The final grinding weeks of the Minor League season tend to be a bit better for teams who find themselves competing for a playoff spot. At least that seems to be the case for the Round Rock Express, who were an upbeat bunch when they recently came to Albuquerque and took two of three from the Isotopes.
For corner infielder/outfielder Taylor Jones, playing for the American Southern Division title is keeping things fun down the stretch.
"We're competitive in nature," he said. "There's not actually a [difference in] what we have to do every day in preparing. There's little situational things you're probably doing a lot different when you're trying to contend for a playoff spot. Obviously, Houston is always in the back of everyone's mind. It doesn't take away from your routine or your approach."
It certainly has not stymied the former 19th-round pick (2016) out of Gonzaga. Jones has worked his way to prospect status, checking in at No. 28 in the Astros system. The 6-foot-7 Jones has hit .288/.389/.505 with 20 home runs and 74 RBIs for the Express this season, and he's added the other corner spots to his resume along with his natural position of first base.
Video: Jones crushes second homer of game for Express
"They've done a good job of trying to get value, expanding value out of guys," he said. "For me, whether it's playing outfield, or now I'm playing third base a little bit more, whatever they need that's a fit for me at the next level, to help the team out there, I'm in for it. It's bringing value to yourself, too. It's for Houston, but it can also be for the other teams out there. Transactions happen."
Jones is hardly the only prospect trying something new. Teammate Kyle Tucker, Houston's No. 1 prospect, is getting a look at first base in addition to the outfield.
"For him at first, move your feet, and just be aware," Jones said. "He's got it. He's played a few games over there -- he knows what he's doing."
Jones said he and his teammates, many of whom have risen up the ranks together, are a competitive bunch who have still maintained camaraderie.
2019 MiLB include
"Obviously, there's a good group of guys who've been playing with each other throughout the system," he said. "It's good to have guys that are in similar situations to you. You're pushing each other. You know what to expect. It makes for a good clubhouse."
That includes keeping things grounded in a league where it seems like every player is morphing into a homer-hitting titan.
"You don't want to change your approach too much at the plate just because you're playing at a higher elevation or the ball is flying a bit different," Jones said. "You see those trips on the schedule and you get excited at those places where the ball is flying a little bit. You want to make the most of it, for sure. I think guys are trying to stick to the approach they have and a lot of guys have been swinging it well."
It also means being nice to your own pitchers, many of whom are seeing their ERAs go up in flames.
"I kind of feel for the pitchers a little bit, especially when you're playing in places like El Paso," Jones said. "You can tell there's a lot of difference between playing in El Paso or at Round Rock. They have to grind a little bit extra."
Good timing: San Antonio is the club chasing Round Rock, and a red-hot August for one player is helping to keep the Missions within striking distance. No. 15 Brewers prospect Lucas Erceg has hit .340/.365/.500 with five doubles, one home run and eight RBIs in 14 games this month.
Catching fire: The tightest division race is between El Paso and Las Vegas, and a couple of catching prospects could play key roles. No. 11 Padres prospect Austin Allen has hit .382/.407/.727 with four home runs and 16 RBIs in 13 August games for the Chihuahuas, while the Aviators are hoping that No. 3 Athletics prospect Sean Murphy can return from his rehab assignment and continue to tear the cover off the ball like he did in four games in July, where he went 8-for-15 with six home runs and 13 RBIs.
Awards races: The PCL MVP race turned into a runaway for El Paso's Ty France, who hit .399/.477/.770 with 27 home runs and 89 RBI before he was recently recalled by the Padres. Pitcher of the Year will not be as easy of a choice, as Iowa's Colin Rea (12-3, 3.50 ERA) and Memphis' Jake Woodford (8-7, 3.96) are pushing to overtake New Orleans' Hector Noesi (11-4, 3.82, 133 Ks in 125 IP), who is now up with the Marlins.