adjustments at the plate and is back smacking nearly everything hard. The K-rate has dropped. Is it time to allow him to ride the bus to different cities in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic region? Not sure what else he needs to do.

Legendary Rally Sinks Crawdads 4-3

It’s been a tough season for the Hickory. The pitching staff has taken its lumps. The defensive play has been iffy. There has been time the two aspects have performed well, but the bats went silent.

Friday night had all the makings of a good team win. Solid pitching, nearly flawless defense, and timely hitting added up to a 3-1 lead. And then the ninth…

Taking advantage of a key error, the Lexington (Ky.) Legends tallied three runs in the top of the ninth and claimed a 4-3 victory over the Crawdads in front of 3,025 fans at L.P. Frans Stadium.

The Legends (30-31) snapped a three-game losing streak and picked up their first win during a weeklong road trip after being swept at Columbia (S.C). The win was also the first of the season after trailing in the eighth inning. Lexington was 0-25 in such games before Friday’s rally.

Meanwhile, Hickory (23-38) dropped its third straight, all at home where the Crawdads are 11-21. It was first loss (14-1) when leading after eight innings.

 

What happened?:

Crawdads starter Matt Ball held the Legends in check for six innings and Nick Dignacco added two more solid innings to help get the Crawdads to the ninth with the lead.

Ball allowed one run on seven hits and struck out ten before Dignacco tacked on three Ks over two scoreless innings.

Meanwhile, the Crawdads put up two runs in the second against Andre Davis. With two outs, Jose Almonte singled and Yeyson Yrizarri doubled him in. Anderson Tejeda reached on an infield hit and Yrizarri scored when second baseman John Brontsema’s throw to first went into the dugout.

Khalil Lee hit his ninth homer of the season in the third to trim the Legends deficit in half.

Hickory got the run back in the fourth when Alex Kowalczyk singled and came around to score on Carlos Garay’s doubled to the track in center to make it 3-1. And then the ninth…

Rudy Martin and Lee opened the inning with singles to chase Dignacco. Reid Anderson entered to face Angelo Castellano and this was the key sequence of the inning. Castellano sent a 2-1 fastball on a liner to left, which scored Martin from second. On the play, LF Eric Jenkins charged the ball aggressively, but it skipped to Jenkins left and that allowed Lee to go to third and Castellano to second.

Gabriel Cancel atoned for a four-strikeout night with a sacrifice fly to the track in left that easily scored Lee from third and was deep enough to allow Castellano to move to third. With the infield in to try and keep the go-ahead run from scoring, the next hitter, Emmanuel Rivera, hit a grounder to Yanio Perez at first. He made the quick grab of the ball and fired home, but Castellano was able to slide under the tag of the catcher Kowalczyk to make it 4-3.

Anderson pitched out of further trouble, but aside from Yrizarri’s second double of the game with two outs, Gavin Grant had little trouble setting down the Crawdads to close out the game.

 

Matt was Ballin’

With a decent arsenal of four pitches (fastball 91-92, change, curve and a slider I don’t remember seeing last year), I was a bit surprised the Rangers hadn’t given him much of a look in the starting rotation other than as a spot-starter. With Demarcus Evans going on the DL, and Tyler Phillips and Jonathan Hernandez moving to different affiliates, Ball has picked up a rotation spot. The results up till Friday in the rotation have been not good: 14 earned runs in his last 14 innings (three starts) with 7 walks. But the Ks have increased. He had eight in 6.1 innings at Delmarva and posted 14 over the last three starts.

He hadn’t been much of a strikeout pitcher, but more of a groundball hurler. The SAL hit .266 against him last year, but when he keeps his sinking fastball down and throws his secondaries for strikes, he’s tough. Friday was one of those nights.

He got Ks on all four pitches – spotting the fastball on corners for looking Ks. He threw a few changes early to good effect, but started leaving some pitches up.

Lee’s homer was a rope that skipped off the top of the 32’ billboard in right – a true liner. In the fourth, Rivera lined to right, Meibrys Viloria then nearly decapitated Ball with a liner up the middle and Brontsema added a hard-hit single. From there, Ball began to amp up the breaking ball arsernal and K’d both Joe Dudek and Marteen Gasparini on good sliders.

Running out of gas in the sixth – a walk and hit batter – Ball got his final K on a slider to Dudek and later returned to the change for a fielder’s choice.

 

Digging Dignacco

The 40th round pick in 2014 finally returned to action after serving out his commitment to West Point and he’s not messing around. Dignacco has a quick pace and brings an 88-90 mph fastball and a curve that seems to have two speeds. It was especially tough on lefties as a couple of them bailed on the bender. He also got a couple of hitters to chase changeups, with which he used to expand the strike zone to righties looking for the curve to come over the plate.

 

Eerie Yrizarri:

Yeyson Yrizarri was moved to second for this season with most of the playing time going to Anderson Tejeda. Occasionally the two will switch, as they have for the last couple of games. Personally, I like Yrizarri more at short. Cannon of an arm and the range to play the position, I thought he made the position look easy last year and continues to do so this year. The issue of him taking his time to make plays has seemed to vanish this season.

One such play on Friday showed his prowess at the position. In the second, Brontsema hit a grounder that seemed destined for a single to center. Cheating up the middle prior to the pitch, Yrizarri fielded the ball to the first-base side of the bag at the cut of the outfield grass. He quickly twirled and fired a bullet to first for the out.

But there were a couple sequences on force plays that seemed to tax him mentally. In the sixth with runners at first and second, Gasparini hit a ball up the middle that Yrizarri fielded near the bag. What looked like a routine step-on-the-bag-at-second play to end the inning, turned into a throw to first that the speedy Gasparini beat out. One inning later, a similar play occurred when Yrizarri fielding the ball near the bag, but there seemed almost a mindset of, “I won’t mess that up again”. He looked up to Tejeda covering at second and the ball kicked off the glove for an error.

 

Taveras back?:

A 1-for-18 at Delmarva (Md.) last weekend seemed to be a cry for help in the form of time off for the 18-year-old. With Monday’s off day, he got three days of R&R before returning to the lineup Thursday. He looked a little rusty last night, but seemed back on track again. In the first, a 9-pitch AB right-handed AB turned into a hard out to right. He waved through a breaking ball for an out in the third, then in the fifth Taveras slapped a pitch away to the RF corner for a double. Batting lefty in the eighth, he turned on a fastball in and again peppered the right fielder with a liner.

Success in Middle Management: Greenville Tops Crawdads 5-3

Greenville (S.C.) scored five runs over the middle innings to support the start of Jhonathan Diaz as the Drive defeated Hickory 5-3 at L.P. Frans Stadium Thursday night in front of 1,725 fans.

The Drive (37-23) took the three-game series by winning the final two games and now lead the South Atlantic League’s first-half Southern Division standings by three games over the Columbia (S.C.) Fireflies with ten games to play.

Hickory drops to 23-37 in the first half and are three games behind sixth-place Delmarva (Md.) in its bid to avoid the first last-place finish in a half-season since 2008, when the team was affiliated with the Pirates. The Crawdads are also trying to avoid the worst half-season record by a Rangers affiliated club. The 2009 second-half team finished 30-40.

 

What happened?:

Both lefties – Hickory starter Sal Mendez and Diaz – held the hitters at bay for the most part through the first three innings. The lone flaw by Diaz over the first five innings occurred in the third, when Jose Almonte golfed what appeared to be a low fastball over the fence. The solo blast was his fourth of the season and it gave the Crawdads their only lead.

That was short lived as Greenville returned fire in the fourth to take a 2-1 lead. Ryan Scott doubled hard to left and scored one out later on Rolandi Baldwin’s double to center. After Tucker Tubbs popped out, Tyler Spoon ripped a liner to right for a single. Almonte charged the ball and threw a one-hop bullet home that handcuffed the catcher Ricky Valencia and allowed Baldwin to score. (More on this play later)

In the fifth, Steven Reveles and Chris Madera both singled and later scored when Scott lifted a single past the drawn-in infield (Also more on this play later)

The Drive tacked on their final run in the sixth against Luke Lanphere. Spoon doubled to left, advanced to third on a grounder and scored on Reveles’s ground single up the middle through another drawn-in infield.

Meanwhile, Diaz faced one over the minimum through five innings, the lone blemish being Almonte’s homer and a single by Franklin Rollin in the first that was erased on a double play. The 20-year-old Venezuelan, making just his third stateside start, struck out eight through five innings.

However, the Crawdads finally got to him in the sixth with three straight hits. Yeyson Yrizarri singled to left and moved to third on Anderson Tejeda’s opposite-field double.  Rollin singled in Yrizarri and in the process chased Diaz. Pat Goetze faced Leody Taveras, who bounced into a fielder’s choice to third. Reveles charged the play hard in order to get the force at second, but his throw sailed high and allowed Rollin to reach and Tejeda to score. But with runners at first and second, Yanio Perez hit into an infield fly and Forbes hit into a fielder’s choice. The inning ended when a double-steal attempt blew up and Rollin was caught stealing at home.

The Crawdads mounted an uprising in the eighth against Hildemaro Requena.  With two outs, Taveras and Perez slapped back-to-back singles to place runners at the corners. However, Requena fanned Ti’Quan Forbes to end the threat.

Requena worked around a walk in the ninth by striking out the side to earn his third save of the season.

 

Examples of why errors and earned runs do not tell the whole story:

My friend Scott Lucas, who sends out a Rangers minor league report daily during the season, does a primer at the beginning of the season. In it, he explains that while ERA does reflect some of how a pitcher is doing, there are things that happen during a game that have more of an effect on earned runs (on none) than what meets the eye. Heck, an official scorer’s demeanor might get in the way of a judgment call at times. (Though I’m not one of those… I don’t think.) Earned runs, or the lack of them, do not always tell the fan the whole story.

Hickory was charged with three errors on the night and none officially had anything to do with the scoring. A glance at the box will tell a person the Crawdads played poorly defensively – and they did  – then you look at the pitching line for Mendez and you’ll think, “well, they played poorly, but they didn’t affect Mendez’s earned run total.” While the errors didn’t affect earned runs, misplays that are not charged as errors did.

The first error came opening batter of the game, when Yrizarri’s high throw allowed Chris Madera to reach. Madera was erased on a double play hit into by Santiago Espinal, so no biggie.

The second error was the play that handcuffed Valencia at the plate. The runner, Baldwin, should have been out by 10 feet, as Almonte’s throw was on the money. But, you don’t assume the runner would be out or safe on such a play. There’s usually a benefit of the doubt given to the runner with the hitter getting the RBI. So, what was the error for? Allowing the runner, who had stopped at first, to advance to second. In short, the second run of the fourth shouldn’t have scored, but it did and it ups Mendez’s ERA total.

In the fifth with runners at first and second and none out, Espinal hit a sharp grounder to Perez at first. Perez made the fielding play cleanly, but a hesitation cost him a chance to throw to second for a simple force out, though a double play would’ve been tough. Perez did record an out at first, but his misstep took away a chance at a double play later to end the inning. So, with a runner at second and third and one out, Crawdads manager Spike Owen had to have the infield play in to try and keep the runner at third on a ground ball rather than at normal depth to try and turning an inning-ending double play. It cost them an out and a second run in the inning as Scott’s base hit was a routine pop up just beyond the second baseman’s position ad it fell in for a two-run single. It’s not a play an official scorer can award an error on, but the right kind of out saves a run. Regardless, it cost Mendez an earned run.

One inning later, Taveras and Almonte converge at RCF to retrieve a single that fell in. The runner stopped, but moved up when the two outfielders couldn’t decide on who would make the play. The ball bounced between them and so I gave the error to the player that should’ve taken charge, the CF Taveras – even though neither of them touched it.

Mendez deserves better, but….

The defense did cost him two runs, but Mendez didn’t help his cause by elevating his pitches. Throwing a well-spotted 89-91 mph fastball, he accompanied that with a changeup that dipped well, especially to left-handed hitters early. His effective mix of speeds worked well as he missed several bats with the change.  He pounded the strike zone for first-pitch strikes (17 of 24 hitters). Add to that four broken bats, 10 groundball outs and two Ks and it was good night…. Except in the fourth and fifth he left a lot of pitches up that were spanked. It looked like Valencia kept reminding Mendez to stay out in front rather than fly open on delivery.

I like him more than most. He’s not going to wow you with “stuff”, but to me, there’s a lot there with that changeup that tantalizes hitters to swing… and miss. He has to keep his pitches down, as there’s not enough otherwise to keep him from getting mauled on the mound.

Greenville Rallies, Defeats Hickory 5-3

The Greenville (S.C.) Drive rallied with two runs in the fifth and one in the sixth to defeat the Hickory Crawdads in front of 3,625 fans, many of whom spent the 10:30 a.m. matinee in line at the lemonade stand at L.P. Frans Stadium.

The win for the Drive (35-23) snaps both their three-game losing streak and the Crawdads (23-36) three-game winning streak. Pending today’s other action in the South Atlantic League’s Southern Division, the Drive is guaranteed at least a three-game lead with 11 games to play in the first-half title chase. Columbia (S.C.) already defeated Lexington (Ky.) today and is three back. Rome (Ga.) will play at in-state rival Augusta this evening. The Braves started the day 2 ½ games behind the first-place Drive.

The loss assured the Crawdads first sub-.500 record for a half-season since the second-half of the 2009 season. Hickory is now simply trying to avoid its first last-place finish since their affiliation with the Pirates ended in 2008. They entered the day two games behind sixth-place Delmarva (Md.). The Crawdads worst half-season record as a Rangers affiliate came in the 2009 second half with they finished 30-40.

 

What happened?:

The Greenville started the game with a single by Chris Madera and a walk issued by Edgar Arredondo (2-3) to Santiago Espinal. One out later, Tyler Hill doubled to left to score Madera.

Hickory pounced back with two of its own in the bottom of the first against Darwinzon Hernandez. With two outs and the bases empty, Yanio Perez singled and then walks to Ti’Quan Forbes and Alex Kowalczyk loaded the bases. Carlos Garay hit a broken-bat, jam-shot blooper into shallow center to score both Perez and Forbes.

That turned out to be almost the last of the Crawdads offense as Robby Sexton replaced Hernandez in the second and was nearly unhittable in earning his first pro win (1-5). The lefty, a 14th-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2016 out of Wright State, retired the first 11 and 18 of the 20 hitters he faced.

Greenville vaulted ahead 3-2 in the fifth with two runs that came after the Crawdads missed a chance for the third out.  Mitchell Gunsolus doubled and one out later moved to third on Arredondo’s wild pitch. Madera joined him on the bases when he was hit by a pitch. The key play of the inning occurred when Espinal flew out to shallow right. Jose Almonte made the catch and while Gunsolus held at third, Madera, for some unknown reason, tagged up from first and tried to advance to second. 1B Yanio Perez cut the ball off, but his throw to second to cut down Madera was high and the runner slid in safely. Ryan Scott singled in both runners to give the Drive a lead they would never relinquish.

Greenville used a two-out rally for a run in the sixth. Reliever Christian Torres loaded the bases by sandwiching walks to Gunsolus and Madera around a single by Carlos Tovar. Espinal hit a liner that was initially caught when SS Yeyson Yrizarri made a leaping grab. However, the ball tumbled out as he fell to the ground and that scored Gunsolus.

Franklin Rollin hit his third homer of the season in the eighth off closer Stephen Nogosek (11th save). However, Madera returned serve with his third homer of the season to start the ninth and accounted for the final score.

 

Strikes matter:

A missed opportunity for the final out in the fifth aside, the game came down to the ability of the pitchers to throw strikes. When Hernandez couldn’t throw strikes in the first (32 pitches, 16 strikes), the Drive moved quickly to shuffle in Sexton and he was brilliant. He mixed in a few breaking balls to miss bats – especially to Jose Almonte and Alex Kowalczyk – but it appeared he stayed with a fastball that was 88-90 according to the pitch trackers with a few changeups mixed in. Sexton (65 pitches, 46 strikes) moved the ball around well, hit spots and the Crawdads never really made solid contact against him.

Arredondo’s fastball was in the 90-92 range with iffy command and he had difficulty getting any of his secondary pitches (change, curve, slider) over the plate. He finished with just 57 strikes out of 87 pitches through 4 2/3 innings.

Christian Torres walks (32 pitches, 19 strikes) cost him a run in the sixth, though he used his change effectively in getting out of Arredondo’s jam in the fifth.

 

Early-run woes continue:

The first-inning run by Greenville was the 30th time in 59 games that an opponent has performed that feat. Further, Hickory has kept the opposition off the scoreboard over the first three innings just nine times.

 

Center field prospects take the day off:

Hickory’s Leody Taveras – the Texas Rangers No. 1 prospect – had his second straight off day on Wednesday. He had missed only one game this season prior to this week and on the heels of a 1-for-18 weekend at Delmarva (Md.) a chance to rest and regroup could be what is needed for now.

Greenville’s Lorenzo Cedrola – the Boston Red Sox No. 15 prospect – sat out on the heels of getting pulled from Tuesday’s game for not running out a groundball.