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Remembering Richard Durrett

Last night I received a text message in the last segment of our postgame show out here in Midland.  We were playing a highlight at that particular moment so I had time to look at the preview of the text before going back on the air.  In the limited space given to a partial message, it read, “Richard Durrett collapsed and died…”  I didn’t have time to really take that in until I went off the air a couple minutes later.  I’m not sure if I can still synthesize that news 16 hours later.

Yesterday we lost a friend.  I say that as an individual and for the Frisco RoughRiders organization.  Yes, Richard came to our games to cover Rangers rehabbers and interview big prospects that passed through Dr Pepper Ballpark.  He was out at the park just last week to interview Joey Gallo. He was one of the television color partners for me and my predecessor Aaron Goldsmith over the past few years.

But he also was a regular as a fan.  I helped him with tickets for his wife and kids regularly, and also when he had extended family in town and was looking for something to do with him.  Whenever he was at our games as a fan, he’d come up to the booth and do an inning with me to talk about the Rangers.  He never had to do that and I never asked, as I respected the time he wanted to spend with his family.  But that helps sum up what knowing Richard was all about.  He was selfless and committed, and he is already sorely missed.

When he joined me the on the television broadcasts, he did his homework, which was impressive for someone who covers a team of much greater importance in the grand scheme of things.  He made sure to talk to our manager and whichever roving instructor was in town to learn the latest about the better-known players and prospects on the team.  But he also took the time to learn more about journeyman players like Kevin Pucetas and got the inside scoop that he was going to debut his knuckleball in a game we did on TV last summer.  Wouldn’t you know, in the fourth inning we saw the knuckler for the first time all season and because of Richard’s diligence, we were prepared to talk about it.  I would imagine that is just a small example of his tenacity as a reporter.

I really enjoyed calling games with him.  He truly got into the game situations and would do an outstanding job breaking down the action we watched unfold.  I think this was because, in addition to his baseball expertise, he was just a sports fan who loved the on-field competition.  That’s something Richard and I have in common.

We were going over our TV schedule just a few weeks ago and trying to map out which games he would join me in the booth over the remainder of the season.  We scheduled him more for two more games in July, but he was disappointed he couldn’t do more because of conflicts with his Rangers schedule.  Selfless and committed.

In addition to his devotion to his family, I will remember the small moments among our many interactions over the last two and a half years.  Having lunch with him at Rudy’s in Frisco and randomly spotting Craig James at a table across the room.  Him asking about my family and girlfriend and my plans for the future.  Introducing him to my interns and assistants over the years, with whom he would freely dispense career advice or simply talk sports.

Maybe we shared a connection as current and former minor league baseball play-by-play broadcasters (Richard did a stint in short-season ball after graduating from college).  Maybe it’s because he was just a good and decent person and that’s the way his relationships were with everyone he interacted with in life.  Regardless, I’m going to miss him terribly and already do.  I am sick that he is no longer with us in this world, playing catch with his young son or spending time with the rest of his family.

This is not an easy day for any of us that knew Richard or even took in his work online, in print, on the radio or on television.  If there is anything to be taken from his sudden and shocking passing it may be for all of us to try our best to be like more him; to try to be as devoted to our family, and to try to be selfless and committed, like Richard was.

For now, we offer our prayers, thoughts and condolences to the Durrett family.  We miss you, Richard.

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Today the Texas Rangers announced the establishment of the “Richard Durrett Family Fund.”  From the Rangers’ press release:

Donations can be made at texasrangers.com/foundation or through the mail at Richard Durrett Family Fund, Texas Rangers Baseball Foundation, 1000 Ballpark Way, Suite 400, Arlington, TX 76011.  Donations made through the Rangers Foundation in his memory will be directed to the Richard Durrett Family Fund.

Donations can also be made to the Richard Durrett Family Fund, c/o Liberty Bank, 3880 Hulen Street, suite 100, Fort Worth, TX 76107 or at any of their five metroplex locations.

 

-          Alex

One Shining [May] Moment

March Madness 2015 is nine months away. Regardless of how your team fared in the tourney this year, it’s never out of season to relive the highlights with the “One Shining Moment” montage produced by CBS every year since 1987. For 11 of the past 12 years, the video has featured the dulcet tones of Luther Vandross (the lone exception being 2010 when Jennifer Hudson voiced the lyrics). Vandross would have plenty of shining moments to sing about if he voiced the soundtrack to the RoughRiders season thus far (alas, Vandross passed away all too soon in 2005 at the age of 54).

The many acmes of the past month, both on an individual and team level, manifest themselves this past week when the Texas Rangers announced their Minor League Player of the Month awards for May. Every month, the Rangers scan the farm and anoint the top player, pitcher, reliever and defender. All four recipients in May play for the ‘Riders, although to be fair, Joey Gallo and Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez earned recognition for their performance with Advanced-A Myrtle Beach. Still, that doesn’t stop us from throwing out our collective chests a little bit here in Frisco, especially given the initial returns from Gallo and Gonzalez in Double-A.

In a salutary gesture to these top performers, we spotlight their one (of many) shining moments in the month of May:


  • RHP Phil Klein – Minor League Reliever of the Month

Shining Moment: Sunday, May 25 vs. Springfield – 2.0IP, 0H, 0R, 0BB, 2K, 6BF, SV

Klein shined throughout the month of May and in nine appearances, recorded six saves in as many chances (he had zero saves in the first month of the season). The 25-year-old allowed one run on five hits and three walks over 12 2/3 innings pitched (0.71 ERA) and produced. Several performances stand out, such as Klein’s four strikeouts in two innings against the San Antonio Missions on May 2. In another game against the Missions on May 16, the native of Gahanna, Ohio posted a nearly identical line as the highlighted game above with two strikeouts over two innings of shutout baseball.

Although his four strikeout performance tied a season high, it occurred late in an 8-3 loss to San Antonio with the game already out of reach. While Klein earned the save for his work on the 16th, the ‘Riders won by three runs.

Against Springfield, however, Jason Wood asked the 6-foot-7, 260-pounder to protect a one-run lead with the playoff race in full swing. Klein threw 17 of his 26 pitches for strikes en route to the six-out save and retired the final batter in both innings on strikes.

The 30th round draft choice has continued his roll into June and he has not allowed a run in 13 2/3 innings. Klein’s ERA stands at 0.89 and his eight saves rank fourth in the Texas League.


 

Shining Moment: Thursday, May 8 vs. Corpus Christi – 2/4, R, HR, 3RBI, 2CS, PO

Let’s be honest: defense isn’t the only component that goes into the Defender of the Month Award. Let’s be honest about something else: the Rangers could not give Player of the Month honors to anyone other than Joey Gallo. That being said, Telis posted some of the best offensive numbers on the farm by someone not named Gallo, and also showed flashes of defensive merit.

As May closed, Telis paced the Texas League in batting average with a .347 mark. The switch-hitter’s high water mark came on May 18 when his average hit .356 after a 3-for-4 performance at the plate with a double and a stolen base.

The shining moment of the month for the 23-year-old (as of June 18) showcases Telis’s versatility on both offense and defense. His three-run home run in the third inning helped propel the RoughRiders to a 5-3 win and his three RBI tied a season single-game high.

Scouts love Telis for his lightning quick jump time from the crouch behind home plate to the throwing position. This helps give Telis a faster jump on would-be basestealers. His pop behind the dish cost the Hooks on the 8th when the Venezuelan threw out two runners at second base. In addition, he caught Matt Duffy napping with a lead off second and doubled him off to end the fifth.


 

  • 3B Joey Gallo – Minor League Player of the Month

Shining Moment: Friday, May 30 vs. Carolina – 2/4, 3R, 2HR (GS), 7RBI, BB

Boy, this was tough. Gallo, now the three-time defending Player of the Month (dating back to last season) posted video game numbers on more than one occasion in May. Against the Potomac Nationals on May 16, the 20-year-old went a perfect 4-for-4 with four runs, three home runs and five RBI. It was Gallo’s second three-home run game of the season (April 23)

Special thanks to Pelicans’ broadcaster Nathan Barnett for helping us break the tie on this one. True, Gallo hit fewer home runs on the 30th (amazing we are even using multiple home runs as a metric here), but his seven RBI against the Carolina Mudcats tied a Pelicans franchise record.

Also, consider the timeliness of Gallo’s two homers against Carolina. His three-run home run left the park in the fifth inning and brought Myrtle Beach back from a 6-3 deficit. Two innings with the later, with the score tied at six, Gallo ripped a grand slam to put the Birds in front 10-6.


 

Shining Moment: Tuesday, May 20 at Frederick – 7.0IP, H, R, 3BB, 4K, W

Gonzalez did not lose a decision in five starts with the Pelicans in May. After losing his first two decisions of the season, the 22-year-old allowed six runs over his 34 innings pitched last month, good for a 1.59 ERA. He began the month strong with an eight-inning shutout performance on May 3 against Frederick, and keyed in against the Keys later on the 20th.

Frederick will not be sad to see Gonzalez in the Texas League as the first round draft choice in 2013 took a no-hit bid into the seventh inning. He did not allow a walk until the fifth and turned in the longest outing without a hit by a Pelicans’ starting pitcher this season.

 

Here’s to a second half (and a postseason) full of more shining moments. Thanks for reading!

-Chris V.

 

Congratulations, Ben Rowen!

Rowen showcasing his distinct delivery during a 'Riders game in 2013.

Rowen showcasing his distinct delivery during a ‘Riders game in 2013.

The Rangers announced yesterday their purchase of right-handed pitcher Ben Rowen from Triple-A Round Rock. The spindly 6-foot-4 190-pound hurler fills the vacated roster spot left by Tanner Scheppers, who once again lands on the diabled list with right elbow inflammation.

When Rowen makes his major league debut, he will become the 113th former RoughRider to appear on the big league stage. He joins Nick Martinez, Justin Miller, Luis Sardinas, Neil Ramirez and Rougned Odor as alumni to debut this season.

Rowen wore uniform number 39 yesterday during the Rangers 6-0 win over the Miami Marlins. He might as well have been wearing his old RoughRiders jersey (number 28) as the bullpen joined the 31,512 fans in attendance and watched Yu Darvish chuck a complete-game shutout.

It’s a shame to see Rowen called up at the expense of Scheppers (another former RoughRider in 2010-11), but what an opportunity for the righty, who played in Frisco just one year ago. Former RoughRiders teammate Jimmy Reyes took to Twitter to congratulate Rowen:

Ben Rowen tweet

Regardless of circumstance, the 25-year-old certainly deserves the promotion. He pitched in 19 2/3 innings for Triple-A Round Rock this season and allowed a skimpy six earned runs over 16 appearances (none in his last 12 1/3 innings), which computes to a 2.75 ERA. Rowen also notched a pair of saves in addition to 14 strikeouts and just two walks. Right-handed hitters have struggled to pick up Rowen’s offerings, in particular, and bat just .196 against him.

The Rangers drafted Rowen out of Virginia Tech in the 22nd round of the 2010 amateur draft. The native of Rancho Palos Verdes, California arrived in Frisco on the heels of a 2012 season in which Texas named Rowen its Minor League Reliever of the Year.

The former Hokie continued his upward trajectory with the RoughRiders in 2013. Rowen finished 24 of the 31 games in which he pitched for the RoughRiders and registered 10 saves in 33 2/3 innings. His ERA a blistering 0.53, he earned a spot on the Texas League All-Star team and a promotion to Triple-A Round Rock the same season. The submariner debuted on the Rangers 40-man roster after his impressive ’13 campaign.

Given the rash of injuries at the big league level, it comes as no surprise that Rowen has dealt with injury already in 2014. Keep your fingers crossed the bicep tendinitis that sidelined Rowen in spring training does not crop up in Arlington. It hasn’t thus far through his strong start to the season.

Congratulations, Ben, and good luck in Arlington!

-Your friends in Frisco

 

 

Ten RoughRiders Chosen as Mid-Season All-Stars

14113697719_8d4923a6ee_bBy: Chris Vosters, Jay Wallis and Cameron Varnau

The Frisco RoughRiders have been a force in the Texas League so far and their record-number All-Star selections reflects this dominance. The league announced that ten of the team’s players will be 2014 Texas League Mid-Season All-Stars. The game will be played at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, Arkansas on Tuesday, June 24 at 7:15 p.m.

The selection committee voted four ‘Riders pitchers and six position players to the South Division side. Starting pitchers Alec AsherEdwar Cabrera and Luke Jackson will travel to Arkansas as well as reliever Phil Klein. Infielders Rougned OdorGuilder Rodriguez and Ryan Rua each earned spots on the squad in addition to outfielder Jake Smolinski and catcher Tomás Telis. Infielder Odubel Herrera will replace Odor, who is currently with the Texas Rangers. Rua will serve as the starting third baseman for the South Division and Smolinski will start the contest in the outfield.

The RoughRiders boast more All-Stars than any team in the Texas League. This is the most mid-season all-stars for the ‘Riders since 2011 when Frisco also earned nine selections, including current Texas Ranger Leonys Martin.

Balloting for the Texas League All-Star Game was conducted by votes gathered from managers, coaches, broadcasters and beat writers representing all eight teams.

FRISCO ROUGHRIDERS MID-SEASON ALL-STARS

Ryan Rua – 3B: The RoughRiders’ everyday third baseman is batting .318 (67-for-211) through 59 games with the club this season. Of his 67 hits, good for second in the Texas League, 12 have been doubles, and his ten home runs are tied for fifth in the league with teammate Jake Smolinski. The native of Amherst, Ohio also ranks third in on-base and slugging percentage with totals of .395 and .526, respectively, and has 32 RBI. This will be Rua’s first all-star appearance in the Texas League; however, the utility infielder was named to the Mid-Season and Postseason All-Star teams in the South Atlantic League in 2013 for his efforts with the Hickory Crawdads.

Jake Smolinski – OF: In his eighth season and first in the Rangers organization, the 25-year-old native of Rockford, Illinois has shown patience at the plate and the power to go deep as his .516 slugging percentage reveals. Reaching base in 53 of 61 games, Smolinski finds a way to get on and work his way home. The left fielder leads Frisco in doubles (13) and walks (28), and paces the Texas League in runs scored (39). He is also second in the Texas League with 26 extra-base hits. He has been a dependable defender as well, going a team-high 27 consecutive games without an error. Smolinski also garnered Mid-Season All-Star honors with the Double-A Jacksonville Suns in 2012.

Alec Asher – RHP: The 22-year-old native of Lakeland, Florida has earned his way onto the 2014 Texas League All-Star team with his league-leading 71 1/3 innings pitched. He accumulated those innings across 12 starts with a 6-4 record and 3.28 ERA. The 6-foot-4 righty has issued 58 hits in 262 at-bats, which is good for an opponent average of .221, the fifth-lowest mark among qualified starters in the Texas League. This will be Asher’s first Texas League All-Star Game; he was named to the Carolina League Mid-Season All-Star team in 2013.

Edwar Cabrera – RHP: The native of Baní, Dominican Republic is no stranger to All-Star appearances as he was a South Atlantic Mid-Season All-Star with Asheville in 2011. He also represented the Tulsa Drillers as a Mid-Season and Post-Season All-Star in 2012. In his first season with the Rangers organization, the southpaw is 2-3 with a 3.40 ERA in nine games as a starter and has struck out 44 in 47 2/3 innings of work. As a reliever, Cabrera has a 2.61 ERA with one save in 10.1 innings pitched.

Odubel Herrera – INF: Herrera, 22, is in the second season with the ‘Riders and made the All-Star Game last year as well. The native of Zulia, Venezuela is batting .282 (24-for-85) with a home run, three doubles, a triple and 14 RBI in 22 games. He began the season with Advanced-A Myrtle Beach and was called up May 12. In his second game with the team, the 5-foot-11, 200-pounder matched a season-high with four hits against the Midland RockHounds. Since that time, Herrera has become a reliable infielder for the RoughRiders. He has not been charged with an error since returning to the Texas League.

Luke Jackson – RHP: As the 2013 Nolan Ryan Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Jackson is making his first All-Star appearance in Double-A. He made the All-Star team last year with the Advanced-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans. The Floridian is fourth in the Texas League in ERA (2.55), first in wins (7), second in strikeouts (85), sixth in innings pitched (67) and third in WHIP (0.96). Jackson ranks fourth among starters in allowing just 9.29 baserunners per nine innings. During one of his best outings of the year on April 21, the 6-foot-2 righty took a perfect game into the sixth inning against the San Antonio Missions and allowed just three hits to go along with eight strikeouts and no walks in seven innings pitched.

Phil Klein – RHP: The 6-foot-7, 250-pound right-hander has been in the Rangers organization since 2011 and worked his way up to the ‘Riders in 2013. Being called up to Frisco for part of the 2013 season, Klein has improved in almost every statistical category compared to last year. Among Texas League pitchers, the reliever has the second-lowest batting average among relievers (.152) and strikes out 11.75 batters per nine innings, the third-lowest ratio in the league. He has become the RoughRiders’ closer and is a perfect 7-for-7 in save chances. The former Youngstown State Penguin has worked eight straight scoreless appearances and has not conceded more than one run in any single game this season. After walking ten in his first eight outings, Klein has only walked three in his last 12 appearances.

Rougned Odor - INF: The Rangers’ 2013 Tom Grieve Minor League Player of the Year earns his second straight All-Star selection after starting the 2013 Carolina League All-Star Game at second base. In 32 games with the RoughRiders in 2014, Odor batted .279 and slugged .450 with 36 hits (two doubles, one triple, six home runs) and 17 RBI. His work led to a promotion to the Texas Rangers on May 8. He has played in 24 big league games with Texas and is batting .290 with seven runs, 20 hits and two home runs in 69 at-bats.

Guilder Rodriguez – INF: The fourteen-year professional played his first 12 seasons without an All-Star selection, but is now set to appear in his second consecutive Texas League All-Star Game. The switch-hitter has played the most minor league games (1,040) among all current players who have no big league experience. With multiple hits in five of the last eight games, Rodriguez ranks first in the Texas League in batting average .380 (27 for 71) and second in on-base percentage (.457) since his return from Triple-A Round Rock on May 15. The utility infielder has settled into the shortstop position this year but is still diverse enough to play where his team needs him. Since joining Frisco in 2009, Rodriguez has played every position except catcher. 

Tomás Telis – C: The switch-hitting catcher returns to the Texas League All-Star roster for the second consecutive year after making his first appearance in 2013. Telis was also selected for two previous All-Star teams in the 2008 DSL All-Star Game, in which he was named MVP, and in the 2011 South Atlantic League All-Star Game. Telis is batting a league-leading .327 (56-for-171) in 45 games this season. He has scored 18 runs with 11 doubles, two triples, two homers and 26 RBI, and has posted an .807 OPS.

Scouting the South Division

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By: Jay Wallis and Chris Vosters

With June upon us, the race for the first-half division title in the Texas League is in full swing. Frisco reaches the season’s midway point on June 16 against the Midland RockHounds. The ‘Riders are in the midst of a pivotal eight-game homestand and will play out the final six games of the first half on the road.

The RoughRiders entered the month atop the south division, but with all three division rivals in hot pursuit. Every team owns a winning record, which makes the playoff hunt a four-way chase. Let’s spotlight Frisco’s competition down the stretch.

San Antonio: They may have gotten off to a sluggish start in the beginning of the year, but the Missions have really picked up their level of play of late. After falling seven games below .500 in mid-May, San Antonio has since then jumped right back in the playoff hunt thanks to sustained pitching and improved hitting. As a team, the Missions hold the best ERA in the Texas League (2.99) while their closer, Johnny Barbato, leads the league in saves (15). This exceptional pitching has been present for the majority of the season but the hitting hasn’t always been comparable. However, with the emergence of outfielders Rymer Liriano and Yeison Asencio, who was named Texas League Player of the Week for May 19-25, the bats are finally making some noise. If the Missions can continue to improve at the plate during the second half of the season, they could give the ‘Riders trouble, especially since San Antonio is the only team Frisco doesn’t have a winning record against.

Midland: Out of the four Texas League teams in the south division, the RockHounds got off to the best start and held the divisional lead at the end of April. Josh Whitaker and Max Muncy both are Texas League leaders in multiple batting categories and have been the catalyst for Midland’s offense. During a four-game series with the RoughRiders in early May, though, they lost three of four and handed over their position atop the south to the ‘Riders. In addition to losing the series, Muncy suffered a lacerated finger in the second game, causing the first baseman to miss the next 17 games and put a hole in his team’s lineup. The RockHounds ended up losing 17 of 30 games in May, creating more of a gap between the ‘Riders and their competition. If Muncy can regain his confidence at the plate that he has yet to recapture since returning from the DL, it should provide a substantial spark for Midland’s offense moving forward.

Corpus Christi: The ‘Riders have handled the Hooks in 8-of-12 meetings this season. However, the teams’ four remaining meetings before the end of the first half take place under the lights of Whataburger Field. While some teams undergo hot streaks and cold spells, the Hooks’ calling card is their consistency: the Astros’ Double-A affiliate finished 14-12 in April and 15-14 in May. In both pitching and hitting, the Hooks rank in the top half of the Texas League. The ‘Riders hope to avoid damage from Corpus Christi’s Preston Tucker, a seventh round draft choice in 2012. The slugger is batting .319 against the Frisco this season with six doubles and two home runs. The 6-foot, 200-pound lefty ranks near the top of the Texas League in a multitude of categories, namely home runs, RBI, hits and doubles.

Frisco faces a daunting task, but it is important for the RoughRiders and their fans to remember the traits that placed the ‘Riders in a strong position to clinch a postseason berth: a winning record at home, contributions throughout the batting order and strong team chemistry. If the team adheres to that formula, fans can look forward to postseason baseball at Dr Pepper Ballpark come September.

Frisco’s Field of Dreams

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Fans arrive at Dr Pepper Ballpark filled with anticipation and excitement as the team returns from a lengthy eight-game road trip. The smell of burgers and hot dogs grilling eases the stress after a long day of work. You take a look at your ticket, make your way to your section and row, sit down in your seat, and you stare out at the field. The chalk is laid down in perfection as you observe the first and third base lines, and the fresh-cut grass is making you want to invest in a new lawn mower.  Baseball is a magnificent sport. So magnificent it can only be played on a diamond.

David Bicknell is the Head Groundskeeper charged with the task of creating this beautiful sight that people embrace as they arrive at Dr Pepper Ballpark. This isn’t your ordinary 9 to 5 gig, folks, as field preparation lasts all day and every day.

“We usually get in at 8:30 in the morning as that’s when we do most of our field conditioning work. The ball club will be out as early as two o’clock so in the morning and afternoon we work on the infield and the clay, touch up on any mounds that need some extra attention, or out in the turf we’re working to do any mowing or striping. Other than that just a lot of details to bring everything together,” Bicknell said.

This field is his masterpiece because it’s a canvas that must be flawless or play might be affected. Infielders require a playing surface that will give them nice and clean hops on ground balls, which can mean the difference between the final out of a game and going into extra-innings.

“Some players will have a desire to have their area a special way but a lot of players want it to be in a pretty standard condition. That allows them to make the plays confidently.”

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The cut of the grass also has affects on how fast ground balls travel through the infield. Pitchers and infielders tend to desire a higher cut to assist in “killing” the speed of the ball, which would increase the chance of making the play successfully, whereas hitters would desire a lower cut to speed up the ball.

“Obviously it’s hard to make both parties happy on something like that. That’s the type of thing that we’ll work out in at the start of the season with the ball club and just try to determine how they want to have it and go with that,” said Bicknell.

No one enjoys a rain delay and it can throw a curve ball into the plans for Dave and his crew. In a 3-2 ‘Rider win against the Springfield Cardinals on May 25, 2014 this proved to be the case as the game experienced a delay of over 2 1/2 hours.

“The biggest man power requirement is moving the infield tarp. That tarp is 170′ x 170′ and it weights about a ton so it takes at least 10 to 15 people the get that into place when we need to. We also have some part-time stuff that comes in during the game to supplement in case we have a rain storm come in.”

“We have several wether sources that we use and we constantly monitor the radar during the course of a ball game just in case something does come up. We’ll be in communication with the crew chief of the umpiring crew and have our grounds crew ready to go in case they decide to stop the game.”

The work doesn’t stop during the off-season because spring is right around the corner and Bicknell knows another season is quickly approaching.

“From early February on through the end of October there’s a full schedule of events still going on at Dr Pepper Ballpark and we’re continuing to manage the field to be sure we’re ready for the next season. During the months of November, December and January that’s when we have some time to work on some projects in case we need to improve some things and get out of town to take a vacation.”

This is a vacation that is well deserved for ‘Diamond Dave’ and his assistants. It takes a combination of consistency and precision to make sure the field at Dr Pepper Ballpark is ready to go for the first pitch night in and night out, and Bicknell’s passion shows through his skill and persistence.

From the corner of Hicks and Diamond Drive,

Cameron Varnau

Sluggin’ Smolinski

Jake Smolinski looks to keep running past the competition.

Jake Smolinski looks to keep running past the competition.

Jake Smolinski is on a mission to prove he’s a guy who can get the job done when his number is called, and he has worked to do just that during his time in Frisco. Making a strong first impression is important in any profession, and since being signed as a free agent by the Texas Rangers organization this past offseason, Smolinski has raised some eyebrows with his play.

Smolinski has been smoldering at the plate for the past month picking up a hit in 25 of his last 27 ballgames. The left fielder said he’s made a concerted effort to get on base and make the most of his time while on the field.

“I don’t want to be known as somebody who can’t run well in the outfield or can’t run the bases well,” Smolinski said. “The speed aspect of the game is an important part and it’s something that I work hard in the offseason to try and maintain and get better at.”

That offseason work the RoughRiders outfielder put in has paid off as Smolinski seems to have made a habit of getting on base. So far this season, he ranks in the top five in triples (3), extra base hits (17) and on-base percentage (.403) in the Texas League. Smolinski’s ability to get hits (48), which is a category he also ranks in the top five in the league, and pound the ball (six home runs) isn’t the only reason he often finds himself on base. He said his patience to work the count has been a part of his game since he was a teenager.

“It’s something that I’ve always done even back in high school,” Smolinski said. “And since I’ve been in pro ball, I think when you try and focus on one pitch at a time and not worry about the whole at-bat, it makes it that much easier.”

Making the transition to a new team from year to year isn’t always the easiest thing to do, as different cities, people and organizations inevitably take some getting used to. Last year alone, the Illinois-born outfielder played in both Florida and Lousiana for three different teams.

Since being drafted 70th overall by the Washington Nationals in 2007, Smolinski has dealt with a number of injuries that have forced him to spend time on the disabled list. After playing seven seasons in the minor leagues with the Washington and Miami organizations, he became a free agent following the 2013 campaign, and the Rangers quickly moved to sign him in November.

This year, Smolinski has experienced stability unlike ever before in his professional career. The 25-year-old is the only RoughRider to play in every game (44) so far and has found his rhythm due to this consistency. He said finding a home with the ballclub took no time at all.

“We have fun together,” Smolinski said. “I really think we play well together. It’s been a good experience. And it’s very professional here and definitely run the right way.”

It seems to be a good partnership as Smolinski has really found his groove and found it fast.

“I try to compete every time I’m up at the plate,” Smolinski said.

If he keeps competing and slugging at such a high level, Smolinski has a good chance to extend his recent hot streak into an exceptionally impressive season.

-Jay Wallis

Quarters in Change – Team Awards at the 25¢ mark

13701572164_aec0f95de8_bSaturday’s 5-1 loss to Corpus Christi marked the quarter point in the 2014 campaign. The ‘Riders ran through the first 35 games on the schedule with a 22-13 record, good for the best mark in the Texas League.

Extrapolate that start to the full season, and the RoughRiders are on pace to finish 88-52. It’s an ambitious clip to maintain, but an 88-win season would be the most in club history. The current benchmark is 85 wins, set in 2007.

Frisco took care of business in all fronts and venues. They posted positive records at Dr Pepper Ballpark (13-8) and on the road (9-5). The ‘Riders also went 14-9 within the south division and won 8-of-12 against teams from the Texas League North.

The roster was not placid, either. Thirty-three personnel moves have occurred since the Opening Day Roster dropped on March 28. Three players debuted at the major league level and another four moved on to the Triple-A ranks. The RoughRiders also received three players from Advanced-A and four from extended spring training.

This ability to maintain consistency in the face of roster upheaval is a testament to the cohesiveness of the core players and Jason Wood‘s skills as a manager of men. Even when Woody took his customary vacation (the Rangers organization allows the coaching staff a four-day break during the season), the team continued to gel. The Rangers Minor League Field Coordinator, who served as acting field manager in Wood’s absence, left a note for the skipper in which he praised the professional demeanor and positive attitude in the clubhouse.

Early returns are also strong on the squad’s performance sans its two top prospects, Rougned Odor and Luis Sardinas. The RoughRiders won five of their first six games without the tandem of Venezuelan middle infielders.

In short, a plethora of candidates can make a realistic argument for unofficial team awards as the season stands on first base. Here are the top four individual performers one-fourth of the way through the ‘Riders 2014 run. For a list of the top ten moments of the 2014 season to date, click here.

Hitter of the Quarter: #9 Ryan Rua – 3B/2B/DH

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Questions lingered around Ryan at the start of the season. The 24-year-old tore up the South Atlantic League in 2013 with the Hickory Crawdads (29 home runs, 24 doubles, 82 RBI, .914 OPS in 104 games). The All-Star campaign earned him a spot in Frisco for the final month of the season, but the righty batted .233 in 23 games with the ‘Riders and his OPS fell to an earthly .689. Was the barnstorming tour in Hickory an aberration?

After an 0-for-8 start to the season, the muscular infielder answered the above question with a resounding “no.” From April 5 to May 4, Ryan reached base safely in 27 consecutive games. He posted 12 multi-hit games during the streak, the second-longest of its kind in Minor League Baseball this season.

The 17th round draft choice in 2011 clubbed a .354/.441/.654 line in the month of April and his OPS soared to 1.095. The native of Ohio played 24 games in April, one more than he played for the ‘Riders a season ago. Over the same approximate span in 2014, Ryan cracked 29 hits (including six home runs and six doubles). He scored 12 runs and drove in 15 more. Equally impressive was the right-handed hitter’s ratio of strikeouts (11) to walks (13). Not bad for a player with some pop in the bat.

Ryan consistently draws the attention of his teammates, spectators and even the opposition with his display of power in batting practice. As the first quarter of the season proved, however, the 6-foot-2 180 pound slugger is far more than a B.P. warrior.

Pitcher of the Quarter: #7 Luke Jackson – RHP

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The term “staff ace” does not apply at the minor league level, but Luke has been the lead arm on a young unit with plenty of potential. He took home Texas League Pitcher of the Week honors for April 14-20 and became the first ‘Rider to earn a league award this season. It was the first Texas League distinction for Luke in his career. The Carolina League also recognized “LuJax” as its pitcher of the week in 2013.

The Texas League selected the 6-foot-2 185 pound righty on the heels of a six inning shut out performance against the Arkansas Travelers on April 15. Luke surrendered three hits, two walks and tossed eight strikeouts for his first win of the season.

The 2010 supplemental first round draft choice tossed a career outing on April 21. Luke retired the first 17 men he faced and held a perfect game with two outs in the sixth inning. San Antonio’s Jake Lemmerman broke up  the bid, but Luke still finished with no runs on three hits, no walks and eight strikeouts.

Luke owns a 4-1 record on the season with a 3.00 ERA through 42 innings pitched. He also earned his first career save when he relieved big league rehabber Joe Saunders on May 6.

Defender of the Quarter: #3 Jake Smolinski – LF/RF/DH

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Jake is in his first year with the Rangers organization, and on a roster in flux, “Smo” has provided stability and consistency both at the plate and in the field. Once he figured out his swing about three weeks into the season, Jake’s batting average has climbed to .299 with a .401 on-base percentage (his career trademark is a high OBP).

The 5-foot-11 185 pound right-hander has been the club’s left fielder for 30 of the team’s first 39 games, and he also made two spot starts in right. Along with seven games as designated hitter, the 2nd round draft choice in 2007 is one of two players in the Texas League to play in every game through May 14. Jake has logged more innings in the pasture than anyone on the RoughRiders’ roster. Through 267 2/3 innings, the native of Rockford, Ill. has committed one error and leads the team in outfield assists (2). In addition, Jake has turned the only outfield double play for the ‘Riders thus far in 2014.

The 25-year-old has flashed his athleticism on several plays in left, most notably on April 27 in a game against Corpus Christi. The Hooks loaded the bases with no outs and brought one run home to tie the game at 3-3 in the bottom of the seventh inning. With runners still on first and second with two outs, Jake made a great play on a deep fly ball from M.P. Cokinos that would have surely broken the dead heat had it escaped the glove of the left fielder. The ‘Riders went on to win the game 4-3.

Reliever of the Quarter: #35 Matt West – RHP

Healthy for the first time since the 2011, Matt sheared the long blonde locks and pitched with authority out of the bullpen. He posted a 2-0 record with three saves and a 0.68 ERA. At 25 years of age, Matt allowed one run with the ‘Riders through eight appearances and 13 1/3 innings pitched. The lone run charged to the native of Houston crossed in his final appearance with the ‘Riders on April 29. The numbers earned the 6-foot-1 200 pound hurler a promotion to Triple-A Round Rock on May 3.

Through 3 2/3 innings with the Express this month, Matt has allowed six runs (five earned) on 12 hits  with one walk and five strikeouts. However, no runs have crossed on Matt’s watch in his last two starts.

On May 15, the Rangers recognized the 2nd round draft choice in 2007 as its reliever of the month in April. Not bad for a former third baseman who converted to the mound three seasons ago.

The ‘Riders are off and running in 2014. Who will shine in the second quarter as the first half winds to a close? Stay tuned to find out!

-Chris V.

RoughRiders Top 10 Highlights: First Quarter

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We’re one quarter of the way through the 2014 campaign and that means it’s time to take a look at the moments and highlights that propelled Frisco to first place in the division standings, and at some other feel-good moments that are worth noting.

10) Jason Wood

Jason Wood showed his ability to make the most of the team he was given following the promotions of Rougned Odor and Luis Sardinas. More importantly, however, he proved to his players that he has their back no matter what and that he’ll do what it takes to stand up for them. In a game that saw Jake Smolinski appear to beat out at play at first base, Smolinski was tossed for arguing. His skipper, Wood, was walking to the showers shortly after. The umpires have a tough job and they won’t always get it right, and arguing isn’t always the best tactic for success. In this case, Wood sent a message to his club and proved to them that he will do his best to back them up.

9) Professional debut of INF Michael De Leon

17-year-old Michael De Leon hits in his first professional game.

17-year-old Michael De Leon hits in his first professional game.

When I was 17 years old I was merely playing high school ball and taking it easy on Friday nights. I think it’s safe to say Michael De Leon has me beat. The young infielder was promoted straight to Double-A Frisco without playing any extended spring training or Rookie ball, and made his professional debut on Mother’s Day in a 7-5 win over the Corpus Christi Hooks. He executed every play when his number was called and made a spinning 360 play to complete a game-ending double play. This kid had the biggest smile on his face while boarding the charter bus to embark on his first team road trip and I can certainly understand why. He is the youngest player in history to take the field for Frisco.

8) Record in one-run games

The RoughRiders’ success in the first quarter of the season can be attributed to many factors, but one that stood out to me was their record in one-run games. Frisco recorded a 10-1 record in those games and that can mean the difference between sitting atop the standings and looking up at the competition.

7) Four ‘Riders promoted to Triple-A

Four RoughRiders earned promotions to Triple-A Round Rock. On May 3, RHP Matt West made the drive south to join OF Ryan Strausborger, INF Guilder Rodriguez and INF Jordan Brown at the next level towards the big leagues. Athletes know that, unfortunately, no day is guaranteed in the world of minor league baseball. Congratulations to these individuals as they continue their trek through the farm system.

6) Jake Smolinski

Every team features one player that is simply known as ‘the guy’. For Frisco Jake Smolinski proved to be that guy over the first quarter of the season. Smolinski is batting .295, has pounded out 38 hits, belted five homers and has 21 RBI. ‘Smo’ has been an important piece in the middle of this Frisco batting order and looks to keep it up as we make our way closer to the second half of the season.

5) Road woes? More like road ‘WOWS’

Home cooking is always preferred, but sometimes it’s nice to eat out. Frisco is 11-5 away from the friendly confines of Dr Pepper Ballpark and again, it’s a statistic that can make a huge difference in the standings. Just ask the other teams in the Texas League South. Midland (9-9 on the road), Corpus Christi (8-12 on the road), and San Antonio (10-12 on the road).

4) Tomas Telis

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There are days where the top or middle portions of the lineup just can’t manage to get something going, and that’s when clubs rely on other guys to step up. Tomas Telis was one of those individuals who stepped up and he did so in a huge way. The switch-hitting catcher started the year slow, but quickly stepped it up. Telis is batting .337 with 28 hits on only 23 games, 15RBI, and has hit a couple of 3-run home runs to pad to his total.

3) Luke Jackson

They don’t give out the Nolan Ryan Minor League Pitcher of the Year award to just anyone and RHP Luke Jackson earned it in 2013. He’s continued the trend in 2014 as one of the top pitchers in the Texas League. Jackson is 4-1 with a 3.00 ERA and in 42 innings pitched his struck out 42 while only walking 13. He’s exciting to watch on the mound and on April 21 he took a perfect game deep into the sixth inning against the San Antonio Missions.

2) Big league debuts of Nick Martinez, Rougned Odor and Luis Sardinas 

Rougned Odor watches one fly at Dr Pepper Ballpark.

Rougned Odor watches one fly at Dr Pepper Ballpark.

The first quarter of the season also witnessed the birth of three more major league careers. RHP Nick Martinez was called up to make a spot-start due to the neck-stiffness of Texas’ ace Yu Darvish and made his major league debut on the road against the Tampa Bay Rays. After being sent back to the ‘Riders he was again recalled and has been with the big league club since. Luis Sardinas was promoted on April 19 and appeared in three games over a brief eight-day stint. Sardinas was sent back to Double-A Frisco for a short period of time, but was recalled for a second time on May 8. This time, however, he would be joined by his pal and double play partner Rougned Odor. Odor, the Rangers’ top prospect according to Baseball America, was Frisco’s everyday second baseman. It’s likely that the two are sent back down once the Rangers’ regain injured players such as Jurickson Profar and Donnie Murphy, but these two guys have earned their spot in the bigs.

1) Club-record ten game winning streak

We can’t recap the top highlights from the first quarter of play without paying tribute to the franchise-record ten game winning streak that propelled the RoughRiders into the top spot in the Texas League South division standings. Frisco outscored their opponents 55-22, outhit them 79-56, hit 13 home runs and had 3 multi-home run games, recorded a 1.99 staff ERA, and the club pushed out four comeback wins.

In conclusion:

The RoughRiders impressed over the first stretch of the long season and it’s been fun to watch and experience. It can be difficult for a team to find its identity with new players seemingly passing through the doors every other day but this is a fun squad that knows how to win, and they have fun doing it.

Writing to you from the corner of Hicks & Diamond Drive,

Cameron Varnau

Framing Pitches, Framing Minds

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The catcher touches the ball on nearly every play and influences the game in many aspects. Before every pitch, the man behind home plate helps determine the location and velocity of the throw. He can change the momentum of an inning with a strike to eliminate a would-be base stealer or a tag at the dish. A skilled backstop can even coax an umpire into calling a strike by “framing” a pitch over the plate.

As a catcher in the Rangers organization for over six years, Zach Zaneski understands the many different roles of his position, both on and off the diamond. He knows the catcher’s capacity to mold a game’s outcome. Whether starting behind the dish or warming up his hurlers in the bullpen, it is job that requires focus and determination.

Zaneski employs a similar skill set as a substitute teacher around his hometown of New London, Conn. The 27-year-old has spent parts of the last five winters in the classroom.

He first arrived at the idea when he realized the offseason could be a slow period of time for athletes.

“When I was in college I signed with the Rangers and after that first season I came home and realized I had to work,” said Zaneski.

“I figured that I could substitute teach, be done with work at 2 o’clock every day and that would hold me over for the winter until spring training rolls around.”

The seven-year veteran is prepared to teach in any subject. By now, he has instructed a variety of classes.

“For the first four winters it was kind of whatever they needed me to teach,” Zaneski said.

“I was doing physical education, automotive, history, you name it and I’ve done it. This winter it was mostly math, so it was more of a long-term position.”

“It is fun working with kids, and once they figure out that I play professional baseball with the Rangers, they get all excited.”

Zaneski’s career outside the classroom is unique from his co-workers, but he manages to blend both worlds and enjoys doing so.

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“It’s very convenient because once I’m done at 2 o’clock, I can lift, I can hit, I can do what I need to do for baseball as well. It works out well,” he said.

Zaneski has the leadership and poise to call a great game at the plate and he also guides his pitcher through the obstacles of a game. These are the experiences he relates to while working with some of his students.

“I mentored Jordan Reed who’s in the NFL with the Redskins my first couple of winters there and when he was looking at going to college for football I pretty much told him he had to get his grades straight or else he wouldn’t get accepted into the school,” said Zaneski.

“I’m kind of guiding and mentoring some of the kids and it’s fun. I try to explain that just because they’re good at football or baseball or whatever the case may be, they can’t just get into college. They’ve got to get accepted with their grades first. Trying to help them through that process because I’ve done it is a good thing.”

Life can be related to a game in which there are highs and lows. A pitcher can wind up in a bases-loaded and no one out jam, similarly to how students can find themselves without focus, drive or determination. This is when it takes the leadership and influence of a catcher, or a substitute teacher named Mr. Zaneski, on the other hand, to slow the game down and re-find much needed focus.

For Zaneski it doesn’t matter if it’s guiding his pitcher through a mid-summer afternoon game or giving advice to students back at home. Zaneski enjoys framing pitches to get a call from the umpire at home plate, and framing minds so one day his students can get a call bringing them their notice of academic acceptance.

-Cameron Varnau

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