The New York Mets went without a Gulf Coast League team last season, causing some players to start their careers at a slightly accelerated pace. The effect is also being seen this season in Kingsport as about 20 of its players are repeating the Appalachian League -- which suits many of the Mets just fine.
Pitcher Chris Flexen said his experience last year with Kingsport has been paying off in the encore.
"I got to see the difference between high school and pro ball right away," said Flexen, who is 2-1 with a 2.57 ERA in four starts this year after finishing 1-3, 5.63 last season. "With this league, I have a year under my belt, so I'm a little more experienced."
Kingsport manager Jose Leger has noticed a gradual improvement in many of the players who were also under his watch a year ago.
"Last year they were a bit overmatched," Leger said. "They struggled, then did better toward the end. No doubt, even last year we had some talent."
First baseman Jeff Diehl, another Kingsport returnee, figures he's also on the right track as a result.
"This year, I feel like the game has slowed down for me," said Diehl, who's hitting .296 with a team-high three homers.
Diehl and some of his teammates had another kind of a flashback recently when a road series against Burlington resulted in games at alternate sites with only a few dozen spectators.
"Everyone did their best to get up for the games," Diehl said, noting the atmosphere seemed like a Spring Training outing. "Games in extended [spring training] don't count. These games count."
All of Diehl's games have come with Kingsport, since he signed too late in 2011 to land on a roster that season. Flexen, a 14th-round pick in 2012, bypassed a scholarship to Arizona State to start his professional pursuits.
"My dream is to be a Major League player," said Flexen, a 19-year-old right-hander. "I thought the route I took would be the best for me.
"If we did have a GCL team, that's where I would've been, and this would've been my Kingsport year anyway," Flexen said. "This extended [spring training] with all the pitching coaches, we hammered out some mechanical tweaks."
Leger said Flexen, who threw a seven-inning, four-hit shutout with nine strikeouts July 15 against the Royals, has developed a makeup that's conducive to his continued development.
"He comes to the park -- it's his work ethic," Leger said. "It's a good competitive side."
Home on the road: The Royals were displaced from Burlington Athletic Stadium because a saturated outfield that caused a suspended game and three straight postponements. So they played one game at Wake Forest Baseball Park in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a doubleheader at USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C., Kingsport won all three games. The Royals are scheduled to start a six-game homestand July 20.
Him again: Elizabethton Twins right-hander Tim Shibuya leads the Appalachian League with three victories, all in relief. In 2011, he finished the season with a league-leading eight victories as a starter for Elizabethton
Back in the swing: After becoming an 11th-round pick in 2010 and making his professional debut, first baseman Travis Flores missed the next two seasons because of off-field issues. He's back this year, playing for the Princeton Rays and sharing the league lead with four home runs. "It's been good [being back]," said Flores, looking to break out of a 2-for-31 slump. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."