Joe Kruzel’s view is to let his players relax, breathe and learn from their mistakes.
The 2017 State College Spikes have come to learn that by spending the last few months adjusting to their new manager — who will step out of the Medlar Field at Lubrano Park dugout for the first time on 7:05 p.m. Monday, when the Spikes open their season against the Williamsport Crosscutters.
Last season, the laid-back style of manager Johnny Rodriguez helped the Spikes roll to a franchise record for wins (50) along with the league title. Last winter he moved up the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league ladder to their affiliate in Springfield, Mo.
As relaxed and genial as Rodriguez was, he also was a perfectionist, infielder Danny Martin said. Outfielder Mick Fennell said Rodriguez was involved in some way in every play.
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Both think Kruzel will be even more laid-back.
“He knows that we got here on our own,” Martin said Saturday during the Spikes’ annual preseason media day. “We’ve nearly perfected a lot of things but, at the same time, if we ask him a question, he’s going to do all he can to help you with what you want to learn.”
Kruzel expects his players to be prepared — but wants to give them space.
“Try to keep it loose, let the guys go out and play and stay out of their way,” Kruzel said. “This is for them, not for me. As much as I can, just let them go out and feel like they can just compete.”
Kruzel, 51, spent the last three seasons at the Cardinals’ single-A affiliate in Peoria, Ill., and was the winningest manager in the Chiefs’ franchise history. This will be his fifth season as a manager and 10th as a coach in the Cardinals’ organization. He has also been in the Cincinnati Reds’ organization and spent 11 seasons as head coach at the University of Toledo.
Spikes players have gotten a better sense of Kruzel’s personality the last few months in Palm Beach, Fla., for extended spring training.
“It was good to get used to the way he manages a game,” Fennell said. “The end of the day, used to how he’s coaching now and looking forward to playing for him this season.”
At least six Spikes players from last season will return again this year, including pitchers Steven Farinaro and Spencer Trayner; infielders Martin, Danny Hudzina and Matt Davis — a Cumberland Valley High School graduate — and Fennell, an outfielder. But with the MLB draft at the beginning of this past week, a number of rookies will be signed and sent to State College in the coming days and weeks, likely bringing a great deal of change.
It will be up to Kruzel and his staff — pitching coach Darwin Marrero and hitting coach Roger LaFrancois return from last season — to blend them all and develop the talent.
“Patience is going to be a huge thing that you’re really going to have to have with the group,” Kruzel said. “You’re just going to have to let them breathe a little bit and not just try to (throw a lot of) stuff to them.”
Notes: Kruzel declined to name a starting pitcher Saturday afternoon for Monday’s opener, saying only that it would be a right-hander. ... The Spikes and Cutters meet again Tuesday in Williamsport before the Spikes begin a three-game series with Batavia on Wednesday through Friday. The Spikes will celebrate their league championship Friday.
Spikes’ schedule in June
Monday, June 19: vs. Williamsport Crosscutters, 7:05 p.m.
Tuesday, June 20: at Williamsport Crosscutters, 7:05 p.m.
Wednesday, June 21: vs. Batavia Muckdogs, 7:05 p.m.
Thursday, June 22: vs. Batavia Muckdogs, 7:05 p.m.
Friday, June 23: vs. Batavia Muckdogs, 7:05 p.m.
Saturday, June 24: at Mahoning Valley Scrappers, 7:05 p.m.
Sunday, June 25: at Mahoning Valley Scrappers, 4:05 p.m.
Monday, June 26: at Mahoning Valley Scrappers, 7:05 p.m.
Wednesday, June 28: vs. Auburn Doubledays, 7:05 p.m.
Thursday, June 29: vs. Auburn Doubledays, 7:05 p.m.
Friday, June 30: vs. Auburn Doubledays, 7:05 p.m.