State College Spikes

State College Spikes: New manager expects hard-nosed play this summer

Spikes players joke around during media day. The State College Spikes baseball team hosted media day June 17, 2015 ahead of their season opener Friday.
Spikes players joke around during media day. The State College Spikes baseball team hosted media day June 17, 2015 ahead of their season opener Friday. CDT photo

The State College Spikes’ six-inning simulated game Tuesday night offered a first glimpse of four 2015 draft picks and left a familiar impression on manager Johnny Rodriguez.

They looked like grinders.

It’s the same word Rodriguez used to characterize this year’s Spikes during media day Wednesday. Grinders, Rodriguez said, are players who will give everything they have.

And that’s the type of team fans can expect to see when State College opens its season against the Williamsport Crosscutters at 7:05 p.m. Friday at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.

“It’s my thing: Control the controllables, be at your best when you’re best is needed and you better have it,” Rodriguez said. “If not, you can’t play for us.”

Rodriguez sees the grinder mentality in outfielder Mike Pritchard, who spent the 2014 season with the Gulf Coast League Cardinals and joined Johnson City during the Appalachian League playoffs. He sees it in Casey Grayson, Cole Lankford and others who contributed to Johnson City’s run to the Appalachian League championship last year. And he sees it in draft picks R.J. Dennard, Daniel Martin, Thomas Spitz and Jesse Jenner after the team’s workout Tuesday night.

It’s a mentality the players had during extended spring training, too.

“If you stay back at extended, you have to play hard,” outfielder Jhohan Acevedo said. “And you have to play like you’re playing A-ball or you’re playing Double-A or you’re playing in the big leagues because it doesn’t matter where you’re playing, you have to give all you have.”

When his teams failed to live up to that expectation in the past, Rodriguez reminded them.

Like last year in Johnson City, with the team hovering around the .500 mark.

The Cardinals jumped out to a three-run lead against the Kingsport Mets in August, but they fell 7-4. Rodriguez said they “gave it away” in a loss marked by bad baserunning, bad decision-making and a lack of hustle.

Rodriguez made his point when he posted the lineup as the “Dirty Nine” the next day.

“I sat down all the prospects or supposedly best players and went with all the bench,” Rodriguez said. “And I put guys at positions they didn’t play before. But they were going to give me a competitive edge over the other team.

“I knew those nine guys — Dirty Nine — were going to give me the most ugliest game in the world the way they played it, but were going to find a way to win it.”

Johnson City beat Kingsport 3-2 with the Dirty Nine, getting the final out with the tying run on third when second baseman Christian Muscarello knocked down a ground ball with his chest and stuck with it. Rodriguez said the tough play epitomized the lineup that day.

It may have been ugly at times, but the effort was there.

“We didn’t have that lineup the rest of the season,” said Grayson, who played first base that day and led the Appalachian League with 46 RBIs in 2014. “I think it was just him to prove a point to say you need to come out and play no matter what. No matter if you’re 0 for 30 or you’re 30 for 30, you need to come out and play every day to help this team win.”

Grayson said Rodriguez doesn’t get caught up in which round players were drafted or if they were undrafted. The manager wants his them to play hard and earn their roles on the team.

And it’s up to the player to be ready to work every day.

“There’s days you come out here and you don’t feel great,” Grayson said. “You don’t feel great hitting, you don’t feel great in the field, you’re tired — whatever the excuse is you have that day.

“But you want to be successful at this level, you got to find a way to, those days you don’t feel good, you got to find a way to play good.”

The rotation

The Spikes’ rotation is set for the first four games of the season.

Left-hander Ian McKinney will get the start in the season opener Friday night against Williamsport.

“He’s our most experienced pitcher,” Rodriguez said. “He’s got the best feel. Again, he’s not going to overpower you, but he’s going to pitch inside for effect. He’ll go in and out, change speeds on you, he’ll keep you guessing.”

McKinney made six starts with Johnson City last year, going 2-0 with a 1.26 ERA. He also made two starts for State College before going on the disabled last after missing a scheduled start last August.

Right-handers Jorge Rodriguez, Dailyn Martinez and Juan Perez round out the rotation for the first four games.

State College’s media day roster includes just two left-handers, McKinney and Jacob Evans, a sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma.

Roster update

The Spikes have received a handful of additions to its roster this week.

Right-handed pitcher Tyler Bray is among those who have joined the team. Bray made 17 relief appearances and boasted a 2.96 ERA for the Spikes in 2014.

State College has also added 2015 St. Louis Cardinals’ draft picks: pitcher Max Almonte (16th round, Villanova), pitcher Carson Cross (14th round, Connecticut), pitcher Evans (sixth round, Oklahoma), pitcher Luke Harrison (35th round, Indiana), pitcher Brennan Leitao (26th round, Sacramento State) along with Jenner, Dennard and Martin.

Jenner, a catcher, was the seventh-round pick out of the University of San Diego. Dennard, a first baseman, was the 39th-round pick out of Armstrong State University. Martin, an infielder, was selected in the 24th round out of Azusa Pacific University.