Every story on Los Angeles Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw’s sixth inning meltdown Tuesday when he gave up five consecutive hits and five runs focuses on Miami Marlins’ star Giancarlo Stanton hitting a three-run home run.
But it was 2012 Pensacola Blue Wahoos shortstop Miguel Rojas who hit a pinch-hit double with one out who started the rally. It was the second hit in the game off the dominant Kershaw and Rojas came around to score when Martin Prado singled him in.
In 10 pitches in that one inning, Kershaw lost his shutout and the lead. His earned-run average leaped from 1.29 to 2.50.
Rojas, a 27-year-old Venezuela native, broke camp on the opening day roster for the first time with the Marlins this year. The eight-year minor leaguer replaced injured starting shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria at the end of last season and didn’t commit an error in the first 25 games and ended up hitting .282 in 60 games.
So far this season with the Marlins, Rojas, who can play all four infield positions, has played in 12 games and has hit .235.
Tucker Barnhart, who played for the Blue Wahoos in 2012 and 2013, laced a walk-off single to right field Wednesday, April 20, to give the Cincinnati Reds a wild 6-5 win against the Colorado Rockies.
Before he could reach second base, Barnhart was mobbed by his teammates.
In his first full season with the Reds after playing parts of the 2014 and 2015 seasons with the big league team, Barnhart set up his ninth inning heroics with his arm. Long known for his golden glove at catcher, the 25-year-old fielded a wild pitch off the back wall and without hesitation recovered to nab Rockies’ Mark Reynolds at third base to end a potential go-ahead run in the eighth inning.
“That’s how we drew it up, I guess,” Barnhart joked with the media after the win.
Barnhart, who was 2-4 with a run scored and two RBIs against Colorado, also had a two-out double in the seventh inning that put the Reds up by two runs, 4-2. He’s batting .348/.423/.391 in seven games this year as a backup catcher for the 8-7 Reds.
There’s something magical about a sunset at a Blue Wahoos game.
Around the third inning, the sun tosses its bright rays onto the buildings behind left field, painting them brilliantly white. Then pink streaks blend into the cerulean sky, scattered brush strokes from an invisible hand. Soon, the sky darkens into a deep purple, reflecting across the bay. You can watch a sunset from a million different places, but when it does, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
This parcel of land was neglected, ignored and forgotten just a decade ago. Today, Blue Wahoos Stadium is the crown jewel of the Southern League and the centerpiece of downtown Pensacola. It is incredible to fathom how far our city has come in my lifetime.
When I wrote the first post on this blog in 2013, I had just turned 17 years old. I was barely old enough to drive, not yet old enough to vote and I still can’t drink most of what is served at the stadium. After witnessing the Wahoos’ inaugural season from the seats, I found myself in a press box for the first time. I’ll admit I was a bit starstruck. For every piece I wrote that first year, there were another two I missed.
But just as failure is a necessary process in player development, the growing pains were important for me as well. Every game was an opportunity to learn and improve as a writer. I’m embarrassed to read the long-winded paragraphs of my earlier pieces, but I’m especially proud of the work I’ve produced in the past year. I’ve gone to spring training, covered an All-Star Game and interviewed both a general manager and Hall of Famer as a representative of the Wahoos.
More than anything, this blog empowered me to find my voice. You hear the same question from every new teacher from kindergarten through your senior year of high school: What do you want to be when you grow up? Sitting among future doctors, lawyers and engineers, a career in sports seemed like wishful thinking. But years later, watching the Wahoos with 5,038 of my closest friends and searching for stories worth telling, I never felt out of place.
This is my last post for Hook, Line and Sinker. I will be covering the Southern League this season as part of Baseball Prospectus’ prospect team, as well as contributing to RedsMinorLeagues.com. My position allowed me to study the game like never before and I’m looking forward to watching the game from a scouting perspective while writing more about player development. I’m handing the blog off to the media relations team and I’m confident they will uphold the high standard of coverage you’ve come to expect every day.
I’d like to thank the Pensacola Blue Wahoos for giving me the chance to start my career and pursue my dream. It has been an honor to serve as your beat writer for three seasons. Additional thanks are in order, to…
Quint Studer, a friend of 10 years and my most vocal supporter. I can’t imagine where Pensacola would be without his vision. He put his faith in a young writer, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity.
The late “Detroit” Bob Brewis, the Wahoos’ scoreboard operator who was like another grandfather to me. More than 60 years my senior, our conversations were a constant and powerful reminder of how baseball brings people together.
Tommy Thrall, a master storyteller and a play-by-play voice worthy of the major leagues. I appreciate your professionalism, trust and advice.
The members of the press: among others, Dan Shugart, Steve Nissim and Bill Vilona. Thanks for treating me as an equal and showing me the ropes.
Chris Harris, Brandon Liebhaber, Kyle Tait and the other Southern League broadcasters for building my baseball vocabulary and sharing the inside scoop.
The greater Cincinnati media: Doug Gray, Lance McAlister, C. Trent Rosecrans and Mark Sheldon. Thanks for taking the time to answer all my questions, even the dumb ones.
Lisa Braun, Jeff Graupe and Jamie Ramsey for welcoming me into the Reds family.
Delino DeShields, Pat Kelly, Alex Pelaez, Jeff Fassero and Tom Brown for sharing their field and their time.
The countless players who have welcomed me, remembered me and helped me understand the game better.
And the fans and readers who read my posts and passed them on. None of this would have been possible without you.
It’s Robert Stephenson time!
With the Reds recalling their top pitching prospect from Louisville Monday, seven former Wahoos will open the season in the Major Leagues, more than twice the number on Opening Day rosters in 2015. Didi Gregorius begins his second season as the Yankees’ shortstop while infielder Miguel Rojas breaks camp with the Marlins for the first time. The Reds are carrying five Wahoos — Stephenson, relief pitchers Tony Cingrani and Keyvius Sampson, catcher Tucker Barnhart and outfielder Billy Hamilton — with another four on the disabled list. See the breakdown on the Spring Training page.
Daniel Murphy is putting together an impressive postseason streak, homering in five straight playoff games for the New York Mets. But for Wahoos fans, the feat is nothing new.
— Salvatore Romano (@salromano14) October 21, 2015
In fact, two Wahoos matched Murphy’s efforts, albeit on a smaller stage. Kyle Skipworth rattled off a five-game streak from July 10 to 16, including six home runs in seven games. In all, Skipworth homered seven times in a 10-game stretch and earned Southern League Player of the Week honors.
Winker’s streak from Aug. 11 to 15 propelled the Wahoos to a 17-13 month in their bid for a Southern League playoff appearance. For his efforts, Winker was named the Southern League Player of the Week as well as the Southern League-MiLB Player of the Month for August.
Winker’s fifth home run was nominated for a MiLBY Award, one of four categories in the year-end online contest in which the Wahoos are represented. Beau Amaral and Zack Weiss are Top Play and Top Relief Pitcher candidates, respectively, while Skipworth and Pat Kelly are in the running for Best Blooper. You can find the full voting guide here.
The Arizona Fall League is in full swing for seven Reds prospects, including a handful of Wahoos.
Pitchers Stephen Johnson, Layne Somsen, Nick Travieso and Zack Weiss are joined by catcher Chad Wallach, infielder Alex Blandino and outfielder Phillip Ervin as Cincinnati’s representatives in the offseason circuit. Additional players from the Braves, Orioles, Padres and Mariners organizations comprise the Peoria Javelinas.
The group includes four of MLB.com’s top 30 Reds prospects and five players with Double-A service time. According to director of player development Jeff Graupe, the Reds take a number of variables into account when selecting players.
“Selecting players for the Fall League can be a tricky proposition,” Graupe said. “The pool of options is limited by fatigue, injury and simply the ability to compete in such a high-level environment. I believe we have chosen quality candidates this season and look forward to their continued development this fall.”
In the event of injury, the Fall League gives players a chance to make up for lost time. Travieso missed most of the Florida State League second half after being hit by a line drive, while Somsen lost two months to a fractured toe.
Much like they did with Raisel Iglesias last fall, the Reds will get a longer look at Johnson in Arizona. Acquired from San Francisco in exchange for Marlon Byrd, Johnson tossed 8.2 scoreless innings in six appearances. Wallach is finishing his first season in the Reds organization, and a fall campaign could answer questions as to whether his long-term future is behind the plate or at first base.
A trio of Wahoos — Blandino, Ervin and Weiss — have an opportunity to carry their success into the Fall League. Before his visit to Pensacola, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty met with owner Bob Castellini and his staff to craft roster projections for the franchise’s near future. Ervin’s invitation suggests that the team may be aggressive in promoting him, contingent on a successful fall.
“We’re kind of looking at some projections on players and what our team’s going to look like in the next two, three and five years,” Jocketty said in August. “We’re trying to determine when they might be ready. We’ve got both [Winker and Ervin], plus Waldrop. We’re going to start needing some outfielders the next couple of years.”
MLB.com estimates that 58 percent of Fall League alumni reach the Major Leagues. Since 2012, notable Wahoos to play in Arizona include Tucker Barnhart, Didi Gregorius, Billy Hamilton and Michael Lorenzen. In 2014, Winker led full-time players with a .338 average and .999 OPS while ranking second in on-base percentage (.440) and slugging percentage (.559).
Billings Mustangs pitching coach Derrin Ebert is one of five coaches on the Javelinas’ staff. Former Major League catcher Rod Barajas will manage the team.
The second-half South Division title is another feather in the cap of a team whose winning roots stretch well beyond Pensacola.
For the most part, Pat Kelly is managing the same group of players that he had in Billings and Bakersfield. The Reds have been building a winner under his watch: His 2012 Mustangs team posted the Pioneer League’s best overall record, and the Blaze paced the California League’s North Division in the first half of 2014.
But what stood out more to Kelly than his team’s winning pedigree was the organization standing in the way of their postseason success: affiliates of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“Alex Glenn hit a walk-off home run to beat us in Missoula to knock us out,” Kelly said after the division-clinching win Sunday over Mobile. “Even though we had the best record, we didn’t make the playoffs. Last year, we got to the semifinals in the Cal League and Visalia beat us. So to me, knocking [the BayBears] out feels really good.”
Glenn’s two-run home run to left field set up a winner-take-all game for the Mustangs, which Billings dropped 8-5. The Osprey went on to win the Pioneer League title. For Kelly, the Wahoos’ South Division win vindicates the emotional loss in Montana.
“I really feel for guys like [Seth] Mejias-Brean, [Zach] Vincej and [Beau] Amaral who went through that awful night in Missoula,” Kelly said. “The guy hit a home run over the 277-foot sign and scraped the paint going down.”
Arizona’s and Cincinnati’s affiliates compete against each other in the Pioneer, Midwest and Southern Leagues. The California League rivalry came to an end in 2014 when the Reds moved their High-A affiliate to Daytona and the Florida State League.
“All these guys come up together, [Tom] Belza and all those guys,” Kelly said. “It’s a competitive rivalry, but guys like each other. We’re not fighting. It means a lot [to beat them]. I’m sure in their mind, they thought for sure they were going to get us again.”
Blue Wahoos set playoff rotation
In a perfect world, Pat Kelly would have Tim Adleman on the mound for the first game of the Southern League South Division Series. But he is otherwise pleased with the rotation facing off against the Biloxi Shuckers and confident in Game 1 starter Daniel Wright.
Wright, who was 3-5 with a 5.91 ERA in the first half, carried an aggressive approach out of the All-Star break. The right-hander was 7-6 with a 3.48 clip in his final 14 starts with 26 walks to 67 strikeouts in 88.0 innings. Opponents batted .236 against him in the second half compared to .297 in the first half while their OPS dropped from .757 to .619.
“Daniel’s been very steady for us, especially the second half,” Kelly said. “He’s pitched in the playoffs before. He pitched last year in the Cal League playoffs, so he’s got some playoff experience and I think he’ll work perfectly on opening night.”
He will use two-time Southern League Pitcher of the Week and defending winner Cody Reed on Friday, followed by Adleman for the home opener on Saturday.
“We had originally thought because of the way the days worked out, we could go [with] Adleman Game 1, but I think Timmy needs the rest,” Kelly said. “We decided to put him in Game 3 to give him a couple extra days.”
Adleman has pitched a career-high 150.0 innings in 2015, his first season in the triple digits. He led the Southern League with a 2.13 ERA before giving up 14 runs, including 12 earned runs, in his final 9.2 innings. With two days between the regular season finale and opening playoff game, Adleman will get six days of rest.
“As much as I would have loved to have Timmy in that No. 1 spot, I just think at this point in time with as many innings as he’s got, the two days were more important,” Kelly said.
If needed, Sal Romano and Barrett Astin will pitch Games 4 and 5, respectively.
For the past two seasons, Billy Hamilton and Jesse Winker have had a casual bet. Whoever posted a higher number in their weaker category — that is, Hamilton hitting more home runs or Winker stealing more bases — would win a pair of Jordans on the other’s dime.
Entering the Wahoos’ final series of the regular season, Winker was quick to let the rehabbing Hamilton know who was winning the contest.
“He actually brought that up to me during [pregame stretching],” said Hamilton, who has homered four times in 2015. “He was like, ‘Billy, you know I’ve got eight stolen bases, huh?’ I was like, ‘Ah, OK, you remembered that.'”
Hamilton and Winker were paired up for the 2014 Reds Caravan, a preseason bus tour through Ohio and neighboring states that brings fans face-to-face with players and coaches. It didn’t take long for the two players to hit it off.
“Winker’s one of my guys that I’ve been on the Caravan with and I got a chance to really, really get to know the guy well,” Hamilton said. “He’s one of those guys that really, really wants it. You can tell by the work that he does. I’m behind him 100 percent. You really want to see him be successful.”
Winker, who again toured with Hamilton in January, attributes their friendship to common interests — starting, of course, with baseball.
“Me and Billy have a lot of things in common,” Winker said. “At the end of the day, we both like having fun playing baseball. It started on the Reds Caravan, and we had a great time on that both years, and then it’s cool just to be out there and playing with him in the outfield.”
The two shared an outfield Saturday, the first time they’ve been in the same lineup outside of Spring Training. Winker used Hamilton’s time in Pensacola as a learning opportunity.
“He’s a great guy, he’s a great teammate,” Winker said. “I learn a lot from him in all aspects of the game. He’s a good mentor for me. I look forward to playing with him [in Cincinnati].”
As for the Jordans, Hamilton doesn’t mind footing the bill if it motivates Winker to build on his success.
“It’s actually just for motivation,” Hamilton said. “Eight bags is not the way to do it, but he’s still got eight bags. You can tell it made some type of [impression] on him.”
With the second-half South Division title under his belt, Ray Chang had two options when he arrived at the clubhouse Monday morning.
“They asked if I wanted a day off or wanted to play all nine positions,” Chang said. “That was an easy answer for me.”
Chang started the game at first base, made his way around the diamond and moved from left field to right over the middle innings.
“It was real subtle stuff, him moving from infield positions,” manager Pat Kelly said. “Once he got in the outfield, I think people started thinking. It was real obvious when he went in to catch.”
Though Chang had caught bullpens for pitchers before, Monday’s game was the first behind the plate in his professional career. Chang wore Yovan Gonzalez‘s gear to catch closer Zack Weiss, whose fastball runs into the mid-90s.
“That’s a whole different viewpoint with the ball coming in so hard, especially with Zack Weiss throwing,” Chang said. “The hardest part about it is, when the ball’s in the strike zone, you know that guy’s going to swing. But you’ve got to keep focusing on the ball and not the bat coming through the zone.”
In addition to being the first time a Wahoos player saw time at all nine positions in the same game, it was the first time Kelly executed the idea in nearly three decades as a manager.
“It’s something I thought about for a while, I just didn’t know the importance of this game,” Kelly said. “I’ve never done it. I’ve always thought about it with different guys. I know Juan Perez wanted to do it last year. It just felt like [Monday] was the perfect day to do it.”
Every substitution and double switch had a purpose. Kyle Skipworth entered the game at first base in the fifth inning, later catching Chang’s four-pitch ninth inning. Phillip Ervin and Marquez Smith remained in the game after pinch-hit appearances. Ervin took over in right field in the eighth, while Smith manned first base in the final frame.
“Everything worked out perfectly,” Kelly said. “As a manager, you’re trying to figure out all the scenarios and how to move everybody around, and everything just kind of clicked.”
The feat would not have been possible if Billy Hamilton wasn’t in town. Since rehabbing players don’t count against the 25-man limit of an active roster, Hamilton gave Kelly an extra player to use off the bench.
“We had so much flexibility,” Kelly said. “Having Billy here gave us an extra guy on the bench. [In a] National League game, it’s really tough if you have to pinch-hit for the pitcher a bunch of times. Everything kind of flowed today and worked really well.”
Perhaps more odd than Chang’s constant relocation was the fact that he didn’t field a single ball on the other side of home plate.
“Every time I switched positions, the next inning, that person would get a ground ball or fly ball or something,” Chang said. “It’s fine. I stayed out of it. I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself, especially in the outfield.”
In addition to giving Kelly depth in his lineup, Hamilton recorded the third out of Chang’s perfect inning on the mound. Though Hamilton mistakenly threw the ball in the stands, Chang traded a bat for it to the cheers of the crowd, who gave him a curtain call.
“I can always saw that I was pitching and Billy made an unbelievable catch,” Chang said. “I’ve never seen anybody run that far, that fast to track down a baseball. It was unbelievable.”
Before the first game of his three-day rehab assignment in Pensacola, Billy Hamilton shared a prediction with Jesse Winker.
“Winker, I’m probably going to get the first ball hit to me,” said Hamilton, recreating the conversation. “I haven’t played in three weeks, and I guarantee the first ball is going to come to me.”
Sure enough, Mobile’s leadoff hitter Evan Marzilli tested him with a high fly ball off starter Tim Adleman. Hamilton raced to the warning track, reached up and caught the ball above his head in midstride.
“I wasn’t expecting it to go that far, to have to run that far already,” Hamilton said. “That’s one thing I love to play, defense. I focus on a whole bunch of stuff, but defense is one of the things that I’m very successful at. For me to make a play that early off the bat is pretty good.”
Hamilton batted .273 (3-11) with a .429 on-base percentage in three games, walking three times with two strikeouts. In his second at-bat of the series, he scored on an RBI single by Alex Blandino while rounding the bases in 9.4 seconds. Incredibly, that measurement could have been even faster.
“I was running to third, and [third-base coach and hitting coach] Alex Pelaez was giving me the point,” Hamilton said. “I’m thinking he was trying to tell me to hold, or the ball was there. I mean, I had no idea. But he was pointing at Blandino about going to second. I had no idea that he didn’t get a double out of that. It kind of shocked me.
“It tested me. I haven’t been running in three weeks, and having to go from first to home is pretty fun.”
Hamilton went 2-4 Sunday with two walks, ultimately reaching five times when a fielder’s choice play didn’t warrant a throw. He added a stolen base in the sixth inning, the only theft of his trip, before a hitless Monday.
Manager Pat Kelly, who coached Hamilton as a rookie during his 2009 Gulf Coast League campaign, gave him high marks after the regular season finale Monday afternoon.
“What I saw was somebody a lot more relaxed at the plate, slowing the game down,” Kelly said. “Obviously, you come down a couple levels, the game slows down for you. But I was pleased. I thought he swung the bat well. When he gets on the bases, he’s such a threat that he really affects the other team. It’s great to have him out there on defense for sure.”
Kelly also sees Hamilton taking much-needed confidence back to Cincinnati. Before the injury, Hamilton was batting .226 while reaching at a .272 clip in 107 games. Both marks are behind the pace that made him a runner-up for the Rookie of the Year Award in 2014.
“I think it’s good for him,” Kelly said. “Obviously [he’s] having a tough year in Cincinnati, and that’s tough going to the ballpark every day. I’m sure it’s refreshing to him to come to some place and actually have meaningful games. I just think your focus and concentration is that much better.”
“It kind of got stiff on me a little bit,” Hamilton said after Saturday’s game. “One of the balls I swung at and missed, it kind of hit me a little bit. Not to a point where it was hurting me really, really bad. I felt it on that one swing, but that’s what happens when you come off a shoulder injury.
“I’ve got to figure a way just it keep it moving while I’m not there and maybe heat it up during innings, stuff like that. But overall, it was a good day.”
By the final day, Hamilton gave the all clear signal.
“It feels good,” he reported. “It’s always good getting back on the field when you haven’t been playing for a while. It feels good, and I’m ready to get back to Cincy with my team.”