State College Spikes: Wick off to blazing start

rgery@centredaily.comJune 29, 2014 

— In the hallway outside the State College Spikes clubhouse, after his fifth home run in five games, there wasn’t much more Rowan Wick could say about his unprecedented start.

Wick already explained his approach after smashing two bombs at Williamsport’s Bowman Field in the season opener four nights earlier. He detailed everything again, when he homered twice at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park the previous night.

So after his fifth blast, he could only repeat what he’d said before. He was seeing the ball well and simply trying to hit the ball up the middle.

His teammates aptly described the surreal stretch for him, well aware that his strong start was turning into something special.

“It’s absurd,” Spikes catcher Brian O’Keefe said after State College’s 8-0 win over Batavia on June 17. “The guy’s white-hot right now. I mean you can’t get him out. The ball probably looks like a beach ball to him right now. And anywhere he hits it, it’s finding holes, whether it’s a 12-hopper up the middle or a shot into the right-center field deck.”

O’Keefe and the rest of the Spikes knew what was possible whenever Wick came to the plate after he tied the team record for homers in June — in five games.

“It’s nice for me knowing that I’m going to get some pitches to hit,” Spikes outfielder Nick Thompson said with a laugh after batting ahead of Wick in the lineup that night. “But Wick is unbelievable right now. If he keeps up this pace, he won’t be here much longer.”

Since his fifth homer, The Spikes right fielder has remained white-hot and continued to impress. Through 16 games, Wick leads the New York-Penn League in hitting with a .392 average and home runs with 10 and is tied for the league lead with Vermont’s Justin Higley with 19 RBIs.

His 10 home runs were more than 10 entire teams’ totals in the league and with his homer against Williamsport on Saturday he’s now tied the Spikes’ single-season record set by David Washington last summer. Utica’s John Hennell owns the New York-Penn League record for home runs in a season with 23 in 1982.

Spikes manager Oliver Marmol said the staff’s goal is to develop players and see them move to the next level, in this case Single-A Peoria, another step closer to contributing for the St. Louis Cardinals one day.

But Wick remains in State College, riding a high point in what’s been a challenging journey in baseball.

“He’s progressing very well and quicker than we thought, which is great,” Marmol said. “As far as any movement, right now he’s here and he’s going to continue to develop and continue to improve his approach.”

Early power

When he was 11 years old, Wick knocked his first home run out of Delbrook Park down the street from his North Vancouver (Canada) home while playing for the Little League all-star team.

“I almost hit my mom when she was walking into the park,” Wick said. “I guess that was pretty special.”

His father, Clayton Wick, watched that shot sail out to center field and over Elaine Wick, but he remembers Rowan smashing homers before that day in exhibition games leading up to the all-star tournament.

And even at 11, Rowan put on a show during batting practice.

“I just remember the kids used to laugh at batting practice that two or three kids would always stand on the other side of the fence and shag the balls from his batting practice,” Clayton Wick said.

In high school, Wick played under coach Dave Empey for the Vancouver Cannons.

Empey saw tremendous potential in Wick since he was 12. The coach raved about his power and was just as impressed by his rocket of an arm – he remains convinced Wick could have been a pitcher, but he wanted to be a hitter.

Wick’s talent and power was well known in the Premier Baseball League.

“In the league we played in here, they wouldn’t throw him the fastball because they were afraid of him,” Empey said. “So they threw him a lot of curveballs so he had to learn how to adjust to that.”

Empey’s relationship with Wick led to a defining moment in his young career.

Empey told Baseball Canada head coach and director Greg Hamilton about Wick when Hamilton was working with players at Langley Athletic Park.

Wick made his way to the park just in time to take batting practice in front of Hamilton, who saw enough after about 30 swings to give Wick a spot on the Canadian Junior National Team.

“That was a big moment right there when he got put onto that national team just basically from that one batting practice session,” Empey said.

Narrowing focus

The opportunity with the Canadian Junior National Team meant Wick’s focus was solely on baseball after playing hockey and rugby growing up.

“It’s just been baseball ever since,” Wick said.

Hamilton was wowed by the same talents that caught Empey’s eye — Wick’s power at the plate and his strong arm, which he’s displayed gunning down baserunners for State College. He said Wick’s success will depend on staying confident through the tough times in his career.

“The biggest thing with Rowan is just Rowan really believing in Rowan,” Hamilton said. “He’s a hardworking kid. He’s had a tendency over the years to be hard on himself.”

Hamilton has talked with Wick a lot about handling failure at the plate, and he hopes Wick will develop more and more trust in his talent as his career continues.

“You got two major league tools that are both plus,” Hamilton said, “so when you got a plus arm and you got plus power and you’re hitting from the left side and you’re a big man, you got a realistic chance to play on TV someday. You just got to work through the process and believe in yourself.”

In Wick’s time with the Junior National Team, it was a double off the wall at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in North Carolina that sticks in Hamilton’s mind.

The shot came when Wick was 16 off a 98 mile-per-hour fastball fired by USA Baseball National Collegiate Team pitcher Gerrit Cole, who would go on to be a first overall pick and currently pitches for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“There’s not too many 16-year-olds anywhere that are going to drive a fastball at 98 miles an hour like you just did,” Hamilton said. “Even if it was an accident, it’s an accident that not too many players can have occur. So it’s reinforcing in a young player that they have the talent to reach their dreams and goals in the game, and he certainly does.”

Rough times

The powerful lefty battled through frustration at points during two years of college.

There were calls home from St. John’s University in New York and Cypress College in California as he navigated the emotional ups and downs of the game. But his father believes his son needed those two years to be ready to handle the next level before signing with the Cardinals out of the 2012 draft.

Wick’s latest troubles came during extended spring training in Jupiter, Fla., in the months before he arrived in State College.

“I’ve struggled a lot,” Wick said. “Baseball’s not a sport where you succeed most of the time, so you just got to not worry about swinging at a curveball in the dirt or a changeup in the dirt, and I take a deep breath and get back in there and hit a fastball.”

Wick worked with Spikes hitting coach Ramon Ortiz during extended spring training to limit his strikeouts. The focus was on Wick’s mental approach, which Ortiz said starts to take over against better pitching at this level of professional baseball.

Wick had to develop discipline and patience at the plate to lay off pitches out of the strike zone. Ortiz said Wick was a willing student and has seen him make huge strides in his mental approach since extended spring training.

“His mentality was a home-run hitter,” Ortiz said. “I want to hit a home run. But to hit a home run, you got to make contact first, and with the strength that he has, he just makes good contact with the ball and the balls carry out anyway. He doesn’t need to force the action.”

At Rookie-level Johnson City last season, Wick tied for the lead in home runs in the Appalachian League with 10. But he also tied for the fourth-most strikeouts with 71 and hit .256, nowhere near the league leaders.

His time in Johnson City proved his power potential, but it also showed how much he still had to learn.

The effort to shorten his swing and stay patient has contributed to his eye-popping start.

In addition to leading the league in batting average and homers, he’s tied for first with 13 walks, while striking out 11 times. Wick hasn’t gone after the healthy dose of breaking balls and off-speed pitches opposing pitchers have thrown him after taking the New York-Penn League by storm.

“That’s what you’re seeing him do now is when he doesn’t chase the ball down and out and waits for his pitch,” Marmol said, “as long as he makes contact, the ball’s going to travel a good bit. So he’s definitely getting better at that.”

Just awesome

The fun in State College expanded to social media when a Did Wick Homer? Twitter account sent out its first tweet after his fifth homer on June 17.

Every Wick at bat has been met with anticipation at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. Every opposing pitcher surely knew what to expect and how to attack the league’s most dangerous hitter by that point.

But it did little to slow him down.

Wick powered his sixth home run about 370 feet over the right field wall at Jamestown’s Russell Diethrick Park despite his bat breaking into two pieces. He added his seventh homer in the 10th game of the season.

Three nights later, he homered twice for the third time this season.

His first was a majestic shot to the deepest part of Lubrano Park, over the National Penn Bank Nook in the left-center field gap 410 feet from home plate. His second was a bullet to right field, bringing him within one homer of the State College single-season record in the team’s 13th game. He needed three more to tie the mark, blasting a bomb over the center field fence at Bowman Field.

Marmol’s relished watching the show while coaching third base.

“It’s fun because I don’t have to give signs,” Marmol said.

Ortiz has fun greeting him at first base, too.

“Every time he crosses the bag, he’s making me laugh,” Ortiz said. “And I say, ‘Well, I was telling you this works. You just need to be consistent with your pitch, not with the pitcher’s pitch.’”

His teammates are still in awe watching from the dugout.

“It’s pretty incredible,” Spikes first baseman Alex De Leon said. “In baseball you see some crazy things, but it’s awesome what he’s done and hopefully he keeps doing it.”

His coaches and family in Canada saw his potential from a young age. This level of consistency, though, has everyone excited.

“He’s capable of doing this and he’s done it for stretches at a time other times, but nothing like this really,” his father said before adding, “he’s getting better. He’s starting to figure out a lot of stuff.”

Follow Ryne Gery on Twitter @rgery

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