I missed the clinching game, but I did get a few pics of the celebration and a snapshot with the SAL trophy.
Game Story: West Virginia Power at Hickory Crawdads (Game 3, SAL Playoffs)
The Hickory Crawdads scored a run in the fourth and made it stand up among a strong pitching and defensive effort to claim a 1-0 win over the West Virginia Power in the decisive game of the South Atlantic League series.
The Crawdads will move onto a best-of-five SAL Championship Series against the Asheville Tourists starting Monday night at L.P. Frans Stadium. Hickory will host games one and two on Monday and Tuesday. After a day off, the series will shift to Asheville’s McCormick Park from games three through five starting Thursday.
The lone run of the game came in the fourth inning when Dylan Moore led off with a double, moved to third on a Jose Trevino groundout and scored on Luke Tendler’s sacrifice fly.
The Crawdads used three pitchers to shut down the SAL’s top-hitting team on six hits and three walks. Collin Wiles pitched the first six innings. He issued all three walks and four of the six hits and struck out four. Luis Ortiz struck out four of the six batters he faced. Scott Williams struck out the first two hitters before Elvis Escobar and Connor Joe singled. The game ended when Taylor Gushue lined to Moore at second.
With Wiles struggling early, the defense held the Power off the scoreboard. Kevin Newman led off the game with a walk and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. Kevin Kramer then lined a single to right. Power manager Brian Esposito made an aggressive move to send Newman to the plate. Jairo Beras fielded the ball and fired a throw directly to catcher Jose Trevino, who slapped a quick tag onto Newman sliding into the plate.
In the second, Jerrick Suiter singled and also moved to second on another sac bunt. A grounder to short by Joe kept Suiter at second. Shortstop Edwin Garcia’s diving stop robbed Gushue of a hit on a sharp grounder and ended the inning.
The next inning Newman again walked before Pablo Reyes sent a long fly ball to left center. Jose Cardona raced over from center and then made a running, lunging catch on the track, moving Newman, who was on the way to third at the time of the catch, back to first.
“I told the guys before the game, ‘if we pick it up and throw it like we need to, we have a chance to win the game,’ said Crawdads manager Corey Ragsdale. “They went above and beyond and they made some unbelievable plays and that won us the ballgame.”
Wiles said the defensive plays were a reflection of what the team has done this season.
“The confidence coming into the game was high on our defense,” said Wiles. “You’ve seen it all year. Our defense has made spectacular plays all year. There was no let down. If anything, they took it to the next level and that’s a credit to them.”
The final defensive gem of the game came when Moore snared Gushue’s hard liner at second.
Wiles Pitches Around Trouble:
Wiles had problems finding a feel for his secondary pitches the first few innings. However, he had good fastball placement around the strike zone and kept the Power hitters from squaring them up.
Kramer’s single in the first appeared to be on a slider that caught a lot of the plate. Gushue’s hard grounder to Garcia was a high change. The worst pitch of the night was a hanging curve that turned into Reyes’ liner that was run down by Cardona.
“My style is to put the ball in play and let the defense work,” Wiles said. “I tested them quite a few times and they answered every single time. To bounce back down a game to winning like that throwing a shutout, a team shutout in the third, unbelievable, I couldn’t be prouder of my team right now.”
Wiles found the ability to use all his pitches in the fourth in his lone perfect inning of the night. A cut-fastball struck out Reyes to end a minor jam in the fifth and the final out of for Wiles was a strikeout of Escobar on a fastball.
Battling 0-2 counts the difference:
SAL pitcher of the year Yeudy Garcia was the equal of anyone on the mound Saturday as he struck out seven, walked one, and allowed four hits. The inability to finish off Moore and Tendler after getting ahead 0-2 was a difference in the game.
In his at bat, Moore laid off back-to-back sliders just off the outside corner, then got a belt-high, 95 mph pitched that he ripped to the wall. Likewise, Tendler laid off an 0-2 change, spoiled another before sending a third-straight change that was up out to deep left for the sac fly.
“We knew that we were going to have to fight and claw for everything we got,” said Ragsdale. “They battled their tails off. We didn’t get a ton of hits, but they were up their fighting. That kid’s the SAL pitcher of the year for a reason. I’m super proud of the way the guys game out and battled. You knew it was going to be tough to get anymore. We were going to get their best stuff just like they were going to get our best stuff. We were able to make it stick.”
West Virginia was out of sync the entire two innings that Luis Ortiz was on the mound and it started on the first pitch. Sitting on a first-pitch fastball, Joe swung badly at a slider that was off the plate away. Gushue flew out to right and then after swinging through a slider, the right-handed Tyler Filliben watched a 98 mph fastball catch the outside corner at the knees.
Ortiz went on to strike out the side in the eighth two swinging on sliders and the final one another called third strike on a fastball at the knees.
The two innings that Ortiz threw was arguably the most-dominant two innings of the season, including five missed bats on sliders in the two innings.
“Wiles set the tone right away,” Ortiz said. Him getting deep into the game and messing with the hitters and having them on hold. He made it easier for me just to let it go and do what I have to do.
Williams Pitches Rare Back-to-Back Outing:
Scott Williams worked around two two-out hits and got a break on the liner hit to Moore for the final out of the game. He worked mostly off his 95-97 mph fastballs in getting two strikeouts in the inning.
Having pitched two innings in Friday night’s win, it was thought that he would not be available on back-to-back nights. However, the wheels were put in motion on Saturday and Williams was brought in to seal the series.
“Oscar and Rags told me that I might have a possibility of doing it,” said Williams. “So, we had to convince the pitching coordinator (Danny Clark) to let me do it. He gave me the heads up and I was pumped to get an opportunity to come back out.”
Kudos to Trevino:
Wiles was effusive in his praise of catcher Jose Trevino’s work in the series and felt he had as much to do with the shutout as anyone.
Wiles said, “The consensus between me, Ortiz and Williams is Jose Trevino behind the plate. He told me before the series that he’s got a plan, just stick with him. It worked in game one; we just didn’t get the win. You see a man battle his butt off the last two games and basically willing us to win, willing us to make the right pitch at the right time, all the credit goes to him.”
The Hickory Crawdads forced a decisive game three in the Northern Division playoffs of the South Atlantic League by taking a 6-3 win over the West Virginia Power Friday night at L.P. Frans Stadium in Hickory.
The Crawdads and Power return to Frans Saturday night at 7 p.m. to decide the series with the winner to play the winner of the Southern Division series between Asheville and Savannah, also to be decided on Sunday.
The win was the first playoff win since 2010 and the first home playoff win since the team captured the SAL title in 2004.
An intense game throughout saw the Crawdads take a 1-0 lead in the first on Edwin Garcia’s single to right after two outs.
West Virginia bounced back quickly by hitting its second homer of the series when Connor Joe took Ariel Jurado deep after a walk to Taylor Gushue.
The Crawdads evened the score in the third against Stephen Tarpley when Dylan Moore doubled and later scored on Edwin Garcia’s grounder to second.
The Power again got even in the fifth as Pablo Reyes singled with two outs, stole second and scored on Kevin Kramer’s single to chase Jurado.
After stranding eight over the first five innings, the Crawdads finally took the lead for good in the sixth. Tarpley walked Juremi Profar and Carlos Arroyo back-to-back before Jose Cardona lofted a soft liner into left to score Profar.
Hickory stranded two more in the sixth and the bases loaded in the seventh before finally getting a big hit in the eighth to pad the lead. Cardona and Jose Trevino sandwiched walks around two straight outs before Luke Tendler tripled in both.
Dillon Tate threw two scoreless innings to get the win in relief. Scott Williams pitched two scoreless innings to earn the save.
All-Star Matchup Anything But:
West Virginia’s Stephen Tarpley and Hickory’s Ariel Jurado was named to Baseball America’s Low-A All-Star Team earlier in the day, but neither pitcher was sharp on Friday.
Tarpley looked early as if he would be the same dominant pitcher he was when he three-hit the Crawdads back in August. Left-handed hitter Eric Jenkins waved past a biting slider to start the first and Dylan Moore was jammed on a 5-3 grounder. But then Jose Trevino got enough on a fastball in to reach on a short pop-up that landed between the mound and third. Tarpley shattered Luke Tendler’s bat with a change, but the ball cleared the infield for a hit. Edwin Garcia lined a fastball over the plate for a solid single. From that point, Tarpley seemed to lose control of the fastball and the slider never really had the same bite as it did early. The change he showed in his previous start didn’t have the same effect, which left his fastball for the picking. Of the nine hits Hickory had against Tarpley, eight came on fastballs.
Jurado missed with the slider earlier, getting away with a hanger on a fly out by Kevin Newman to open the game and a single from Kevin Kramer in the third. He brought out the curve in the second and that seemed to be his best secondary pitch of the night. However, when he was unable to throw his slider or change consistently for strikes, the Power hitters were able to ignore or spoil the curve and sit on the fastball. Connor Joe tagged one for the homer in the second. Michael Suchy fought out of an 0-2 count in the third before winning a nine-pitch battle on a change that stayed up. The same scenario played out in the fifth when Kramer battled for eight pitches until he ripped a fastball for an RBI single to chase Jurado. The inability to find a put-away pitch cut his outing to 4.2 innings with Jurado throwing 86 pitches (59 strikes). Six of the seven batters to reach against Jurado did so after two outs.
Umpires with a Tough Night: Home plate umpire Ben Sonntag caught the ire of both sides with what seemed to be inconsistent strike-zone corner to his left. The most egregious was a 3-2 curveball by Jurado in the second that Sonntag appeared to give up on early. The entire Crawdads defense had begun the trot to the dugout – Jose Trevino getting past the home-plate circle – before being called back as Tyler Gushue was awarded the walk. Connor Joe hit the next pitch, a flat fastball, over the fence to left.
Tarpley appeared to balk with runners on the corners in the third. Both Chad Comer at first and Corey Ragsdale at third gave the base umpires an earful.
To their credit, ejections likely would have occured were the game a regular season contest. However, the umpires held their collective thumbs and probably let both sides have a longer leash.
Jurado Settles Down: With Jurado visibly upset after Joe’s homer, the catcher Trevino and the entire infield converged on the mound to console Jurado.
“I just had to talk to him,” said Trevino. “He’s a young kid. He’s got to learn how to hold his emotions in. All season he’s done a good job of doing that. I guess that happening. You saw it in his eyes, he was like, ‘Dang it, that could’ve been a strikeout… it happens.”
Crawdads Show Emotion: After the Power scored three in the fifth to take the lead in game one Wednesday, Hickory went into a funk and saw the final 13 hitters be retired. When the Crawdads lost the lead in the second on a two-run homer under dubious circumstances, the team found some fire.
They rebounded to tie the game in the third, a rally which started when Dylan Moore legged out a double with the slide kicking the ball away from 2B Pablo Reyes. From then on, the Crawdads were the aggressors in the game and never trailed again. The normally stoic Dillon Tate slapped his glove and sprinted to the dugout after Carlos Arroyo picked a sharp grounder to first to strand a runner at third in the sixth.
“I think the first game we saw a little bit of, ‘oh, here we go.’ I think today, we talked a little bit about it before the game. No matter what happens, continue to play. I think you saw that tonight. The guys stayed up. They didn’t get their heads down and they continued to battle and they answered a couple of times.”
Arroyo’s defense: Arroyo played his fourth pro game at first base – all in the past four games – but he made several defensive plays that proved to be crucial. In the second, Arroyo picked a short-hop on a sharp grounder by Chase Simpson to start a 3-6-1 double play. After Arroyo made the play behind the bag in the sixth to save a run, Kevin Newman lofted a soft liner down the first-base foul line in the seventh. Arroyo beat right fielder Jairo Beras to the ball, then turned and fired a strike to second with shortstop Edwin Garcia applying the tag.
Tate dominates: After serving up a single on a first-pitch, 98-mph fastball to Jerrick Suiter in the sixth, Tate settled down to get out of inning. In the seventh, he sat down both Joe and Reyes as 97-98 mph fastballs caught the outside corner at the knees for called third strikes. Joe’s K was set up by sliders at the corner.
“We knew going in that Tate had two innings that we could go to to get him into that position and perform. The first kid jumped on a fastball and (Tate) settled down and got out of it. He had some electric stuff that he was throwing up there.”
The Crawdads Open the Door: After putting up single runs through the first game and seven innings, Luke Tendler’s two-run triple finally gave the Crawdads their first multi-run frame of the series. “We’ve had a ton of games where we just couldn’t get that big hit,” said Ragsdale. “There in the bottom of the eighth, Luke got a big hit for us and drove in two runs and kind of gave us a little breathing room and get the ballgame taken care of.”
Williams Shuts the Door: Scott Williams continued a strong second-half with three strikeouts over the final two innings. Like Tate, he kept a 95-97 mph low and away to righties with an occasional slider mixed in.
South Atlantic League Playoff Series
Game 2: West Virginia Power (87-52, 1-0 series lead) at Hickory Crawdads (81-57, 0-1)
Site/ Time: L.P. Frans Stadium, Hickory, N.C.
Game 1 Recap: The Power struck for three runs in the fifth inning and went on the capture a 4-2 home win. After Crawdads pitcher Yohander Mendez allowed two baserunners over 4.1 innings, a double by Chase Simpson and Taylor Gushue tied the game at 2. West Virginia added an unearned run in the inning, which scored on a wild pitch by Joe Filomeno on a dropped third-strike after fanning Michael Suchy with two outs. The Power tacked on the fourth run in the seventh on an error by 1B Carlos Arroyo. The Crawdads put seven baserunners on over the first five innings, but managed only a solo homer by Jairo Beras and an RBI groundout by Arroyo. The trio of Austin Coley Sam Street and Nick Neumann retied the final 13 Crawdads of the game.
Probables: WV: Stephen Tarpley (LH, 11-4, 2.48) vs. HKY: Ariel Jurado (RH, 12-1 2.48)
Lineup: WV: Kevin Newman-6, Pablo Reyes-4, Kevin Kramer-D, Michael Suchy-9, Jerrick Suiter-7, Elvis Escobar-8, Chase Simpson-5, Taylor Gushue-2, Connor Joe-3.
HKY: Eric Jenkins-7, Dylan Moore-4, Jose Trevino-2, Luke Tendler-D, Edwin Garcia-6, Jairo Beras-6, Juremi Profar-5, Carlos Arroyo-3, Jose Cardona-8.
Tarpley vs. Hickory: The lefty from Los Angeles made two starts against Hickory this season with mixed results. Back on June 21 in West Virginia, Tarpley allowed three runs (two earned) on seven hits with one walk and six strikeouts. Jose Trevino singled in a run in the first, a run that was unearned due to a passed ball. The Power took a 4-1 lead in that game before the Crawdads picked up a run in the fourth on Jose Cardona’s single. Tripp Martin’s double chased him in the sixth and the Crawdads eventually rallied later in the game for a 10-5 win.
Tarpley dominated the Crawdads in a start at L.P. Frans on August 15 when he shut down the Crawdads on three hits over eight shutout innings. The Crawdads lineup had difficulty solving a three-pitch mix as Tarpley recorded 16 groundball outs and threw 93 pitches (63 strikes).
In his last start at Kannapolis, Tarpley allowed four runs (three earned) on eight hits and struck out three. He was named to Baseball America’s Low-A All-Star Team.
He features a low-90s fastball with some run into right-handed hitters. He can keep hitters off-stride with a slider and change.
Jurado vs. West Virginia: The right-hander from Aguadulce, Panama outdueled SAL pitcher of the year Yeudys Garcia in a 3-1 win back on May 19. In that start, Jurado allowed one unearned run on four hits and struck out three. The Power stranded runners in scoring position both in the first and second before tallying their only run of the game when Tyler Filliben singled and went to third on a throwing error. He scored on a sacrifice fly.
Jurado is coming off his worst performance of the season after giving up five runs (two unearned) on seven hits over three innings for his only loss of the season. Like Tarpley, he was named to Baseball America’s Low-A All-Star Team.
He features a hard sinker at 94 that runs to the back foot of right-handed hitters and also changes speeds well. Jurado can run a slider glove side and has had some success with a developing curveball.
Power hitters vs. Hickory: In game one, Pablo Reyes and Kevin Kramer (one walk) each doubled and were the lone Power hitters with two hits as the Crawdads held them to only six hits. Chase Simpson and Tyler Gushue homered.
Among active players, Elvis Escobar has the highest batting avg. vs. Hickory during the regular season at .355 (11-for-31). Jerrick Suiter went 6-for-18 (.333) and Kevin Newman went .286 (4-for-14). Connor Joe hit only .200, but picked up eight walks in six games. All-star OF Michael Suchy had a team-high five RBI on four extra-base hits.
Crawdads hitters vs. West Virginia: In game one, Hickory piled up seven hits with Jairo Beras getting two. Eric Jenkins and Jose Trevino both doubled with Dylan Moore, Edwin Garcia and Juremi Profar singling.
Among active players during the regular season, Carlos Arroyo is the lone player hitting above .250 against West Virginia. Arroyo is 6-for-15 (.400) with a triple, a homer and two RBI. Beras and Garcia are at the .250 mark with Beras cranking a pair of homers to go with the one in game one. He leads the team with five RBI and Jose Trevino has four.
What to watch for: The Crawdads will have to figure out a way to solve Tarpley’s ability to change speeds and make him get pitches up… On the mound, if Jurado can put up his usual five innings-plus the Crawdads will have Tate and Ortiz available to bridge the gap to close Scott Williams (10 saves)… The Power like to play small ball (90 sac bunts) which could put pressure on an infield that has not played much together. 1B Carlos Arroyo had never played first as a pro until last weekend – a three-game career at the position – and Dylan Moore has six games with Hickory at second… Eric Jenkins at the top of the order and Jose Cardona at the bottom could give the Crawdads the chance to put some speed to use. Hickory was next to last in steals this season (Cardona had 30 of the 95), so the new toy of Jenkins speed could be a wrinkle that the Power has to contend with. As Hickory searches for offense against Tarpley, Jenkins ability to bunt to get on base – and get to second – could be key. Power catcher Tyler Gushue is next to last in the SAL in caught stealing (26.6%). Gushue led the SAL with 24 passed balls.
South Atlantic League Playoff Series
Game 1: Hickory Crawdads (81-57) at West Virginia Power (87-52)
Site/ Time: Appalachian Power Park, Charleston, West Virginia
Crawdads Playoff History: The Crawdads will make their tenth playoff appearance in 23 seasons since joining the South Atlantic League in 1993. It is the first appearance since 2011. This will be the third trip to the playoffs during the seven seasons the Crawdads have been affiliated with the Texas Rangers.
Hickory has won two SAL championships, both coming during the affiliation of the club with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2002 and 2004. The Crawdads have not won a series since claiming the title in 2004, nor have they won a playoff home game since the clincher of that series.
Power Playoff History: West Virginia has made seven playoffs appearances since staring South Atlantic League play in 1987. The lone SAL title came in 1990 as the Charleston Wheelers – a Reds affiliate – swept the Savannah Cardinals in three straight. This is the fourth playoff appearance under the name of the West Virginia Power (beginning in 2005), the second as a Pirates affiliate (2013), which began in 2009.
Hickory/ West Virginia Playoff History: The Crawdads defeated the Charleston Alley Cats (Blue Jays) in two straight in the first round of the 2004 playoffs. The clincher of the 2004 sweep was the final game played at Watt Powell Park in Charleston. West Virginia (Brewers) took a 2-1 first-round series win in 2007.
How Hickory Got Here: The Crawdads led the first-half Northern Division chase wire-to-wire, eventually finishing with a 44-24 mark, 7 ½ games ahead of second-place West Virginia.
How West Virginia Got Here: The Power bullied the SAL in the second half and finished 50-20. It was the first time a SAL club had 50 half-season wins since Augusta turned the trick in 2007. West Virginia finished ten games ahead of second-place Delmarva in the second half and 13 games ahead of fourth-place Hickory.
Game 1 Pitching matchup: Hickory-Yohander Mendez (LH, 3-3, 2.44) vs. West Virginia- Austin Coley (RH, 16-6, 3.66)
Mendez: After pitching in a piggyback arrangement with Ariel Jurado much of the season, Mendez split off on his own late in the season. After allowing more than two runs just once in his first 19 outings, the lefty gave up four in five innings to Greensboro on August 23 and five to Delmarva in 3.1 innings on September 1 to close out the regular season. He gave up one homer in each of those outings, the only long balls he allowed this season. Mendez finished the season with a 2.44 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. SAL hitters batted .230 against Mendez in 2015. His struck out 74 and walked 15 in 66.1 innings. Against West Virginia in 2015, Mendez allowed one unearned run on three hits, two walks and struck out seven in eight innings (two appearances, one start).
Relievers: Scott Williams likely will get the first look for a save situation. The right-hander picked up ten saves in the second half and built a 40-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 31.1 innings in the second half. In three outings vs. the Power in 2015, Williams allowed one run – a homer to Michael Suchy on June 19, on three hits and struck out two over four innings… Joe Filomeno gave up two runs to the Power late in a game on August 16… Shane McCain was roughed up in an outing vs. West Virginia on August 15 (2.1 IP, 4 H, 5 ER, 1 BB, 2 K…Having not pitched since September 2, it would not be unusual to see 2015 first-rounder Dillon Tate get an inning in the middle of the game. Manager Corey Ragsdale indicated that Tate and Luis Ortiz would be available for action in the series… Adam Dian (5 saves) threw an inning on Monday’s win. He has pitched out of the pen on one day’s rest just once.
West Virginia pitching:
Coley: The 23-year-old right-hander made all 27 starts this season and seemed to finish strong as he allowed one earned run in each of his last four starts (26 innings). Coley has showed good command with 111 Ks to just 25 walks in 147.2 innings. A fly ball pitcher, – He holds a 0.88 GO/AO ratio – Coley is susceptible to the long ball, having allowed a SAL-high 18 this season. The Crawdads touched him up for three in a loss back on August 14. Hickory has had perhaps the best luck against the 16-game winner tagging him for 20 hits over 11 innings in two starts. Among Crawdads hitters, Carlos Arroyo is 4-for-6 this season with a homer and Luke Tendler has doubled and homered in four plate appearances. Jairo Beras went 2-for-2 with a double.
Relievers: Nick Neumann is the Power close with 17 saves in 19 chances. He threw two perfect innings against Hickory this season, both coming in the first half… Other key relievers will likely include Sam Street, Jared Lakind and Julio Vivas. Of the trio, only Lakind (1 IP) has faced Hickory this year.
Late season injuries to Josh Morgan and Michael De Leon put the Crawdads into a mix-and-match mode on the infield. Catcher Jose Trevino and third baseman Juremi Profar are the two likely certainties around the diamond. Ragsdale indicated that Edwin Garcia will likely play short and newcomer Dylan Moore will place second. Carlos Arroyo, who played second most of the season, was stationed at first the final two games of the season and handled the position without a problem. With his output against Coley (4-for-6) this season, and his success against the Power this season Arroyo may get the first look with Chuck Moorman and Jonathan Meyer available off the bench. Arroyo is the lone active Crawdads player to hit over .300 (6-for-15) against the Power in 2015.
In the outfield, the arrival of 2015 second-round Eric Jenkins gives Ragsdale a different wrinkle in the lineup with his speed. He went 7-for-18 during his five-game audition last week and he may well have earned some at bats in the series. The likely lineup will be Luke Tendler in left, Jose Cardona in center and Jairo Beras in right. Tendler ended his season fourth in the SAL in RBI and total bases. Beras had a pair of homers and five RBI during a mid-June series in Charleston. However, he went 0-for-7 against the Power in August. Eduard Pinto may get a look at first on in the DH slot.
The Power had only 18 position players on their roster this season with eight players taking the field for 99 or more games (Hickory has three in the expected lineup, though Pinto has 98 games). The team finished the season at the top of the SAL with a .269 batting average and a .347 on-base percentage. It’s a team that will play classic National League small-ball (90 sacrifices) to scratch out runs for what has been a shutdown pitching staff. They are very patient at the plate. West Virginia leads the SAL in walks and has the second fewest strikeouts this season.
Behind the plate will likely be Taylor Gushue with Connor Joe – the Pirates No. 29 prospect (mlb.com) at first. Pablo Reyes and 2015 first-round pick Kevin Newman will play second and short respectively. Rounding out the infield at third will likely be Tyler Filliben, who has filled in for the injured Jordan Luplow.
A talented group is stationed in the outfield with SAL all-star Michael Suchy starting in right. Suchy, the fifth-round pick of the Pirates in 2014, finished the season second in the SAL in runs scored and in RBI.
A combination of Tito Polo, Elvis Escobar and Jerrick Suiter split up left and center, with Suiter getting many of the DH starts. Suiter and Esocbar finished fifth and eighth in the SAL in batting avg. with Escobar third in hits.
Against the Crawdads, Escobar hit .355 (11-for-31) to lead the team among active players. The injured Luplow had two of the five homers struck against Hickory and he is tied with Suchy with five RBI.
Other things to know: This is likely to be a pitching-and-defense series. Hickory and West Virginia finished tied with the fewest errors committed in the SAL and went 1-2 in WHIP. The Crawdads finished second in ERA (3.19) with the Power fourth at 3.38… Defending bunts had been a downfall for the Crawdads prior to their injuries and against a team that likes small ball, the revamped defensive alignment – especially with the likelihood of inexperience at first – could be a point worth watching… Both teams expect to win when they score first. The Crawdads went 54-14 when scoring first – tops in the SAL – and West Virginia was 59-16, which was second… Hickory has held up well under pressure as it was 71-4 when leading or tied after seven innings. In one-run games, the Crawdads are 27-16 with the Power at 19-22.
Hickory Crawdads centerfielder Jose Cardona doesn’t come with the heralded tools that many of the highly-touted outfielder prospects to play at L.P. Frans Stadium the past few years. At 21, he’s 13 months older than Nomar Mazara, two months older than Lewis Brinson and six months younger than Nick Williams.
After a .333 start over the first week, he gradually sank to the .240s statistically, and to the bottom of the order in the lineup. But baseball is a game of opportunity and Cardona recently took one. When regular leadoff hitter Michael De Leon went on the disabled list early in July, Cardona was flipped to the top spot in the order. That seemed to create a spark for Cardona, as he went on a nine-game hitting streak in which he was 17-for-34 with 12 runs scored, ten RBI and seven steals.
Regardless of the numbers, Cardona has shown a knack for big moments. He had two walk-off hits – including a homer in the 17th inning – and scored the winning run in another walk-off win over the first month of the season. In a game against Augusta (July 18), he muscled a 98 mph pitch from Reyes Moronta for a double in the eighth that started a three-run rally. Last Saturday (July 25) his three-run double with two outs in the ninth gave the Crawdads a 6-5 win.
Cardona has shown the ability to hit fastballs and has shown the ability to recognize breaking pitches. In the outfield, he has displayed a strong arm posting 11 assists.
I talked with Cardona at the end of the last homestand about his season and the changes in his approach at the plate.
The native of San Nicolas de los Garza, Nuevo Leon, Mexico also talked about the influences of his family, especially that of his mother, who he looks to for support and inspiration and who he hopes to reward with a trip to the major leagues.
First of all, this was a good homestand for you. You have to feel good about getting off the snide at the plate.
Cardona: Yeah, I feel comfortable right now. I’m just sticking with my approach, so that’s working. I’m just staying up the middle with line drive, nothing big.
When you are out of your approach, what does that do for you, when you realize that you are not where you need to be?
Cardona: When I stop hitting the ball hard, that’s when I know that I need to stop and think about what I am doing and get back to what I was doing when I was hitting hard. Maybe it’s a big swing, or I’m not thinking smart. I have to stay humble and hit line drives up to the middle. That’s back to what I was.
During the homestand, it seems like you are zeroed in. Frankie (Hickory Crawdads hitting coach Francisco Matos) and other guys will talk about being ready to hit the fastball. It seems like right now you are ready to hit the fastball. Is that part of staying middle and away?
Cardona: You always have to be ready for the fastball, because that’s their best pitch. The pitcher uses the fastball regular. You just have to stay with it and ride it wherever it’s pitched.
You got here and you started hot the first week or so and then you have the downturn. What got you into the funks from where you wanted to be?
Cardona: I started losing it after a couple of weeks after a pretty good start. The first weeks, I had a really good time and then I got down. I got to make an adjustment to the pitcher, because they’ve got to adjust to me. So I’ve got to adjust to them. It’s a long process during the whole season, so I had the time to think about what they are doing to me and how they’re pitching to me. I had the time and I did it and it’s working right now.
What were pitchers doing to adjust to you?
Cardona: I had a little trouble with breaking pitches, because I was swinging at a lot of pitches in the dirt. I started thinking about, ‘Well, if I see that ball a little bit down, so don’t swing at it.’ I just stay with the fastball until I have two strikes and it’s working.
I notice on this homestand that you are able to pick up the breaking ball better. You’ve been able to hit a couple of hangers. What have you been able to pick up to stay off those pitches?
Cardona: Like I told you, it’s a long season. I’ve stopped swinging at breaking pitches, so, that makes me recognize (them) better. For example, I stopped for like a month swinging at curveballs or breaking pitches until two strikes. That helped me for the future, so I can recognize the pitches better. Like you said, I’ve been hitting a lot of breaking pitches. That’s because of my adjustment to the breaking ball.
You faced a guy (Augusta’s Reyes Moronta) the other night throwing 98. How hard was that to see, especially since the guy (DJ Snelten) before that – the left-hander- was throwing not hard, 88-91. How hard was that to gear up for?
Cardona: It’s just a mental adjustment. Of course, you’re going to see that ball fire, but the mental adjustment is more adjustment in staying calm. Just see it and hit it. Nothing big, not a lot of movements with the body just keep the calm. See it; hit it. Don’t think too much because he’s throwing fast.
You talked about staying calm. You had some moments earlier in the year where you had a lot of big moments, walk-offs, or you got a hit in a big situation to start a rally. Do you think of yourself as somebody who is calm at the plate generally?
Cardona: When there comes a big moment, I’m thinking it’s just the pitcher and me. ‘It’s just you and me. You pitch, I’ve got the bat and I’m going to do something right here.” That’s my thought when I’ve got the pressure on.
How have you adjusted to the first full season of 140 games?
Cardona: It’s my first full season, so I’ve got a lot of pressure on me. This is something new, so I didn’t know how it’s going to work. I’m just thinking about having some goals game-by-game, what I’m doing, what they’re doing to me. I’ve actually got a notebook where I put down what I did in the game, what they’re doing to me, what’s my thought process and all that in big moments. I’ve got my notebook of what’s happened, so I can record what I did with the team and the pitchers.
Who have you been working with that has helped you with your approach?
Cardona: Frankie’s helped me a lot talking with me about mentally what I have to do when I’m at the plate and what I don’t have to do and having a plan with the pitcher throwing a breaking pitch or a sinker. If it’s a pitch that’s a little it down, don’t swing because that’s a ball. He’s helped me a lot with those thoughts.
You play a pretty good centerfield as well with a lot of strong throws from you. Do you like taking runs away?
Cardona: The throws from the outfield, that’s the best part for me in the outfield. I love playing outfield, catching some balls and making some big throws. I really have a lot of fun in the outfield.
Would you rather hit one out or throw somebody out?
Cardona: Throw somebody out.
Why it that?
Cardona: You see the throw and you see the runner. Who’s going to win, the ball or the runner? It’s like, “Ah, come on, come on, come on.” It’s exciting.
When you’re done at the end of the playoffs, what does a good year look like for you?
Cardona: If I had a bad first half and I compete and I never give up in the second half and I put up some good numbers, that to me is a successful season, because I never gave up. Just stay within and fight until the end. That’s for me a good season.
What do you have to work on most between now and the time, hopefully, you get to the big leagues?
Cardona: I’ve got to keep my plan, right now. In the second half, I’ve got to stay with what I’m doing because it’s working. I’ll keep doing it until the end of the season. I have my first full year, so I know what I have to do in the next full years. So, just stick with it.
When you get a call to the major leagues, what do you think that will be like for you?
Cardona: (laughing) Oh, my God. First, I don’t think I will be able to talk for a while. And then call my family and give them the news. I’ll be so excited I won’t be able to talk.
Who do you think it will mean the most to?
Cardona: My mom. She always worked for me. My grandmother and all my family worked for me. My mom and my aunt, they helped me a lot. They took me to the ballpark all the time. So that’s who, all that they’ve done as a family.
Is there a moment that you will look back to and you will say, “This was worth it”?
Cardona: Yes. I remember when I told my mom that I was going serious to this (baseball). I was like 13 and I could see a future in baseball because I was doing good and I felt comfortable with it. With hard work, I could do some big things. So, I told my mom one day, “I going big; I’m going serious.” She told me that felt something, like a hope. She saw something in the future that I could be on a good team, a professional team. I owe her all of that.
My family, we are a humble family. We started from the bottom, poor. We don’t have a lot of money. With a lot of hard work from my mom and my grandmother, they pushed me to baseball. We don’t have the best stuff, but we have what we need. I just want to give all I have to make the big leagues, because I’m real thankful for my family. I want to give them what they deserve; they deserve that I give the best of me.
What does your family do?
Cardona: They push me, because I grew up without a father. My mom and my grandmother, they work a lot all the time. My mom is my hero, because she was working so hard. She is my example and I’ve got to do the same thing. I will work really hard for what I want for them, because I learned that from her.
Hickory at Asheville
After the Hickory Crawdads came from behind twice, they scored three runs in the top of the ninth to claim a 7-4 win over the Asheville Tourists at McCormick Field.
The Crawdads (58-38 overall, 14-14 second half) took two of three games in the series and finished the season series with the Tourists at 7-2. Hickory went 6-1 at McCormick this season and is 13-2 there over the past three seasons. The Crawdads take an overnight bus to Lexington, Ky. and open a four-game series with the Legends on Saturday.
Asheville (49-48) dropped to 17-10 in the second half and remain a game-and-a-half in front of Augusta for the second-half, Southern Division title chase.
The two teams combined for 25 hits, but stranded 15 altogether in what turned into a see-saw affair.
Hickory put the first four runners of the game on base against Asheville starter Ryan Castellani with Jose Cardona scoring on Eduard Pinto’s single. The Crawdads missed a chance for more when Josh Morgan was thrown out at second trying to stretch a hit into a double. With runners on first and second and one out, Luke Tendler’s grounder forced Pinto at third, but 3B Josh Fuentes’ throw to first was wild placing Crawdads and second and third. Despite four hits and error, the Crawdads were held to the one run after Jairo Beras bounced out to the pitcher.
The Tourists scored an unearned run on Crawdads starter Ariel Jurado to even the game in the first. Shane Hoelscher doubled with two outs and scored when Roberto Ramos’ grounder went through the legs of Jonathan Meyer at first.
The Crawdads retook the lead in the third when Eduard Pinto was hit by a pitch and later scored on Luke Tendler’s sacrifice fly. However Asheville tied the game in the bottom of the inning as Omar Carrizales doubled to right and scored on Dom Nunez’s single to make it 2-2.
The Tourists took their first lead of the game in the fourth against new pitcher Yohander Mendez. Ramos doubled and stole third before coming home on Fuentes’s single.
Meyer’s RBI single in the sixth retied the game at three, but Juremi Profar’s double play ball stranded a runner at third.
Again, the Tourists fought back in the bottom of the inning. Jairo Rosario led off the inning with a double and scored on Fuentes’s second RBI single of the game.
Hickory answered in the seventh. Cardona doubled off the wall in left and moved to third on a Pinto’s sacrifice bunt. Trevino’s sacrifice fly to center made it 4-4.
Asheville put runners at second in both the seventh and eighth inning, but stranded both.
The decisive rally for Hickory came against reliever Jerad McCrummen (4-3) started when Profar doubled off the wall in right-center. Cardona beat out a bunt to put runners at the corner for Morgan. His liner to centerfielder Carrizales was just deep enough to score Profar, who slid around the tag of the catcher Nunez. Pinto singled in Cardona, then moved to third on a pair of McCrummen wild pitches before trotting home on Tendler’s double.
Adam Dian had a successful debut with the Crawdads by retiring all five batters he faced to close out the game and pick up the win (1-0).
Jose Cardona went 3-for-5 and scored three times, but it was his speed that factored into the equation in both the first and ninth innings. In the first, Cardona fought off Castellani’s change off, sending a soft liner that fell to second baseman Shane Hoelscher at the cut of the grass. Hoelscher made the play, but Cardona beat the throw to first and later scored the game’s first run. In the ninth, Cardona’s sacrifice bunt went between the mound and the third base line, with Cardona reaching just ahead of Fuentes’s throw.
Cardona also cut down a runner trying for a double in the sixth.
Josh Morgan had the key AB of the ninth. After falling behind 0-2 on two of McCrummen’s fastball, Morgan fouled off a slow curveball and let another go by for a ball. The next pitch was a fastball up that he lined into center for the sacrifice fly.
Eduard Pinto ripped first-pitch fastballs for RBIs in the first and ninth inning. His sacrifice in the seventh moved Cardona to third from where he scored on Trevino’s sac fly.
Jose Trevino had a couple of hits and a sacrifice fly.
Luke Tendler doubled in a run in the ninth and made a leaping catch into the wall in right to rob Carrizales of a hit in the first.
Juremi Profar’s double starting things in the decisive ninth inning. In scoring the go-ahead run in the ninth, Profar had to steer around Nunez, who had to leap to make the catch from center and then tried for the backhand tag. In the third, Profar made a backhanded stop off a short hop to start a 5-4-3 double play.
Carlos Arroyo ran down a one-hop, soft liner off the bat of Yonathan Daza by ranging back and to his right. Because the ball held up, Ramos had to hold up at second and then failed to advance when Arroyo looked him back to the base. Arroyo then recorded the out at first.
Jonathan Meyer stayed with a breaking pitch away from James Lomangio and sliced it along the line in right for a run-scoring single.
Adam Dian: Showed a fastball 90-93, but took advantage of an aggressive lineup as he started the outing with several curve and changeups, getting Ryan Stevens to chase a breaking ball for a strikeout to strand a runner at second.
Yohander Mendez gave up nine hits over 4.1 innings, four of those by left-handed hitters. From my vantage point along the third-base line, it appeared righties were able to lean out over the plate and serve pitches up the middle or to right. A single on an 0-2 pitch by Rosario started the run-scoring inning in the sixth. Carrizales also singled on an 0-2 pitch in the seventh.
McCormick Field turf: Carrizales’ double in the third happened when Luke Tendler slipped and took out a hefty divot as he attempted to make a likely catch on the liner. Carrizales eventually scored in the inning.
The Hickory Crawdads begin a seven-game road trip with a three-game series against the Asheville Tourists at McCormick Park.
Probables (Hickory/ Asheville):
Wednesday: Cody Buckel (RH, 0-4, 3.32) vs. Sam Howard (RH, 4-8, 4.24)
Thursday: Brett Martin (LH, 4-4, 3.31) vs. Helmis Rodriguez (LH, 7-4, 3.49)
Friday: Ariel Jurado (RH, 10-0, 2.10) vs. Ryan Castellani (RH, 0-6, 4.04)
Recent Series History:
The Crawdads are 5-1 against the Tourists in 2015, including a four-game sweep at McCormick back in April. Over the last three seasons, Hickory is 11-1 at Asheville and 20-16 since 2009.
Entering the Series – Hickory:
The Crawdads (56-37 overall, 12-13 second half) dropped the final two games of a series against Augusta to finish a weeklong homestand at 4-3. After scoring 38 runs in the first four games of the homestand, Hickory scratched out just five over the final three. The lineup is batting .254/.319.382 for the season in what has been a down year for offense in the South Atlantic League. Hickory is second in the SAL with 66 homers.
After scuffling on the last road trip, the pitching staff returned to its old self by allowing seven earned runs over the last five games. Overall, the club leads the SAL in ERA (2.90), WHIP (1.17), and has given up the fewest hits, runs and earned runs.
Defensively, the Crawdads have committed a SAL-low of 80 errors.
Entering the series- Asheville:
The Tourists (48-46, 16-8) took the last three games at Greenville to close out a 5-2 road trip. Oddly Asheville is just 22-22 at home this season (5-4 second half), while carrying a winning record on the road.
As usual, the Tourists bashed mound opponents at home (.278/.353/.442), but have only scored 20 more runs at home than on the road. Opponents are hitting .288 at McCormick and 41 of the 55 home runs allowed by Tourists pitching have occurred there. Asheville has 205 stolen bases this season to lead the SAL.
Defensively, Asheville have the worst collective group in the league with 145 errors committed in 94 games (.961 fielding).
Players to watch- Hickory:
OF Luke Tendler: He continues to be among the hottest hitters in the SAL, and certainly on the Crawdads. He is leads the Crawdads in total bases and tied with Carlos Arroyo for the most hits (28) in the second half. His 21 RBI are second in the SAL. For the year, Tendler is fourth in doubles (23) and fifth in total bases.
CF Jose Cardona: Has become a catalyst for the offense since moving to the leadoff spot. Before ending the homestand 0-for-8, Cardona had a nine-game hitting streak during which he went 17-for-34, scored 12 runs, knocked in 10 runs and stole seven bases. A dead-red, fastball hitter, Cardona has a .304/.375/.532 slash leading off an inning.
SS Josh Morgan: Has handled shortstop well since the injury to Michael De Leon, going 25 games without an error at the position. At the plate, he continues to hold up in his first full season. Morgan has shown a good eye with at least one walk in ten of his last 15 games (13 total) and has reached base in 15 of 18 games.
2B Carlos Arroyo: Went three straight games without a hit for the first time in his Crawdads career to close out the homestand.
OF Jairo Beras: Hitting .288 in July and July and has 23 of his 26 RBI the last two months.
SP Cody Buckel: Looking to corral control issues, has walked 15 batters and hit five in his last 23 innings (5 starts). He also has 16 Ks over last 15 innings.
SP Brett Martin: After posting his shortest start of the year (1.2 innings at Lakewood), Martin put up one of his better ones in his last outing against Greensboro when he allowed two runs on five hits over seven innings. Martin threw three-hit ball over six innings at Asheville back in April.
Ps Ariel Jurado/ Yohander Mendez: The tandem continues to wreck havoc on opposing lineups. In their five outings together, the duo has allowed 36 baserunners and struck out 39 over 34.2 innings. Separately, Mendez has a 1.15 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP in 39 innings, while Jurado has a 2.10 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP.
Players to watch – Asheville:
C Dom Nunez: The number nine prospect (mlb.com) of the Colorado Rockies has had a dominant second half with a SAL-high seven homers to go with a .373/.506/.780 slash. He was drafted in the sixth round (2013) as an infielder, but the Rockies moved him behind the plate. His 16 errors lead all catchers
CF Omar Carrizales: The Rockies No. 30 prospect currently leads the SAL in batting .328 and is fifth in OPS at .843. He has six multi-hit outings in his last ten games. The speedster has stolen 21 bases in 64 games.
OF Drew Weeks: Among the hottest hitters in the SAL with a .357/.446/.607 slash in the second half. Overall, he is second in the SAL with 24 doubles and 55 RBI. Weeks
1B Roberto Ramos: The native of Mexico has crushed the ball since joining the Tourists on July. In 16 games, Ramos has four homers and posted a .361/.420/.607 slash. The lefty is batting .421 against right-handed pitching.
SP Ryan Castellani: The Rockies second-round choice in 2014 out of Phoenix is the No. 10 prospect. He has managed to put up good numbers and McCormick (4.33 ERA) and kept the ball in the park, giving up one homer in 27 innings. Castellani has thrown five innings just twice in 18 starts.
SP Helmis Rodriguez: Currently the No. 27 prospect in the Rockies system, the lefty has walked seven and hit four in his last two starts, leading to 13 runs (9 earned) covering 5.2 innings.
RP: Josh Michalec: The Rockies’ 21st-round selection out of Baylor has six saves in eight chances this month. He can be wild at times (8 walks in last 22.1 innings), but rings up strikeouts as well (42 in 43 innings.
The Hickory Crawdads (56-45 overall, 12-11 second half) matched zeros with the Augusta (Ga.) GreenJackets (44-49, 11-12). for seven innings before scratching out three in the eighth for a 3-0 Saturday night at L.P. Frans Stadium.
The Crawdads have won three straight and four of five on the current homestand. They are now a South Atlantic League-best 32-16 at home this season. Augusta has lost three in a row and four of five on its two-city, seven-day road swing.
Hickory’s Collin Wiles and Augusta’s D.J. Snelten dueled through seven shutout innings, each dominating the opposing lineups.
Wiles needed just 79 pitches (55 strikes) to get through 23 hitters. He allowed just two hits and one walk with five strikeouts.
Greenjacktets Southpaw Snelten threw 97 pitches (70 strikes) to 26 hitters, allowing three hits, two walks and struck out seven.
The Crawdads scored the only runs of the game in the eighth against Augusta reliever Reyes Moronta (1-7). Jose Cardona extended his hitting streak to nine straight with a double to right with one. A fly ball by Eduard Pinto moved Cardona to third before Moronta walked Josh Morgan, Jose Trevino and Luke Tendler, the final two on four straight to score Cardona.
Jairo Beras’ added insurance with a two-run single to right.
Hickory’s Ricardo Rodriguez (1-0) surrendered a double to Chuckie Jones in the eighth – the only extra-base hit for Augusta, but retired the final two hitters in the inning before hurling a perfect ninth.
Collin Wiles: Facing a team that likes the fastball early, Wiles and catcher Jose Trevino came up with a game plan to take advantage of the GreenJackets aggressiveness. Only three hitters the first time through the order saw a first-pitch fastball.
“That was kind of Jose’s plan from the start,” said Wiles. “He told me in our pre-game meeting that this is a team that likes the fastball, so stay with me. I trust him 100% and we put up seven zeros.”
Wiles said his fastball command wasn’t sharp, forcing him to stay with the cutter and work in his other speed offerings.
“That was cool to see,” Wiles said. “This was the first game my fastball command hasn’t been there and the cutter has been. Other games, it’s the fastball command has been there and it’s trying to decide when do I put in this little cutter. It was a big pitch tonight and it was the pitch that made the difference.”
Jairo Beras: Had a questionable swing after Moronta threw 11 straight balls, fouling off a first-pitch change. He laid off the next two fastballs off the plate before serving a 99 mph offering to right.
“He threw a changeup sometimes and a fastball away,” said Beras. “The other people, he threw a fastball down. I got one away and I was able to hit it away.”
Beras had one of the Crawdads three hits against Snelten, that coming in the second on a fastball up and away. That, too, went solidly to right.
Jose Cardona: Started the winning rally with the double to right in the eighth. Saw the previous hitter, Juremi Profar, had all fastballs away at 98-99. Cardona saw similar pitches in his AB and got a pitch he could hit hard. Had two other hard outs, including a drive to the wall in left in the third.
Josh Morgan: Picked up a single in the third, but it was his walk in the eighth after falling behind 1-2 with two outs that kept the inning alive.
Ricardo Rodriguez: Gave up the double to Jones, but got Andrew Cain to pop up a first-pitch fastball and then got Richardo Rodriguez to ground out on a curve.
Defense: In the middle of charging a bouncer, Josh Morgan had to shift quickly on a bad-hop off the cut of the grass. Morgan made the bear-hand grab and threw out Jonah Arenado… Jonathan Meyer rambled after a short pop foul and made the catch over the photographer’s well along the first base dugout.
DJ Snelten: Used a sharp curve and change (8 missed bats by my count) as consistent out pitches. Threw a fastball that stayed in the 91-93 range much of the evening. He struck out seven for the seventh-straight start (51 in 37 innings). Moved the ball around the plate all night.
“Hats off to him,” said Wiles of Snelten. “He kept our hitters off-balance. He had the same kind of approach the first time through as I did, not letting hitters get on that first-pitch fastball. That was a fun game.”
Reyes Moronta: Threw his only curveball to Cardona, that was swung through and two changes. Otherwise, it was all 98-99 mph fastballs- all at or off the plate to RH hitters. He never missed a bat with it in pitching to eight hitters and the Crawdads hitters either ignored the pitches off the plate or put it into plate.
Seemingly, baseball is a simple game to understand and follow. He who has the ability to perform in a superior manner on the field will succeed in the game. Yet, how a player gains that superiority is done in a vastly different manner in baseball than it is in other sports.
Generally in football, if you are physically strong and tough, and/or can run quickly, you are more likely to succeed. In basketball, athletic ability – the running and jumping and agility – is essential. Soccer, hockey, track and field, you name it, superiority in the physical realm is necessary for success.
While it helps to have the physical tools – and scouts make a nice living finding players with athletic tools to play the game at a high level – there is the mental side of the game that cannot be ignored. In many ways, the success of a baseball player’s career is tied to the ability to develop the mental tools to enable the physical tools to play out. That development is first cultivated in places like Hickory.
It was in my first 140-game season with a minor league front office in 2005 that I learned the phrase, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Physically that’s true – tarp pulls will teach that to you quickly – but I learned mentally that’s true when you close out the final day of nine-straight, 17-hour days, and customers are unhappy and don’t really care at 10:30 p.m. that you arrived at 8 that morning for a tarp pull and your only food was a hot dog from concessions.
But the effects of the mental side of the game on player performance never really crossed my mind until I began covering the Hickory Crawdads in 2010.
It’s not just the physical effects played out on weary-eyed athletes, who pull into the clubhouse just a few hours after coming home at 6 a.m. from an overnight bus trip… after losing a game… during which some poor soul probably had a coach, manager, rover, teammate chew on them for some sin committed on the field… in a game that expects success despite the overwhelming odds of failure… And they do it up to 30 straight days without a day off.
With the physically-draining weariness, there comes the stresses of life: making ends meet at home… wondering about families and girlfriends miles away… facing sudden upheaval and uprooting after a promotion, demotion or trade – or a release…worrying about doing enough to stay on the team… earning the respect of teammates.
Many of the players who come to Hickory deal with the extended baseball season for the first time. With all of the stresses that are listed above, still they play 140 games in 152 days and they are expected to perform well.
My epiphany moment in this came when I interviewed pitcher Neil Ramirez – now with the Chicago Cubs – back in the summer of 2010. Ramirez, the first round pick of the Rangers in 2007, came to the Crawdads in 2009. The former high school player of the year in Virginia came to Hickory with worlds of ability. But with control issues, much of that time he was a hittable pitcher that searched in vain for the magic he once had over hitters. Ramirez returned in 2010 and it was more of the same until he found a groove over the second half of the season and things clicked.
As I asked and walked through his struggles, it suddenly dawned on me to ask this question:
“Is this game more mental than you thought it would be when you were drafted?”
Ramirez’s answer was interesting to me:
“Yeah! Unbelievably more mental than I thought it would be. Everybody talks about it before you get drafted; it’s the 90% mental, 10% physical sort of thing.
You think that, oh, my ability will speak for itself. It doesn’t matter whether you throw 95, or 87, like Greg Maddux did, and he was successful. That’s because they was so headstrong mentally. They knew what they wanted to do with the pitch and they knew they were going to execute it.
That takes a mentally strong person to go about your business the right way. Mentally, it’s tough, but I think that’s what makes it fun. That’s what makes baseball such a great game.”
I thought of Neil as I glanced through a series of interviews I did with this crop of players over the past week – two pitchers and two hitters. The key word that popped up over and over again was confidence.
Eight games ago, Jose Cardona was struggling as a number-nine hitter. One week later, he’s at the top of the order due to an injury to Michael De Leon and suddenly he’s on a 16-for-30 streak. He talked of his mindset and how confident he felt at the plate. His tools and routine hasn’t changed, just the results.
A week ago, the collective lineup looked limp during a 1-5 stretch. Suddenly, they have 38 runs in four games and double-digit hit totals in five straight. Cardona talked about how much confidence that team has right now at the plate.
A month ago, Luke Tendler struggled to hit a fastball. A homer in the all-star game last month seemingly set him afire and now pitchers can’t get a fastball by him. In several interviews I’ve done with Luke, he’s harped on trusting his abilities and staying the course and it will succeed. It’s easy to do that when you are hitting .320, harder to do so at .220. To his credit, he has seen the process through.
Brett Martin talked about having the confidence to throw a changeup at any point in the count. Last year, he was afraid to throw it.
Nick Gardewine talked of the confidence to challenge the same lineup that battered him around six days prior.
The players that come to Hickory (or any A-ball team) have the ability to do their assigned tasks on the field: hit a fastball, learn and throw a new pitch, etc. They wouldn’t be here without those pure baseball abilities. But like Ramirez said, it’s the ability to have confidence in what they can do, even in the face of adversity that will set them apart down the road.
If you want to figure out the players that will go on to bigger and better things, look at how they fail, in a game of failure. It’s easy to stand tall in baseball when things are going well. But those who stand tall while getting shelled – which happens in baseball often – and shake it off prior to the next outing or at bat, those are likely the players to look for in the multi-tiered stadiums at a later time.