The stuffed monkey that might best be described as a child's toy companion caught the attention of Bluefield outfielder Chris Hawkins
when he visited manager Dennis Holmberg's office at the start of the season.
With that, Holmberg figured he had found the ideal caretaker for the monkey mascot. It would be Hawkins, a third-round pick of the Blue Jays in 2010 out of North Gwinnett High School in Sugar Hill, Ga.
Though Hawkins has accompanied the monkey -- referred to simply as "Monkey" -- around the Appalachian League this summer, the soon-to-be 20-year-old has shown significant progress in his second season as a pro.
He batted .309 in July, despite a 1-for-10 stretch to end the month, and he's on pace to shatter his career-best .255 batting average last year in the Gulf Coast League.
"It's different because you have to be smarter and you have to work smarter," he said of the level of play. "Everyone is more experienced, and the pitchers command their pitches better. Everyone has gotten a lot better since last year."
Hawkins, who bats left-handed, said he made an adjustment to shorten his swing. He's aiming to use the lower part of his body more.
As for the monkey -- which dons a Toronto helmet and Auburn Doubledays jersey from Holmberg's time with the New York-Penn League club -- it can often be seen sitting on the team bus alongside Hawkins, who apparently carries on one-sided conversations.
"It's my job to carry him around and look after him at the hotel and get him meals," Hawkins said. "I get him to the dugout and take him back to the hotel."
Another player on the Bluefield club enjoying a stellar season is 18-year-old right-hander Noah Syndergaard, Toronto's first-round pick in 2010. He compiled a 4-0 record and 1.41 ERA through seven games with Bluefield, despite being on a five-inning limit for each outing.
"I've matured quite a bit," he said, pointing out that he carries 220 pounds (up from 205 last year) on his 6-foot-6 frame. "I just really got after it in the offseason."
Holmberg said Syndergaard, who has recorded 37 strikeouts in his first 32 innings, has shown ideal consistency. Entering August, he had yielded more than one run only once -- and that came in an outing when he gave up two runs.
"There will be a time I can go past five," Syndergaard said. "I feel like I've had a lot of success out here and I'm able to locate my pitches."
Syndergaard was rewarded for his strong performance with a promotion to Vancouver of the Northwest League, where he started and pitched five innings Wednesday, allowing one unearned on four hits. He struck out six in picking up the win.
As for the monkey, Syndergaard said he hasn't had much involvement.
"He's part of our team," said Syndergaard, unsure of the monkey's exact purpose. "I'm not sure what it's supposed to symbolize."
But Holmberg said the monkey has a role, and that Hawkins is the idea partner.
"The monkey has been around a long time," Holmberg said, estimating he acquired him in 2004. "He's seen a lot of ballgames. ... Hawkins has kind of attached himself to him. I think the two guys kind of live in the same tree. I couldn't think of a better guy than Hawkins to take care of him."
Power ball: Greeneville Astros first baseman Chase Davidson has been a power hitter with 10 home runs and 10 doubles among his first 42 hits, yet his 5-for-5 night July 29 against the Kingsport Mets came with five singles. Davidson signed after his junior season at Georgia, despite not being drafted until the 41st round. He had been Houston's third-round pick coming out of high school in 2008. The left-handed batter has hit .323 against left-handed pitchers, and that's slightly better than his mark against right-handers.
Toughness turnaround: Danville Braves third baseman Brandon Drury, who has emerged as one of the league's top hitters by batting at a .382 clip in July, credits improved mental toughness for a turnaround after batting .198 in 52 Gulf Coast League games last year. "I got myself in a funk and couldn't get out of it," Drury said. "[Now I'm] being confident and not getting down on myself."
Roll up the innings: Burlington Royals right-hander Nick Graffeo made a brief appearance as the league's ERA leader, but he didn't have enough innings to stay there long. He's moving into a starting role in the rotation, so that might change. "I just like to pitch," Graffeo said. "I like that they want to get me more innings."
Good while it lasted: Catcher Kevan Smith, who led the Appalachian League in batting average (.396), on-base percentage (.482) and slugging (.740) through 26 games with the Bristol Sox, was reassigned to Great Falls in the Pioneer League.