Results tagged ‘ Matt Hagen ’
Quite honestly, the Hickory Crawdads were a dreadful team to watch much of the first half. There were a few early successes – Catcher Melvin Novoa’s hot April that earned him a promotion and the season-long consistency of Crawdads opening day starter Tyler Phillips – but overall, the team didn’t hit well, didn’t pitch well, couldn’t hold leads, and so on. However, for me, what I will remember about this team is the ability for players to grind through the season and endure the process of development. Several players turned in big second half-seasons and kept the Crawdads in the playoff hunt until the final few days of the season.
The Crawdads came out of the South Atlantic League all-star break at 30-38, and promptly were swept at home in three straight by West Virginia to drop to its low point of the season at 30-41. But the Crawdads bounced back with a sweep of Augusta (S.C.) and then began to piece together series wins. An 18-10 July put the team within the .500 mark, which the Crawdads reached for the first time on August 4 at Hagerstown (Md.).
Hickory stayed within range of first-half Northern Division winner Lakewood (N.J.) for the second-half race and were within 2 1/2 games of the BlueClaws, when they traveled to L.P, Frans Stadium for a series on August 10. Lakewood took 3-out-4 to surge ahead, but a 5-2 road trip by the Crawdads followed and got the team again within 2.5 games of the BlueClaws. Lakewood returned to L.P. Frans for another series and again asserted its dominance with a 3-1 series win to put a bow on the second-half division title. Left with an outside shot at a wildcard slot – something unthinkable when Hickory finished sixth in the first half – the Crawdads took three-of-four at Delmarva (Md.) and the first game of the series finale against Greensboro. However, a loss to the Grasshoppers the next night officially knocked the Crawdads out three games from the end of the season. It was the second straight season in which Hickory was eliminated during the final weekend of the season.
The 70-68 record was the eighth time in ten seasons as the Texas Rangers affiliate the Crawdads had a winning record.
What changed? The hitting improved. The pitching improved. However, in talking with manager Matt Hagen, he was adamant that none of that would’ve occur had the accountability of the squad and their expectations had not changed. In talking with him the first half, there was a constant mantra of being one play short. A big hit in a key spot was missed. One pitch in a key spot wasn’t made. One ball wasn’t caught.
The attitude changed in the second half and the confidence came with it.
During an interview with Matt Hagen prior to the final game of the season on Monday, he talked about that shift in the mental approaches that occurred, as well as highlights of the season with some of the individual players.
Considering where you guys started, 0-6 and 1-8, that was a heck of a turnaround in the second half. What are some things you contribute that to?
Hagen: Our coaches did a really good job of getting the players better. The players got better, and I think we raised the accountability level and the expectation level. Some of the things we were doing early on, as far as not just not playing with the right level of focus and intensity, we challenged them to be accountable to it.
We flat out just played better. We had a 4.6 ERA in the first half and a 3.2 in the second half. Some of those guys that were hitting .190 at the break ended up hitting .260. So, we had several guys hit over .300 for the second half. So, that was a pretty good deal.
Was there a tipping point at some time in the middle of the season, maybe late June or early July? That time period was a point where there seemed to be a gear shift. You went on a long road trip right after the (July) 4th.
Hagen: It was our first series in Hagerstown (Md.). We had a team meeting and we talked about raising expectations and making sure that guys are completely switched on when they walk in the door, and when they walk out the door to go to the field. From that point on, we won a lot more games than we lost.
The pitching staff, what a turn around: DeMarcus (Evans), Tyler (Phillips), who pretty much had it all year, AJ (Alexy), he finished strong.
Hagen: Reid Anderson.
What were some of the things that you guys were able to figure out?
Hagen: I would give credit to (pitching coach Jose) Jaimes. He’s out there every day sweating in that bullpen with those guys.
Tyler, I think, was more of a continuation of the success he had last year in Spokane.
To see the transformation of Reid Anderson, who won only one game last year. His demeanor on the mound was better. His presence was better. His conviction was better. His belief was better. His confidence was better.
I think AJ has just completely progressed as a pitcher, everything from his preparation to his mentality to his repertoire, his control, his attitude. Everything has gotten better.
And then our bullpen, my goodness, our bullpen was probably one of the best one in the league in the second half. If we had a lead in the seventh inning, we held on to it.
You mentioned the bullpen, what a luxury to have DeMarcus and Joe (Barlow). I talked with him and he talked about the walks to the point of saying I’m not going to use the word. (Joe) Kuzia had a good second half. (Josh) Advocate, when he was healthy, had a good second half. Did you get a sense that those guys got together to change the attitude of the bullpen?
Hagen: I think they took a lot of pride being in the bullpen. They saw it as kind of a brotherhood down there. It’s a great collection of guys. They joke around a lot and they pick on each other, but it’s like a family and they hold each other accountable, too.
DeMarcus, his numbers tell the whole story; he was lights out. He and Joe Barlow were like 1 and 1A; take your pick. Statistically, they were two of the best three relievers in the league. You can’t even argue that. The other guys you named were really good down the stretch, too.
So, I think there was a confidence that kind of grew when one or two guys started having some success, and I think it got contagious down there.
Tyreque (Reed) was another guy that when the calendar turned to July, he found something. He talked about his approach going up the middle and going away, and he added the power back. What did you see with him, as far as flipping that switch?
Hagen: He came in right away and his first at-bat was a walk-off home run. Then, having not played at an affiliate yet, I think the rigors of playing against better competition, the hotels, the bus rides, the fans, playing under the lights, that kind of stuff caught up to him a little bit. Once he and Bubba (Thompson) kind of realized, hey, not only do we belong here, we can excel here, you just handed the keys over to them at that point. When Bubba was clicking in the leadoff spot, he was a guy that hit over .300 in the second half. Then, Tyreque, more or less, carried the middle of our lineup for the entire last month. If he were here all year, who knows where his numbers end up. We’d be talking a potential league MVP had he been here all year.
To watch those guys and to know the conversations that (hitting coach) Chase (Lambin) was having with those guys every day, making sure they stayed logged in, making sure they stayed confident and got their work in every day. It was a pleasure to high five those guys as they came around the base.
Bubba (Thompson) had a little hitch and then in July, he found a switch. It just seemed like a bunch of you found a switch at the same time.
Hagen: Bubba is a really talented kid and he can beat you in a lot of ways. One night, he’d go out – you talk about trying to leave your fingerprints on the game in a positive way – he may have gone 0-for-4 at the plate, but he might have made two or three plays in the outfield that might have won us the game. As young players do, they get locked in on the fact that maybe they didn’t have a great day at the plate, but you can still walk, you can steal two bases, you can still make plays in the outfield. He’s a special kid and not a lot of people can beat you in that many ways.
Yonny (Hernandez), I just like watching him play. You said it in the first meeting you and I had where you called him “The Mosquito”. He’s another guy that had a strong second half. You put him second in the lineup and that seemed to be a good niche for the guy with he and Thompson at the top of the order.
Hagen: The expectations were, we know he can play defense and we know he can run the bases a little bit. The question was, is he going to hit. You look up and he’s second in the league in walks and second in the league in stolen bases. He hit over .300 in the second half and raised his batting average over 70 points. Pretty special. He’s a disruptor, too. He gets on the bases and gets the pitchers thinking about him instead of the hitter. The next thing you know, the pitcher leaves a pitcher over the middle that (Ryan) Dorow or Tyreque and three runs are on the board.
He’s just a fun kid to watch. You just let him go out and do his thing. He attacks the game very aggressively.
The three-headed monster at catcher wound up being two with (Yohel) Pozo and (Sam) Huff. Please with their progress this year?
Hagen: Yeah. The goal was to get them both over 400 at-bats and they both got their 400 at-bats. Two guys that made an all-star team. Obviously, Melvin was doing good enough to get promoted. He was on fire early.
From a defensive standpoint, they both finished the season, hopefully with winning records <Note: Yohel Pozo was 30-30 entering the final game of the season. Pozo caught the game, which Hickory lost to Greensboro.>
To see those guys mature, to where the pitchers have confidence in them – you’ve got to give them a lot of credit for the success the pitchers had in the second half, too. Because, they got better in calling the game and controlling the game. Two guys that can throw pretty well and I think they both finished in the top two or three in the league in receiving metrics. They’re getting pitches that are strikes called strikes, and stealing a few strikes here and there.
Was there any disappointment that Miguel (Aparicio) didn’t have the year I think folks were expecting from him, and maybe Pedro (Gonzalez), as well? Any concerns on their progress for this year?
Hagen: No, if we look it up, Pedro’s run production is the third best on the team, as far as scoring runs and driving in runs. The only downside there is the batting average is down a little bit. The slugging pct. is good. He’s had some leg issues that kind of plagued him all year, so his stolen bases weren’t as high as he wanted them to be. Earlier in the season, he was stealing bases when he was healthy. For me, I think Pedro actually had a good year.
Miguel was just up-and-down. He was player of the week one week, and then the next week you see a 19-year-old kid who’s going to struggle. He’d struggle to stay in his approach and then the next week he’d get hot again. Obviously, the power is there, as evidenced by the home run he crushed a couple of days ago over the advertisements there. For him, it’s just finding a way to be consistent.
The glue of the team all year, for me, was Dorow. Is that a fair read for you?
Hagen: That’s a bull’s eye right there. We came in talking about somebody needing to step up to surprise you. I knew Dorow could catch a ground ball if it was hit to him, but I had no idea that he could catch every ground ball within running range and then throw guys out from any arm angle. What he did at the plate, he’s two away from 30 doubles, 12 home runs and right around .300 most of the year.
He really exceeded a lot of people’s expectations and he’s been a pleasure to watch run out and play and go about his business. You just plug him into the lineup and let him go. He has a very mature approach and a very tough kid mentally, and a very tough kid physically. He’s a manager’s dream.
When you look back at this team in a couple of years, what’s going to stick out for you?
Hagen: I think just the turn around from where we were in the first half to where we finished up. The way they came together and started worrying less about themselves and started playing for each other a lot more, which is hard to do in this game, because everybody wants to get to the big leagues. They were able to take the focus off of their individual success and started thinking about what the team was doing.
They learned how to win, so when they get to the next level, or the guys that get to the big leagues, they don’t get there and go, “Well, I’m a big-league player, but I don’t know how to win.” They’re learned how to win and what it takes to win. That’s invaluable.
What did you learn this year as a manager?
Hagen: Ooooo, that’s a good question. Something new every day. I think knowing and continuing to learn when to push the guys and when to just pat them on the back. I think I would’ve liked to have held them to a higher level of expectation, earlier on. But there was a lot of getting to know one another still going on at that point.
Definitely letting my staff do their job. That’s been a luxury for me. Knowing when to speak up and when to stay out of the way and let Chase do his thing, or Jaimes do his thing, or Turtle (Thomas). I’m really fortunate to have three really good coaches, and that extends to the weight room, too. I didn’t have to monitor anything there. I’d stick my head in once in a while. Adam (Noel) does a great job with those guys. But, just trusting those guys to do their jobs and letting them do them was a big part of our success.
Just under a year after the 2017 MLB draft, Texas Rangers first-round pick Bubba Thompson and undrafted free agent Justin Jacobs were teammates in Hickory, NC., each chasing a dream to become a big league player in the future.
My interest in talking with the two of them was their perception of the expectations placed upon them, as well as the expectations they have of themselves. They both expect to get there some day. Their current manager expects them to make it as well.
There are two interviews below. The first is a side-by-side discussion between the two about their memories of coming to the Rangers and what those expectations are of themselves as pro players chasing the dream.
I also got some feedback from Hickory manager Matt Hagen – himself a 12th-round draft pick – about how members of the player development staff approach players with vastly different expectations and financial investments.
This is the week of the draft. Last year you were a first-round pick. What do you remember about last year?
Thompson: It was a life-changing moment. Leading up to it, I had to work really hard. I wasn’t really a first rounder. I had to show some different tools and all that good stuff leading up to me. In my senior year, I think I showed what they were looking for and I kept it going. Once that day came, I was ready for it. I ended up getting picked 26th overall. Ever since then, I’ve been having to grind and trying to stay healthy, and I try to keep my skills up each and every day, because every day is a grind. You play every day. You get just a few off days, so I’ve really got to maintain my skills and my health each and every day.
Where were you at when they called your name?
Thompson: New York.
Did your family come with you?
Thompson: They did and we had a good old time up there and everybody treated us well. I’m here now trying to chase my dream.
What was it like to put the jersey and put the hat on?
Thompson: Like I said, it was a life-changing moment. Just the name on the back and trying to represent that each and every day, and the name on the front, also.
You were not drafted. What was draft week like for you?
Jacobs: Well, I didn’t really know for sure if I was going to get drafted, or not. I had some pretty good calls, so I figured there was a chance that I could. I had talked to a few teams that said there was a possibility that I could go late, or not, or whatever. Then, basically, the draft came up and I was sitting there waiting for my name to get called. It never got called.
Leading up to that I was coaching summer ball, so I figured that if I was done playing I would be coaching summer ball. I was actually thinking about working grounds crew for the Spokane Indians, which is our short-season team.
My coach from Gonzaga was actually good friends with the owner of the Spokane Indians and was able to get me a tryout the day before the draft. The tryout was with two of the coaches now here. Matt Hagen and Chase Lambin basically went up to Spokane and threw me some b.p. and had me take some ground balls. The next day, I didn’t get drafted and then after that I was offered a free agent deal.
Was there disappointment that your name wasn’t called?
Jacobs: A little bit disappointed, because that’s obviously what I’d been working forever since I was playing in high school and college, and what not. I was just happy that I was able to get the opportunity to come down here and play.
Did you guys go to Arizona together or did you go straight to Spokane?
Jacobs: No, we played in Arizona together last year.
You guys meet each other – the first rounder and the free agent – what was the meeting like?
Jacobs: Honestly, I thought Bubba really was a humble kid. If you didn’t know him at all, you wouldn’t know if he was a first-round pick or a 40th-round pick or a free agent. He kind of just holds himself to the same level as everyone else.
Would you agree with that coming in and meeting some of the other guys? You come in from all over the country, what was meeting some of the other guys like?
Thompson: It was good, man. J.J. came and worked hard, and it, like, came naturally to him. He loved playing the game. Each and every day I would see him laugh and I would see him give his all. I think he’s a very good player.
A lot of guys would say, okay, he’s a first rounder and he’s got it easy. You’ve got an easy ticket to the major leagues. That’s not necessarily so, is it?
Thompson: It’s not, because if you go out there and you barely hit and you don’t take it serious; you go on the field and you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, this game is going to catch up to you. I try to give my all, to shag, b.p., just do the little things. I try not to slack and give it 100 percent each day.
Do you have a sense that your path to the big leagues is a harder one?
Jacobs: Not necessarily. Obviously, on the way in, he’s going to have more money than I do, but I feel like, no matter what, you have to compete and prove yourself to get to the next level. If you come out and play well, no matter if you’re a first-round pick or a free agent, you’re going to have the opportunity to move up if you play well and compete every day.
Do you think there is more pressure on you because you are a first-round pick?
Thompson: That’s what I feel like. There’s a lot of pressure, like he said, kind of the money hype. So that’s why I try to grind every day and do what I’ve got to do, so I don’t have any regrets when I get older. That’s the main part.
I don’t ask this as a loaded question, but do you feel like the Rangers do enough to make it an equal situation, or is there a hierarchy at first? Bubba shows up and a second-rounder shows up, and so on. Do you sense there’s a hierarchy before you get a chance to prove yourself?
Jacobs: To be honest, no not really. I think our organization does a pretty good job of treating everyone pretty equally. I think it’s good that they don’t come and treat the first rounders like they’re famous, because then those guys might not work as hard. I think they’ve treated us all the same and held us all to a higher standard so everyone has to come out and prove themselves, no matter if you’re a first rounder or a 40th rounder, or whatever.
What do you appreciate about somebody like Bubba, who could’ve played football and is obviously very talented athletically?
Jacobs: A lot of times you think of a first rounder, you think of a kid that comes in and is cocky and doesn’t work hard, and they fall down the hill really quick because they’re full of themselves. They’ve signed for a lot of money, so sometimes they don’t think they have to work as hard as someone else. I think he does a good job of coming in every day and just treating himself like everyone else, and working just as hard, if not harder, than everyone else here, which is going to give him an edge, I think.
With the college guys coming in, do you have an appreciation of somebody that’s been grinding with four years of college?
Thompson: We did something today. I asked J.J., “Can we bunt off the machine?” because that’s something I’ve been working on. So, he didn’t say, “Aw, man.” He said, “Yeah, we can do that. Do you really want to do it?” And I said, “Yes.” So, we came in here to the cage right when we got here. He fixed the machine up for me and all that good stuff, and he was feeing me some tips. Also, the other coaches were feeding me some tips and I was just working on my bunting.
I appreciate him taking the time out from his day to come out here and feed the machine for me. I know he’s got a lot of tips, being a four-year college guy. Usually, the three-year and four-year college guys really know how to bunt. I’ve seen him bunt plenty of times, so I was trying to feed off of his mind.
He’s 22 and you’re 20. Do you look at some of the older guys that went to college and have grown up a bit, while you’re still maturing?
Thompson: I’ll ask him here and there about his approach at the plate and stuff like that, at the plate. I’m just trying to get little tips and add them to my game.
What about living life and so on? You’re now going out and having to pay bills once a month. You’re not at home anymore.
Thompson: Everybody really helps us with that kind of stuff. since we got here in May. It’s really been the first time I’ve had to pay rent, but they’re really helping us out with that.
Jacobs: He needs to be helping me out with my rent.
When I talked with Hayden Deal, when he came here with Rome (Ga.) – he and Hunter Harvey went to high school together – I asked him did he think he would have a greater appreciation to get to the major leagues than Hunter did. So, I’ll ask the same thing. Do you think you will have a greater appreciation of getting to the major leagues than a first rounder, or somebody else?
Jacobs: I don’t know, necessarily. I think both of us will obviously have a great appreciation for that because either way, making it to the major leagues is huge. The ultimate goal for a baseball player is making it there. So, I think, either way, whether he makes it, or whether I make it, or we both make it, I think we’ll both have an appreciation for that. It’ll be a satisfying road either way.
When you get the call up, what’s that phone call like for you?
Jacobs: That would probably be the greatest day of my life. I’d probably call my parents and my girlfriend and I would be pretty happy that I made it there, but I’d want to get out there and win.
When you get the call up, what’s that phone call like for you?
Thompson: Really joyful, I feel like. There’s going to pressure off my back, but more pressure added on. As you get the call, they want you to go out there and provide and do your job. I feel like, like he was saying, we share the same amount of time at the field. So, I feel like it’s going to be the same feeling for everybody. Everybody here is on the bus ride, the long bus ride. Ain’t nobody on the plane, we’re all on the buses and working each and every day. So, whoever gets the call, that feeling is going to be epic.
I know you have a great appreciation for Bubba and all your teammates, so this question is not meant to be about them. But do you ever get a sense that somebody from another team who was a high pick isn’t giving an effort. Does that ever enter your mind to where you say, “come on, dude.”
Jacobs: I mean honestly, I have seen that with other teams, but not on our team. It just kind of bugs me because they have a great amount of talent and it’s a great opportunity for them and the situation they’re in.
It sucks to see a guy go about his business like that, because I know in his situation, if he were to work hard and do his thing every day, he’s got a good chance of making it. I mean, there’s nothing you can really do about it. If someone wants to hurt themselves and not help themselves out in that situation, there’s nothing I can tell him then.
Now, if it’s my teammates, I’m going to get on them and make sure they keep working.
You’ve got a first-round pick here in Bubba Thompson and he gets here and there’s a ton of expectations. And then you have a guy here like Justin, who wasn’t drafted. I guess that, maybe, he feels that every game he gets he gets is borrowed time, although he’s played well, and he’s worked himself into the equation to get playing time. As a manager and as coaches, what are the expectations when you have two guys coming in as widely varied expectations of ability and pedigree?
Hagen: I think, first and foremost, the expectations they have for themselves are exactly the same. They both expect to come out and get the most out of there abilities and they both have the same level of expectations of themselves to play in the big leagues. If they didn’t, then they shouldn’t be here. Of course, that’s probably geared more towards J.J.
Obviously, when a kid is a first round pick, an organization makes a financial investment in that kid, he’s going to have some bigger expectations placed on him from within the organization. But that doesn’t mean that we have less expectations from J.J., in the sense that we expect him to be a big leaguer one day, too.
I think it can be a blessing and a curse to be a kid that is a first-round pick because the expectations are so high for you, that when you come to the ballpark every day people expect you to do first-rounder type of things. So, it’s part of my job and the rest of the coaching staff to get both of these guys to realize and live up to their level of abilities, whatever their ceiling may be individually. We want to get the most out of them. It doesn’t matter if you’re a free-agent pick or a first-round pick or everybody who’s in between that. They’re all the same to us.
Justin gave Bubba a lot of praise for being a kid that didn’t appear to be full of himself or cocky, where you get the stereotypical guy that comes in and has the money and now he doesn’t pull his weight. That’s probably rarely the case, but Bubba does appear to have handled himself well as far as getting in here and doing what he’s supposed to do.
Hagen: Yeah, and you’ve got to give credit to the people that raised Bubba. You give credit to his family and you give credit to the scouting department for doing the research on Bubba to find out, not only the kind of player he is, but what kind of person he is, because he can be cancerous to come in with that high-and-mighty type of attitude. It’s not a good way to endear yourself to your teammates. Whereas, Bubba, he’s been the exact opposite. He’s come and he’s one of the guys. He works his tail off and he’s a very humble person by nature, which makes him coachable and likeable and easy to work for.
How hard is it – and you went through this in your case where you didn’t sign or were not a high pick like Ryan Dorow or Sal Mendez – to bide your time to get your playing time and get your opportunity? The opportunity is always there, but they have to bide their time.
Hagen: Somebody explained it to me this way the best. The reality of it is everybody has a window to make it to the big leagues. Depending when you signed and what you signed for, your window might be bigger than somebody else. But they still have a window. If your window is small because you signed at an older age, or you didn’t get as much of a signing bonus, you still have a window and it’s your responsibility to capitalize on that window. And you can make your window bigger by playing well, and you can make your window smaller by not performing well.
So, we try to stress that to those kids, that you’re here because somebody in our scouting department, or otherwise, believe that you have the ability to be a major league baseball player one day. So, do the most of your window, and if you perform, you window is only going to get bigger.
Justin mentioned that you and Chase tries him out at Spokane. What did you guys see in him to say, “hey, we need to sign this guy and give him an opportunity.”
Hagen: First of all, he had good bat control and he has a good feel for his body. When he takes batting practice, he can hit the ball where it’s pitched. It’s a mature approach. It’s not a kid who’s trying to hit the ball as hard as he can on every swing. You give him something away, he’ll hit the ball the other way. If you make a mistake in, he’ll pull it for a base hit. Then the ability to make routine plays. If you hit him 20 ground balls in a row, he catches all 20.
It’s not the flashiest thing. He’s not going out there looking like a guy that runs a 4.4 40 as he goes to cover ground balls. If he gets to it, he catches it and is accurate with his throws. We say sometimes in the minor leagues that a guy is more of an athlete than a baseball player, and sometimes we have guys who are more a baseball player than an athlete. J.J., I think, falls into the realm of there’s a whole lot of baseball player in J.J. I mean, obviously, as a huge compliment. You’re always looking for guys that have a whole lot of baseball player in them, because they’re not going to hurt you. They’re going to help you in a lot of ways.
Prior to Thursday night’s game at Kannapolis, the Hickory Crawdads hit the quarter mark of the 2018 season. Since losing the first seven games to start the season, Hickory has been right around the .500 mark and is currently at 14-22.
Over the past week, the entire outfield got a makeover. Eric Jenkins was promoted to high-A Down East, Miguel Aparicio went to extended spring and Pedro Gonzalez. Up came 2017 first-round pick Bubba Thompson – along with first baseman Tyreque Reed – and suddenly the Crawdads are 5-3 since.
The three-headed monster behind the plate went to two as Rangers minor league player of the month Melvin Novoa went to Down East. The pitching staff is looking for consistency and two of the early season sparks have come in the former of utility players Justin Jacobs and Ryan Dorow. All in all, the Crawdads are in a better spot than they were in mid-April and with a tweak here and there, they could be a team to watch later this half and all of the second half.
I took a few moments to chat with Crawdads manager Matt Hagen at the end of the last homestand on Tuesday about the first 35 games of the season and what the hopes are for the next 35 games as the season churns along.
It’s the quarter point of the season and, record aside, I know this is about development. First, I want to get an overview of the positives you see in the development side?
Hagen: Record aside, we are trying to develop the ability to win games, too. We put ourselves in such a hole early on the way we came out. We did not swing the bats real well early in the season. The weather was cold and the ball wasn’t carrying. You look at the games we’d win, typically there were some home runs involved.
I think that all three of our catchers have gotten better, that’s why one of them moved up. Infield play has been one of our strengths this season, making the routine plays.
We had the ability to promote an outfielder that had been here for two years, so the work he’d put in paid off.
Our starting pitchers have been better the last few outings If you look at Tyree (Thompson), there’s a few things. AJ Alexy as been throwing the ball better the last few starts. So, we’re definitely getting better on the pitching side. Then I look at the way (Joe) Barlow threw today, (DeMarcus) Evans threw the ball well his last time, Sal’s (Mendez) been throwing lately and the way (Alex) Speas threw yesterday. Those are things to get really excited about from a pitching perspective.
There are a lot of changes that can happen at this level and suddenly you have a whole new outfield.
Hagen: The guys that have shown up have contributed right away. Getting a little fresh blood was great for us and when we get Pedro (Gonzalez) back and healthy – at some point in the future – he’s only going to make us better, too.
And Miguel was sent down, what is he going to be working on at this point?
Hagen: Well, at this point, he’s going to be working on a little bit of everything. He does a lot of things that the organization values, but just like everybody else, he’s got things to work on and hopefully he will make the most of his time down there.
You mentioned at the beginning of the year that you had a lot of hope for the two utility players – Justin Jacobs and Ryan Dorow – and both have really contributed some good innings for you?
Hagen: They’ve been awesome, the ability to plug both those guys in anywhere. JJ might play second one day, first, third, or right field the next day. Ryan, for me, has been a plus infielder no matter what position we’ve put him in. Like I said, they’re both hitting over .300. So, they’ve given us a lot of value and we’re not going to go anywhere without those two guys.
Next step that you’ve got to get to in this second-half of the first half
Hagen: I think we’re just looking for some consistency. We had some games in the first month, or whatever, where we weren’t in the game; we weren’t competitive. I looked over the past week, most of them we’ve been competitive in every game. I think that’s kind of the standard now, is to be in every game when you look up in the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning, and feel like we have a chance to win.
At a game that begin with the temperature at 50 degrees and the wind gusting in the neighborhood of 20 mph, starting pitchers Reid Anderson of the Hickory Crawdads and Andres Sotillet of the Lexington Legends did everyone a favor. They threw strikes.
Hickory scored two in the third and made them stand up for a 2-1 win in a game that lasted two-hours, 15 minutes at L.P. Frans Stadium Monday night.
Anderson, a native of New Egypt, N.J. had no issues with the frigid temperatures that dropped into the upper 30s by game’s end with light snow flurries swirling as fans left the ballpark.
“I’m used to Northeast baseball,” said Anderson. “I love pitching in this. It makes hitters a lot more tentative, so I just attacked them.”
Attack he did, as Anderson put together arguably his best start over the two seasons of his Crawdads career. The right-hander was the story for much of the game as he retired the first 15 hitters on his way to the longest outing of the season to date for a Crawdads starter. Lasting 6.1 innings, Anderson gave up one run on three hits and struck out six.
“He looked really strong and was rested,” said Crawdads manager Matt Hagen. “His tempo was tremendous. He was like, ‘Give me the ball’, throw a strike, ‘Give me the ball’, throw a strike, which is something that we preach. When you see a guy go out there and create tempo, it’s fun to watch.”
Working quickly, Anderson, who had just two three-ball counts, used a fastball/ changeup mix with an occasional curve thrown in. The game plan was keep the hitters back on their heels.
Said Anderson, who threw 86 pitches (58 strikes) “We had a plan to go in and just not trying to nitpick pitches but going right at them.”
With only 56 pitches tossed over the first five innings, it was a curious question as to just how long Anderson would be allowed to take a stab at a perfect-game bid if it developed deeper. As the game approached the middle innings, the thought of that rare accomplishment began to creep into Anderson’s mind.
“It’s hard to not think about it,” he said. “It’s always in the back of your head, but you’ve got to push that away and focus on the next batter at hand.”
Although the Crawdads committed three errors for the game, the Crawdads play in the field had much to do with Anderson’s success.
The first challenge to Anderson’s perfect-game came on back-to-back plays in the fourth. Marten Gasparini lifted a high fly ball that carried to the track in straight-away center. Fighting the wind, Pedro Gonzalez cruised back, turned his body twice before twisting against himself to make an over-the shoulder, basket catch. With the Crawdads shifted to the right side, the next batter, Nick Pratto sliced a pitch into left that Eric Jenkins sprinted to and made a diving catch.
“Jenkins almost overran the ball,“ Hagen said. “The wind pushed it back so much. Give those guys credit, it was not an easy night to be an outfielder.”
On the infield, third baseman Tyler Ratliff handled a bad hop on the backhand and threw to first. Later, Justin Jacobs had a mini-bad hop as he went to field a grounder and step on first.
“Those guys did a great job, said Anderson. “They had my back all night and they made incredible plays behind me. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Lexington countered with Sotillet, who was nearly Anderson’s equal. The right-hander pounded the strike zone to the tune of 49 strikes out of 63 pitches. On the way to striking out six, he threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 20 hitters.
“Their starter did a great job, too,” Anderson said of the pitching duel. “That definitely helps you focus in and it helps you really bear down because you know you don’t have much room to work with. I think everyone would prefer having a big lead and pitching in that, but tight games really help you lock in.”
The only troublesome inning for Sotillet came in the third with the help of an odd defensive play. With one out, Yonny Hernandez was hit by a pitch. Jenkins lifted a ball into shallow center that Gasparini charged and then attempted a diving catch. The umpire immediately ruled the ball in play, but thinking he had made the catch, he fired to first for a double play attempt and thereby missing a chance to catch the lead runner Hernandez at second for a force play. Miguel Aparicio hit a seeing-eye single to right that scored Hernandez and Jenkins scored when right fielder Seuly Matias’s throw home went to the backstop.
The Legends opened the sixth with their first base runner, a single to left by Oliver Nunez. Sebastian Rivero blooped a single to right and a wild pitch moved both up. One out later, a contact play resulted in Nunez getting caught in a rundown trying to score. Anderson got out of trouble with a groundout by Gasparini.
Lexington’s only run came in the seventh when Matias doubled. A wild pitch bumped him to third and Matias scored on MJ Melendez’s sac fly.
The Legends threatened in the eighth and ninth innings. Facing DeMarcus Evans in the eighth, Rivero got a four-pitch walk and went to third when Evans fielded Ricky Aracena’s sac bunt and threw wildly past first. Cal Jones struck out and then Gasparini flew out to Jenkins in shallow left with Jenkins easily throwing out Rivero at home trying to score.
The suspense built again in the ninth when with one out Matias reached second on an infield hit and a throwing error. Alex Speas struck out Melendez, but a wild pitch put runners on the corners. Speas gathered himself and fanned both Guzman and Nunez to end the game.
***The fastball from Alex Speas has been as advertised. We don’t yet have a speed-gun reading available at the ballpark, but judging by the swings from the hitters during the two outings I’ve seen him it has life and it gets there in a hurry. However last night, it was the breaking ball that did a lot of the dirty work among the nine missed bats in his inning. It appeared to have that falling-off-the-table sink, one of which Melendez flailed at and catcher Melvin Novoa had to chase down near the Crawdads dugout.
He didn’t panic with a runner at third and one out but continued to throw the pitch and trusted Novoa to make plays if needed. Speas then set up Nunez for a fastball on the inside corner for a called third-strike that ended the game.
Said Hagen of Speas: “You take the error away and then the wild pitch that got away from Melvin, it was a tremendous inning. Either way he ended up with four strikeouts. Watching him from last year to this year, and to see the progress and the maturation has been really fun to watch. To go from where he was at as a starter to coming in as a reliever and hoping for a good result to coming in as a reliever and knowing that you’re going to get really good results coming into the game.”
*** This is a game Anderson likely loses in 2017. He would have games like this where he would dominate for several innings but a quirky inning or a bad pitch would get away and cost him the game. In a preseason interview, pitching coach Jose Jaimes said Anderson is better prepared this season to go deep into games. Anderson agrees and talked about his mindset on the mound this season.
Anderson said, “Mainly it’s just not trying to think ahead. Last year, I would go out there I would be in the first inning and I’d already be thinking about the sixth. This time, I’m just focusing batter to batter, pitch to pitch and not trying to get ahead of myself.”
The 2018 Hickory Crawdads start the season Thursday night at Greensboro and the assembled roster of position players had a chance to get their feet wet Monday night in an exhibition game against Catawba Valley Community College after arriving from the Texas Rangers spring training complex at Surprise, Ariz. last weekend.
The game itself was a blowout (12-2 Hickory), but it gave the hitters a chance to see the ballpark for the first time, get some cuts in during a live-game setting and to give local fans a taste of what’s to come at L.P. Frans Stadium.
At first glance, it’s a group that seems to have a decent balance between power and speed, perhaps exemplified best by Miguel Aparicio. Sam Huff had the highlight with a light-tower blast to left center and Yonny Hernandez scampered around the bases impressively. Yohel Pozo slapped the ball around the field and Melvin Novoa hit as low liner for a homer. It was a lot to nod yes at, but the real action begins Thursday.
We got a glimpse of what should be the everyday lineup – though there will be some moving parts as will be discussed below – and the tools each of the players should bring to the field.
In the afternoon following the exhibition I had a chance to sit down with Crawdads manager Matt Hagen and walk through many of the individual players currently on the roster and some of the expectations for 2018. I also explored briefly the absence of both Rangers 2017 first-round picks and the presence of long time college coach Turtle Thomas on the staff.
How was spring training?
Hagen: Spring training was good. You get down to the last week or so and the pitchers are getting their innings in and trying to keep guys healthy and rested for the grind that is our 140-game season.
The lineup looks like it’s going to be a good one. You’ve got some guys that can put the ball on the bat and drive it well, and there looks to be a good mix of speed and power and guys that can put the ball in play.
Hagen: We have a lot of guys that have a lot of potential, which is a nice way of saying, “You haven’t done anything, yet.” Some guys have one or two good months to their name, so far. So, this is their first opportunity to actually go out and put together five full months of good baseball. Some guys have had a good rookie ball season or a good year in the Dominican, which is only 50 games. Some guys had a great year in Spokane last year, but they only played in 60-something games. Now, we’re talking about doubling that workload. It’s really the first true test for a lot of them.
Looking at the roster, you have four catchers, but you’re obviously not going to use all four catchers – usually you put someone on the inactive to be ready on the spot. But there’s some pieces your going to have to move around with Novoa and Huff and Pozo. How do you see that mix playing out?
Hagen: It’ll be a revolving door. Those guys are all going to get playing time. These three that are going to be on the roster are getting a lot of playing time. They’re going to have to get some at bats in the DH spot and some at bats at first base. We’re going to ask some kids that haven’t played a lot at first base to play first base. At the end of the year, they’ll be ready to become better hitters just by getting better at bats. We don’t care if it comes as a DH, first base, catcher or whatever. We’ll let those guys catch a couple of times a week, but try to at least play four or five times a week.
Do you see one or two of the three guys doing the regular catching duties, or will split it among all three?
Hagen: It’s probably going to be split between all three, which is kind of rare. All three deserve a chance to play. They all bring different and unique things to the table. Some are a little bit more offensive minded and others are more defensive minded. But they all bring enough to the table to make themselves a prospect.
Huff looks like a hoss (6-4, 215 lbs) – a big kid.
Hagen: The scary thing is he’s not even close to being done growing. He’s going to continue to fill out. Heck, he’s 20-years-old. I still grew another inch after I was 20-years-old, so who knows how big he’s going to be. The ball he hit last night was pretty special. There’s not a lot of guys playing that can hit the ball that far. So, it’s just trying to help him to remember that he doesn’t need to do that every night. He’s just got to put the bat on the ball.
Yohel was pretty cool to watch last year. Pretty athletic behind the plate, he looked like he had a plan of how to put the ball into play. What do you see him doing this year?
Hagen: I think Pozo is one of the tougher outs in our whole organization. He makes adjustments at the plate. He can hit offspeed pitches. He hits to all fields. It’s pretty hard to get him off balance. In fact, there’s a lot of things that he does naturally as a hitter that others have to work really hard to do. So, I would look to see him plugged into the middle of our order somewhere, every day that he’s available.
Novoa showed what he had with a one-iron to left that I’m not sure went more than ten feet off the ground.
Hagen: Melvin is a lot of what you look for when you look at catchers. Compact, strong body, great arm, very physically and mentally tough. He will take a beating and keep coming back for more. His raw strength enables him to do what he did yesterday, which is basically hit a line drive that went out of the ballpark.
So, hence the reason that all three of those guys are getting playing time.
(Yonny) Hernandez was kind of a pest last night and was impressive. Given the competition, it’s hard to judge, but he can run a little bit and drove the ball to the wall and looked sharp at short with the few plays he had. He was intriguing to watch.
Hagen: He’s probably the most fun player to watch on our team. He’s going to be the captain of that infield, no doubt about it. He makes the routine plays and he makes some really exciting plays. He’s a very intelligent player, which you want from your shortstop, obviously.
At the plate, (hitting coach) Chase (Lambin) came up with a new nickname for him; he calls him “The Mosquito”. At the end of the of the day, you’re out there in the jungle and you’re worrying about the lions getting you. It’s the mosquito at the bottom of the order that does it.
At the end of the game, he’s made nine plays at shortstop. He got a bunt down to move a runner over and ends up beating it. He’s pesky and the kind of guy you love to have on your team. You hate to pitch against him because he’s not an easy out. He can bunt. He can hit-and-run. He can slash. He’s going to do a good job for us.
Admittedly, (Tyler) Ratliff is a name I’ve read, but I know nothing about. What can you tell me about him?
Hagen: Defensively, he is, even from last last year at Spokane until now, he’s vastly improved. He’s got raw power. He’s got a great arm that you’ll see when he needs to show it to you. Otherwise, he just makes routine throws and then when he has to let it go, he’s really got a strong arm. He’s got a chance to be that prototypical third baseman with a good glove, a strong arm and some power in his bat.
Hagen: Kole is going to play a lot at second base for us this year. He’s a switch-hitter, which is great to have in the lineup because it gives you some flexibility. You don’t have to worry about taking him out against a righty or a lefty. From last year to this year, you can tell he’s put a lot of work into his swing. It’s a lot shorter. He’s put in a lot of hard work and I’m excited to see what he does.
Will he play some short or third?
Hagen: He may play a little bit at third, but he’s going to be our everyday second baseman.
Hagen: J.J. is a jack-of-all-trades. He puts together quality at bats from the left side, which is nice to plug in. He can play anywhere on the field. He’s average to above average anywhere you put him. He can play the corner outfield spots. He can make the routine plays at short, at third and second.
Hagen: He’s a player I hadn’t seen at all until spring training this year and he’s a pleasant surprise for me. I was like, “Who is this guy?” I didn’t really have any expectations. He turns the double play really well at second base. He has a very strong arm. We got to see him a little bit last night at third base with a couple of throws. And that laser beam he hit to left last night that the guy ended up dropping. He’s got a nice stroke. He’s a kid that came out of college with the reputation of, “this guy hits, no matter what level you put him at.” So far, he’s doing the job and he’s going to be guy that’s going to bounce around a little bit, too, to give the other guys a little bit of rest.
The three guys that you had in the outfield last night, how hard is it going to be to hit a ball into the gap?
Hagen: It’s three centerfielders. It’s a luxury that every manager wishes he had and every pitching coach wishes he had. You hear loud contact as a pitching coach and you think, “Oh no.” Then you look up and you see these three gazelles in the outfield just running balls down. We have a chance to have a pretty special outfield.
Is this this a crucial year for Eric Jenkins? It’s his third full season here, but he was hurt last year and had the full year here the year before that.
Hagen: I would say that it’s Eric’s year. The expectations now are going to be what Eric puts on himself, and I mean that in a healthy way. Last year, kind of being hurt, up and down, the year before being the young guy in the league. Now he comes into Hickory going, “I know this level. I know I can be successful at this level.” He’s just got to go out and prove it.
My expectations for him are to lead the world in stolen bases. Every time he gets on, I want him thinking he can impact the game with his feet. What you saw last night with the home run – not that we’re looking for a ton of home runs from him. Actually, the two-strikes single up the middle is more what we want, when it’s easy to give up plate appearances and be a little bit pesky and bunt a little bit more.
That was my next question: the first pitch of the game, he squared around and drew in the third baseman. I’ve thought for a couple of years, I wish he’d do that more.
Hagen: I think he’s opened up to it more. I think he understands now that it’s got to be a part of his game. Other guys may have to slug their way to the big leagues. He doesn’t have to. He needs to get on base and be a disrupter. He can really do that if he can get on base. The ability to bunt, whether for a hit or to move a guy over really creates value for him.
Pedro Gonzalez, the 190 pounds looks a little light for him. He looks more like 200 to 210 and he appears to be able to carry another 20 or 30 pounds.
Hagen: He’s another one that’s growing. He’s a premium athlete playing center field. He’s just starting to grow into his body and into his power, and he’s only going to mature more. Like you said, I think the frame will probably carry another 20 or 30 pounds at some point. The 190 is probably what he weighed in at two years ago.
He can impact the game with all five tools. He’s that kind of player.
What is the tool he will need to work on this year?
Hagen: You know, he’s only been playing outfield for a couple of years, but already he’s shown the ability to make some quick adjustments out there and learn pretty quickly. He’s shown some good power this spring as he’s gotten stronger. He can steal some bases. He was really excited when he looked at big league guys, when he was at spring training and around these guys. Pedro kind of walked through and physically he’s of that mold – big and fast and strong athlete.
What tool of his is the loudest right now to you?
Hagen: He’s a center fielder that can hit. In the minor leagues, most center fielders can defend but maybe they can’t hit. He can actually do both. You were spoiled last year with Leody, who can do the same thing. It’s kind of fun to watch both those guys in spring training competing against each other in outfield drills, because they both want to be the best guy. They kind of push each other when they’re on the same field and it’s kind of fun to watch. A true center fielder that can hit is pretty special.
Miguel (Aparicio) was here a little bit last year and was a bit overmatched. Obviously, he got well with you over in Spokane. When he got to you, was there a sense that he had something to put behind him or was there a sense of, “Let’s go, I’m where I belong”?
Hagen: Last spring training, he was on fire and couldn’t do anything wrong, which is why he came to Hickory. Then, as young players do when they start struggling a little bit, he put some pressure on himself and felt like he was going to get himself through that slump with every swing. He came down to Arizona and then he came to Spokane with us and kind of got a clean slate and a fresh start after the experience of being here for almost a month. He took off and really excelled. He’s got the ability to put the bat on the ball at his age better than most kids his age can.
What will stand out about him for folks seeing him for the first time?
Hagen: The power for him kind of came on the second half of the season at Spokane, really the last month of the season because the season is so short. The last month, he started to drive the ball a little better and he carried that over into spring training. So, we think he’s going to drive the ball better than he did last year.
In the area of base running, he’s an athletic kid that is learning how to run the bases and learning what his limits are. His mistakes are, fortunately, on the aggressive side. He’s starting to do a better job of running with his head up and being more aware of what’s going on on the field. He just needs reps. He needs to be on base with guys on with him. He needs to be on base when a guy hits a ground ball. He needs reps stealing bases and getting jumps. “Was that a good jump or a bad jump and why?” He’s a pretty athletic kid, but his stolen bases numbers last year didn’t show. Hopefully this year, we can get him a little bit closer to understanding when to steal.
Hagen: Chad, before he got hurt last year at Spokane, might have been our best player. I think he might have led our team in stolen bases, even though he was hurt the last month of the year. He hit a bunch of doubles last year, so he can hit for some power. He can steal some bases. A left-handed bat, which is nice to be able to put into the order. He’s got a pretty good eye and can go deep into counts, which can lead to some strikeouts but it can also lead to walks. He’s going to be that swing man in the outfield for us. He might play two days a week in left and two days a week in right and DH when we need him.
I want to ask you about a couple of guys that we were hoping to see this year that weren’t assigned here. The first is Bubba Thompson. Usually, when the Rangers have drafted first-rounders, we see them the next spring. Right now. he’s unassigned. Are the Rangers looking to delay guys a little bit to slow the aggressiveness of the assignment or are there too many outfielders here?
Hagen: I think part of it is who’s already here. The fact is that Bubba didn’t get a whole lot of playing time last year at Arizona. So, they want to get him some at bats and let him go down there and play every day instead of coming up here where we already have four outfielders. He’s there and he’s going to play every day. Whenever they decide the time is right for him to move, they’ll move him.
It is our goal in the organization to challenge our kids to play against older competition because in the long run it helps them become better, quicker going against those guys.
Chris Seise is another player that did not advance here, though I understand there is a shoulder injury. Is he someone we may see later in the year, or like Bubba, will he need some more playing time?
Hagen: Playing time and the health. We want to make sure he’s fully healthy before they send him anywhere. I had Chris the last two or three weeks last year at Spokane and he’s a heck of an athlete. He’s fun to watch. He’s another guy where the sky is the limit for this guy.
If fact, I think that he and Bubba have a chance to be really special athletes and that’s why they were taken so early in the draft. We’re going to give them a little more seasoning before they come on up.
There is always one guy that sticks out and makes a run, maybe not quite to a big league level, but takes some steps to begin standing out. Who is that for you?
Hagen: I would say our two utility infielders (Dorow and Jacobs). They’re going to get playing time. They’re a little bit under the radar – even though they have great track records of producing at every level they’ve been at. They won’t come into the season getting a ton of at bats, but as you know, sooner or later somebody goes some place and one or both of them are going to step into a role and get a ton of playing time.
What are your expectations this year for these guys? You get some year like 2013 where the power is off the charts and 2016 where guys were all over the bases. This looks a bit more balanced.
Hagen: We’ve got some pop in our bats and that’s Chase’s department and he does a great job with the guys as far as staying with the reps and staying with the plan. We’ve got a few guys that can run, but the depth of our lineup and the depth of our rotation and bullpen is really going to be our strength. We have guys that are going to hit seventh or eighth one night and then will be batting third or fourth the next night. We’re just that deep. There’s not a huge drop off between our three-hole hitter and our eight-hole hitter. The guy batting ninth – Yonny – could be batting first or second for a lot of teams. We just happen to have two pretty good 1-2 guys.
The guys that come off the bench are not your typical play-the-guy-once-a-week bench players. They have a lot to offer.
In our six-man rotation this year, our sixth man, Tyree Thompson, was second in the league (Northwest League) last year in ERA. So, we have a lot of expectation for those guys.
What you saw from our bullpen last night, where it was a lot of really hard fastballs, one guy after another. If we can just get those guys lined up, if we’re getting close or have the lead, I expect to those guys to be pretty tough to score on late in the game, as long as they’re throwing strikes.
I want to ask you about one of your coaches, and that is Turtle Thomas, who had a long career as a head coach and the Rangers have brought him on. What are you and the Rangers looking to do as far as a guy that has seen a lot of baseball?
Hagen: I know the Rangers are cashing in on a lifetime of baseball experience. Usually, your four coaches are guys like myself, who a couple of years ago were just getting into the pro game as a coach. We’re going to help out with whatever you can help out with.
Turtle comes in here with more experience than anybody and his catching is really his specialty. So, he’ll spend a lot of time with the catchers and coaching first base. At the same time, you can say, “Hey Turtle, can you take the first basemen and work with them and the outfielders?” And he’s got an encyclopedia worth of drills that he can use with these guys.
We bounce things off of him a lot of times to get his perspective that we don’t have because we’re in our up-to-date, greatest, latest craze when it comes to analytics and sabermetrics. We’ll get his perspective of something he learned coaching 20 or 30 years ago that we’ve forgotten or don’t know. We’ll sit here and go, “Yeah, that was a really good point.”
A case in point, we’ll run a team fundamental in spring training, and say we’re doing rundowns for example. We’ll hit all nine points of the rundown points. And you’ll go, “Turtle, do you have anything to add?” And he’ll draw out two pieces of gold right there that didn’t even cross our minds.
To have him as a fourth coach, I think puts us slightly ahead of everybody in our league.
What are you looking for this year, as far as your growth? You’re like everybody else in wanting to move up the ladder and at some point get to the big leagues. What is your marker?
Hagen: You don’t want to look back at the end of the year and see guys didn’t get better. That’s where I’ll feel like it’s been a bad year or I’ll have been a failure, if there are guys in the clubhouse that didn’t take steps to get to the big leagues. There is no staying put. You’re either taking a step back or taking a step forward. So, if I can look up and down that roster of 25 guys and say that all of them took that one step, or two or three steps, whatever the case may be to get to the big leagues, then I’ll feel like our staff has done our job.
There are so many other things that are completely out of your control. You don’t know what the circumstances are going to be, as far as who gets moved up, who gets moved down, injuries that happen, guys that overperform, guys that underperform. If they play hard every day and they learn to love the process of the game, not just the three hours of the game, but the three hours that lead up to it, then I’ll feel like we’ve been successful.
After the top of the second, my first thought was, “Again?”
For those that don’t know the Hickory Crawdads recent history against local colleges, it hasn’t been a good run. With a team that had Andrew McCutchen and Steven Pearce in 2006, the Crawdads needed a 7th-inning rally to defeat Lenoir-Rhyne College, as the school was known as then.
One year later, LRC and Hickory tied and then the series was put on hold until 2015.
Now known as Lenoir-Rhyne University, the Bears used a big game by future LA Dodgers draftee Ivan Vieitez to defeat the Crawdads – a team that won the 2015 South Atlantic League title – 4-3.
One year later, LRU got a ninth-inning homer to defeat the Crawdads 7-4. The game was rained out last year.
This year, the Crawdads scheduled a game with Catawba Valley Community College, one of the better Division II JUCO programs.
The Red Hawks entered the game 24-9 and after an inning-and-a-half they held a 2-0 lead and were the aggressors.
So, you understand my thinking: “Again?” But then the roof caved in and Hickory scored in seven-straight innings to rout CVCC 12-2.
“They’re there because of who they are and our guys are trying to get to that level,” said CVCC head coach Paul Rozelle after the game. “So, it was nice to come out early and put some hits together and get a lead there early.
“That was a positive for us, but they’re pretty good and we just didn’t have enough for them coming down the stretch. That’s a credit to them and how good they are, but what an unbelievable experience for our guys to come out here and get this valuable lesson during the midweek. There’s no team we’re going to play this year that are going to look better than them.”
Red Hawks starter Matthew Dailey used a good mix of pitches and speeds to frustrate the Crawdads lineup early, fanning four of the first seven hitters.
Meanwhile, CVCC scored what turned out to be its only two runs in the second. After Crawdads starter Alex Eubanks needed only nine pitches to get through the first, Graham Mitchell lined a high fastball to left. David Graves sent right fielder Miguel Aparicio sprinting to the wall in right to retrieve a double. Aparicio retraced his same path for the next batter Kyran Russ, whose double scored both runners.
After a walk, Eubanks settled down to strike out the next two and then escaped further damage by getting Cory Watt to ground to second.
The game turned on a basic play in bottom of the second. With two outs and a runner at first, Kole Enright hit a slow, rolling comebacker to the box. Dailey mishandled the grounder for an error and he paid for it when Yonny Hernandez knocked a ball off the wall in left for a two-run triple.
The Crawdads then put together four straight hits in the third and scored them all on Yohel Pozo’s singled and Melvin Novoa’s three-run homer.
“They had a good pitcher,” said Crawdads manager Matt Hagen of Dailey. “He kept the ball down and changed speeds. He’s got a breaking ball and a changeup that he can throw for a strike or throw below the zone if he needs to. It took us a while to figure him out and get him timed up, so give our guys credit.”
Aparicio added a two-run shot in the fourth and the rout was on.
Sam Huff added a mammoth blast in the sixth and Eric Jenkins cleared the 32-foot-high fence in right during the eighth for the Crawdads fourth homer and final run.
The Crawdads sent eight pitchers to the mound – with only the starter Eubanks going two innings -and retired 24 of the last 26 they faced. Together, they struck out 12 and gave up just the three hits in the second. AJ Alexy and Demarcus Evans each fanned two in their lone inning of work.
“We showed everything we’ve got in the bullpen tonight, except for a couple of guys, Hagen said. “We’ve got some good fastballs coming out of the bullpen. That’s the formula for success, get a lead and have those guys throw strikes.”
**The Crawdads starting lineup was the following: Jenkins-7, Aparicio-9, Pedro Gonzalez-8, Pozo-3, Novoa-2, Tyler Ratliff-5, Chad Smith-D, Enright-4, Hernandez-6.
When asked if that would be the general lineup, Hagen responded, “What we threw out there tonight is close to what our starting lineup is going to look like, with the exception of a couple of guys that will rotate in. We’ve got good depth.”
**Rozelle said the difference for his starter Dailey was the inability to adjust to the hitters the second and especially the third time through the order.
“You saw Dailey come out and have success early and punched out a bunch of different guys and changed speeds and his locations were good,” said Rozelle. “But that second and third time through the lineup, they’ve now seen him and now we’ve got to execute even more. We left a couple of pitches up in the zone and good hitters hit them out.”
**Hagen was especially in awe of Huff’s solo homer in the sixth, a towering blast to left center that left the Red Hawks outfielders flat-footed.
“Huff hit a ball that half the stadium couldn’t find,” he said. “It was halfway up the lights in left center.”
**Rozelle was impressed with the run of arms the Crawdads marched to the mound. He said the experience will be valuable for his hitters as they continue through the college season.
“For our hitters, they’re not going to see much like that. In our league, we’re going to see one or two arms a weekend that are going to look like that. It’s understanding how to compete in those at bats and how to grind out and understand which pitches to swing at. They did a great job of getting strike one, and now they’re in control and they can dictate the at bat and we expand the zone, swinging at balls in the dirt because we’re put in the defensive position.”
Arms: Hard to really get a read on the Crawdads pitchers facing an overmatched lineup. They did throw pitches for strikes and, as Rozelle stated, controlled the zone for the ballgame. Eubanks was fantastic in the first, then left pitches up in the second that were spanked. Speas appeared to have the more electric fastball – there was no one in the stands with the speed gun – but control at times was spotty. But in all, those two, along with Noah Bremer, Alexy, Speas, Evans, Jean Casanova, Joe Barlow and Grant Zawadzki were never really extended. Only Eubanks second inning (22 pitches) went past 15 pitches in a single inning.
Bats: As mentioned above, the Crawdads group had trouble with the young, lefty starter at first, then adjusted as Dailey started getting pitches up. However, in what is admittedly inferior competition, the players seemed to go to the plate with a plan, rather than flail-and-bail if it’s close.
What will make Hickory more interesting on offense than the 2017 version are the wheels. They ran the bases well this evening, especially a play in which Hernandez read a play that turned into a diving catch that allowed him to go second to third and eventually score on a wild pitch. It’s not the total team-speed of the 2016 squad, but they’ll make things uncomfortable for opposing pitchers while on the bases, leading to hittable mistakes.
CVCC: There’s a reason they are 24-9 in its classification. They do a lot well on the field and know where to be. CF Cory Watt made a highlight-reel play on an over-the-shoulder diving play. They get the ball in quickly and appear to communicate well.
Dailey looks like a pitcher to watch at higher levels. He did mix speeds well and used the breaking ball to miss bats and until his error was in control of the hitters.