Monthly Archives: July 2015

Ozuna finds his footing in New Orleans

Marcell Ozuna has batted .353 with 12 extra-base hits in his first 18 games with the Zephyrs. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Marcell Ozuna has batted .353 with 12 extra-base hits in his first 18 games with the Zephyrs. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Coming into 2015, the Miami Marlins had reasons to believe that this would be the season to break a 12-year playoff drought since winning the franchise’s second World Series in 2003.

The team had acquired Dee Gordon and Dan Haren from the Los Angeles Dodgers, and veteran righty Mat Latos from Cincinnati. They gave superstar slugger Giancarlo Stanton a 13-year, $325 million contract extension, the richest contract in American sports history.

Miami had the makings of one of the best outfields in the game, with all three positions occupied by players 25 years old or younger. Christian Yelich, a 2014 National League Gold Glove winner, also signed a new contract with the club prior to the season after batting .284 with nine home runs and 54 RBI in his first full season.

But the player who manned the outfield between Stanton and Yelich flashed two-way ability that could impact the game like few others in the league. 24-year-old Marcell Ozuna, the club’s starting center fielder, was coming off a season in which he hit .269 with 23 home runs, 26 doubles and 85 RBI. He played defense at a high level, racking up 10 outfield assists to rank second in the National League.

However, the 2015 season has not gone the way Ozuna or the Marlins would have liked it to, as the Dominican Republic native went 1-for-37 over a 10-game stretch before being optioned to New Orleans on July 5. He had been hitting .249 with four homers and 26 RBI for Miami in 79 games. It was the first demotion of any kind for Ozuna since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2008.

“It’s funny, I have so much history with Ozuna; I’ve know him since he signed,” Zephyrs manager Andy Haines said. “I managed instructional league the day he came in and it’s funny to see him go from a little kid, basically, to what he is now and in the grand scheme of things, like I’ve told him about 10 times, this is the best thing that could ever happen to him. I think he’s a major league All-Star and I think he could be a superstar-type player.”

Ozuna has come to New Orleans and performed the way he’s capable of, batting .353 with 12 extra-base hits in 18 games, while collecting four homers and nine RBI. He recently rescued the Zephyrs with a game-tying home run in the ninth inning in Nashville, and has hit .524 (11-for-21) in the seventh inning and later.

“You just don’t see guys that can do what he does with the bat,” Haines said. “Some of the balls he’s hit and the way he can play the outfield and throw. I don’t know if I’ve had a player handle it better, coming from the big leagues to Triple-A. He just plays with a joy about him and he’s happy and he’s been a good teammate.”

For now, as he continues to rack up the hits against Pacific Coast League pitchers, Ozuna awaits the call that will bring him back to Miami. He said it’s been tough, but he continues to put his best foot forward and hone his craft.

“I am just waiting for Miami to give me the chance again to play in the big leagues,” Ozuna said. “That’s what I work for and what I wait for.”

As for his recent run of success with the Zephyrs, Ozuna said he isn’t trying to do too much, instead focusing on the basics.

“I’m just going out there trying to hit the ball. I don’t do anything specific. I just hit the ball and stay back,” he said.

Advertisements

Rienzo makes most of All-Star opportunity

Andre Rienzo worked a scoreless second inning during the PCL's 4-3 loss to the IL. Photo by: Chris Donahue

Andre Rienzo worked a scoreless second inning during the PCL’s 4-3 loss to the IL. Photo by: Chris Donahue

When the Pacific Coast League announced the players it had selected to attend the 2015 Triple-A All-Star Game at Werner Park in Omaha, Zephyrs starter Andre Rienzo’s name was not on the list, despite a 2.75 ERA.

But when fellow starter Adam Conley was summoned from New Orleans to Miami for a spot start the Saturday before the break, Rienzo was chosen to replace his teammate for his third career All-Star nod. It was an honor that Rienzo said he was very humbled to accept.

“Conley deserved it and couldn’t go after he got called up, so I went and I really appreciate that the team gave me a chance to go,” Rienzo said.

Having previously pitched in the 2011 California/Carolina League All-Star Game and the 2013 Futures Game, Rienzo was able to draw from his experience and work around a leadoff walk to toss a scoreless second inning in an eventual 4-3 PCL loss to the International League’s best.

“I have been in the bullpen before so I just tried to relax and not do too much, because sometimes when you go to the bullpen you do too much and get a loss. I just wanted to go to the All-Star Game and have fun. The game is about having fun and I tried my best and had fun with the whole thing,” Rienzo said.

The 27-year-old right-hander from Brazil had set down the two batters he faced in the California/Carolina League tilt and then followed that up two summers later with a perfect frame with a national audience at the Futures Game at Citi Field. Pitching for the World Team, Rienzo got San Diego’s Austin Hedges to pop up, got Cincinnati’s speed demon Billy Hamilton to ground out, and struck out Texas’s Delino DeShields Jr.

Rienzo said he didn’t think too much about his impressive performance two years ago, instead opting to just go out there and try his best and have fun.

“The Futures Game was different. Everybody in that game was just happy to be there, and our league’s All-Star Game is in the middle of the season so we can just have fun and see friends from other teams on the other side,” he said.

After walking Dixon Machado to open the second inning last Wednesday, Rienzo got Jackie Bradley Jr. to line out and then induced a groundout from James Beresford before striking out Matt Hague to end his night in front of the national TV audience on MLB Network.

Setting aside the TV cameras, Rienzo focused on his task and has now thrown 2 2/3 scoreless innings in three career All-Star appearances.

“It’s really cool because this is one of the things you work for,” Rienzo said. “You care a lot about your teammates and your team, but sometimes when you have that kind of chance to be by yourself in an All-Star Game, it’s pretty cool.”

Galloway making a difference on defense

Isaac Galloway has made highlight-reel catches routine during his first Triple-A campaign. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Isaac Galloway has made highlight-reel catches routine during his first Triple-A campaign. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

On any ballclub, there always seems to be at least one player that makes highlight-reel plays and impacts games with his glove and arm.

For the New Orleans Zephyrs, that man is clearly Isaac Galloway.

Galloway has hit .243 in 67 games in his first season at Triple-A, but has been a difference-maker for the Zephyrs in the outfield, consistently running down fly balls and on occasion robbing home runs from the opposition.

Galloway has said that he takes batting practice seriously, using the time before games to practice his routes to fly balls and keep his legs in shape so he can be a game-changer.

“My legs are important. I have to make sure I keep them fresh to run down balls,” he said. “But I try and take good routes in BP and I take that pretty serious. I try to make my defense as important as my offense.”

The offensive side of the game has slowly started to come around for the 26-year-old Galloway, who has hit .300 (9-for-30) in nine July games. He has been in the lineup 66 of 71 games since joining the club in late-April and Galloway said that being in there nearly every day has helped him mature as a player.

“Last year my playing time and at-bats were sporadic and that was kind of the first time for me that I had to deal with that,” he said. “It was an adjustment for me and I didn’t know how to handle that. But this year, I’ve gotten a lot more playing time and more consistent playing time so that has helped me get into more of a rhythm.”

Galloway is tied for the team lead with six stolen bases, despite not having one since June 17. He said he wants to run as often as possible for the Z’s, who have the third-fewest stolen bases in the league, but knows he needs to pick and choose his spots well.

“I try and go for it as much as possible when I get on base,” Galloway said. “This isn’t a team that runs too much and when I get on I try and make something happen.”

A player that relies on his speed to be dangerous, Galloway has set a new career-best with seven triples this season, and had a walk-off RBI single against Omaha on June 13 during a stretch where he had at least one hit in 13 of 16 games.

He has hit .274 with six doubles, five triples and two home runs at home, compared to .213 with six extra-base hits on the road. Considering New Orleans is no paradise to hit in compared to some of the higher-elevated cities in the Pacific Coast League, Galloway said he doesn’t change his approach depending on where he’s digging into the batter’s box.

“I’ve never thought about it or even realized it,” he said. “I have the same approach, home or away, so I guess I am just a little more comfortable at home.”

For a player that collected his first Triple-A hit off Barry Zito on April 25, Galloway has not eased up at all, knowing he’s nearly assured of being slotted into center field upon arrival into the Zephyrs’ clubhouse.

“When I first got called up here, I didn’t know exactly what to expect,” he said. “But I just try to play hard and play well and I definitely don’t take playing every day for granted.”

All-Star Wittgren grasping closer’s role

Nick Wittgren has converted 10 of 11 save opportunities since joining the Zephyrs in mid-April. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Nick Wittgren has converted 10 of 11 save opportunities since joining the Zephyrs in mid-April. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Nick Wittgren has only been a professional baseball player for three and a half seasons now. But he’s starting to get accustomed to being named an All-Star.

The closer was one of two Zephyrs selected to the 2015 Triple-A All-Star Game, to be played at Omaha’s Werner Park on July 15, along with starting pitcher Adam Conley.

Wittgren has now been chosen to represent four different leagues in mid-summer All-Star Games since being selected by the Marlins in the ninth round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft out of Purdue.

“It’s awesome. Being selected with Conley is definitely an honor,” Wittgren said.

The 24-year-old right-hander was previously an All-Star in the New York-Penn League in 2012, the Florida State League in 2013 and the Southern League last season. But the bump up in level of play has elevated Wittgren’s performance, as he has tied for fourth in the Pacific Coast League with 10 saves since being promoted from Double-A Jacksonville in mid-April.

Wittgren said he started to grasp the mentality of being a closer when he got to Purdue after spending one season at Parkland College in Illinois.

“I thrive on pressure and it all started once I got to Purdue. My coach asked me if I wanted to close and I said ‘sure.’ It started from there,” he said. “Sure enough, I had success and he looked at me at the end of the season and asked if I wanted to start again and I said, ‘whatever you want, but I love closing.’ He said they were going to keep me there and I’ve been loving it since. I just love going out there and competing.”

Wittgren set a new school-record with 22 saves at Purdue and was the winning pitcher in the Big Ten Tournament championship game in 2012. He became the first Boilermaker to record a double-figure saves total in consecutive seasons and pitched to a 1.46 ERA for Jamestown in 17 games after being picked by the Marlins.

He has been on the fast-track through the Miami system since, recording 25 saves in 29 chances for Single-A Advanced Jupiter in 2013, which earned him a late-season promotion to Jacksonville, where he converted he only save chance.

Wittgren had 20 saves in 25 chances for the Suns last season, becoming one of only four minor leaguers to notch at least 20 saves in each of the last two years, but faced some adversity by allowing six home runs and posting a 3.55 ERA in 52 games for the Southern League champions.

His first season with New Orleans has been nearly adversity-free, as he successfully converted his first eight save chances before blowing a one-run lead on June 28 at Iowa.

“It’s always tough when you give up the lead and essentially lose it for your team, but as a baseball player in general, you have to have a short memory and if you hold onto things, it’s going to eat you alive in this game,” he said.

Wittgren responded with a perfect ninth the following day and now has 11 saves in 12 chances for the Zephyrs to go along with a 2.18 ERA in 33 innings. The hard-thrower has 34 strikeouts compared to just five walks, and he has allowed the second-fewest number of baserunners per nine innings in the PCL at 8.45.

He said that when the Zephyrs’ starters pitch well – the club leads the PCL with a 3.13 ERA – he gets the itch to get out there and do the same.

“It’s definitely contagious when our starters are going well. You see the starter going out there and competing and that fires up the bullpen. I want to be in the game and who doesn’t want to be a part of a shutout?” Wittgren said.

Conley is slated to start the All-Star Game in Omaha later this month, and if all goes to plan, Wittgren could be in line to save it for his teammate, a proposition that sounds just fine to the closer.

“That would be pretty cool if he got the start and the win and I got the save,” he said.