Peanuts And Cracker Jacks

As many journalists can tell you, sometimes you have to leave out fun anecdotes when you write a story simply because there isn’t enough time or space to fit everything in. To combat this problem, I present Peanuts and Cracker Jacks where I can hopefully post these snippets of info that aren’t big enough to really constitute their own stories. This past week, I visited with Texas Rangers outfielder Michael Choice, pitcher Shawn Tolleson, and TV play-by-by announcer Steve Busby as part of the Rangers Winter Caravan. (You can read the full story here: Winter Caravan.) In addition to talking about the upcoming season, we talked about Matt Harrison’s return to the MLB, up and coming Rangers’ prospects, the Royals post-season run, and the Ogden Raptors.

STEVE BUSBY ON MATT HARRISON

“Matt is the kind of guy that you know one thing going in will give you 100% and will try as hard as he possibly can. Not a lot is known about the recovery process from that particular surgery at the big league level. Not that many guys have had it. Matt is in uncharted territory. But I have 100% faith as far as Matt is concerned, I know full good and well that he’s going to try as hard as he possibly can hopefully to get back in playing condition by the middle of the season.”

STEVE BUSBY ON JOEY GALLO AND ALEX “CHI-CHI” GONZALEZ

“I think they would benefit from being held back just a little bit. It’s been a whirlwind for them at the minor league level and sometimes that doesn’t translate as quickly as you would like for it to at the big league level. So from their standpoint, I know they want to play in the big leagues. They may be better served if they wait a little bit longer like one more year at Triple-A and really get a good, solid foundation going but I have no doubt that those two will be at the big league level very soon.”

STEVE BUSBY ON THE ROYALS IN THE WORLD SERIES

“I thought it was great. I really did. I thought it was fantastic. You know 29 years for any city is a long time to wait. I know the folks in Kansas City were chomping at the bit for it. It couldn’t happen to a better bunch of folks. It’s kind of like what the Rangers went through the first time in 2010. A lot of people just had the feeling of I never thought I’d see this happen. I know the people of Kansas City felt the same way. George (Brett) always has a smile on his face but watching him up there during both the playoffs and the World Series, I’ve never seen him smile anymore. It was perfect.”

SHAWN TOLLESON ON PLAYING IN OGDEN

“It was an awesome place for my first professional experience. It was cool. It was the first team I ever played for. I lived with a host family and had a successful start to my pro career there. The Pioneer League was great. I had a blast. Guys complain about the bus trips and the cold and all that kind of stuff but I just love baseball and loved playing there. The people and fans were great all throughout the league. That’s really cool to hear that they’re doing well and I wish that I could have played in the championship series when I was there. I wasn’t ready to be done when it was time to go home. I was ready to keep playing.”

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Pair Of Pelicans Promoted: Part II

Joey Gallo joined Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez as the two former Myrtle Beach Pelicans made their way to Double-A Frisco. Tonight marked Gallo’s first appearance as part of the RoughRiders’ lineup playing third base and batting fifth in the lineup. This season in Myrtle Beach Gallo posted a .323 batting average with 21 home runs and 50 RBIs leading to a .735 slugging percentage.

Growing up, Gallo was a versatile player playing several positions including shortstop, pitching, and catching but third is where he said he felt most comfortable. He started attracting attention early on in his high school career.

“I actually had scouts come to my house and talk to me. They were from every team that came out to watch me once or twice,” Gallo said. “It’s pretty tough to be 16 or 17 and having scouts look at you for professional baseball. It’s a little added pressure but I never felt too overwhelmed by it.”

With all of the attention, Gallo said he was looking forward to see what happened on draft day.

“I was hoping I would end up going in the first round somewhere. I always wanted to play Major League Baseball and professional baseball so I was going to be excited wherever I went,” Gallo said. “I was with my family and we got a hotel. I’m from Las Vegas so it was a pretty nice hotel room and we had some family and friends over for the draft.”

Gallo was drafted in the first round of the 2012 MLB draft by the Texas Rangers with the 39th overall pick from Bishop Gorman High School. He said there was never a doubt that he would sign on with the Rangers.

“Obviously, I wanted to go an organization that can really develop players and Texas has a great history of that so I think it worked out perfectly,” Gallo said. “I was extremely excited to get my start with them.”

Gallo led off his career with the Rangers with short-season Spokane and spent the 2013 season in Hickory. Over the past three seasons, several big leaguers have mentored Gallo including Bryce Harper and Jason Giambi.

“I grew up playing with Harper, know him well, and am good friends with him. We do have the same kind of skill sets. We both play the game hard and have kind of the same talents,” Gallo said. “I talked to Jason Giambi in the off-season and he’s a huge help to me. He has taught me mental perseverance. Basically, don’t get frustrated. Just go out there and have fun and play the way you want to play. Don’t let people change you or let results frustrate you and that’s really helped me so far. Just stay positive when things are going bad.”

Gallo’s mental perseverance is showing as his numbers at the plate continue to get stronger and stronger. For at least part of the last two seasons, he has led all of minor league baseball in home runs. Despite the success at the plate, he said he doesn’t focus on the numbers or let it affect the way he plays.

“It’s pretty much the same approach I’ve always had. I think I’m getting a little more experience under my belt and few more pops in so it’s definitely helping out in that way but I just go up there and try to do the same thing every day,” Gallo said. “It’s about going out there to develop and become a better player for the Rangers. I try not to worry about stats and stuff like that. I just want to improve.”

And it’s this mindset he took with him to Frisco. Gallo’s first night as the ‘Riders third baseman included a walk-off home run and four RBIs to give Frisco the 7-4 win over the Midland RockHounds (Oakland A’s Double-A) after being tied at four in the bottom of the ninth. Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez is slated to pitch on Tuesday.

Pair Of Pelicans Promoted: Part I

Today the Texas Rangers promoted right-handed pitcher Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez and third baseman Joey Gallo to Double-A Frisco after having outstanding first halves with High-A Myrtle Beach. With Myrtle Beach this season, Gonzalez compiled a record of five wins and two losses with a 2.62 ERA while walking 16 and striking out 49.

Gonzalez started playing baseball when he was six years old at the local baseball field across from his house in Delray Beach, Florida.

“I either played shortstop or was an outfielder, somewhere in the corners,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t start pitching until I was 11 or 12.”

It was around this time he was christened Chi Chi.

“It was a name my great-uncle gave me. My sisters have nicknames too. One of them is nicknamed Nia and the other one is Nanette. I guess he decided to give me one too so I became Chi Chi which has stuck.”

In high school, he added another position to his baseball resume.

“I played at Boca Raton Community High School and played third base when I wasn’t pitching,” Gonzalez said. “I pitched and hit for myself. My freshman year, I played on junior varsity for half the season and then moved up towards the end of the season because our third baseman got hurt so I helped out and played third even though I was a shortstop at the time. I played there for the last week and ended up staying there.”

When it came to looking at colleges, Oral Roberts was at the top of his list.

“I wanted to go to a Division I university and I had a hookup through my coach who used to be a volunteer at Oral Roberts. That’s how I got connected with them,” Gonzalez said.  “I liked the pitching coach and the head coach at the time. He was a Team USA pitching coach and I think he won like Coach of the Year three or four years in a row. They’re also a winning team. Going into my freshman year, they had won like 13 conference titles in a row.”

Going into his senior year, Gonzalez started attracting a lot of attention from colleges in the area but decided to stay true to his word.

“My junior year I committed to Oral Roberts. I had offers from a lot of D2s in Florida that were offering me spots but I wasn’t interested. I also had interest from the College of Charleston, UNC Greensboro, and the University of Miami,” Gonzalez said. “By my senior year, I had a lot of D1s interested in me but I didn’t want to de-commit from Oral Roberts.”

Gonzalez posted strong numbers during his time at Oral Roberts, including being named the 2013 Southland Conference Pitcher of the Year, attracting attention from all 30 clubs.

“They all came by and visited with me for a couple of minutes but a few weeks before the draft, my agent told me that there were a couple of teams interested and the Rangers were one of them.”

The Rangers selected Gonzalez in the first round of the 2013 MLB draft with the 23rd overall pick.

“It was a big day for us. I was with my immediate family, my sisters, my parents, my grandparents, a couple of cousins, and uncles. Everyone was so excited. We sat in front of the TV and when my name popped up, it was awesome. It was excitement. I just went through all the emotions at the same time.”

Gonzalez was assigned to Short-Season Spokane before getting promoted to Myrtle Beach by the end of the season. He began the 2014 with Myrtle Beach and he said there were definitely some things for him to work on.

“Early on in the season, I didn’t have the best luck. My coach told me hey, let’s just try to attack the zone more and have the hitters get themselves out instead of me trying to strike everyone out so I started with that,” Gonzalez said. “I got the ball more in the zone and could tell it was getting better and better. I stuck with that and stuck with the plan he gave me and have had more success.”

That success included a no-hit bid in May and has now led to a promotion to Double-A Frisco. Gonzalez said that he tries not to focus on promotions and just work on throwing well.

“I honestly try not to expect anything with going up or down. I just want to play hard and do the best for my team.”

Canada and Curveballs: Raising The Profile

When one thinks about Canadian sports, hockey is normally the first sport that comes to mind but the Great White North has been slowly increasing its presence in baseball. There have been 230 Canadian players in the league since Major League Baseball first began in 1871. There are currently 28 Canadians playing in The Show with standout players such as Brett Lawrie, Justin Morneau, Joey Votto, Ryan Dempster, and Erik Bedard.

One player who has played with these guys and hopes to join them in the majors soon is Frisco RoughRiders’ pitcher Kyle Lotzkar. The right-handed hurler grew up in Tsawwassen, British Colombia and said he only started playing baseball because of his friends.

“I just joined because a lot of my friends were playing,” Lotzkar said. “It’s starting to get where hockey is a year-round thing so (baseball) was just a summer sport for me.”

Lotzkar said there are no high school baseball teams in Canada so he joined a travel team that traveled to the US to play in various tournaments in Northern states. Lotzkar found success pitching quickly attracting attention from the national teams. He played on the Canadian Junior National Team in 2007, was on Canada’s provisional roster for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and with the Canadian national team in 2011 and played in the Pan American Games and the Baseball World Cup winning a bronze medal. They were some of his first experiences playing beside major leaguers and Lotzkar said it was a great opportunity to learn from them.

“Playing against a lot of those guys who are in the major leagues now was just awesome. The first thing I realized was that a lot of those guys throw really hard at 100 miles an hour and are you know, major league hitters, so you have to learn how to pitch and not just throw but make your stuff move and change speed so those guys can’t hit.”

He added that events like the World Baseball Classic are exposing more Canadian players and their skills to scouts around the country.

“I think Canadians are starting to get noticed a lot more because of continued success and a lot of big names are coming from Canada so more scouts are coming up here, especially Western Canada,” Lotzkar said.

It was one such scout who saw Lotzkar who was drafted in 2007 by the Cincinnati Reds. Looking back, he said it was funny that he now plays in the Texas Rangers organization because of the way draft day unfolded.

“It’s funny enough because I was drafted by the Reds, 53rd overall, and I actually thought Texas was going to draft me because they had the 54th pick and they told me they were going to pick me,” Lotzkar said. “I didn’t know the Reds were interested and they got me the pick before so I thought I was going to play for Texas but ended up with the Reds.”

Lotzkar’s professional career started out solid in the Reds’ organization but a series of injuries including a broken elbow, Tommy John surgery, a torn rotator cuff, and a torn hip labrum led to several disappointing seasons including a chance to play in the 2012 All-Star Futures Game and being put on the Reds’ 40-man roster. Cincinnati designated Lotzkar for assignment on September 16, 2013. Lotzkar said he has no ill feelings towards the Reds and understood the decision even if the timing was a little strange.

“The Reds were great to me. They gave me a lot of opportunities. I just couldn’t stay healthy,” Lotzkar said. “They released me while I was still at their facility rehabbing with them. I was released and wasn’t officially part of their organization anymore but I was finishing my rehab with them. It was weird.”

The next month would be a roller-coaster as Lotzkar weighed his options and tried to decide what his next move would be.

“For awhile, I was definitely considering going into indie ball. That whole process was like you’re on the 40-man roster with the Reds and then all of a sudden they release you and they took me off the 40-man. I was like holy smokes, I might not be able to get a job because I was injured when they released me.”

But Lotzkar didn’t have to worry for long as the Texas Rangers signed him on October 23rd.

“The Rangers, fortunately, are a little more progressive and they don’t mind if guys have a history of injuries and they have confidence in their medical staff and they’re not afraid to pick up guys with injuries,” Lotzkar said. “Plus they almost drafted me originally so there was a little bit of a history there and I’m pretty fortunate they picked me up.”

Lotzkar said spring training went well and he has adjusted well within the organization.

“The organization is a really good fit for me. I came in prepared and I think they noticed,” Lotzkar said. “I came in and was in really good shape and was healthy. I stuck to my routine and preparation and pitched good.”

With 2014 marking his first healthy season in years, Lotzkar is back on track to rejoin his national teammates on the major league stage and give Canadian baseball fans yet another reason to cheer.

Edwar Cabrera Overcomes Shoulder Struggles

It’s a muggy Thursday afternoon. Frisco RoughRiders’ pitcher Edwar Cabrera smiles while talking about being on the other side of Dr Pepper Ballpark as the team prepared to take on the Northwest Arkansas Naturals on opening day. During the 2012 season, Cabrera played at Dr Pepper Ballpark as a member of the Tulsa Drillers, the Colorado Rockies Double-A affiliate.

“It’s different but I’m happy to be here,” Cabrera said. “I feel happy, so happy to come back a year and half later.”

Cabrera has been on quite the journey since that 2012 season including his major league debut. He split most of the 2012 campaign between Tulsa and the Rockies’ Triple-A affiliate, the Colorado Sky Sox, before being called up to the bigs. He made his debut on June 27, 2012 against the Washington Nationals.

“That day was awesome. It was the first time I was in the big leagues. The first inning, I was a little nervous and panicky,” Cabrera said. “My second start in the big leagues was a lot better. It felt more normal like I was back pitching in Double-A or Triple-A. It felt like I was back home.”

Cabrera made two starts for the Rockies before finishing the season with the Sky Sox. During his time with the Sky Sox, he pitched 31.2 innings en route to a record of three wins and one loss. He allowed 26 hits and 18 runs while walking 12 and striking out 39. Cabrera was confident going into the 2013 season until he was sidelined with his shoulder.

“My shoulder started feeling different in March 2013,” Cabrera said.

The injury continued to nag him and he had surgery on his left shoulder on July 10th. Cabrera didn’t pitch at all during the 2013 season and focused on rehabbing to get back in time for the 2014 season.

“I did rehab with Andy Stover (Rockies’ assistant rehabilitation coordinator) for two months, I think,” Cabrera said. “Then in the off-season I worked on rehabbing with my trainer in the Dominican.”

In mid-October, the Texas Rangers claimed Cabrera off of waivers from the Rockies. Cabrera said he was excited to join the Rangers but was a little uneasy heading into spring training.

“I was feeling nervous going into spring training. First, I was afraid if I started throwing hard, I would feel something in my shoulder,” Cabrera said. “That was in the back of my mind but my trainer from the Dominican told me not to worry about it. He told me to throw hard and do my best and we’ll see what happens.”

Cabrera was assigned to the RoughRiders at the end of spring training and as of today has pitched in three games with a 2.45 ERA pitching 7.1 innings allowing six hits and two runs while walking two and striking out nine. He said while he focuses on pitching well, he just wants to do whatever is best for the team.

“I have worked hard with the guys here. The trainer has helped me and my pitching coach is teaching me a lot. I’m happy,” Cabrera said. “I want to help my team and help my teammates. I want to be that guy to help guys in whichever way I can. I like to talk to younger guys and help them. I feel like the Latin guys need me more to explain to them how I work and prepare myself for each game in the season. I think it helps them become better players.”

With things looking up for Cabrera, he said there is one more thing that would put the icing on the cake. His family has never been over from the Dominican to see him pitch.

“I’m trying to bring them over to the United States,” Cabrera said. “I know they’re proud of me.”

Double Draft Days: Alec Asher’s Road To Rangers

The MLB draft. For teams, it’s a chance to recruit new talent and make someone’s dreams come true. It’s three days full of excitement as athletes crowd around their TVs and computers waiting for the day their name will be called. In 2010, over 1,500 names were called including current MLB players Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. In the 23rd round, pitcher Alec Asher was selected by the San Francisco Giants out of Lakeland Senior High School.

“That was my whole goal was to play professional baseball and signing at 18 was really exciting,” Asher said.

Things were in place as Asher agreed to sign with the Giants and take a physical. However, the physical revealed a bone spur in his elbow which led to the Giants not signing him.

“When I got out there, they did x-rays and MRIs and stuff like that as part of the normal protocol and they found it. I didn’t even know I had it. We were hanging out for a couple of days and they let me know,” Asher said. “The doctor called me and said ‘Hey. We’re not going to sign you. We’re sorry things didn’t work out.’ It was disappointing. I was really excited and it was like my dreams were shot down real quick.”

Disappointed but determined to make it, Asher decided to go to Santa Fe Community College before transferring to Polk State College which was closer to home.

“I didn’t have a lot of offers to big D-I schools out of high school and I wanted to be able to get drafted every year,” Asher said. “You can do that when you go to a junior college. I wanted my shot at getting drafted every year.”

Asher put up impressive numbers while at Polk State College earning a Rawlings Gold Glove award and was named a First Team National Junior College Athletic Association All-American and the Suncoast Conference Pitcher of the Year. As part of the 2012 Polk State College baseball team, Asher and his teammates won the Suncoast Conference Championship, the Florida College System Activities Association State Championship, and advanced to the NJCAA World Series for the first time ever in the school’s history.

His patience and hard work resulted in being drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 2012 draft in the fourth round. Asher said his second draft day was even better than the first.

“It was definitely better because I kind of matured a bit in the process. Obviously going higher and all that made it a better experience,” Asher said. “My family was happy and was so supportive through both days. I’m  happy it worked out and I think it worked out for the best.”

Asher spent the 2012 campaign with the Rangers’ short-season team in Spokane before skipping a level to advance to High-A Myrtle Beach. He said it took awhile to adjust to his first full season in professional ball.

“It was difficult at first. I didn’t really know what to expect being a starter and going out there for my first full season. Staying healthy was a big challenge because the season is so long,” Asher said. “A lot of people don’t realize you get one, maybe two days off so preparing for the grind of the season is tough. Then you have to work on what you’re struggling with. I struggled around June last year pretty bad. I was like God, I don’t know if I can do this but then all your teammates and coaches help you through it and it ends up working really good.”

During his 2013 season in Myrtle Beach, Asher compiled a record of nine wins and seven losses with an earned run average of 2.90. He pitched in 133.1 innings allowing 120 hits while walking 40 and striking out 139. He said this season he’s looking forward to exceeding his goals and hopes the team can win it all in 2014.

“I’d like to win a championship this year. I think the guys we have are a lot of the guys we had last year and we had a pretty good team,” Asher said. “That’s the main goal and to win baseball games, progress, and get better.”

Matt Harrison Rehabs In Frisco

Matt Harrison looks in for the pitch. (Jarah Wright)

Matt Harrison looks in for the pitch. (Jarah Wright)

The rain may have ultimately postponed the baseball game but it didn’t dampen Matt Harrison’s rehab start with the Frisco RoughRiders on Thursday night. Harrison was named the starter for the Rangers’ Double-A club for Opening Day at Dr Pepper Ballpark.

The ‘Riders took on the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the Royals’ Double-A club, and were able to get in two full innings before the storm hit with a heavy rain falling and soaking the field. The game was postponed to a doubleheader which was played yesterday. In his two innings of work, Harrison got two quick outs in the first before allowing two earned runs off of three hits before retiring three straight batters in the second. The game was tied at two runs apiece when the game was postponed meaning Thursday’s contest will not count.

Despite the downpour, Harrison said he thought it was a good outing.

“I know in the first inning after I got two outs, I thought I relaxed a little too much, got out of my rhythm, and lost the strike zone for a few batters but I got my tempo back in the second,” Harrison said. “I started attacking hitters and getting ahead of guys and I feel good. It was unfortunate to get shut down so quickly but there’s nothing I can do about Mother Nature.”

He added that he was glad the umpires were so quick with postponing the game.

“Once that rain started coming down, I was staring at the umpire waiting for us to get off the field because I mean, one slip could cause some problems for me so I’m glad he took us off.”

Harrison threw 41 pitches not including the extra 20 or so he threw in the bullpen before the game. He said he has worked out the “jitters” of being back in competitive games but definitely has some things to work on.

“Velocity is not quite there but the ball movement felt good. Like I said, I had a point where there were two outs in the first where it seemed to leave the strike zone but I got it back. It was kind of like my last start in San Antonio so I just have to start the same way I’m finishing,” Harrison said. “I know my last start in Arizona, I was throwing 90-93. Today I think it was 88 and I think I saw 92 a couple of times. I’m usually 91-92 so I hope it (velocity) comes back. I don’t know. It’s still a process and I have to knock the rust off and get my arm back in shape for multiple innings.”

Harrison said he expects to start for Frisco on Tuesday in another four-inning rehab start. He said his ultimate goal is to get back to the Rangers by April 23rd and that he feels almost back to normal.

“I’ve felt great in every start. I still do what I need to do to keep my arm strong but when I’m out on the field, I don’t worry about it anymore. It feels 100 percent.”