JACKSONVILLE - Each week during the offseason Suns radio and television broadcaster Roger Hoover will catch up with a member of the 2013 Jacksonville Suns to get their memories of baseball at Bragan Field this past summer.
The next guest is a pitcher that spent the entire season as a member of the Jacksonville starting rotation, left-hander Adam Conley. Conley was the only member of the Suns starting rotation to stay the entire season in Jacksonville, developing into one of the most reliable pitchers in the Southern League. A 2013 Southern League All-Star, Conley went 11-7 with a 3.25 ERA in his 25 starts with 129 strikeouts in 138 and two-thirds innings on the mound. He had two four-start winning streaks in May and late July, and posted a complete game shutout against the Mobile BayBears on July 14, striking out eight batters in seven scoreless innings while only giving up three hits.
Here is this week's "My Season as a Sun" with Adam Conley, and you can read past installments here.
Hoover: When you were in spring training getting ready for the season, did you have any expectations knowing that you were getting ready to pitch in Double-A for the first time?
Conley: Going into spring training I had high expectations for myself. I attended my first major league baseball camp and was fortunate to be there for a couple of weeks. To be around some of the older guys and just learn how they go about their business. Guys who have been doing this longer than I've had and have had success at the major league level. So that was a good experience for me to begin the 2013 season. I had expectations to go to Jacksonville and to compete and learn about the game of baseball and learn about myself and my strengths and areas of my game I needed to improve on. Being a starter in that league and playing in that atmosphere was so beneficial to me. To pitch against really good hitters and play with such a competitive team with Andy Barkett, John Duffy, and Kevin Randel, it was a perfect storm of us to have such good baseball minds in the same close quarters area and traveling around. That was just an environment that allowed me to be comfortable in a sense I could get after it and work hard and experiment with things. But also uncomfortable in a sense that there was a lot of adversity and I had to fight through some things and learn things. They say the biggest jump in the minor leagues is from High-A to Double-A and I think starting the season in Double-A was right where I needed to be. I think that I learned a lot this past year and I accomplished a lot of things that I wanted to do.
Hoover: Your first Double-A start you really set the tone for what the rest of your season would look like, striking out eight Jackson Generals in five innings, and that was after we saw Brian Flynn strike out nine batters on Opening Night, that must've been the start you were looking for with the Suns.
Conley: The beginning of the year is exciting. You've gone through the offseason workouts you've gone through all the reps and sweat and soreness and discomforat and eating and doing all of these things to gain weight and get ready. Each day it seems like that's a slow process but when you look back at the whole offeseaon and spring training, it goes by so fast. In the moment of the first game that first series, the adrenaline is flowing, you're excited, it's a new beginning, a fresh slate. Regardless of what happened in previous years you get a clean slate to go out there and give evidence of why you're a good baseball player and why you belong at that next level. That was clearly shown by Flynn, he went out there and threw really well and a couple starts later they sent him up to Triple-A. I believe that's because he gave them so much evidence of being prepared to pitch at that level so they had no choice but to send him there.
Hoover: You didn't get your first win until early May, and your pitch count was around 80 pitches a game. Was it frustrating to you to have that pitch count or did you understand what the process was, getting ready for the long season?
Conley: I think there are arguments on both sides of that. On one hand, I always want to pitch, I want to pitch as long as I can possibly can whether my performance is good, bad, or indifferent. I believe in all circumstances on the mound no matter how I'm pitching, there's something to learn as long as you're out there. So on one side of it, that is frustrating to get the ball taken away from you. From a professional standpoint and a career standpoint, I also appreciate that there is a pitch count and the Marlins do care about their guys and they do what's appropriate with each individual pitcher to protect them and allow them to be strong and maintain their health through such a long season. So there's both sides of it, I understand both sides of it, but as long as long as they let me have the ball I want to be compete and pitch well.
Hoover: When during the season did they let you get extended with the pitch count? You'd eventually have a few starts over 100 pitches.
Conley: It's just a gradual process and a lot of times it has to do with how the game is going. If your pitch count is getting up there and it's the fourth inning and you're not pitching very well and it's a must-win game in the series or later in the year to make it to the playoffs, you see things change. But in the beginning of the year it's about getting to midseason form and getting the arm going, becoming comfortable with the pitches you're using and learning more about hitters. In the beginning of the year oyu're facing hitters you've never seen before. Whereas in later in the year, even if your pitch count is getting up a little bit, you've got a couple of guys in the lineup you've faced before and have had either success or failure against. That's going to have an influence in pitch count and staying or going in the game as well.
Hoover: In May, June, and the last part of July you had some consecutive starts with a victory. When you're at your best, what are your different pitches doing and what are you having success with?
Conley: I just improved as the season went on. I don't think that's supernatural - I know a big goal of mine was to get stronger as the season went. Statistically you could look back and see that statistically I got better but what I more look at is my strength and my ability to attack hitters. To throw good fastballs when I need one and two throw a two-seamer or a throw different variations of sliders and changeups in different counts. So not only mentally and emotionally getting stronger, but also physically being able to maintain with sticking with the plan. Sometimes pitchers seemingly deserve a win, throw really well, and it just doesn't work out. Other times for a month they might have a four ERA and it seems like they can't lose a game. Statistically I think you can argue either way, but I think deeper than that my ability to pitch and stick to a plan and commit to every pitch I threw got better as the season went on. The justice of the game is that if you do that long enough, statistically you'll get rewarded for it.
Hoover: You talk about the grind of minor league baseball and it seems like you in particular when it came to starting say day games, or games that were suspended due to rain, and there was even one of your starts that was delayed by fireworks - how did you manage all of the outside distractions and some of the tougher circumstances to pitch?
Conley: It's weird to say so, but I'm such a competitive guy that adversity doesn't scare me. Failure doesn't scare me. When I was in college and closing, I was essentially just a one-pitch pitcher. Basically guys with metal bats knew that a fastball was what they were going to get. If it was a slider or changeup that hitter would disregard that pitch and sit red on my fastball. I learned a lot that year and in that role, being in close games and pressure situations, pitching late. For me that was an adverse situation, being a one-pitch guy. But it really taught me to out-compete people. For that day if I've just got 70 percent of my best stuff, I just need to make sure my 70 percent is better than whatever they've got. Fireworks or rain or day games, those are things that I can't control. If I really focus on things I can control: which is my mind, my body, and my performance, than you know that the outside things aren't going to affect my routine and upset my goals. That competitive nature is not unique to me, I think there's a lot of baseball players that've been stuck in similar situations and I'm sure that they grinded because that's the name of the game.
Hoover: You mentioned that you're a competitive guy so you must've loved that 11-game winning streak from late July to early August, and you got two wins during that stretch without allowing any earned runs.
Conley: To do that at the Double-A level was definitely special and it doesn't happen often. I've played for other teams where we put some good streaks together, but to do that at the Double-A level and to be pursuing the dream of playing Major League Baseball is special. I think that winning is contagious, pitching well and hitting are also contagious. With that group of guys that we had in the locker and room and the guys that Barky sent out there on the field every day, that was a group of guys that were loyal to the Marlins and to the Jacksonville Suns. We trusted Andy, Duffy, Smoke and all of the guys and we believed in the plan. On top of all that, our camaraderie was off the charts. Everyone got along, we were respectful and appreciative of the work that people put in everyday. When you're in an environment like that, you kind of forget about how long the season is, you forget how tired you are. Ultimately, if you're not feeling good that day, you'll grind and you'll push harder for the guy next to you. Because you know he's fighting for you the same for you as you're attempting to fight for him. That's a powerful thing in the locker room. My belief is you can explain that scrappy teams win a lot of games when they don't necessarily have the highest paid guys or biggest name players when there's a deeper camaraderie and guys can fight harder and play better and that's going to result in wins. For awhile there we just played some really good baseball with a group of guys that really cared about the game and cared about each other.
Hoover: How did you enjoy living in Jacksonville and the atmosphere of Bragan Field and getting to know Suns fans?
Conley: The atmosphere at the park was incredible. Personally I really do not like living in the city, I'd rather live out in the woods. But in the ballpark with a uniform on and with the fans going, and the squad that Barky was running out on the field every night, it shortens up the season a bit. It allows you to be loose and have fun and be excited for baseball everyday instead of being burned out and being tired, maybe like being on a team that's not as successful or doesn't have the camaraderie that we had.
Hoover: Then at the end of the season, it all came down to that Labor Day game between the Suns and the Braves with Mississippi getting the win in extra innings. How disappointing was it to have such a sudden end to the season like that?
Conley: It's definitely not the ending we expected, I can tell you that. I think if you look at our Opening Day roster and look at the roster we would've had if some of our major league players hadn't been hurt. For instance if Jose Fernandez would've come and been on the roster Opening Day, if Flynn had stuck around longer, you can do those things. Yelich went up, Marisnick went up, Olmos was gone to the big leagues for awhile and some other players too. I know that throughout the length of that season nobody had any doubt that we were a playoff-caliber team and there's no question that Yelich and Marisnick made our team better and that's what Miami saw in calling them up and they made the Marlins better. The atmosphere of that team, the feeling of that team, it never wavered from being a team that was hungry to win, not only to make the playoffs, but to win. I think you said it perfect, the ending of the season was abrupt, but unfortunately some of the best lessons we learn are learned the hard way. To play for a season so long that's 140 games to find out that a season like that can come down to one inning or one game or one batter, it really motivates you and teaches you the importance of doing the little things well throughout your career to be a consistent baseball player that allows you to succeed at the major league level.
Hoover: What are you up to in the offseason, what do you hope to do before Spring Training starts and any goals set for 2014?
Conley: My plans for the rest of the offseason are to get strong and gain weight like I have and to come back bigger and stronger than I ever have. That's a goal for me every offseason. I plan to spend a lot of time with my wife, and just enjoy her company and being able to spend time with her after all of the sacrifices she makes in letting me play a game that I love and traveling so much. I'd like to get out in the woods and hunt a little bit and peace and quiet and relax and keep my mind off baseball for a little while. Going into next year it's going to be back to work. A lot of times I tell myself that the offseason is actually harder work. I'm in the gym and lifting and doing some things then the season starts and it a feels like a lot less work because I get to go out and play baseball everyday for a living. As long as I get to keep playing baseball and not working baseball I'll be motivated to be the best player I can. My goal is to be a Major League Baseball player. Not just to get there, but to stay there and be a great player. I don't know if the appropriate time for me determined by the Marlins will be at the end of spring training, at some point next year, or five years from now. But ultimately that's my goal and that's what I'm working towards. Wherever the Marlins choose to place me next year breaking camp, I'm going to trust it's with my best interests for my career, my health, and my well-being. I put my trust in them and wherever they send me I'll be happy to go knowing that it's such a blessing that I get to play baseball everyday.
For the latest Suns news this offseason, fans are encouraged to visit www.jaxsuns.com and can keep up with the Jacksonville Suns on the club's Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram social media platforms, as well as the "Tales from Bragan Field" blog: www.sunsradio.com.