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.”
You couldn’t write a better ending: For the Wahoos to clinch their first division title in franchise history, they’ll need to do it before a home crowd in the final series of the season.
It’s a three-team race to the finish, but even the last-place Jacksonville Suns can play a part in the Wahoos’ playoff push. While Pensacola hosts the third-place Mobile BayBears, the Suns try to knock off the second-place Mississippi Braves. Two games remain, but several options abound as to how the South Division second-half standings will turn out.
Ultimately it will all be left on the field, but for now I’ll let you decide who wins the South Division title. Click here to Choose Your Own Adventure, or click the 2 button below.
The King of Steal is returning to the site of his 2012 coronation.
Billy Hamilton will begin a three-game rehab assignment this weekend in Pensacola, the Reds announced Friday. The outfielder has missed 15 games after suffering a sprained capsule in his right shoulder during a dive on Aug. 18.
In the days following the injury, progress was slow as Hamilton didn’t begin mobility exercises until Aug. 24. He resumed throwing Tuesday with positive results and took batting practice with the team Friday in Cincinnati.
“Today’s the first day I hit, and it feels really good,” Hamilton told MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon. “It was something that I thought wasn’t going to be able to heal this quickly. I’ve been working hard to try to get back. That’s my goal, is to get back and finish the season.”
Hamilton joins the Blue Wahoos in the middle of their playoff push. Pensacola leads the South Division by a half-game with three to play.
In 107 games with Cincinnati, Hamilton is batting .226/.272/.290 with a Major League-best 54 stolen bases. As a postseason All-Star with Pensacola in 2012, he broke baseball’s stolen base record on August 21 and finished his Southern League campaign with 51 stolen bases. He stole 155 bases between Bakersfield and Pensacola.
When Billy Hamilton gets on base, everyone in the stadium knows what is coming next.
The pitcher may delay the inevitable with the occasional pickoff attempt. But the moment he delivers to the plate, his fate is sealed. Hamilton pivots on his right foot, kicks up and out with his left leg, puts his head down and starts running.
It takes 1.3 seconds for the pitch to reach home and just under two seconds for the catcher to pop up and throw to the base. But more often than not, Hamilton is already there.
Hamilton’s speed was no secret when he debuted with the Blue Wahoos in July. Just five games into his Double-A career, he made headlines with an inside-the-park home run timed at 13.8 seconds. A season before, he stole 103 bases with the Dayton Dragons, leading Minor League Baseball and becoming the first Minor Leaguer to eclipse the century mark since 2001.
In the summer of 2012, Hamilton was chasing the professional record of 145 stolen bases set by Vince Coleman in 1983. The race had reached fever pitch as he entered August with 117 stolen bases, though his pace had slowed with 13 stolen bases in his first 19 games. Still, the question was whether he would simply break Coleman’s record or shatter it.
Hamilton stole multiple bases in half of his next 18 games to set the stage for his record-breaking night. Leading into the night’s doubleheader, Hamilton needed two thefts to tie the record, and the pressure of the moment was just starting to reach him.
“There’s been pressure [on top of] the pressure I put on myself — do I steal it at home, do I steal it in [the next series against] Mississippi,” Hamilton told the Pensacola News Journal. “I just knew I had to get it done.”
After a leadoff walk, Hamilton was seemingly picked off before reaching second base on a throwing error. He later stole third base for No. 144 before the inning ended.
The crowd was buzzing after Hamilton knocked a two-out single in the third inning. With Ryan LaMarre batting, Hamilton departed with an 0-1 count and tied Coleman’s record. Heads groundskeeper Ray Sayre swapped the record-setting base with a fresh one before play resumed.
After going twice but stopping short on foul balls, Hamilton sprinted to third base, under the tag of Omar Luna and into history.
Play stopped as team officials fetched the base and Hamilton’s helmet, both of which were heading to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. Hamilton shared handshakes and hugs with LaMarre and manager Jim Riggleman, then found his mother Polly in her seats near the Wahoos’ dugout.
“This is the most exciting moment of my life,” Polly said after the game. “I am so happy for him. He wanted this so bad; he had been working so hard to be recognized for this record. I’m just so proud of him. Words can’t explain my feelings right now.”
For Billy, the feeling was mutual.
“It was emotional,” he said. “I had to hold the tears in. But she loves me and I love her — it was a big deal.”
Hamilton went on to swipe 155 bases between Bakersfield and Pensacola, which was single-handedly more than 28 of 30 Major League teams. The accolades of the offseason included his second straight Sheldon “Chief” Bender Award as the Reds Minor League Player of the Year, a spot on Baseball America’s Minor League All-Star team, and the Minor League Player of the Year title from Baseball Digest.
Hamilton continues to run wild in Cincinnati with a Major-League leading 54 stolen games in 107 games.
When Cody Reed met his family and friends at the Springfield Olive Garden on July 26, he was a member of the Kansas City Royals organization. By the time the plates were cleared, Reed was a Red.
Kris Reed-Jones drove six hours to surprise her son, who was scheduled to pitch that night in Missouri. The welcoming party also included Cody’s girlfriend Linsey and Kevin Maloney, the sports information director from Reed’s alma mater. But there was a bigger surprise in store.
“I got a call from my manager [Vance Wilson] and he tells me I’ve been traded to the Reds,” said Reed, who heard the news while his family waited in the lobby. “I go back in, and they’re already sitting down. I walked up to the table and kind of explained to them what happened.”
Reed drove to Pensacola the next day and joined the team for a 10-game road series. The transition has been smooth: He won his Wahoos debut on July 31 and struck out a career-high 12 batters across eight shutout innings on August 5. Both of those marks tied 2015 team records.
Following the trade that send him and two other left-handed pitchers to the Reds for Johnny Cueto, Reed has made four starts with his new club and nine at the Double-A level. Reed is right at home with Pensacola, registering more strikeouts (31) than hits and walks combined (30) while taking Southern League Pitcher of the Week honors in the first week of August.
Reed tossed seven shutout innings Saturday for his third win with the Wahoos. He allowed four hits and four walks while striking out 10, his second start with double-digit strikeouts. His 106th pitch of the night, another career high, was a third strike against pinch-hitter Josh Fellhauer with runners on first and second.
“Right there to end the seventh inning, that’s probably the at-bat of the game,” manager Pat Kelly said. “Big strikeout to end that seventh, and he was well over 100 pitches. That was a great sign right there.”
Reed-Jones didn’t see a baseball game that night, but she’s seen her son’s last two appearances in the geographically friendly Southern League.
“I’m from the top of Mississippi, [Biloxi] is the bottom,” said Reed, one of three Northwest Mississippi Community College players currently active in professional baseball. “They made the drive down, and it’s huge. I had a lot of family and friends here to support me, and that’s always nice.”
Winker energized by playoff chase
The list of things that Jesse Winker hasn’t done is getting shorter.
His two-year stint with Pensacola includes a Futures Game invitation in 2014, a walk-off or two, and a streak of five home runs in as many nights. He tied the team mark set by Kyle Skipworth in July before falling short of the record Sunday. The streak helped him take home Player of the Week honors for the first time in his Double-A career.
For all the talk of a September call-up that his streak has stirred up, Winker doesn’t want August to end yet. In 16 games, the Reds’ top prospect is batting .379 (22-58) to lift his season average to .275. His 1.196 OPS in August is the second-highest among Reds Minor League players, and his streak pushed him into the organizational lead with 13 home runs.
But as long as the uniform says Pensacola on the front, Winker hopes to check another item off his list: Start in a playoff game and win.
“It’s really cool to be a part of something like a playoff race,” Winker said. “I’ve been close to making the playoffs, but I’ve never gotten in. It definitely brings out the best in everybody.”
In his rookie season, Winker’s Billings Mustangs team finished with the best record in the North Division but finished second in the first and second halves. The Bakersfield Blaze won a first-half title before Winker earned his promotion to Pensacola.
Pat Kelly, who managed both playoff teams, expects Winker to play a major role in Pensacola’s playoff push. The Wahoos are fresh off the best month in franchise history and sit one game behind first-place Mobile with 20 games to play.
“In September, he’s going to be in the playoffs,” Kelly said. “He’s got a chance to be busy with us in September.”
Winker, not listed on the Reds’ 40-man roster that already includes 10 outfielders, is keeping his sights set on Pensacola.
“I don’t really pay attention to anything like [a call-up] that’s out of my control,” Winker told MiLB.com’s Kelsie Heneghan. “Right now, I’m a Pensacola Blue Wahoo, and I’m just focused on that.”
As for the streak, Winker was surprised to hear he was charting new territory after going yard in three straight games. He capped his fifth straight homer, a shot to right center field against Yhonathan Barrios, with a spirited dugout celebration and chest bump of Cody Reed.
“I’m just trying to be quick to the ball and trying to hit it hard and put it in play,” Winker said to MiLB.com. “I can’t give you an exact reason, they just seem to be getting up there and getting out.”
What are the Reds getting in left-hander Cody Reed? Kansas City’s second-round selection from 2013, a power arm with improving control and a player that analysts call the sleeper in the Reds’ blockbuster trade of Johnny Cueto.
To push the rebuilding effort into gear, Cincinnati dealt its ace in return for three left-handed prospects. Brandon Finnegan and John Lamb, both assigned to Louisville, are considered Major League-ready. Finnegan earned the rare distinction of pitching in the College World Series with TCU and Games 3 and 4 of the World Series for the Royals. Meanwhile, Lamb was considered a top prospect in 2011 before a Tommy John surgery forced him to reinvent himself. He has rebounded with an All-Star season in Triple-A Omaha, where he went 9-1 with a 2.67 ERA.
While Reed will be making just his sixth Double-A start when he suits up for Pensacola, the early returns are positive. Reed is the reigning Texas League Pitcher of the Week after tossing a seven-inning shutout on July 21. He allowed two hits, both singles, while walking a batter and striking out seven for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.
If there’s anything to pick up from the surface, it’s that Reed’s separation is in the preparation. MiLB.com’s feature on the shutout performance paints Reed as a very cerebral pitcher.
“We’ve got all sorts of cheat sheets of the hitters we have here, I did my homework,” Reed said to Danny Wild. “I guess you could say I just studied up and then executed when the time came.”
The 46th pick of the 2013 draft, Reed posted a 0-1 record and 6.07 ERA in his rookie campaign with 23 walks to 25 strikeouts. Making the jump from Idaho Falls to Low-A Lexington in 2014, Reed again struggled with a 3-9 mark in 19 starts and a 5.46 ERA. South Atlantic League hitters batted .312 against him with right-handers teeing off at a .338 clip.
Reed has bounced back in 2015, starting with an All-Star campaign in High-A Wilmington. He pitched to a 5-5 record and 2.14 ERA in the first half to earn the starting role in the California-Carolina League All-Star Game. His ERA ranked second in the Carolina League and ranked third with 65 strikeouts in 67.1 innings.
The 22-year-old southpaw registered a quality start in his Double-A debut and picked up the win. In five starts with the Naturals, Reed was 2-2 with a 3.45 ERA.
Reed sorted out his control issues this season with a few mechanical tweaks, resulting in a high strikeout rate (7.9 per nine innings) and the lowest walk rate of his career (2.4). J.J. Cooper detailed the changes in a report for Baseball America:
[T]his year Reed managed to corral his tendency to open up too early in his delivery. More importantly, he stopped straightening up too early in his delivery and landing into a stiff front leg. With a better finish to his delivery, he developed the ability to locate more consistently down in the zone, allowing his 92-95 mph fastball (which touches 97 mph at its best) to play better down in the zone. It has late life when he elevates it as well.
Reed was listed by MLB.com as the Royals’ No. 26 prospect and ranked ninth in Baseball America’s midseason update. MLB Pipeline’s report gives Reed’s fastball high marks and rates his changeup and slider as average offerings:
Reed always had the athleticism to repeat his delivery but struggled to do so before 2015. Now he’s more aggressive and filling the strike zone with ease, showing the potential to become a mid-rotation starter with three solid-or-better pitches.
With Reed joining the Wahoos’ starting staff, left-hander Wandy Peralta has moved to the bullpen. Peralta pitched three innings on Tuesday behind Daniel Wright, scattering a run on four hits. In 19 starts for Pensacola, Peralta was 6-7 with a 5.80 ERA.
Waldrop promoted to Cincinnati
Outfielder Kyle Waldrop was recalled by the Reds prior to Friday’s game against Pittsburgh. His first appearance will mark his Major League debut.
Waldrop takes the roster spot of Mike Leake, who was traded to San Francisco late Thursday night. Coincidentally, Waldrop will don Leake’s No. 44 jersey. Manager Bryan Price expects Waldrop’s stay to be brief while the Reds search for a starter to step into the rotation on Sunday.
Waldrop batted .277 in 67 games for Pensacola, including six home runs and 31 RBIs. He earned a promotion to Louisville after starting in the Southern League All-Star Game. At the time of his promotion, he led the Wahoos in several offensive categories, including hits (67), extra-base hits (22), slugging percentage (.430) and OPS (.742).
In 28 games with the Bats, Waldrop has scuffled with a .202 average and more strikeouts (26) than hits (21). After a five-game hitless skid, however, Waldrop is batting .243 (9-37) in his last 10 games. He also appeared in the Futures Game, starting in right field for the U.S. team and finishing 1-4 with a run scored.
When he plays, Waldrop will be the 24th player to make a debut after spending time in Pensacola. He is also the seventh Wahoo to debut this season, joining infielder Rey Navarro and pitchers Michael Lorenzen, Jon Moscot, Josh Smith, Josh Ravin and Keyvius Sampson. Sampson pitched a perfect inning in his debut Thursday night.