Akin, Woodford gear up for All-Star Game

IL, PCL starters discuss their approach ahead of Triple-A contest

Jake Woodford is ranked as the Cardinals' No. 23 prospect; Keegan Akin is sixth in the Orioles system. (Jim Redman/MiLB.com, Norfolk Tides)

By Jared Ravich / MiLB.com | July 10, 2019 3:00 PM

EL PASO, Texas -- The humidor at Southwest University Park is functioning properly, but after Monday's Home Run Derby, none of the players are expecting small ball when the Triple-A All-Star Game gets underway tonight.

"I say we just put [the outfielders'] backs on the walls and call it good," said International League starting pitcher Keegan Akin of Norfolk. "I wouldn't want to be a pitcher out here [in El Paso], I can promise you that, especially because I give up fly balls."

Akin, who is making his first career All-Star Game start, learned he was getting the nod on Tuesday.

"Pretty fortunate to be here and to find out -- pretty exciting. I'd rather start, being a starting pitcher. It makes it easier to stay in my routine and roll with it. I was told two innings or 40 pitches, whichever comes first."

Akin has a 0.51 ratio of ground balls to fly balls, second lowest (to Norfolk teammate Asher Wojciechowski) of any IL pitcher with over 10 starts in 2019. But his five home runs allowed in 75 innings are second fewest of any IL pitcher with over 60 innings this season. (Dylan Cease allowed only four in 68 1/3 innings.) So the game plan is to make his pitches.

"I'm probably going to try to keep it under control and throw strikes."

It's the same plan for Pacific Coast League starter Jake Woodford.

"Just go out there and execute pitches," said the Memphis hurler. "You make mistakes, that's when balls get hit hard, so whether it's flying or not, there's a good amount of places around the PCL where the ball jumps and moving big league balls this year, you notice a difference. I'd definitely say you just go out and try to execute your game plan."

Woodford, the 39th overall selection in the 2015 Draft by the Cardinals, pitched a scoreless inning in the 2016 Midwest League All-Star Game and was named a Texas League All-Star in 2018, but got the callup to Triple-A before he could participate in the game.

"I'm pumped, definitely excited. It's the first time in a while for me, so I'm just trying to take in everything and meet some of the guys I've never met before -- just trying to enjoy it. This is my first time in El Paso, another cool thing. I'm definitely not taking it lightly, by any means. You're here representing your organization, yourself, the PCL in general. I'm going to go out there and compete, but also just try to stay within myself and do what got me here. Not trying to do anything extra."

All the players who arrived in time for Monday's Home Run Derby were able to witness 254 home runs, including 59 by champion Yasmany Tomas. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre catcher Kyle Higashioka said he was "looking forward to seeing how the ball flies in the PCL."

There have been 2,061 home runs allowed by PCL pitchers in 2019 and 1,552 by their IL counterparts. In general, Triple-A home runs are up in 2019 and that has some observers looking at the change in balls as the reason. The pitchers have had to get a feel for them as well.

"There's definitely an adjustment," said Woodford. "It's just something you've got to get used to. I'd say that's the biggest thing. You notice it when guys come up from Double-A. They can tell the difference and it takes them a little bit to maybe figure out how to spin it up here. There's an adjustment period, but it's a baseball. You've still got to go out there and execute."

Higashioka, a three-time Minor League All-Star, has spent time with the Yankees and has had a chance to handle pitches from Aroldis Chapman and CC Sabathia, so he's ready to handle the variety of pitches a backstop might receive in a game that will surely see more than the usual number of managerial trips to the mound.

"It's just important to talk to them about what they like to do, how they like to work hitters," said Higashioka. "Obviously, I'm just seeing them for the first time, so I want to make sure they're doing what they normally do, rather than what I think they should do -- making sure you're ready for anything, pretty much.

"One of the things that comes with catching guys like Chapman or CC or other guys we have at the backend of our 'pen like [Zack] Britton or [Dellin] Betances, you get to see different pitch styles and how guys like to work different hitters. You get to see which pitches work against certain guys. It's always fun to catch new guys."

2019 MiLB include

Clang, Clang: Players and team executives got to ride the newly refurbished trolleys that have returned to El Paso's downtown after decades of being out of service. The beautifully restored cars have a vintage feel, but now feature free WiFi. They're part of a revitalization effort the city has made, one that began with the construction of Southwest University Park.

"I think this city's got a lot of momentum in a forward direction right now, especially downtown," said El Paso Chihuahuas senior vice president and general manager Brad Taylor. "Just since the ballpark got here, there have been hundreds of millions of dollars of downtown development and also six to eight new hotels that have opened and more that are coming. The ballpark gets a lot of credit for being at the forefront of that development that spurred because it was one of the things approved by the bonds for quality of life and it was one of the first projects completed."

But the team has discovered that the trolley and the ballplayers don't always play nice.

"As the streetcars have gotten up and running in downtown El Paso, they came online last November, so effectively for us, it's been about three or four months that baseball and streetcars have coexisted," said Taylor. "Apparently, we have derailed a streetcar or two with a BP ball that's made its way to the tracks outside the stadium."

During the Derby, the Chihuahuas had staff outside the park to make sure any crisis was avoided. It's a big job hosting an All-Star Game, but the Chihuahuas have jumped at the chance to showcase El Paso.

"For our staff and for me, we're thrilled to be able to invite the other 29 owners and executives to our town to see our ballpark, and really for the fans of the Chihuahuas, to make them feel good about the baseball world looking inward on them. It should give them a sense of civic pride to host an event like this. We've always wanted to do things at the highest level.

"This is the highest level in Minor League Baseball with the best players in the All-Star Game. It doesn't get any better than that to me."

Jared Ravich is a senior software engineer for Major League Baseball Advanced Media. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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