Wow. Game 7 of the 2016 World Series was bonkers. And who was at the middle of one of the greatest games in postseason history that ended a 108-year World Series drought for the Chicago Cubs? That’s right. Former Bulls Ben Zobrist, Mike Montgomery and Brandon Guyer.
We knew these three would be participating in the Fall Classic, but who would’ve known the impact they would each have in a remarkable game?
First things first, ZO. Zobrist, on his way to World Series MVP honors, put the Cubbies ahead in the top of the 10th inning with a double down the left field line, and had also scored earlier in the game. All he did was hit .357 in the World Series, scoring five times and posting a .419 OBP.
Next, MONTY. With the tying run on first base and the winning run at the plate and two outs in the bottom of the 10th, Montgomery came in for the biggest out in Cubs’ history. What did the former Bull do? Throw two pitches, induce a groundout to third, and set off a wild celebration on the field and throughout the streets of Chicago. Montgomery’s Fall Classic line: 5 G, 4.2 IP, 1 ER, 4 K, 1.93 ERA.
Last but not least, we have BG. In the loss Guyer was magnificent for the Indians, coming off the bench to go 2-for-2 with two runs, an RBI, a double and a walk. Trailing 6-3 in the bottom of the 8th inning with two outs Guyer lined a double off Aroldis Chapman to make it a two-run game and extend the inning, before Rajai Davis tied the contest up a batter later with a two-run homer. And with Cleveland down to its final out in the 10th, the outfielder promptly walked, took second base and scored on a single to make it a one-run game. Guyer finished 3-for-10 in the World Series with a .563 OBP.
So there you have it, a bunch of former Bulls that crushed Game 7.
Around this time every year, Baseball America ranks the Top 10 prospects in each organization. Earlier today the publication announced its Top 10 Rays prospects heading in to 2017, and we take a look at who made the cut, and if he’ll contribute to the Bulls next season.
1. Willy Adames – SS
Adames was No. 2 on this list a season ago, sitting behind LHP Blake Snell. With Snell’s graduation to the bigs, Adames takes over the top spot with much fanfare. After he was acquired in the David Price trade at the 2014 Trade Deadline, the 21-year-old has steadily climbed the ranks of the Tampa Bay system, including a 2016 season that saw him hit .274-11-57 for Double-A Montgomery while earning Southern League Midseason and Postseason All-Star honors. Despite his young age and an abundance of middle infielders, don’t be surprised to see Adames in Durham in 2017.
2. Brent Honeywell – RHP
He’ll turn 22 just before Opening Day 2017, after combining to go 7-3 with a 2.34 ERA in 20 starts between Advanced-A Charlotte and Montgomery this past season. Honeywell missed some time because of injury in 2016, and because of his youth and plenty of pitching depth likely will start next season at the Double-A level. Still, if he performs well don’t be surprised to see him make a midseason jump to Durham like the Rays have done with Snell and RHP Jake Faria over the last two seasons.
3. Casey Gillaspie – 1B
Bulls fans got to see Gillaspie up close in 2016, after he was the team’s most consistent hitter after his promotion from Montgomery after the All-Star break. After a strong couple of months with the Biscuits, the 2014 1st round draft pick batted .307-7-23 in 47 games with the Bulls, while posting a .389 OBP. If he’s not back in Durham to open 2017, that’ll mean Tampa Bay’s Minor League Player of the Year is with the big club.
4. Jake Bauers – 1B/OF
A 2016 Southern League Midseason and Postseason All-Star, Bauers hit .274-14-78 in 135 games for Montgomery in 2016 at age 20. Acquired by Tampa Bay from San Diego in the Wil Myers trade prior to the 2015 season, it’s not out of the question that Bauers will open 2017 in Durham after spending the last year and a half with the Biscuits.
5. Chih-Wei Hu – RHP
Aside from one spot-start for Durham early in the year, Hu spent 2016 in Montgomery. The right-hander led the Southern League in ERA, going 7-9 with a 2.75 mark across 25 starts en route to being named the league’s right-handed pitcher of the year and a Midseason and Postseason All-Star. He’ll turn 23 in November, and he’ll be fighting for a spot in the Bulls’ rotation when he arrives at Spring Training.
6. Josh Lowe – 3B
The Rays scooped up Lowe in the 1st Round of the 2016 draft out of high school, and the corner infielder split the year between the GCL Rays and Rookie-level Princeton. The Georgia native will turn 19 in February, and projects to be a few seasons away from contributing to the Bulls on a regular basis.
7. Jesus Sanchez – OF
Signed as an international free agent, Sanchez split 2016 between the Gulf Coast League and Princeton. Although he was just 18, Sanchez combined to hit .329 with seven home runs between the two levels. Similar to Lowe, because of his age it appears Bulls fans will have to wait to see the Dominican Republic native suit up for Durham.
8. Jake Faria – RHP
Faria opened the 2016 season in Double-A, but was promoted to Durham at the end of June. In 13 starts for the Bulls the 23-year-old went 4-4 with a 3.72 ERA, but saw the ERA inflated by a few bad starts. Of those 13 outings, he allowed two earned runs or fewer nine times, and surrendered just 46 hits in 67 2/3 innings. Expect Faria to be back in Durham to open next season, but he’ll be on a short list if Tampa Bay needs an arm.
9. Justin Williams – OF
Acquired from Arizona in the trade that sent Jeremy Hellickson west prior to the 2015 season, Williams has had a strong two years in the Rays system. He split 2016 between Charlotte and Montgomery, combining to hit .295. Just 21, Tampa Bay might like to see Williams get more time in Double-A than the 39 games he played this season, but don’t be surprised if he earns a midseason call-up to the Bull City in 2017.
10. Garrett Whitley – OF
The Rays’ 1st Round draft pick in 2015, Whitley spent the 2016 season with Short-Season Hudson Valley. The upstate New York native swiped 21 bags in 65 games, while hitting .266 with 20 extra-base hits. Just 19, the speedy outfielder is still a few years away from being Triple-A ready.
Before the 2016 MLB Postseason began, we brought you a list of every former Durham Bull who was on a playoff team. Now, with the World Series kicking off tonight, we take a look at the former Bulls on the Cubs and Indians, and how they’ve fared during their team’s playoff runs. (Years with the Bulls are listed in parentheses.)
CHICAGO CUBS: UTL Ben Zobrist (2006-2008), LHP Mike Montgomery (2013-2014)
Zobrist is back in the World Series for the third time, and the second straight year. The utility man first went to the Fall Classic in 2008 as a member of the Rays, and won the title with the Kansas City Royals a season ago. This postseason the switch-hitter has appeared in all 10 games for the Cubs, but is just 6-for-36 with three RBI.
Montgomery has been solid out of the bullpen for Joe Maddon this October, going 1-1 with a 3.72 ERA. He’s tossed 9 2/3 innings and allowed four earned runs, and three of his six appearances have been scoreless.
CLEVELAND INDIANS: OF Brandon Guyer (2011-2013)
Guyer, who was dealt to Cleveland at the Trade Deadline, went on to hit .333 in 38 games over the season’s final two months. The outfielder has only appeared in three of the Indians’ eight playoff contests, but is 3-for-8 with an RBI in that span.
Catcher Chris Gimenez made the Indians’ ALDS roster, but was left off the ALCS and World Series rosters. In the first round Cleveland opted to carry three catchers, but with Yan Gomes returning from injury and the strong play of Roberto Perez, the 2012 and 2013 Durham Bull will not appear in the Fall Classic.
Earlier today, the Atlanta Braves named former Durham Bulls skipper Brian Snitker their manager, after he took the job on an interim basis earlier this year.
Snitker, who has been in the Braves organization since 1977, managed the Bulls in 1983, 1984 and 1987 when the team was Atlanta’s Advanced-A affiliate. Additionally, the 60-year-old played in three games for Durham in 1980, the first year of the affiliation between the franchises.
Snitker is just the second former Bulls manager to manage in the majors, after Grady Little managed the Boston Red Sox from 2002-2003 and the LA Dodgers from 2006-2007. Little piloted the Bulls almost immediately after Snitker, as he took over as Durham’s manager in the middle of the 1988 season and remained with the club through the 1991 campaign.
Snitker was a frequent visitor to the DBAP from 2014 until his promotion earlier this year, as he managed the Bulls’ IL South Division rival Gwinnett Braves since 2014.
The 2016 MLB *postseason kicks off tonight, as the Orioles and Blue Jays square off in the AL Wild Card Game.
*We say postseason because we don’t consider the Wild Card games the ‘playoffs.’ Sure you’ve made it farther than 20 other teams, but come on, it’s not really the playoffs yet. It’s just a play-in game.
With the start of the postseason, we take a look at all the former Durham Bulls who you might see throughout the month of October
Baltimore Orioles: None
Of note, OF Joey Rickard played in 29 games for the Bulls in 2015 before Baltimore selected him in the Rule V draft. He’s currently on the DL.
Boston Red Sox: LHP David Price
For all the success Price has had at the big league level, he actually wasn’t all that impressive in Durham at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. He went 2-5 with a 4.13 ERA in 12 starts for the Bulls, while striking out a batter an inning.
Chicago Cubs: RHP Jason Hammel, LHP Mike Montgomery, UTL Ben Zobrist
Hammel, a member of the Bulls in 2005, 2006 and 2007 went 12-16 in 47 starts in his time in the Bull City. Across 30 starts for the Cubbies this year, the 34-year-old went 15-10 with a 3.83 in 30 starts.
Montgomery pitched for the Bulls in 2013 and 2014, and was named an IL Midseason All-Star in 2014. After he was traded to the Mariners and subsequently the Cubs, the 27-year-old posted a 2.82 ERA in 17 games (five starts) for the best team in baseball in the regular season.
Zobrist, who spent parts of 2006, 2007 and 2008 in Durham, hit .301 in 99 career games for the Bulls. This year the utility player, reunited with Joe Maddon, hit .272 with 18 homers while playing primarily second base and the outfield.
Cleveland Indians: C Chris Gimenez, OF Brandon Guyer
Gimenez is in the postseason for the second straight year after going with the Rangers a season ago. This year he played in 67 games for the Indians, and he combined to appear in 166 games for Durham in 2012 and 2013.
Guyer was traded to the Indians at the trade deadline this season and went on to hit .333 in 38 games. The outfielder spent parts of three seasons with the Bulls (2011-2013), while also making a five-game rehab stint in 2014.
LA Dodgers: LHP JP Howell, LHP Scott Kazmir
Howell made 31 starts for the Bulls between 2006 and 2007, and returned for a four-game rehab appearance in 2011. The southpaw made 64 relief appearances for the Dodgers this season.
It is unclear if Kazmir will pitch in the postseason after his last start came on Sept. 23. The 32-year-old only ever played for the Bulls on rehab stints, making one appearance each in 2008 and 2009.
Southpaw Adam Liberatore will not pitch for the Dodgers in the postseason, as he will undergo season-ending elbow surgery. Earlier this year the lefty set a franchise record with 28 straight scoreless outings. Liberatore appeared in 113 games for the Bulls from 2012-2014, including a 2014 campaign in which he struck out 86 batters in 65 innings.
NY Mets: None
OF Justin Ruggiano – a member of the All-DBAP team – appeared in eight games for the Mets this year, but hasn’t played in a game since Aug. 26 after undergoing shoulder surgery.
San Francisco Giants: LHP Matt Moore
The Giants picked up Moore at the trade deadline, as the lefty went 6-5 with a 4.08 ERA in 12 starts since. Moore has an interesting history in Durham, making 17 starts across the 2011, 2013 and 2015 seasons. He dominated in 2011 (4-0, 1.37), made one rehab start in 2013, then played as both a rostered player and rehab player in 2015.
Texas Rangers: C Robinson Chirinos
Chirinos hit .259 with six homers across 78 games for the Bulls in 2011, before he was traded to Texas at the start of the 2013 campaign. The 32-year-old batted .224 for the AL West Division winners this season.
Toronto Blue Jays: C Dioner Navarro, OF Melvin Upton, Jr.
Navarro split 2016 between the White Sox and Blue Jays, joining Toronto for the stretch run. The 32-year-old hit .284 in 43 games for the Bulls in 2010.
The artist formerly known as BJ opened 2016 with San Diego, but was traded to the Blue Jays in July. Upton debuted with Durham in 2004 at the age of 19, and proceeded to play in 314 games with the Bulls from 2004-2006, while also appearing in two rehab games in 2007.
Washington Nationals: C Jose Lobaton
Traded by the Rays to the Nationals in February of 2014, Lobaton played for the Bulls in both 2010 and 2011, combining to appear in 126 games. The Venezuelan also appeared in four rehab games in 2012.
On Friday afternoon the Tampa Bay Rays announced their 2016 Minor League award winners, with 1B Casey Gillaspie taking home Player of the Year honors, and RHP Brent Honeywell earning the Pitcher of the Year award. The Rays named RHP Austin Pruitt Durham’s MVP.
Gillaspie had a strong 2016 campaign, split between Double-A Montgomery and the Bulls. The 23-year-old first baseman combined to hit .284 with 18 homers and 64 RBI in just his second full season of professional baseball. The 20th overall pick in the 2014 draft out of Wichita St. was promoted to the Bulls in mid-July and went on to star for the team over the season’s final month and a half, hitting .307 with seven home runs and 23 RBI in 47 games. Over that span the switch-hitter posted a .389 on-base percentage, while his 22 extra-base hits were the third-most in the IL.
In his first season at the Triple-A level, Pruitt earned MVP honors after going 8-11 with a 3.76 ERA. The 27-year-old tied for first in the IL with 28 starts, ranked second with 149 strikeouts and fourth in innings pitched (162.2) and WHIP (1.19). The University of Houston product represented the Bulls at the Triple-A All-Star Game, and became the first Durham pitcher to earn the win in that contest after tossing a scoreless fifth inning.
Full List of Rays 2016 Minor League Awards Winners
Player of the Year – 1B Casey Gillaspie
Pitcher of the Year – RHP Brent Honeywell
Durham Bulls MVP – RHP Austin Pruitt
Montgomery Biscuits MVP – 1B/OF Jake Bauers
Charlotte Stone Crabs MVP – RHP Greg Harris
Bowling Green Hot Rods MVP – INF Michael Russell
Hudson Valley Renegades MVP – LHP Travis Ott
Princeton Rays MVP – OF Eleardo Cabrera
GCL Rays – OF Jesus Sanchez
Baserunner of the Year – OF Jake Fraley
Reliever of the Year – RHP Joe Serrapica
Defensive Player of the Year – C Nick Ciuffo
Earlier this week, the Durham Bulls’ beloved Team Ambassador and long-time PA announcer Bill Law passed away at the age of 88. Bill meant a great deal to many people in the Triangle, including the Bulls’ front office. Here, members of Bulls’ organization share their thoughts on the team icon.
Ken Tanner, Star of the Game Host
I remember the days when Bill would come in the press box every night before the game and we would kid him about the Red Sox .Those sessions would expand out to include Bill’s tremendous love and knowledge of the game of baseball and great stories of the players and managers he’d been associated with over the years in the minor leagues as well as the majors .Good times, great stories, and Bill’s wonderful sense of fun and fair play. He will be missed greatly.
Morgan Weber, Manager of Corporate Partnerships
Bill was a good friend. He and I shared many conversations, a few tears, and a lot of laughs! One of my favorite Bill Law moments was after the 2014 Triple-A All-Star Game Luncheon at Cameron Indoor. Once the luncheon was over, I walked over to Bill with my phone in my hand and said “You look so dapper today…we need to take a picture,” to which he replied, “A SELFIE??!?!?”
I look at him surprised and asked, “You know what a selfie is??”
He said, “Yeah. They FASCINATE me!”
So we took a selfie.
Scott Pose, Radio Broadcaster
I first knew of Bill as a visiting player when he was the PA announcer at the DBAP for the new Triple-A Bulls. His voice had this warm, inviting quality that made everyone feel like they were at home. Little did I know then, we would become friends. Baseball brought us together and I am forever grateful. Only the greatest game on the planet could do that. There are many outstanding people in baseball but Bill was at the top of the list. Not only was Bill warm and inviting as his voice suggested, he was so much more. The best way I can describe Bill is he was the epitome of class, he loved his family, the Bulls, the Rays and the Red Sox. We would tease Bill about his loyalty for what seemed to be the entire American League East, but he was entitled as the Bulls Ambassador. He was always sure to tell me he disliked the Yankees and all who played for them, but he highlighted somehow he was able to make a rare exception for me. He will be missed. All were lucky to have ever known Bill. I will never forget him.
Matt Sutor, Director of Communications
When I first met Bill I was amazed at how revered he was by those around him. But after three short seasons it became apparent why he was so beloved – he cared deeply about those he saw at the ballpark, and about the Durham Bulls.
Bill never failed to put a smile on my face. Whenever I saw him at the DBAP I made sure to go up to him, shake his hand, and ask how he was doing. His answer was always the same: “I’m doing alright.” At that point the conversation would pivot to me, as he’d ask how everything was going, if I was still having fun, and if Mike Birling was giving me too hard of a time. Bill had a way of making everyone he spoke to feel important, feel welcome and feel loved, and that’s what I’ll remember most about Bill Law.
Krista Boyd, Director of Marketing
Over the past five seasons, I’ve been blessed to work with the best of the best in baseball at the Bulls. Bill and I only officially worked one game together when he filled in on PA while Tony Riggsbee was off at Spring Training in 2012, but what an experience that game was. It was my first time running a show at the DBAP and Bill was kind enough to guide us through the process. Through his kind smile and encouragement he made me quickly feel a part of the Bulls family and for that I will be forever grateful.
Bryan Wilson, Director of Merchandising
Mr. Law was so much more than a friend to me, and many of the Bulls staff. He was a mentor, and a father figure to all of us. He loved the Bulls more than any of us, but he also taught us by example of what it meant to be a part of this organization. He taught me to love every second and never take this job for granted. He would come into the store almost weekly to say hi, have a conversation and ask me “Bryan, what do you have that I cannot live without?” We talked about baseball, life, family, or anything else that came up. Bill always asked about my kids, and frequently said how much he enjoyed seeing them growing up running around the park. But he also reminded me to spend as much time with them as possible because they grow up way too fast. Mr. Law, thank you. Thank you for the conversations, laughs, life lessons and friendship. We will all miss you dearly.
George Habel, Vice President
This is difficult to explain, but Bill’s voice was always a component of the ballpark to me. We have the signature brickwork and steel beams, and Bill’s voice reverberated throughout the structure. Our ballpark has a certain look, and because of Bill, it even has a sound. It truly met the criterion of “unique” – a Boston accent mellowed (or sweetened) by a lifetime spent in North Carolina. We will miss Mr. Law…deeply. I have not known a more loyal member of the staff. But I can still hear his voice at the ball yard.
Mike Birling, General Manager
I remember the first Bulls game I attended. I had just been hired late in the 1998 season with only a few games remaining. I knew the Durham Bulls were this iconic franchise, but didn’t know much about the incredible history at that time. The first time I heard Bill Law’s voice come over the PA system it stopped me in my tracks. It was so distinctive and so “historic.” You could just tell he was creating a relationship on a nightly basis with our fans from behind a mic.
Coming from a Single-A team where every inning we were doing on-field promotions and also had an on-field MC I knew that was something I wanted to bring to Durham. Well, Bill wasn’t the happiest person when I told him he would still do the announcing, but he would have a person on-field that would do the promotions. For those that knew Bill know he wasn’t afraid to say what was on his mind and he made it very clear to me that this wasn’t the smartest thing to be doing. I could tell our relationship was going to take some time to grow. Can’t say I blame him with some young kid coming in and trying to change the way the Durham Bulls were doing things. Eventually Bill understood what we were trying to accomplish and did everything possible to make the transition work.
One of the toughest moments of my career with the Bulls was transitioning Bill off the mic. He was so proud of his streak of doing every single game that was ever played at the DBAP. This team and this ballpark meant everything to him and he didn’t want the day to come where he wasn’t a part of that. Well that day finally came and he was heartbroken, but that is also the time that mine and Bill’s relationship got stronger. We transitioned Bill into the role of Team Ambassador and he just fell in love with the new role. He was so proud of taking on new projects or being the voice of the Bulls at many speaking engagements. It seemed to have given him a new life with the Bulls. Well, that life came to an end a few days ago. The Bulls family is heartbroken over that loss. You just don’t see people anymore with the passion and love that he had for the game of baseball and especially his Durham Bulls. There are so many memories of Bill that will last with me forever, but the most important thing I know is Bill is back behind the mic calling baseball games in a much better place than here at the DBAP.
Jake Faria’s Triple-A debut was exactly what a top pitching prospect dreams of. The right-handed pitcher needed just 82 pitches to get through six scoreless innings, and allowed just two hits and one walk, while striking out six Lehigh Valley IronPigs batters.
Faria looked ready to cruise through Triple-A just like he had in High-A and Double-A last season.
As a 22-year-old in his fifth minor league season in 2015, Faria was expecting to take another step in his development.
“Last year I came into the season with a new changeup, some new delivery things,” he said.
That changeup helped carry him to a quick 10 wins in 12 games with High-A Charlotte, and he was promoted to Double-A Montgomery in the middle of the season.
“Early on in the season we had a ridiculously good pitching staff,” Faria said. “I think we just fed off of each other. It just made every one of us better. We put up a lot of runs, so every win was a team effort. There weren’t many 1-0 wins.”
Toward the end of his time with Charlotte, Faria recognized that he was racking up wins, but when he got to Montgomery he lost track of his total. Late in the season, he earned his 17th win of the year between the two levels, and the Minor League Baseball world took notice.
He finished a breakout 2015 with a 17-4 record and 1.92 ERA in just under 150 innings pitched. He also rang up 159 strikeouts for Charlotte and Montgomery, finishing with the sixth-most strikeouts in Minor League Baseball behind teammates Blake Snell and Jaime Schultz.
Coming into this season, he knew those marks would be hard to replicate.
“I’m not trying to repeat the exact same year, because that’s really tough,” Faria said. “You can’t do that every year. Just trying to build step by step off of every game. Trying to continue the process I’ve been doing the last few years and see where it takes me.”
After another half of a season with Montgomery, it took him to Triple-A and Durham. Faria noticed the big differences between the two highest levels of the minors in his first game.
“The first game I threw against (Phillies prospect) Jake Thompson, which is a huge name,” Faria said. “He’s really good and always had good numbers, so that was kind of a big deal.”
The addition of more former major-leaguers in opposing lineups was the biggest change to Faria. He recalled facing one player with major league service time in Double-A, and that had been a big deal. Now it’s an everyday occurrence.
“Even on our team you have J.P. (Arencibia), who has been in the big leagues for at least four years, you have Dana (Eveland) who has been in the big leagues for four or five years. Especially in games when you’re facing guys who have been in the big leagues, guys you used to watch on TV. Like, I want to be that guy and now you’re playing that guy,” he said.
Faria kept building off of his past success with 42 strikeouts through his first 38 Triple-A innings. But after the All-Star break, he got off track for two brief starts.
“In the Syracuse game I was throwing everything for strikes, but after a certain amount of hitters it was just too late,” he said. “I just kept doing what I did when I first got here — attacking hitters. I got away from my game plan a little bit, throwing certain pitches in certain counts, but once I got back to the basics I got back on track.”
After two rough outings, Faria bounced back with a quality start. He allowed just six runs over those three starts to wash away the memory of those two previous starts.
Faria said, “If I can get through the first inning I’m really comfortable, but once I get the first time through the lineup and get a really good look at their hitters, that’s when I’m really relaxed and settled in.”
Faria enjoys a 3-1 record at the DBAP with a 2.15 ERA, and said he appreciates that Bulls fans embrace and support the team so well in the stadium and even around the city. Recently, he was recognized by Double-A Southern League managers as having the best changeup in the league this season in a Baseball America survey.
With slightly more than a month in Triple-A under his belt, Faria has overcome his first hurdle at the highest level of the minor leagues. Now that he’s back on track, he is ready to continue his climb to the big leagues.
After the Bulls beat Scranton/Wilkes-Barre 8-4 last night, and Charlotte lost to Indianapolis 1-0, Durham now enters today tied for first place in the IL South with a 45-55 record. That’s right. Despite being 10 games under .500, the Bulls are tied for the top spot in their division. To celebrate, we’re going to take a look at some ‘fun’ facts regarding this ridiculous situation:
- The four teams in the IL South division hold the four worst records in the IL. Any team from any other division would be leading the IL South as of this morning.
- The IL South has had a complete turnaround from 2015, when the division became the first division in league history in which every team finished with a winning record. The Bulls and Knights tied for last in the division a season ago, finishing 74-70.
- 26 of Durham’s 44 remaining games come against the IL South. The Bulls are 26-22 against division foes this season, but just 6-11 against Norfolk, which holds the league’s worst record.
- The Bulls are hitting .232 as a team this season, which is 16 points lower than the team’s worst offensive season in its Triple-A history (.248 in 2014).
- Most importantly – NONE OF THIS MATTERS. The winner of the division will go to the Governors’ Cup playoffs regardless. So saddle up Bulls fans, the race to the playoffs has begun.
“It’s just a minor setback for a major comeback.”
At least that’s what Durham Bulls infielder Jake Hager told himself.
Surgery on both patellar tendons in your knee and an entire season of rehab is no minor setback, but Hager is already making a major comeback.
Prior to the 2014 season, Hager looked to be on a fast track to the big leagues. Then he noticed a weird feeling in his knees.
“They started acting up, so I got a cortisone shot,” Hager explained. “That felt fine the first couple months in (Double-A) Montgomery, then it started bothering me again.”
Hager played through the injury, tying his career high in games played at 114. He hit .271 and set a career high with 27 doubles for the Montgomery Biscuits.
He had the surgeries before the 2015 season, putting him out for the entire year.
“It was called a Tenex surgery I did first on both of them, and that didn’t work,” Hager said. “So I ended up getting surgery on my right one, and they shot some stem cells into my left one. They both feel great.”
The former first-round pick spent the 2015 season recovering at the team’s facility in Port Charlotte, Florida. He had some company with a few other Rays minor leaguers like Neil Wagner, Johnny Venters and Grayson Garvin rehabbing in Port Charlotte, developing a rehab comradery and getting back to full strength together.
But mentally, surgery can be taxing on a baseball player. Hager would have given anything to be back on the field with his teammates, as was evidenced when he played through the injury in 2014. He developed a routine in rehab to keep his mind sharp and his sights on getting back on the field.
“Every day I went to Starbucks and I’d read,” he said. “I read positive books, mental books to keep me strong and motivated, and keep me going. I took that into physical therapy and rehab, and just got after it. I knew by the end of the process I was going to be back and healthy, and I came back to spring training stronger than I ever have been.”
Hager read books like Brendon Burchard’s “The Charge,” and Jim Afremow’s “The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive.” He would start his day early at the baseball field, doing as much rehab work as he was allowed to, then head to the coffee shop in the afternoon and read.
“I feel like a better baseball player mentally and physically,” he said.
Physically, he has already picked out some big differences.
“When I was going through that season in Montgomery, it hurt to swing, to load on my legs,” Hager said. “When I’d run, I couldn’t stop. I had to slowly gradually stop, but now I’m more explosive. I’m not thinking about it. I can stop hard, it feels great.”
In the infield, that ability to stop and change directions quickly can be the difference between a hit and an out. And in a minor league system like the Rays have, you have to have those defensive skills to be versatile.
“We have a stacked infield, and it’s awesome,” Hager said. “It’s fun to play together. We all know a little different things, we all pick our brains, we have a great time together.”
Hager got to know fellow shortstop Daniel Robertson when Robertson was rehabbing from a wrist injury last season. He got close with Willy Adames, another top prospect who plays shortstop in the Rays system, when the duo played together in Montgomery at the beginning of this season.
Having those three, plus many more great defensive infielders, they each have had to learn new positions.
“I haven’t played any position other than shortstop my whole career,” Hager said. “This whole spring training I played shortstop, then first day in Montgomery, (manager Brady Williams) calls me in the office and says, ‘Hey, you’re playing third today.’ So that’s when I did what I could every day to get comfortable over there, and comfortable over at second base.”
Getting bumped off of his natural position didn’t discourage Hager, though.
“I’m getting comfortable at each position, and when they need me up there, I’ll know how to play,” he said. “It’s only helping me out.”
And being able to see the success moves like this have had in players like Ben Zobrist, and more recently Taylor Motter, Hager knows this is a good thing.
Coming back from his season of rehab, Hager had a strong first two months with Montgomery, batting .240 with 17 RBIs and 10 doubles for the Biscuits. The Rays made a flurry of moves early in June, calling up a couple of infielders and creating a spot Hager could have potentially filled.
He saw he wasn’t in the Montgomery lineup and had been dealing with a bit of a slump, so he wasn’t sure he was being called up. Then he heard a rumor he had been scratched from the initial lineup, but forgot about it cheering on his teammates during the game. After the game, Williams walked into the locker room and let the whole team know Hager was getting called up to Triple-A.
“I was shocked and it was awesome,” Hager said. “It’s been my dream to make it to the big leagues, and I’m one step closer. I’m a phone call away. I worked this whole spring training, this whole offseason, to get up to here. My goal was to be here.”
That recovery and resurgence after his injury has continued in Durham, where he has a .315 batting average with seven of his first 14 games being multi-hit games. He has certainly nailed the “major comeback.”