The nine Salem-Keizer Northwest League All-Stars travel to Everett Tuesday with different emotions and experiences.
For some, the showcase at Everett Memorial Stadium ranks among several outstanding career accomplishments in what is another step toward a childhood dream to play in the big leagues.
But, for others, this could be a launch pad to revive those same lofty aims as their teammates after some twists of adversity.
The nine, the most of any one team in the Northwest League, will send four pitchers, two starters and two relievers, along with five position players, including four inside the diamond.
Chris Johnson returned to Salem-Keizer in 2013 after serving as a spot starter with the Volcanoes a year ago. The 2012 Giants 17th-round pick from the University of Portland was a Sunday starter for the Pilots, but struggled in his first pro season as a starter in what is a polished college league in the NWL. Johnson in six starts with S-K in 2012, Johnson went 1-3 with a 7.92 ERA and allowed 56 hits over the course of 48.2 innings. But, a revamped Johnson appeared as the Opening Day starter for Salem-Keizer to begin the 2013 campaign after a full off season with an arsenal of pitches. The biggest difference was the command of a two-seam fastball, circle changeup, and slider, which has kept hitters off balance in his second NWL season. Johnson has been spectacular with a 4-3 record and 2.31 ERA with 58 strikeouts to just 5 walks. Yes, that’s not a typo…58! (which leads the entire league by 12 K). His 58.1 innings of work is also tops in the league with a 0.82 WHIP. On June 14, Johnson’s debut against Hillsboro set the table for the season. He went six innings and allowed two hits with three strikeouts. MiLB called that night and wanted to speak to Chris for a feature on their website. It seems this season is all a part of a bigger plan. It is going in the right direction.
Andrew Leenhouts has gone off the radar since joining the Volcanoes in 2013 in the second spot of the rotation. Well…at least off the radar for what he has done, which is flat out win since his college days. Leenhouts, a 23rd rounder from Northeastern University in Boston, where he set a school record with 282 career strikeouts, has been effective and is on the cusp of cracking the Salem-Keizer record books. At 6-1 on the season, Leenhouts is one win away from entering into a tie for sixth place in season wins with nine other Volcanoes who have done the same since 1997. One of those pitchers was 2005 Volcanoes starter Sergio Romo along with 2012 staff ace Joan Gregorio. Leenhouts will have 5-6 more starts this season with the franchise record of 10 wins, set by Adam Cowart in 2006, well within his grasp. Since his senior season with Northeastern, Leenhouts is 13-5 including 9-2 in the minors with a 3-1 record in the Arizona Rookie League last year. Leenhouts has seven starts with Salem-Keizer with one or zero earned runs allowed, and with the Northwest League’s best offense behind him, that’s a winning combination.
Raymundo Montero is a favorite of Volcanoes pitching coordinator Jerry Cram. The two could not be farther apart in personality or background. Cram, who pitched professionally for the Mets and Royals, is in his 47th year in baseball with a methodical approach to everything he does. Montero is a free spirit who wears his emotions on his sleeve and invokes comedy when the two interact, whether its a pass on the bus or in the bullpen. Montero’s long journey began at age 18 in the Dominican Summer League as a relief pitcher. He picked up six total saves in two seasons before making the move to U.S. soil for the 2011 season where he found some limited action with the Volcanoes. In 2012, the Giants experimented with Montero as a starting pitcher with Salem-Keizer, going 3-4 with a 4.38 ERA over 11 starts. It didn’t seem natural. The spirit and Raymundo was gone. Back to the bullpen for 2013, but as THE guy, THE closer. Montero has responded with his best season yet, notching nine saves in 10 opportunities and finishing 15 of the 16 games he’s played. The shutdown mentality comes from ability to locate on both sides of the plate with 26 strikeouts and just three walks. Cram, and the Giants, like what they see from the bulldog from the bullpen.
Jake Smith is the unlikely success story from the 48th round of the 2011 MLB Draft out of Campbell University. Only 5 to 6 percent of all minor league baseball players ever make it to the MLB stage, but the uphill climb is even steeper for Smith, taken 1,486 overall. Consider this, MLB has shortened the draft to 40 round as of 2012, making Smith one year removed from possibly not being drafted at all. Smith was homeschooled by parents Ken and Angie Smith in North Augusta, S.C. (across the state line from Augusta, Ga.), allowing Jake to thrive in a homeschool baseball program, the CSRA Crusaders. Smith lead his team to Homeschool World Series appearances in 2005, 2007, and 2008. Smith stepped outside the home learning environment for the first time with Darton College (Albany, Ga. – NJCAA) where he lead his team in strikeouts (74), starts (11) and innings (77.2) as a sophomore. That prompted the move to Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. Smith did not start his career until 2012 with the AZL Giants, and after a promising start to the campaign (8.2 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 13 K). Smith survived the flurry of roster moves/cuts that fall, and this spring in Scottsdale, to land on the Salem-Keizer roster. Smith has toyed with NWL batters, leading the league among relievers in opponent batting average (.136 – 11 hits/81 AB) and K/9IP (33 K/24IP – 12.37). Smith’s best stretch came directly before All-Star voting closed — from June 26 to July 29, Smith went 15.0 IP allowing just four hits, one earned run with 22 K. If Jake keeps this pace up, he may be returning home to Augusta to play for the South Atlantic League Low-A affiliate of the SF Giants, the GreenJackets.
Brandon Bednar learned from his father Paul to play nearly ever position on the field. It paid off at Florida Gulf Coast University, as Bednar played seven different positions with the Eagles, also making 164 consecutive starts over his three years in college. Bednar is a tool shed: a 6-4, 185-pound frame gives him incredible wingspan in the field and reach at the plate as well as fleet footed opportunities to steal bases. It also gives him the chance to fill out as a power hitter, which is exactly what the 2013 7th round pick has done with the Volcanoes from his first day. Bednar opened the NWL season with a 2-for-5 outing with a double and 3 RBI. Bednar now has eight doubles, three home runs, 25 RBI, six steals, and a .284 average. Keep in mind, Bednar hit just two home runs in college over 167 games. Add to that, the Stuart, Fla. native has played second, third, and short stop and has hit all over the lineup. He’s produced everywhere and anywhere he’s put.
Sam Eberle didn’t quite feel comfortable in his first pro season with the Volcanoes. Eberle, a 25th round choice out of Jacksonville State (Ala.) last year, was a third baseman and, when needed, a catcher in college. The Giants wanted to try Eberle’s hand as a regular catcher in the mix with two other veteran plate protectors in Dashenko Ricardo and Trevor Brown. Imagine trying to master the catching role, adjust to pro baseball, and having to compete with two others for playing time. Eberle did not have the chance to get in a groove, playing in 36 games hitting .248 with four doubles and 12 RBI. The Giants scrapped the catching plan, and allowed Eberle to clear his head of defensive distractions. That decision set the stage for an emerging power hitter to break out this season. Eberle destroyed the baseball at the beginning of the 2013 NWL season, hitting 10 doubles, three triples, and five home runs in the first four weeks. Eberle was voted the Northwest League’s top offensive player in the first week after smashing seven doubles, a triple, his first pro home run on June 16 vs. Hillsboro and 5 RBI. Eberle has benefited from the singular focus on his ability to put backspin, line-drive doubles into the gaps, according to Giants Minor League Hitting Coordinator and former Volcanoes manager Steve Decker.
Geno Escalante was on the Opening Day roster for Salem-Keizer in June 14 as the lone 2013 draft pick on the team, selected in the 15th round from Mount Olive College (N.C.). The college and pro games are much different, with the depth of talent being the biggest hurdle. Competing against top talent in the college ranks was difficult. At this level, everyone is even bigger, stronger and faster. Escalante’s growing pain in the NWL were visible as the Fairfield, Calif. native went just 2-for-22 in his first six games of the season, putting his batting average at .091. However, the catcher spent extra time with Volcanoes hitting coordinator Ricky Ward and quickly turned into a feared hitter in the lineup. Escalante finished June hitting .179 with no extra base hits and 3 RBI. Geno capped off the month of July hitting .375 with four doubles, a triple and his first pro homer at Volcanoes Stadium July 12 against Spokane. He had a 10-game hitting streak over that span, the second-longest for S-K this year (Bednar – 11), which was also just four hits shy of the longest in the NWL in the first half. Escalante looks to continue to swing the hot bat as a part of a solid catching core for Salem-Keizer, along with Ty Ross (2013 12th round pick – LSU), who has 8 doubles already after playing just 16 games.
Tyler Hollick had a conversation with Augusta GreenJackets manager Mike Goff shortly before his late-April demotion from the South Atlantic League to extended spring training. Goff explained to Hollick that consistency and letting the game come to him were the reasons he wasn’t staying with the GreenJackets. After batting .380 nearly 20 games into the Northwest League Season, it sounds like he’s found the solution to his problem. The Canadian outfielder has been the staple of consistent production from the S-K leadoff spot, leading the Volcanoes with 31 runs and 13 steals, and has been in the NWL batting average title hunt much of the season. Hollick, a 14th round pick out of Chandler-Gilbert Community College (Ariz.), was the 2012 U.S. Junior College Player of the Year with flat out amazing stats: .475 BA, 58 R, 77 H, 7 2B, 8 3B, HR, 29 RBI, 61 SB. Expect more noise from Hollick very soon.
Jeremy Sy was in his first practice with Salem-Keizer last year enjoying the start of his professional career. The 12th round pick out of Louisiana-Monroe was practicing his throws to home plate when he felt a odd pain in his throwing arm. Before his first pro game, Sy flew back to Arizona where further medical tests revealed a damaged unlar collateral ligament, which made him a prime candidate for season-ending Tommy John surgery. Sy was on the shelf for nearly four months. Then came the long road back including rehab, weight training, conditioning, and mentally blocking out the new sensations of a reconstructed arm. Volcanoes manger Gary Davenport continues to be amazed about how quickly Sy has come back from major surgery. In many ways, Sy came back better than ever, adding 30 pounds onto his 6-1 frame this off season molding him into a big time prospect. Still not all the way back, the Giants have been careful with him. But, Sy has not been careful with hanging pitches, slamming six home runs and six doubles with a team-best 28 RBI and 11 stolen bases. Sy is a quiet individual, but his game simply cannot go unnoticed much longer.