‘Fun to Watch’ Double Play Duo Helps Spark ‘Relentless’ Wichita to 13 Wins in Last 14 Games
It is not always easy to find just a word or two that describes a successful baseball team, but Kevin Hooper says he has found himself frequently using “relentless” in describing the Wichita (KS) Wingnuts he manages. I have a feeling a second word to describe the American Association team that has run off 13 victories in its last 14 games would be “happy”. After all, happiness allows players to go about the daily task in a more relaxed manner which often times breeds success.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a talented double play combination, five solid starting pitchers and a team that is hitting .294, all attributes of the 15-4 Wichita club. No wonder the Wingnuts are leading the Central Division by five games.
I first started thinking about this story during Wichita’s 11-game winning streak because of one more instance where a scorned affiliated player started praising the Independent game. Wichita second baseman Jake Kahaulelio, just off four seasons in the Cincinnati farm system that included All-Star honors in the Double-A Southern League two years ago, told The Wichita Eagle “my attitude has completely changed” this season. “The baseball right now (Independent), what I’m doing, reminds me of when I was 12 and when I was in high school because you have fun. I’ve always had fun playing, but there’s always been pressure in affiliated ball—there’s a guy behind you trying to take your spot or you’re trying to get to the next level.
“Here, you just play. I have fun with the guys off the field, I come to the park with a smile on my face and I hit (batting practice) with a smile on my face with no worries. No worries.”
Now don’t misunderstand. The lad of Hawaiian descent, who turns 27 this very day (Thursday), wants to get back to affiliated baseball and continue a climb up the ladder. ButWichita is a nice stop before that next major league organization comes calling.
Hooper added a postscript when he described what Kahaulelio and shortstop Ryan Khoury, 28, twice a Boston Red Sox farmhand, can do together. “Those two guys up the middle are fun to watch,” praised the manager, a middle infielder during his own playing days. “He’s (Khoury) a gamer; a dirtbag,” Hooper said, telling anyone who will listen that the duo make up the best shortstop-second base combo he has had in four seasons of leading the Wingnuts. “You don’t usually see two good ones (middle infielders) at this level,” he added.
Khoury, currently at .247, hits leadoff with Kanaulelio, second in the order and the team leader in hitting (.405), hits (32 in 19 games) and runs batted in (17) with a veteran-laden middle of the order behind them.
Hooper says the five starting pitchers, arguably led by returnee Derek Blacksher (2-0, 3.00) and 2011 Frontier League Pitcher of the Year Josh Lowey (11-2 at River City, 3-0, 3.58 this season at Wichita), have kept the team in most games, but that everyone has contributed. “I’m an old school pitching and defense guy,” the manager said, and “we’re going to run balls out; play the right way. We’ve done everything well.”
The winning streak included three-game sweeps on the road against what Hooper called “two distinguished franchises” in Gary, IN and Fargo, ND plus three more victories at home against defending champion Grand Prairie, TX.
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Healthy Openers in San Rafael, Maui
There does not seem to be any way that this can be an easy season for the North Division of the second-year North American League since two teams are located in Hawaii and two in California, one of those without a home, but opening day crowds in both San Rafael, CA and Maui, HA showed promise for the future.
Maui usually had crowds of no more than a few hundred fans last season, yet Na Koa Ikaika, featuring more local players than in the past, had what The Maui News reported was an overflow audience announced at 2,818 when it opened by edging Hilo’s new Hawaii Stars 4-3 this week. The new San Rafael Pacifics opened a day earlier at a dressed up Albert Park with what The Marin (CA) Independent Journal reported was “a sold out crowd of more than 1,000″. Box scores, which would include attendance, have not yet been posted by Pointstreak, the league statistician.
San Rafaeland the road-only Sonoma County Grapes have local talent on their rosters, too, although the Pacifics also have players from Cuba and Japan. Hometown product Steve Detwiler, who spent part of last season in the Can-Am League (New York Federals), homered in each of his first two at-bats to lead the Pacifics to a 3-1 opening victory. ”I think the fans…are going to be very surprised by the talent (level) of baseball they’re going to be seeing,” the four-year Fresno State outfielder told KQED.org.
The Hawaii Stars have gained a degree of instant credibility by the hiring of Garry Templeton II, the son of the former major league shortstop, as manager. “It’s pretty exciting to manage for the first time,” the 33-year-old told The Hawaii Tribune-Herald. “I want to see how good I am at it”, added Templeton, who spent two years in the Los Angeles Angels farm system before turning to Independent Baseball in the Western, Texas-Louisiana, Northern and Golden Leagues and coaching under his Dad.
Hot Bat Could Help Berroa Return to Majors
Time could be running out on 2003 American League Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa to get back to the major leagues where the shortstop has played only sparingly since 2008, yet if he keeps up the pace with the New Jersey Jackals, who already have three of their alums at that level, hope could turn into reality.
Berroa, usually listed at 34, drove in four more runs Wednesday, boosting his numbers with the Can-Am League team to eight home runs, 24 RBI and a .296 average in only 21 games.
“That’s my goal (major leagues),” the Dominican told The Worcester (MA) Telegram and Gazette this week. “Right now I’m here playing my game, playing hard and doing my thing every day.” He hit .263 with six homers and 33 RBI in 64 games with Bridgeport, CT (Atlantic League) last year before finishing up with 42 more contests at .320-4-25 with Arizona‘s top farm club in Reno, NV.
Tanner Scheppers Newest Major Leaguer
It was just a week ago when we projected that Tanner Scheppers, who started his professional career with the St. Paul Saints in the American Association, could well be one of the next Independent players to reach the major leagues. It happened Thursday when the Texas Rangers added the right-hander to their roster. Scheppers was 1-2 with nine saves and a 3.72 ERA in 17 relief outings for Round Rock, TX this season.
In other major league developments for onetime Indy players, Stu Pomeranz’s promising season has been interrupted by a nasty oblique injury while Robert Coello is getting a new opportunity and Steve Delabar and Mike Costanzo have returned to the minor leagues for further work.
Pomeranz, who worked for the New Jersey Jackals (Can-Am League) in ’09 before nearly seeing his career go up in smoke because of shoulder problems and some personal issues, made a heroic climb from free agent to minor league star and eventual Baltimore Orioles reliever in about 3 ½ months earlier this year. But on his second visit to the parent club he went on the 15-day disabled list and now has been moved to the 60-day list. If all goes well, he could return sometime next month.
Coello, a Golden Leaguer (Calgary and Edmonton) in 2008 who made his major league debut with Boston for six mound appearances in 2010, returned to the majors with Toronto after averaging 9.4 strikeouts every nine innings as a starter and reliever in Las Vegas (3-1, 3.22). He has made one appearance so far, allowing three hits and striking out three in two scoreless innings.
Cincinnati sent Costanzo (Camden, NJ, Atlantic League) back to Triple-A after calling on him in 17 games, mostly as a pinch hitter (1-for-18, two RBI), and Seattle sent Delabar to Triple-A despite some success coming out of its bullpen. “He needs a third pitch, particularly to right-handed hitters,” pitching coach Carl Willis told MLB.com. “He’s got a power fastball, but the ball tended to creep up in the zone against right-handers and he supplied the power”. The former Can-Am (Brockton, MA) and Frontier League (Florence, KY) righty had held opponents to a .200 average and he had struck out 31 (seven walks) in 24.1 innings, but seven of the hits had been home runs, all to right-handers. Lefties only hit .108 against Delabar, who likely will return to the Mariners later on.
Prior Looking Good; 3 Others Released
While Mark Prior is gaining on resurrecting his long-stalled major league career, once-banned catcher Eliezer Alfonzo and outfielder-turned-pitcher Jason Lane have been released. Onetime Chicago Cubs ace Prior, who started his comeback at Orange County (Fullerton, CA) in the Golden League, has struck out six hitters (one walk) in 2.2 scoreless innings since Boston promoted the right-hander to Class AAA (Pawtucket, RI).
Alfonzo, whose minor league stops included the St. Paul (MN) Saints before the current American Association team left the Northern League, had a 100-game ban for a positive drug test reduced to 48 because of the same procedural issues that came up in the case of Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, but Colorado ultimately released the 33-year-old without using him in any minor league games. Alfonzo has hit .240 with 17 homers and 158 runs batted in in 193 major league games with San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle and the Rockies.
Lane, a veteran major league outfielder whose Independent time was with Southern Maryland (Waldorf) of the Atlantic League, won his only two decisions and had 18 strikeouts in 21.1 innings but also had a hefty 7.59 earned run average with Arizona’s top farm club in Reno, NV before the lefty was released.
Another veteran major leaguer released recently is Juan Rincon, who posted 23 saves (2-1, 2.98) in 42 relief outings for Bridgeport, CT (Atlantic) last season. Now 33, Rincon, who has gone 35-29 in 444 major league appearances, had a respectable 3.12 ERA (0-1, one save) in 17 appearances, including three starts at Triple-A Salt Lake City this season, but apparently did not fit into the future for the parent Los Angeles Angels.
(Bob Wirz also writes about Independent Baseball on two other sites, www.IndyBaseballChatter.com and www.AtlanticLeagueBaseball.com. Fans may subscribe to this Independent Baseball Insider column, which will be published 41 times in 2012, at www.WirzandAssociates.com or comment to RWirz@aol.com. The author has 16 years of major league baseball experience with Kansas City and as spokesman for two Commissioners, and lives in Stratford, CT.)