Bill on Baseball: Young Hoppers Learn From Failure

By Bill Hass / Greensboro Grasshoppers | August 31, 2018 10:04 AM

It has been the kind of season that will have to be put in perspective in the future.

The overall results won't be pretty as the Hoppers put a wrap on 2018 with four games at Hickory from Friday through Monday. They finished the home schedule with an 11-3 loss to Lakewood Thursday night, their 10th straight overall and 14th in a row at First National Bank Field.

It wasn't the way anyone wanted the home season to end, of course, but manager Todd Pratt tried to look beyond that.

"It wasn't like last year," he said, referring to the 2017 team that made the South Atlantic League playoffs. "This year we developed players. There was a lot of movement, a lot of kids, which was good for (the Miami Marlins) organization.

"It would be nice to develop and win, like Lakewood. But we had to take care of the learning curve. I told the kids 'you might think you're at a disadvantage but you're way ahead of the scale in the long run.'"

Taken as a whole, the season was okay from April through July. A host of players were promoted to Jupiter, taking most of the offense with them, but the team competed well. Then the Marlins made an unusual move, sending the Hoppers their first three draft picks, all out of high school.

Center fielder Connor Scott (18 years old), catcher Will Banfield (also 18) and shortstop Osiris Johnson (age 17) were promoted from the Gulf Coast League, skipping the next level in the New York-Penn League.

They played in their first game here on Aug. 7, an 8-1 win over West Virginia. That brought the team's record to 55-55.

Since then, the Hoppers have gone 2-20. The youngsters, dominant players in high school, were often in over their heads against players three and four years older.

So what was Johnson's takeaway from this experience?

"Being able to handle failure," he said. "It was a little hard not to get discouraged because I haven't had to handle a lot of failure before. The pitching was a lot better than I've seen, especially the sliders. Those were tough for me."

Still, Johnson saw some positive signs.

"I think I made progress all through my game," he said. "And I've grown up some, tried to mature. I've tried to learn from the older players."

It was much the same for Scott, who said he got smarter about the little things, like baserunning and his hitting approach.

"Everything is about 100 times faster," he said of this level of baseball. "The benefits have been seeing real pro ball, the crowds and the lights. And growing up as a man, living on my own, buying my own food, things like that.

"It was good for us to get our feet wet. It humbled us and helped us grow."

Hitting coach Frank Moore said the mental part of the game has been the hardest lesson to learn for the youngsters.

"You can't just show up at the field," Moore said. "You have to have the mental approach to play hard every day, develop a daily routine. You have to put the work in, not just when you're struggling but when you're going well. You bring it 100 percent every day, no matter what., to develop consistency."

An example is outfielder Isael Soto, who hit his 12th homer Thursday and improved his RBI total to 62. He struggled in the first half, missed a few weeks with an injury, then had a fine second half.

"It was a matter of him getting his timing, getting consistent at-bats and knowing he was going to be in the lineup every day," Moore said.

Many of the best pitchers moved up during the course of the season, including Brady Puckett, Ryan Lillie and Travis Neubeck. Of those that remained all season, Colton Hock showed promise with nine wins, Brandon Miller made what looks like a successful transition to the bullpen and reliever Nestor Bautista was his usual self, just getting people out.

Bautista pitched three scoreless innings against Lakewood Thursday and has a 1.93 ERA in his last 10 games. He's at 2.69 for the season.

A pair of 20-year-old pitchers, Edward Cabrera and Trevor Rogers, had their ups and downs and combined for just six wins. Each showed flashes of considerable promise before fading late in the grind of a long season.

"As a whole, (the staff) battled," said pitching coach Mark DiFelice. "This is a tough park to pitch in and you learn from failure here. I think they learned a lot about who they are. As coaches, you can get frustrated (by losing), but if you see improvement, then it's worth it."

Pratt said he enjoyed his two seasons here, coming to the park every day and going through the early work with individuals and team work before games. He watched players mature, even though the results didn't always show it.

"Sometimes the salt makes the honey taste a little sweeter," he said.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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