Ryan Fitzgerald has a knack for gobbling up anything hit his way at shortstop, whether it's a routine ground ball or a scalding line drive. At Fenwick High School outside of Chicago, Creighton University and in his first two seasons as a Red Sox farmhand, that facet of his game has always been his strong suit.
Hitting? Not so much as an amateur.
"I never really learned how to hit until after college," the Class A Advanced Salem infielder admitted. "I really had no idea how to go about it. Obviously, [I'm] still learning, but defense has always been first for me."
Fitzgerald has revamped his swing since joining the Red Sox organization, and the results are steadily showing for the Carolina League end-of-season All-Star. He ranks sixth in the league with 62 RBIs, seventh in hits and 12th in batting average as his hitting production has begun to mirror his defensive prowess.
"For me, the main thing is working from the ground up," he said. "If I get off my perfect swing, it's working hips, torso, arms and then hands, in that sequence."
Fitzgerald has boasted two quality seasons with the Red Sox organization following a one-year stint of independent baseball. He hit .274 with eight home runs and 38 RBIs over 80 games last season with Class A Greenville, and has increased his extra-base hit total this season to 32, with 23 doubles, seven triples and two homers. He's also amassed 62 RBIs and a .273 average.
The increased production came from his work with Salem hitting coach Lance Zawadzki; Devin De Young, an assistant with Greenville; and Justin Stone, a biokinematic hitting consultant for the Chicago Cubs and founder of Elite Baseball Training in Chicago.
All of Fitzgerald's efforts have focused on using his lower body instead of his hands to generate power. Unlike bashers who try to level their swings to prevent their strikeout numbers from increasing, Fitzgerald is working specifically on producing more fly balls and line drives.
He said he was a slap hitter in college -- with a career .253 average with six homers in four seasons at Creighton -- and his primary focus then was to hit balls the other way.
"It really didn't help me much, didn't help get me far," Fitzgerald said. "Production is more so in the air than it is on the ground. That's what they pay you for, to hit doubles and home runs. Line drives will always be key."
Zawadzki and De Young have worked with Fitzgerald during Spring Training and over the course of the last two seasons, while Stone has helped Fitzgerald refine his new swing during the offseason.
Stone's facility allows hitters to utilize sensors in the batting cage to review their swings and see what subtle changes can be made to make the swing more productive.
"The biggest changes I made were working more with my lower half rather than swinging with my hands and being a handsy hitter," he said. "I kind of changed my style into being a lower-half, hitting-from-the-ground-up kind of hitter."
The results of Fitzgerald's work have shown in his production hitting at the top of Salem's lineup. He boasts a .279 batting average with 27 of his 32 extra-base hits coming out of the second or third spot in the lineup, a sign that he is beginning to figure out hitting on a consistent basis.
He has been a major contributor for the Red Sox as they currently chase down the second playoff spot in the Carolina League's Northern Division.2019 MiLB include
"I think consistency is key, obviously for any player, to prove that you can consistently show up every day and show the team that you know what you're going to get every day," Fitzgerald said. "I think that's big, especially as you go forward and start making a name for yourself, what the coaches are going to expect of you and what you're going to give them each day. I think consistency throughout a long season helps advancing, going through the levels, because you prove that you can play in a 140-, 162-game season."
Nothing earned: The Potomac pitching staff is doing its best to keep the Nationals within striking distance of Salem for the Northern Division's second postseason spot. The staff has not allowed an earned run in three straight games through Monday's victory over Myrtle Beach, and the starting pitchers have thrown 20 consecutive innings without allowing a run. Carson Teel opened the stretch with seven shutout innings against Winston-Salem, and No. 24 prospect Jackson Tetreault followed with six shutout frames to close the series against the Dash. Tim Cate, the No. 6 prospect in the Washington Nationals organization, spun seven scoreless innings against the Pelicans for his fifth straight quality outing.
Late-season ace: Fayetteville right-hander Luis Garcia won his first three starts after being promoted from Class A Quad Cities and sported a miniscule 0.98 ERA. But he ran into trouble during July and lost four straight decisions and had his ERA balloon to 4.19. Instead of buckling, the 22-year-old Venezuelan is rounding back into form. Garcia has won three straight decisions, capped by his five no-hit innings Monday night against Carolina. He has allowed three earned runs on eight hits over 21 innings in his last four starts.
Nail-biting finishes: Northern Division first-half champion Wilmington and Lynchburg have met 14 times this season through Monday and the Blue Rocks have won 10 times. However, not all of those contests have been blowouts. Ten of the games have been decided by two runs or fewer, including Monday night's game in Lynchburg. The Hillcats used a trio of sacrifice flies to win, 3-1, ending Wilmington's six-game winning streak over Lynchburg. Five of those six victories were by two runs or fewer.