Fans on hand at Louisville Slugger Field this Memorial Day weekend may be treated to a sight not seen in years at a Louisville Bats game – a lineup full of hitters.
Bats that can bat!
Louisville has posted seven straight losing seasons – and the No. 1 problem has been lack of hitting. Two and a half months into the 2019 International League season the Bats are still battling to get to .500, but the club is no longer going meekly into the night. Suddenly – without warning – Louisville has guys who can swing the bat and connect rather than simply make outs.
It’s not a Murderers’ Row. Not an army of powerful slashers chasing opposing pitchers to early showers. But this weekend’s lineup will begin with six players hitting above .290 and three over .300.
Leading the list of Bats hitters is first baseman Brian O’Grady, who is hitting a snappy .320, with 11 home runs – including three on Sunday at Buffalo, and two at home on Wednesday against Indianapolis.
O’Grady found his swing last season at Class AA Pensacola – and it happened quickly – on a day he spent working with Barry Larkin, the Cincinnati Hall-of-Fame shortstop who is now a roving instructor for the Reds.
“I started the year 2 for 19, I remember, and Barry Larkin came to town and we hit in the batting cage,” O’Grady said. “We had a doubleheader that day and the first game I didn’t play, we just hit in the cage and I figured something out – and I’ve been rolling with that since then.”
“He’s put himself on the map,” said the new Bats manager Jody Davis, “He’s one of those guys that’s getting a little attention now” from the big league.
That’s a dramatic change, Davis said.
“I had him last year in Double A for a little over half the season, and he was a utility guy, couldn’t find himself,” Davis said. “The desire was there, but he just couldn’t put it together.”
Bats batting coach Leon “Bull” Durham “has really helped him with that,” Davis added. “He’s more confident, and he’s using the off-field. He’s strong as an ox. Those three home runs he hit the other night, they were all straightaway center field or the other way.”
A left-handed batter, O’Grady has a compact swing powered by broad shoulders and strong legs. He’s 6-feet-2, 215 lbs and gets a nice crack of the bat when he connects.
“I don’t think of myself as a power hitter per se,” O’Grady said. “I think I’m a line drive hitter, with some power. When I made those changes it allowed me to drive the ball, and get backspin on it, so it could fly. It just seems like it’s going out more now.”
A Philadelphia native who played college ball at Rutgers, O’Grady once thought of himself as an outfielder, but now relishes playing in the infield as well. He’s been used primarily as a first baseman, but Tuesday night Davis played him at third base for the first time in his career.
“Wherever they want – that’s what makes it cool,” O’Grady said. The 26-year-old knows the big league Reds are moving players around and making roster changes in search of a line-up that clicks. “As many places as I can play, the better it is for me — so anywhere they need me.”
Davis thinks O’Grady is picking out the right pitches.
“He’s staying in the strike zone, staying with the ball,” Davis said. “He’s worked hard and he’s gotten right there — one step away from getting his foot in the door to the big leagues.”
He didn’t miss any
O’Grady’s progression is similar to the strides other Bats hitters have made.
Bats second baseman Josh VanMeter is currently up with Cincinnati after a sensational start at Louisville. In just 30 games with the Bats, VanMeter hit 13 home runs with 31 RBIs and a .336 average.
“I think Josh just matured,” Davis said. “He battled all the way through the minor leagues. He believed he could hit, and he got the opportunity.”
As with O’Grady, Davis thinks VanMeter got hot because he stayed cool – disciplining himself to swing only at pitches in the strike zone. “He made the pitchers throw strikes. And when they did, he didn’t miss them.”
Davis says that’s not all coaching. As players like VanMeter and O’Grady advance through the minors, they pick up the knack of things by watching veterans play the game. Infielder Christian Colon has big league experience and played on Kansas City’s World Series championship team in 2015. Colon is hitting right at .300, while also turning in excellent glove work in the field.
Triple A veteran Rob Refsnyder, and Scott Schebler, down from Cincinnati, are hitting .290.
Another possible beneficiary of coaching and experience could be 24-year-old outfielder Aristides Aquino, who has size, speed, power … and strikes out too often.
But he’s young, and Davis likes him.
“He’s a kid that stood out when I first got here,” Davis said, who was a hitting coach at Louisville when Aquino was coming into pro ball with the Reds’ Class A clubs at Billings, Montana, and Daytona Beach, Florida.
“He’s just come along. He’s got stronger and is starting to mature a little bit, too. He has shortened his swing and is swinging at better pitches. I saw the strength and the power that’s always been there – but he chased a lot of bad balls. He’s cut down on that now, and he’s getting better and better at it.”
Aquino is hitting .323, and is an exciting presence at the plate. At 6-foot-4-inches, he stands tall in the batter’s box. He lifts his front leg to stride into the pitch – but waits till the last second to snap his wrists and uncork his bat.
Also to like is Aquino’s first name, Aristides. It’s a neat name in his native Dominican Republic – and special in Louisville as the name of the first Kentucky Derby winner in 1875.
A change in the weather
All this talk about hitting, but Davis certainly knows something pitching, too. As a former National League All-Star catcher with the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves, he caught a raft of famous hurlers, including Ferguson Jenkins, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddox, Goose Gossage and Dennis Eckersley.
When the season began in April, Davis thought pitching would be Louisville’s strength. Eleven of the 13 pitchers on the opening day roster had major league experience.
But the Bats pitching has only been so-so. A bright spot is starter Lucas Sims, who is 3-0 with 63 strikeouts. Sims is scheduled to start Saturday night against Toledo.
One thing fans might notice is the team is fielding very well, snapping off double plays, hitting the cutoff man and not making errors.
But that and good hitting haven’t produced enough victories to suit Davis. The Bats haven’t caught a winning streak yet, and come into Memorial Day weekend standing at just 18-27. They are not reaping the reward for major improvement over recent poor seasons.
“Right now, we’re getting beat 8-7, and 3-2, and 2-1, and 4-3. It seems like we’re finding a way to lose those close games right now,” said the manager. “But people who have been around baseball know it’s going to turn. So hopefully it turns for us pretty quick, and we can get on a little roll. Maybe it’s the weather. It starts warming up, maybe that’ll kick us in.”
Weather forecasts for the weekend call for warm temperatures and no rain. A special fireworks show is scheduled to follow Sunday night’s Memorial Day Eve game. Maybe the Bats’ batsmen will generate some fireworks of their own.
“We’ve got some guys that compete, and that, I think, is the key word for this team,” said Davis. “It’s fun to be with a bunch that goes out and competes, and that’s what the guys on this team do.”
In his heart, he knew he was right
There are always fun moments in a game. Tuesday night, Indianapolis Indians slugger Will Clark banged a rocket shot off the top of the left field wall. It happened in about one second. The third base umpire ruled the ball “in play” and Clark dropped anchor at second base with a double.
Indianapolis manager Brian Esposito thought Clark’s hit could have been ruled a home run and came out of the dugout to plead his case with the ump.
Sitting with Bats fan Ralph Haas, one wondered how Esposito would plead his case.
“Won’t matter,” Haas said. “The ump will rely on the Bill Klem’s line, the famous umpire. He’ll just say, ‘In my heart I know I’m right.’”
The discussion was very civilized. Esposito made his case, the ump said no, and the whole thing took less than a minute.
“Thank God, there’s no video replay in minor league baseball,” laughed Haas.