Three games into the season, State College Spikes manager Johnny Rodriguez brought up last year’s star player to explain what to expect from this year’s team.
“Nobody’s going to hit it over a light tower like Wick did,” Rodriguez said.
Rowan Wick crushed opposing pitchers during his 35-game stint with the Spikes in 2014, hitting .378 and clubbing a Spikes’ single-season record 14 home runs. Wick started hot and stayed hot to help the Spikes build a commanding lead in the Pinckney Division standings.
But this year’s group doesn’t have the same power in the middle of its lineup. Rodriguez said it may not be pretty, but he sees the potential for an effective lineup.
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The Spikes lost five of their first six games going into Thursday night’s game against Mahoning Valley. They ranked 10th in the 14-team New York-Penn League in batting average (.229) and runs scored (23).
“We’re going to have good nights, we’re going to have some tough nights, but it’s a long season,” Spikes hitting coach Roger LaFrancois said. “And I think our guys have the right mental approach to grind out at bats and I think in the long run we’ll be OK.”
Through six games, there is a stark contrast between the 2014 club and this year’s team.
And Wick’s record start highlights the difference.
Wick hit five home runs and drove in nine runs in his first six games last season. This year, the Spikes had two home runs — one by Ronnierd Garcia and one by Brian O’Keefe — in the first six games.
Rodriguez wants to see more production from Casey Grayson and Cole Lankford, who each had five home runs for Johnson City last season.
“Grayson has to pick it up, Lankford has to pick it up because they’re guys that can hit the ball out of the yard,” Rodriguez said. “So we need them to pick it up. We can’t have two, three strikeouts a game from them.”
With players with speed at the top and bottom of the lineup, Rodriguez wants to see more from the middle of the lineup.
“Hopefully they can hit some balls out of the yard,” Rodriguez said. “That’s a good offense. That’s the makings of a good offense.”
Wick is currently with the Gulf Coast League Cardinals as a pitcher.
He is making the position switch from the outfield after hitting .198 and striking out 50 times in 126 at bats with Advanced-A Palm Beach this season. After being promoted to Single-A Peoria last season, Wick hit .220 and struck out 60 times in 141 at bats.
Bullpen struggles early
The Spikes bullpen will get a boost Friday when four 2015 draft picks become available to use.
Rodriguez said he’ll be able to turn to Max Almonte (16th round, Villanova), Jacob Evans (6th round, Oklahoma), Luke Harrison (35th round, Indiana) and Brennan Leitao (26th round, Sacramento State) as relievers.
In the first six games, seven Spikes relievers combined to allow 17 earned runs in 23 2/3 innings.
Rodriguez and pitching coach Darwin Marrero met with the relievers Wednesday, stressing the importance of throwing first-pitch strikes and pitching to contact.
“You will see the guys now starting to execute,” Rodriguez said. “It’s just a feel-out period. Now the honeymoon is over and we start executing.”
Garcia starts hot
Ronnierd Garcia is off to a strong start to his second stint in State College.
The third baseman led the team with a .389 batting average and four doubles going into Thursday night. He also had one of the team’s two home runs.
“We’re looking for good things for him,” LaFrancois said. “He’s a big strong guy. He’s got a lot of juice in his bat and he’s gotten off to a really good start.
Garcia is in his sixth season in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, but the 22-year-old has never climbed past Advanced-A Palm Beach, where he played in two games last season.
Garcia played in 27 games for the Spikes last season, hitting .230 with seven doubles and one home run.
Rodriguez is looking for more consistency from Garcia this summer.
Said LaFrancois: “He’s got a lot of potential in there that we hope to get out of him.”
Muckdogs make history
Three Batavia pitchers combined to throw the fourth perfect game in New York-Penn League history Wednesday night.
Batavia starter Gabriel Castellanos struck out 12 in seven flawless innings. Brett Lilek struck out the side in the eighth, and Steven Farnworth pitched the final inning to finish the perfect game as the Muckdogs beat Mahoning Valley 1-0.
It was the first perfect game in the New York-Penn League since Oneonta’s Guillermo Moscoso achieved the feat against Batavia on July 14, 2007.
Batavia’s combined perfecto was the third nine-inning perfect game in league history, joining Moscoso’s gem in 2007 and Erie pitcher John Herbert’s perfect game against Hornell on June 23, 1956.
Oneonta’s Gregory Diehl pitched a seven-inning perfect game July 7, 1974, against Newark.