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Jon Duplantier Jersey

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Reno Aces pitcher Jon Duplantier has funk in his arm.

“He’s just funky, no other way to put it,” Aces pitching coach Jeff Bajenaru said. “He has some nastiness to him and hitters don’t like it.”

The Arizona Diamondbacks top pitching prospect went three innings, surrendering one earned run on three hits and three strikeouts in the Aces’ 9-5 loss to the Fresno Grizzlies on Wednesday. He has a 1.04 ERA and 10 strikeouts with Reno this season.

Duplantier’s unconventional approach on the mound all starts with his long-arm, low three-quarter slot delivery. Once the right-hander winds up, he hides the ball behind his head before he delivers a strike to the plate, a routine he’s developed growing up in Katy, Texas.

“I’ve been throwing this way forever,” he said. “There’s pictures of me at 10 years old throwing the way I throw now. I didn’t realize it was all that weird until one of my teammates told me in college.”

Opposing batters can’t hide from his devastating four-pitch arsenal. He gets ahead of the count with a mid-90s two-seam fastball with plenty of sink that runs off the plate. In two-strike situations, he’ll showcase a hard-breaking slider to whiff right-handed hitters. Duplantier also has developed a mid-80s change up and effective curve to force ground balls.

His third strikeout on Wednesday night was an 85-mph slider that broke at the hands of Fresno third baseman Matt Reynolds.

“My off-speed stuff is huge,” he said. “Guys are throwing real hard so my slider can and breaking ball can take a load off my fastball and it can add to it. It’s all just a means of keeping the hitter off balance. … They have to honor one or both, and they complement each other really nice in the way they move.”

Duplantier, 24, who pitched with Double-A Jackson last season, made his big-league debut for the Diamondbacks on April 1. He posted a rare three-inning save with two strikeouts against the San Diego Padres.

“I had no idea I even got the save,” he said. “Now it’s one of the coolest moments of my life.”

Duplantier appeared in two games with the Dbacks before being optioned to Triple-A Reno on April 9. He’s returned to his starting role with the Aces on a limited pitch count, throwing 97 total pitches in 8.2 innings pitched this season.

“The mentality is different between the two,” he said. “In the bullpen, it’s about getting the out at all costs and go to work. Starting, it’s a little bit more like a chess game. You have to go back to the at-bat before and the next (player) in the order. It’s a whole different ball game.”

Duplantier’s arm hasn’t only been seen on a diamond. He was a Houston high school quarterback for the Silver Lakes High School Spartans in 2012 and 2013. The two-sport star lettered in football and baseball during his junior and senior seasons.

Duplantier had a smooth touch with the football compared to his mechanical release on the mound. His 6-foot-3, 224-pound frame was a good size for the gridiron.

“I never threw footballs the way I throw a baseball,” he chuckled. “I had a tight, compact quick stroke with it. My arm was pretty stock when I launched (the ball) downfield. I could stand in there and take a hit, as well.”

Multiple injuries to his collarbone and wrist forced Duplantier to stick with one pair of cleats. A torn meniscus ended his senior football season with the Spartans and forced him to permanently stick to baseball.

“It was a tough decision, but I couldn’t take the beating of both (sports),” he said. “Football was fun, but baseball was my real passion. So I just stayed with that.”

The decision paid off handsomely. Arizona selected Duplantier in the third round of the 2016 MLB Draft after three college seasons with the Rice University Owls.

The right-hander has been and up-and-coming star since he was assigned to the Dbacks’ minor league system. Duplantier has not recorded a higher ERA than 2.69 over three seasons in High-A, Advanced-A and with Double-A Jackson. He was a Futures Game Selection during his time with the Visalia Rawhide in 2017.

Currently bouncing between the Dbacks and the Aces, Duplantier is getting used to the Biggest Little City.

“When you drive around here, the scenery catches your eye,” he said. “It’s beautiful out here. I’m not used to seeing so many mountains coming from Texas, let alone mountains with snow on them. … I’ve sent my parents a bunch of pictures.”

Duplantier may not be with the Aces for long. His strong arm and impressive stuff can help Arizona’s depleted bullpen or slot in the back-end of the team’s starting rotation.

He is the 69th ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline.

“He had a great spring training and opened a lot of eyes,” pitching coach Bajenaru said. “He works his butt of and is a competitor at heart. … I hope I don’t see him that much this year. I want to see him up there.”

Tomas goes yard in Aces loss

Yasmany Tomas’ eighth-inning homer was too little too late for the Aces.
Tahoe Onstage

Yasmany Tomas

Tomas jumped on a hanging fastball and launched it over the party zone in right field. He has six home runs on the season, tied with Kevin Cron for the team lead. Tomas went 1-for-4 with two RBIs on Wednesday.

The Aces had nine hits. Tim Locastro went 1-for-4 with a triple and RBIs. He made a diving catch in center field in the second inning. Locastro was optioned back to Triple-A on April 20.

Reno catcher Tyler Heineman made his first home start, going 2-for-3 with one RBI. Like Benito Santiago throwing from his knees, he erased two baserunners attempting to steal third base.

Second baseman Juniel Querecuto went 2-for-4 with an RBI. The ex-San Francisco Giant, shortstop Kelby Tomlinson, added two hits.

Fresno scored three runs in the first and fifth innings. Carter Kieboom heated things up on a breezy 75-degree night. The No. 24 ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, Kieboom went 2-for-4 with a homer, double and two RBIs.

Grizzlies center fielder Collin Cowgill made a return to Greater Nevada Field. The outfielder had 13 homers and 70 RBIs at a .354 clip in 2011 for Reno. Cowgill finished 0-for-4 on Wednesday against his former team.

Fresno plated three runs in the first inning off Kieboom’s RBI double. The Aces responded with a two-run third inning off Locastro’s RBI triple to right-center.

The Grizzlies added two more in the fourth. Reno chipped into its deficit with another run in the bottom of the fourth. Fresno pulled away with three runs in the fifth and another in the seventh. Tomas’ two-run blast in the eighth marked the final runs for the Aces.
Tahoe Onstage

Taylor Widener starts for Reno on Thursday.

Notes: Paid attendance was 3,054. …Reno has surrendered 18 runs in the first inning and a team-high 19 runs in the second. The team has a combined 6.32 ERA thus far this season. The team is outscored 18-4 in the sixth inning. … Former Reno Aces’ first baseman Christian Walker is off to a scorching start with the Dbacks. He leads the MLB with a 70.6 percent of hard-hit balls. … The Aces are 81-81 all-time against the Grizzlies. They are 48-34 all-time against Fresno at Greater Nevada Field.

On Deck: Reno, 5-14, faces Fresno for the second game of the five-game series Thursday at 6:35 p.m. Right-hander Taylor Widener is expected to start for the Aces. Henderson Alvarez will get the nod for the Grizzlies.

Christian Walker Jersey

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Top of the ninth inning, bases loaded, no outs.

The Los Angeles Dodgers were threatening to swipe a win away from the Arizona Diamondbacks, who led 6-4 entering the final frame on Aug. 31. LA outfielder Matt Beaty was up against Arizona’s Archie Bradley, and he hit a sharp, low line drive towards the 3-4 hole.

First baseman Christian Walker dove to his right and snagged the ball on a short hop with his backhand. He rose to a knee and delivered a strike to shortstop Nick Ahmed at second base, who turned the double play as Chase Field erupted in the background. Bradley got the next hitter out and Arizona won its sixth-straight game 6-5.

Walker has never known to be a plus defender in the past, Ahmed noted on the Sports Info Solutions Podcast. But the 2018 Gold Glover discussed with host Mark Simon about how that has changed this season.
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“He is incredibly improved and underrated defensively,” Ahmed said. “Going back to spring training and the offseason, he was always picking my brain about defense and his footwork and hands. He has made every routine play, picked balls out of the dirt for us and he’s made phenomenal plays. He is a Gold Glover in my eyes.”

That is high praise from someone who has had stout defender Paul Goldschmidt to throw to for most of his career. But, Ahmed may not be wrong, as the numbers suggest that Walker could be a dark horse to contend for the award.

Walker is third among National League first basemen in defensive runs saved with five. This stat measures how many runs a defender saves his team compared to an average player. He only trails Goldschmidt and Cincinnati’s Joey Votto who each have six. There is a real possibility that Walker could end the season on top of that list.

The D-backs first baseman is also third at his position in the NL in UZR/150 (ultimate zone rating per 150 games). This metric may look alien to some, but Fan Graphs has a simple explanation for it.

Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is one of the most widely used, publicly available defensive statistics. UZR puts a run value to defense, attempting to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding prowess (or lack thereof).

It takes into account range and errors among other aspects, and in this category, Walker trails just Goldschmidt and Chicago’s Anthony Rizzo.

The increased awareness of defensive metrics helps Walker’s chances immensely but there are some that aren’t as favorable. He has a solid fielding percentage of 99.3%, the sixth-highest mark in the NL, and also has more errors than other contenders like Goldshmidt, Rizzo and Votto.

But, his ability to make plays on harder to get to balls makes him one of the best defensive first basemen in the NL and has helped the D-backs in some big moments like in that win over the Dodgers. That makes him a good candidate to be nominated for a Gold Glove this season.

Greg Swindell Jersey

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Drayton McLane wanted to change things for the Astros and early advice told him that pitching was the key. To accomplish this, McLane decided to make his front three guys Doug Drabek, Pete Harnisch, and the big arm of Greg Swindell.

Swindell started his career in the Indians organization and quickly found himself pitching against major league players. “It was a dream come true. I never thought I would be called up after only three weeks. It was all a blur pitching for the Waco Pirates, Liberal BeeJays, and then the Indians.” Swindell would quickly dominate the competition with 72 wins and an ERA of 3.60, which was fairly low for the Steroid Era.

Astros fans were excited to see the new owner seemingly dedicated to returning to a playoff-contending team. Swindell was equally excited to join the Astros. “Growing up in Houston and then playing for the home team was fun!” But fate had a different plan for Swindell. His ERA ballooned past 4.50 and suddenly he found himself battling an injury. “I wish I would have pitched better from a personal basis. We had really good teams, the start of what was to become a contender. I just couldn’t get over the hump.”

In 1996, giving up on Swindell, the Astros released him. It was a huge mistake. He would join a few other clubs before his luck changed. In 1999, joining many other former Astros, Greg Swindell was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks. This crew of former Astros players would take a World Series victory out of the jaws of the Yankees and Swindell was almost perfect. “It was a dream come true. From start to finish, the chemistry was there. The ownership wanted to win. It was awesome.” In typical Astros fashion, the team gave up on a pitcher right before they turned into one of the best in baseball.

Currently, Swindell is now working with the Longhorn Network. “I spend my time working for the Longhorn Network, baseball games, and loving Texas living my life at fifty years old.” It is not his only passion. “My son is autistic and I just try to raise awareness about Autism and try to help families cope.” If you are interested in donating in the name of Swindell’s son, Autism Speaks does amazing work and every dollar helps!

Andrew Chafin Jersey

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The Red Sox may not be able to land Mets closer Edwin Diaz by the trade deadline, so they’re turning their attention to other relievers on the market. San Francisco closer Will Smith is the reliever who has “most intrigued” the Red Sox over the past week, Sean McAdam of BostonSportsJournal.com tweets. The Red Sox have also shown interest in Diamondbacks left-hander Andrew Chafin, per McAdam, and Blue Jays right-hander Daniel Hudson, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (subscription link).

Smith would clearly give the Red Sox the stable game-ending option they’ve lacked this year, but it doesn’t appear the team will be able to swing a deal for him. They’ve found the Giants’ asking price for Smith to be prohibitive, McAdam reports. Smith isn’t signed past this season – one of the reasons the Red Sox aren’t aggressively pursuing him – though it’s no surprise the Giants want a haul back for him. They’re still in playoff contention, for one, and Smith’s eminently affordable ($4.225MM) and highly effective. The 30-year-old has logged a 2.72 ERA/2.77 FIP with 12.82 K/9 and 2.14 BB/9 in 46 1/3 innings this season. He has also converted 26 of 28 save opportunities.

Meanwhile, either Chafin or Hudson could help improve the Red Sox’s setup situation. This is the latest in a growing line of solid seasons for the 29-year-old Chafin, who has pitched to a 4.17 ERA/3.69 FIP with 11.05 K/9 and 3.19 BB/9 across 36 2/3 frames. He also ranks second among all relievers in infield fly rate (24.2 percent), has held left-handed batters to a subpar .272 weighted on-base average, earns a relatively meager salary ($1.945MM) and comes with another year of arbitration control. Unsurprisingly, Chafin’s drawing plenty of interest from around the league – not just Boston – Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports.

Hudson, 32, would be the easiest reliever in this trio to acquire. He’s had a productive year, though peripherals don’t quite back up his above-average run prevention, and would be a pure rental for his next team. Nevertheless, Hudson’s the cheapest of the group ($1.5MM salary) and has been popular in the rumor mill leading up to the deadline. The hard-throwing journeyman has notched a 3.00 ERA/4.21 FIP with 9.0 K/9 and 4.3 BB/9 over 48 innings. Righties have mustered a weak .276 wOBA off him.

Steve Finley Jersey

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Major-league baseball player Steve Finley had a career full of accolades, and upon meeting Meaghan Hunt at a dinner with mutual friends, knew their relationship would go into extra innings.

When Steve eventually realized that Meaghan was the person with whom he wanted to grow old, he took the gentlemanly step of calling Meaghan’s mother to ask for her blessing. He received her enthusiastic approval, and set out to plan the proposal.

One of the greatest moments in Steve’s life was winning the 2001 World Series with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He asked Meaghan to join him in Phoenix for the team’s celebration of the win’s 10th anniversary. There, he joined his greatest achievement of the past with an achievement that will last a lifetime: He asked Meaghan to be his wife, and she accepted.

As they delved into wedding planning, the couple searched top venues across Southern California, and from their very first visit had a good feeling about The Grand Del Mar. “It felt right,” Meaghan explains, “and was more private than any of the other venues we looked at. It was warm and inviting, and the staff was excellent.” It was also meaningful to begin their marriage in the city where they lived, as well as where Steve first rose to fame as a member of the San Diego Padres.

The outdoor ceremony was staged amid the property’s stunning environment of sage-rimmed vistas surrounding a Moroccan pavilion. White irises in tall hurricane vases sat at the foot of a rose petal-lined aisle and around the altar. A string quartet played arrangements of contemporary love songs during the processional.

The colors of the event were established by snowy white flowers with cool touches of green set against fabrics in striking black. Bouquets of celery-hued cymbidium orchids interspersed with coal-centered Star-of-Bethlehem were carried by the bridesmaids, whose midnight-colored dresses featured sleek halter necklines. Even the flower girls were darling visions in black, their formal cinch-waist dresses accented with charcoal tulle.

Meaghan carried a creamy bouquet of gardenias finished with an off-white ribbon. Her golden locks fell in curls toward her bare, sun-kissed shoulders, and her flowing A-line dress played to her tall, sleek frame. The bride’s ensemble was spiked with a black sash above the waist to coordinate with the gowns of her ladies in waiting.

Classical guitar music set the mood for the reception, a touch not lost on the number of guitarists in Meaghan’s family. As guests entered the hall, they were met with mood lighting lent from four stone fireplaces as well as floating candles. The tables were set with ebony linens and surrounded by chairs that continued the sultry color scheme. Vanilla calla lilies and orchids filled glass centerpieces of alternating shapes.

The couple’s multi-tiered cake rested on a lush green stage of horsetail reeds and orchids. “As the cake topper, we had a bobble head of me riding a horse and Steve in his Diamondback baseball jersey,” Meaghan proudly adds. “It was a fun touch to our wedding cake.”

After a five-course dinner, guests moved into the salon, where a DJ kept the group dancing well into the early hours of the morning. Philly cheesesteak sliders were served as late night snacks. Thanks to the venue’s award-winning kitchen, the meals were, in a word, memorable.

Meaghan praises her wedding planner’s guidance throughout the planning: “I was surprised that the planning process was so easy.” Steve has few illusions that any groom will be the primary planner of a wedding, but he offers this nugget of advice to men: “Be involved in the parts of planning that really mean something to you. Be a positive supporter of the rest.”

The groom goes on to reflect with astonishment how smoothly the day went. “Usually something goes wrong somewhere with a wedding of this size and number of moving parts, but everything went off perfectly without a hitch.” When asked what he’d do differently, had he the chance, he replied simply, “Nothing.” In other words, they knocked it out of the park.

Tony Womack Jersey

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ZEBULON, N.C. – Former Carolina Mudcats and Major League Baseball star Tony Womack will return to Five County Stadium on August 21 as the Mudcats celebrate their 20th Anniversary season in Zebulon.

Womack played for the Mudcats in 1993 and again in their Southern League championship season of 1995 as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

“We are excited to have Tony back at Five County Stadium to help celebrate our 20th anniversary,” said Carolina Mudcats General Manager Joe Kremer. “Tony will always be remembered as being one of the best players to put on a Mudcats uniform.”

Womack spent 13 seasons in the big leagues with the Pirates (1993-1998), Arizona Diamondbacks (1999-2003), Colorado Rockies (2003), Chicago Cubs (2003, 2006), St. Louis Cardinals (2004), New York Yankees (2005) and Cincinnati Reds (2006).

The Danville, Va. native may be best remembered for his performance in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series with the Diamondbacks against the New York Yankees. With Arizona down 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning, Womack doubled a Mariano Rivera pitch to right field to chase home another former Mudcat, Midre Cummings, and tie the game at 2-2. Two batters later, Luis Gonzalez, who ironically starred for the 1990 Columbus (Ga.) Mudcats, drove home the winning run to make Womack and the Diamondbacks World Series champions.

Womack, who was an MLB All-Star in 1997, led the National League in stolen bases for three consecutive years from 1997 to 1999 and paced the circuit in triples in 2000.

As a shortstop for the 1995 Mudcats, Womack honed his post-season late-inning heroics, starring in the final innings of the fifth and deciding game of the 1995 Southern League championship series against the Chattanooga Lookouts at Five County Stadium.

With Carolina up by a run in the bottom of the eighth, Womack laced a triple that drove in two runs and padded the Mudcats’ lead. Womack ended the inning by scoring himself as Carolina won the game 11-7 and gave Carolina their first Southern League championship since moving to Wake County.

“Pittsburgh Pirates minor league director Chet Montgomery called Tony’s 8th inning at-bat the best he had ever seen”, said Kremer. “Tony fouled off 15 pitches before his triple down the right field line and that really put us in control and led us to that first championship.”

Tickets are on sale for the August 21 game as the Mudcats take on the Mobile BayBears by calling 919-269-CATS or visiting the Mudcats website at www.carolinamudcats.com. Game time is set for 6:15 with gates opening at 5:15.

Chad Moeller Jersey

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The Rockies have released catcher Chad Moeller, reports Jim Armstrong of the Denver Post (as tweeted by his Post colleague Troy Renck). According to the club’s official Twitter feed, the move was made so Moeller “can seek more playing time with another team.”

Moeller, 36, signed a minor league deal with Colorado in January. The 11-year veteran has also played for the Twins, Diamondbacks, Brewers, Reds, Dodgers, and Orioles in his career, plus two stints with the Yankees, including nine games with the Bombers last season.

Moeller has never provided much pop (a .640 career OPS) but it wouldn’t be a surprise seeing him sign with another team that is in need of an experienced catcher. Two clubs in the last week alone have had vacancies open up behind the plate — the Astros (in the wake of Jason Castro’s season-ending injury) and the Padres (now that Gregg Zaun has retired).

The Rockies are considering available free agents as they look to add rotation depth, left-handed relief and infield help, according to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports. The Rockies would like to add a veteran starter and David Bush and Rodrigo Lopez are among the team’s targets.

The team would also like to sign a left-handed reliever to a minor league deal. Matt Reynolds (21 career appearances) and Franklin Morales (88 career appearances) are the team’s current options, so they’re eyeing veteran help. Former Rockie Joe Beimel does not appear to be an option, according to the Denver Post.

Alfredo Amezaga, Cristian Guzman and Aaron Miles are among the backup infielders the club is considering. The Rockies appear to prefer Amezaga to Miles, according to Troy Renck of the Denver Post. The Rockies still have interest in a higher profile infielder: Michael Young. Young will earn $16MM in each of the next three seasons and the Rangers say they expect him to stay in Texas.

Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine told Mike Ferrin and Morgan Ensberg on MLB Network Radio that “we’re looking at [Young] as our primary DH but also a guy who’s going to play all over the infield.” The team expects Young to get plenty of playing time, even though they just acquired former division rival Mike Napoli.

The Rockies also signed veteran catcher Chad Moeller to a minor league deal, according to Matt Eddy of Baseball America.

Bo Takahashi Jersey

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SCOTTSDALE – It’s a cool November evening in this desert city. Bo Takahashi, a 21-year-old pitcher from Presidente Prudente, Brazil, warms up in the bullpen before taking the mound for the Salt River Rafters. He is preparing to play in what is, at that moment, the only Major League-affiliated baseball game in the world.

Takahashi, a third-generation Brazilian with roots in Japan, signed a minor league free agent contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013. He fires each pitch to Tres Barrera, a Texas-born catcher in the Washington Nationals organization, who fires back encouragement in Spanish.

Meanwhile, pitching coach Dave Burba, of Dayton, Ohio, and the Colorado Rockies organization, offers small tips to Takahashi in English to ensure his starting pitcher is ready to go.

It’s not your typical baseball scene. The baseball season is usually over in October. Arizona is supposed to be warm. And don’t Brazilians speak Portuguese?

But this is baseball, and in particular the Arizona Fall League. The sport has become increasingly bilingual in the last half century, with more than a quarter of major league players coming from Latin American countries.

And perhaps no person is more emblematic of the uniqueness of this setting and this sport than Takahashi. Through players like him, baseball clubhouses have become more diverse, transforming into multilingual hubs of community and culture and connecting players from different countries, dialects and upbringings.

“Bo has been a godsend for me for a lot of this (language) stuff,” said Shelley Duncan, Takahashi’s manager for parts of the last three seasons and the hitting coach for Salt River in the fall. “He’s been my dude when it comes to a lot of the communication with guys.”

Connection counts

The Arizona Fall League, in many ways, is an anomaly. But the unique environment is considered to be the “graduate school” of baseball, and a vital place for up-and-coming prospects to play.

Each of the 30 teams sends seven of their top prospects to Arizona for the six-week season. The Fall League’s six teams are made up of a combination of players and coaches from five MLB organizations, allowing players who would otherwise only be competing against one another a chance to play with different players and receive instruction from different coaches.

The league’s purpose is to give valued minor league prospects an opportunity to log some extra at-bats or innings on the mound. The additional playing time can help a player make up for any missed time in the regular minor league season, or help a player develop a little longer, with the intent of being ready to take a major step up the minor league system faster as the next season comes around.

But given all that, including the high level of competition, it’s still an offseason league – and one in which there is not as much emphasis placed on winning as there would be in the regular season. The timing allows the league to feel more relaxed as players progress through the six weeks.

“The toughest thing is getting the reports to each organization,” Burba said with a laugh. “But other than that, it’s been a great group of kids, great staff to work with. It’s a pretty laid-back atmosphere, and guys have shown up and done a great job of being prepared to play every day.”

That same quickness does make one element much more difficult, though: getting to know your teammates. For any player, there’s not only (on average) a group of seven players and a coach or two from four different organizations to get to know, there’s no guarantee you know all of the players or the coaches from your own organization coming to the Fall League.

That’s what happened for Mitch Horacek, a left-handed pitcher in the Colorado Rockies organization.

“I just met (fellow Rockies minor-leaguer and Fall League roommate) Justin (Lawrence) at the Fall League,” Horacek said. “We share a pretty small apartment, so it’s pretty close quarters, but it’s been fun.”

The living arrangement for the Rockies pitchers also highlights the heightened impact of the language gap, intensified by the short timeline of the Fall League. While that gap can be closed over the course of a five-month season, it’s a lot tougher to do in less than two months.

But in that space, players who are bilingual can step in and make a noteworthy impact on a ballclub. Others have noticed Barrera stepping into that role around the Rafters.

“He’s just so good with the pitchers in communicating because he knows both languages,” said Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Dominic Miroglio. “I’m jealous of him, man, because it doesn’t matter where the pitcher’s from on the mound, he can communicate with him. It’s really showed me how beneficial that can be, being able to speak Spanish.”

Not ‘just an Asian guy’

Bo Takahashi can vividly recall when he started to learn a language other than his native Portuguese.

In the summer of 2013, the Brazilian-born Takahashi played in the Nations Baseball Summer International Championship, a 10-day baseball tournament in towns throughout northern Illinois. The 36 teams converged from all around the United States as well as Aruba, Japan, Lithuania, Puerto Rico and Brazil.

“That was my first experience with a new language, new culture (and) new people,” Takahashi said.

It also was a strong showing for the then-16-year-old on the mound, leading directly to his signing with the Diamondbacks in December 2013. As he’s progressed through the Diamondbacks’ minor league system, he’s learned English and Spanish, the two languages most commonly spoken by baseball players.

Takahashi learned Spanish rather quickly once he started playing professional baseball, saying that the similarities between Portuguese and Spanish made it easier to pick up. In fact, by his third spring training, his Spanish was strong enough to fool fellow Diamondbacks minor leaguer Tyler Mark.

“I thought he was just an Asian guy hanging out with all the Latins,” Mark said. “And then he just came out speaking Spanish and I was like, ‘OK, what’s that about?’ ”

Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, Mark, too, is bilingual. With a Panamanian mother who works as a Spanish interpreter for a municipal courthouse and an African-American father, Mark takes a good amount of pride in surprising people with his Spanish fluency. Takahashi was among those initially taken by surprise.

“The first time seeing this guy, I was like, ‘Oh, he’s just American,’ ” Takahashi said of Mark. Then, with a smile, added, “And he started (to) speak Spanish. Like, ‘Wait what? Tyler Mark? Kind of weird.’ ”

What was really off to Takahashi wasn’t just the fact that Mark was speaking Spanish at all. It was that Mark was speaking a grammatically correct version of the language. That Spanish was foreign to Takahashi, who had learned the language through teammates.

One of the hardest parts of learning Spanish through the clubhouse is that baseball players come from a wide range of countries with their own slightly different dialects.

“For me, it’s the accent,” Takahashi said. “For example, the Dominicans speak too fast, and sometimes you can understand nothing. Venezuelans are more slow and you can understand more, and it’s more similar to the Puerto Rican and Mexican (Spanish).”

Around the sport, players can agree on a “Baseball Spanish.” This version of the language adds slang words or phrases from the different countries, as well as some baseball-specific English terms, to the usual Spanish. The result can be difficult for those not in that environment to understand.

“For me, the toughest part is the slang, but I feel like the slang is the coolest thing about it,” Mark said. “I’ll go home and talk to my mom in Spanish, and she’ll joke around that, ‘You’re speaking a slang Spanish.’ But she doesn’t care as long as I’m speaking Spanish.”

The slang is just one way that the ballplayers from the different countries are distinct, but there’s also a big variation in culture, too. The difference is comparable to how baseball players from the South speak and act differently than ballplayers from the West Coast, the Northeast, the Midwest or anywhere else.

“In a professional baseball clubhouse, everything’s different,” Duncan said. “The people who come into baseball that are shocked by it, they don’t really know how to embrace that diversity.”

The key, then, is connecting all of the players from different backgrounds together in the clubhouse. Duncan believes it’s in that space that a bilingual player can have a major impact.

“Clubhouse leaders really take on some of that role in make sure that things don’t become segregated in the locker room,” Duncan said. “People don’t really just have cliques and stay in those cliques. Good clubhouse leaders, they make sure that everyone does come together and shares moments, and that you do things as one.”

It’s also a point of pride for those players that can connect their teammates, giving them an off-the-field way that they can make a positive contribution to the team.

“I feel like during the season, I’m baseball player-slash-interpreter,” Mark said. “I’m just helping the team be able to communicate. I feel like it’s a game of communication, so if you feel comfortable communicating, it makes the job a lot easier.”

Takahashi agreed on the role, adding, “I love doing that. I love helping my teammates. If my Latin teammates have some trouble, I’m always trying to help them. … I think communication is everything.”

Growing Latino population increases assimilation

For Minnesota Twins right-handed reliever Hector Lujan – a 35th-round draft pick – just being asked to represent his organization in the Arizona Fall League is both an achievement and an honor.

“I’m really happy they offered me this opportunity,” Lujan said. “Obviously, I want to do what I can to get up to the big leagues. I’ve been playing for many years, but I’m just happy to be here.”

The 24-year-old Lujan’s pride extends beyond just representing the Twins. Though he was born and raised near Riverside, California, Lujan’s first language was Spanish and he didn’t truly feel comfortable speaking English until he was in high school.

But there was a point in time where Latino players like Lujan were, with but a few exceptions, completely barred from professional baseball affiliated with the Major Leagues. The color barrier that kept African-American baseball players out of the Majors until 1947 wasn’t as hard-lined against fairer-skinned Latinos, but dark-skinned Latinos were affected similarly to African-American players.

According to Samuel Regalado’s 1994 academic paper, “Image is everything: Latin baseball players and the United States press,” only 49 players from south of the U.S. border played in Major League Baseball or its predecessors up until Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

The next year, Minnie Miñoso, a Cuban outfielder who Regalado described as a “black Latin,” joined the Cleveland Indians and opened the floodgates for darker-skinned Latinos. According to the Society of American Baseball Research, the percentage of Latino ballplayers has steadily grown since Miñoso’s debut, with Latinos making up at least 10 percent of all MLB players since 1967 and 20 percent since 1996.

The growth has expanded to the point where 225 out of 877 players on Opening Day rosters this year came from Latin American countries.This includes 84 players from the Dominican Republic, 74 from Venezuela, 19 from Puerto Rico, 17 from Cuba, 11 from Mexico, as well as players from Colombia, Curaçao, Nicaragua, Panama and Aruba.

While the demographics of players in the Majors are well tracked, in the Minors these numbers aren’t as closely tracked and are more difficult to track down. According to Baseball America, 3,263 players were on Opening Day rosters in full-season Minor League Baseball, of which 852 came from Latin American countries.

That’s 26 percent of all professional players, but that doesn’t include the Short-Season affiliated leagues or the Rookie leagues based out of team complexes in Arizona, Florida and the Dominican Republic. Latin American players are more heavily represented in these leagues because teams can sign those players as young as 16.

Players who sign at that young age typically move into academy-like facilities run by MLB organizations in the Dominican Republic. Here, baseball players spend months doing baseball activities in the mornings before doing workouts and attending various classes in the afternoons.

In recent years, MLB organizations have recognized the importance of preparing the young Latinos for assimilation into life in the United States. The content of these courses vary across organizations, but there is one topic that every team makes sure they cover.

“(Teams) want the players to learn English, because everybody speaks English here,” said Jesse Sanchez, a national reporter for MLB.com. “That’s not saying Spanish is a negative or anything against that. It’s just a practicality.”

In his 17 years specializing in covering the international baseball landscape, Sanchez has met many of the top 15-year-old prospects as they work out before they sign with their contracts with MLB teams at 16. The rapid pace at which many players pick up English always impresses Sanchez, but he believes there’s a common stereotype when a Spanish-speaking player’s English isn’t perfect.

“They might question their education level, or they’ll speak English really loud or really slow to them,” Sanchez said. “Players are sharp. They’re smart. Just because they don’t know English doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent.”

The importance of being able to communicate leads Sanchez to believe that Spanish is going to be taught more to English-speaking American players, coaches and staffers going forward.

“I’m not surprised to run into a guy who you would never think would speak Spanish speak perfect Spanish, because part of his job requirement is to communicate with his players,” Sanchez said. “For the players, their job requirement is to communicate with our coaches.

“So it’s not all about, ‘One culture is better than the other,’ it’s just, ‘We need to work together to win.’ And it’s all about winning.”

A successful Fall League for some

Even with the loose atmosphere of the Fall League, it’s still high-level competition. And as the six-week season went through the end of October, the Rafters got hot.

In the middle two-and-a-half weeks, the Rafters win 10 of 13 games to take a commanding lead in their division and eventually make the championship game. The team’s winning streak led to some pointed conversations for Rafters’ manager Tommy Watkins, a longtime player and coach in the Twins organization who was hired as the big league team’s first base coach at the end of the Fall League season.

“A week or two before (the championship game), I had guys talking about getting to this game and trying to win,” Watkins said. “Some guys hadn’t won a championship, so I think they really wanted it bad.”

Although the four teams who don’t make the Saturday championship game get to leave for the rest of their offseason a little earlier, there are incentives for the players to make it beyond winning the league title. The championship game is a national broadcast live on MLB Network, providing the players with one more chance to become a household name before they make it to the big leagues.

For Tyler Mark, just the idea of winning this league was enough to make a strong push for the title.

“When I was told I was going to Fall League, it’s like, ‘OK you get to play against the best competition,’” Mark said. “But to get a chance to win a ring, with other future big leaguers, possibly? That just makes this (experience) a lot more special.”

And so, on Nov. 17, a bright and balmy Saturday afternoon at Scottsdale Stadium, Salt River scored a single run in both the second and fourth innings while getting some strong pitching performances, including a stellar start from Miami Marlins right-hander Jordan Yamamoto, to carry a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth.

With the title within reach, the Peoria Javelinas rallied with a walk, a double and a single to tie the game and send it into extras. An inning later, the Atlanta Braves’ Braxton Davidson crushed a walk-off home run to clinch the championship for Peoria. Yet even in a loss, the Rafters felt grateful for making it this far.

“It’s been really fun to get together with guys from different organizations and see how they go about their business,” Watkins said. “It was a great game, and I wish it could’ve ended a bit different, but that’s how it goes.”

But while the Rafters’ goal wasn’t achieved on that Saturday, that day was also one last opportunity to show off their skills to scouts from around the league. With MLB’s service time rules, many players in the Fall League must be added to the team’s 40-man roster, or else be subject to the Rule 5 Draft, with the deadline typically coming just days after the championship game.

In 2018 alone, seven players on the Rafters were added to their club’s 40-man rosters in the days after the Fall League ended. While not yet in the Major Leagues, these players have been deemed valuable enough by their organizations to be placed on the doorstep of the bigs.

One of those seven is Takahashi – a Brazilian of Japanese heritage who hadn’t even heard English or Spanish until the summer of 2013, when he was 15. Now, less than seven years later, he’s fluent in both languages and on the cusp of becoming the sixth player from Brazil to make the major leagues.

And Takahashi has no doubt that a key in his journey – and the journeys of so many foreign players within baseball – was learning how to communicate.

“The first time I was here, I was scared to talk to everybody,” Takahashi said. “But the Latin guys came (and) talked to me, so they built that bridge and broke that wall.”

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The Arizona Diamondbacks have spent a hefty sum of money to bring aboard a young Cuban talent with lots of upside.

No, this is not a delayed reaction to their signing of right-handed slugger Yasmany Tomas. The Diamondbacks have bagged another one: Yoan Lopez.

Ben Badler of Baseball America was the first to report Arizona’s agreement with the 21-year-old right-hander. According to MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez, the deal is for an $8.27 million bonus:

Maybe that doesn’t sound like a “hefty sum,” but it is for this particular type of transaction.

As a player under 23 years old and with fewer than five years of professional experience, Lopez wasn’t free to sign a major league free-agent contract like other recent Cuban defectors. He qualified only as an international amateur, and his $8.27 million agreement is a record-sized bonus under the current rules (more on those later).

To boot, Lopez could have gotten more money. As Sanchez noted, he turned down a $9 million offer to sign with Arizona. Indications are that he did so because the Diamondbacks lured him with an opportunity to get on a fast track to the big leagues.

Here’s what Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart told Nick Piecoro of The Arizona Republic: “We feel that he’s capable of competing right now for a spot in our rotation.”

The Diamondbacks are going to put this belief to the test in the near future, as Lopez will be present at their major league camp when spring training opens next month. If Lopez blows everyone away this spring, maybe he will open 2015 in Arizona’s rotation.

Such is the optimistic projection for what lies ahead, anyway. According to Badler, a more realistic expectation for Lopez’s immediate future involves him starting out at Single-A in 2015.

Going off of what is known about Lopez, however, Arizona’s optimism wouldn’t seem to be misplaced.

At 6’4″ and 195 pounds, Lopez at least has the frame of a major league starting pitcher. And at 21 with three seasons in the Cuban National Series under his belt, he’s far more experienced than your typical international amateur.

As for Lopez’s stuff, word is it was already good and is getting better.

When Lopez was pitching in Cuba, Badler says he sat in the low 90s with his heat. But since defecting last year, he’s added some strength and can now throw harder.

A lot harder, according to Sanchez. As he wrote last month, Lopez has been clocked as high as triple digits:

Here’s presuming the Diamondbacks are thrilled about this and what it could mean going forward.

If Lopez could see an improvement in his velocity after only a couple of months since his defection, perhaps there’s a next step to be taken as he begins his pro career proper. Maybe it won’t be long before he’s sitting comfortably in the mid-90s and touching 100 with regularity.

Even if Lopez doesn’t make that leap, a fastball that hovers in the 93-95 mph range is plenty good enough. That Lopez also has some diversity in his repertoire is a bonus, and a GIF prepared by Badler makes Lopez’s slider look like it could be a legit out pitch against major league hitters.

Where things become a bit more gray is exactly how good of a feel Lopez has for pitching. And since that’s a gray area, it’s a good guess that’s where he needs work. And if you need work there, you’re probably not ready for the big leagues just yet.

The reality that Lopez may be a long shot to crack the majors out of the gate in 2015, however, is not the biggest downside of his deal with the Diamondbacks. That would be how they’re now going to be at a disadvantage signing international talent in the future.

The system that’s been in place the past couple of years allows for teams to have allotted pools of money they can spend on bonuses for international amateurs. Any team that goes over their spending limit is hit with penalties, most notably taxes and restrictions on future signings.

For the 2014-2015 signing window, Arizona only had a bonus pool of $2.3 million. Signing Lopez took them way over that limit, so the Diamondbacks must pay a 100 percent tax on the overage and will be barred from signing any amateur for more than $300,000 in the next two signing windows.

Because of the tax, their $8.27 million deal with Lopez is more like a $16.5 million deal. Because of the future spending restrictions, they won’t have a shot at signing any similarly talented players who might hit the international market in the near future. FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron sees that as quite the gamble:

And yet, there are defenses to be made here.

Even a price tag of $16.5 million for Lopez doesn’t sound too bad. Because he comes with projectability and a certain amount of major league readiness, he’s a safer bet than your typical international amateur. We also have plenty of examples that say top talents from Cuba can cut it in the majors.

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In some ways, Arizona infielder/outfielder Tim Locastro is an anachronism. In others, his skill set is ideal for his times.

In the launch-angle, exit-velocity world of modern major league baseball, Locastro’s standout tool in his plus speed, and he plays a speed/defense game. If that means making a diving catch that raises a cloud of dust on the warning track in San Francisco, that is fine. If that means stealing a base, all the better.

At the same time, Locastro can be considered a favorite of the modern front office because of his ability to get on base. He reaches at a higher rate than his peers, dramatically higher than many. If that means being struck by a pitch to get an inning started, it is all part of a beautiful plan. The 44 Pro Guard equipment company has supplied Locastro with 10 protective guards for his left elbow and triceps area, and they have more.

Locastro, 25, has been hit by 10 pitches in 83 plate appearances this season, by far the best ratio in the major leagues and the reason he was ranked 10th in the National League in on-base percentage (.398) among players with at least that many plate appearances. That figure would have ranked the top 10 in the NL in every season this decade among qualifiers, and even for a semi-regular, it is an added component that is hard to overlook.

Locastro’s salary, which is just above the major league minimum of $550,000, hardly reflects his value in a game that prioritizes on-base percentage and understands there is still a place for creators like Locastro.

“I know the game has definitely gotten really analytical,” Locastro said. “I try not to play into those numbers. I’m just trying to play my game. If it benefits me, analytically, that’s fine. If it’s not, that fine. Just help the team win.”

The small sample size this season small, but it continues a trend. Locastro has been hit by 174 pitches in seven seasons, mostly in the minor leagues, since signing with Toronto — the closest major league franchise to his home in upstate Auburn, N.Y. — as a 13th round draft pick in 2013.

Since 2014, Locastro’s full season HBP totals are 32, 32, 25, 31 and 28. He is on a similar pace this season with 17 while going back and forth between Arizona and Triple-A Reno, having been promoted to the majors three times because of injuries. He has missed only one game since his most recent recall May 24, helping Arizona get through injuries to David Peralta and Adam Jones.

For Locastro, getting hit is simply part of the job description as a table-setter with speed. A right-handed hitter, Locastro stands upright in the batter’s box and sets up with his back foot near the plate. He does not dive into an inside pitch, the most common way batters are struck, but he does not rush to get out of the way.

“I don’t get up there trying to get hit by a pitch,” Locastro said. “But if the opportunity presents itself and the ball is coming in, I’m going to let it hit me. I just don’t move. Sometimes it doesn’t hit me and often it does. And when it does, I can use it to my advantage.

“It’s the team aspect of it, get on base and try to score. I realized that if I get hit by a pitch I’m on base automatically, and then just, ‘Let’s start running.’ Steal a base here, steal a base there. You always have to play good defense and try to find a way on base to help the team win. After that, then all the other numbers fall into place. Helping the team win will solve everything.”

Locastro has not been caught stealing in any of 10 of his major league attempts with Arizona and the Dodgers, and he has 182 stolen bases at an 82 percent success rate in 640 career games, 592 in the minors.

“My favorite teammate of all time, absolutely,” said Dodgers outfielder and MVP candidate Cody Bellinger, who spent parts of four seasons in the minor and majors with Locastro. “I love the guy to death.

“He’s a grinder. He wants to get on base. He wants to help the team win. He’s not getting out of the way. He’s always been like that. He’s got bruises all over his body. All over his left side. I remember him getting hit in the hammy (hamstring) and something growing in it, and he played through it.”

Tissue in Locastro’s left hamstring calcified after he was hit by a pitch in 2015 at Class A Rancho Cucamonga, and he played another six weeks before being forced onto the disabled list, the only time being hit has kept him out.

“Little League, high school, college, that’s how everybody was,” Locastro said. “If you were hurt, you played through it. Teammates would say you are faking it, blah, blah. They would say that messing around, but you didn’t want them to be serious about it.”
(AP Photo/Tami Chappell)

Locastro did not wear an arm guard at Ithaca College, where he was an NCAA Division III All-American in 2013 and was hit 29 times in 48 games. He adopted the guard while playing at short-season Class A Vancouver in 2014, three time zones from the family home.

“My parents would only be able to listen on the radio and I’d be getting hit by pitches and they’d get all nervous because they weren’t able to see where I got hit,” he said. “Eventually my mom said, ‘Would you please wear one?’”

He figures he has been hit just about everywhere on his left side.

“From the arm guard down to the knee, that is the hot zone,” he said. “Getting hit in the calf, that hurts a lot. Getting hit in the butt hurts.”

But wherever he is hit, Locastro knows one thing. Next stop, first base.