September callups to the major leagues create an interesting set of opportunities for fans and coaches to get to know players who may play a big part in the future of their organization. Sometimes they also create a second layer of chances for players to experience a new level in the minors for the first time.
The latter happened this year with the playoff-bound Colorado Springs Sky Sox, the Brewers' AAA affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. For their 2017 playoff run four former Timber Rattlers were called up to that level for the first time: Outfielders Troy Stokes Jr. (who played for the Rattlers in 2016) and Johnny Davis (2014) and infielders Jake Gatewood (2015-16) and Lucas Erceg (2016). Stokes, Davis and Gatewood all finished the regular season with AA Biloxi, while Erceg was called all the way up from High-A Carolina.
Brewers Farm Director Tom Flanagan said Colorado Springs' needs combined with the four players' performance to make them candidates to make the late jump up the ladder.
"What made it a bit more complicated was the fact that Biloxi was in the playoff hunt right to the end of their season," Flanagan said in an email. "So with Gatewood, Davis and Stokes being key members of the Shuckers playoff push, and we had to look to Carolina, and Erceg, to initially fill the role for the Sky Sox. But each of them were worthy of the opportunity to go to Colorado Springs for the playoffs."
Biloxi ended up missing the postseason but was in the race down to the season's final games, so a decision on who would join the Sky Sox's postseason roster wasn't finalized until the final day.
"I found out pretty much before the last game in Mobile," Stokes said. "Mikey (Biloxi manager Mike Guerrero) called me into the office and pretty much told me, 'Hey, Colorado might need an extra outfielder. Right now it's like a 50/50 chance that you'll go.' He was still waiting for Tom to make a decision. But he let me know before the game to keep me locked in, so when the game was over I wouldn't pack it in, I'd stay focused and stay locked in. So that's when I had an idea. And then after the game Mikey came in and talked to the team about the last game, normal manager stuff at the end of the season, and then said, 'We have three people going up.' It was me, Jake and Johnny going up to help them out in the playoffs. So that was pretty cool."
Three of the four former Rattlers called up to the Sky Sox saw significant action in their five-game series with Memphis: Davis played in all five games, collected seven hits and scored five runs. Erceg came off the bench in four of the five games in the series, getting a hit and scoring a run in the third game. Stokes played in two games and had a big night in a wild Game 5, going 2-for-3 with a double and a triple and scoring twice in a game Colorado Springs lost 13-10.
That offensive environment was a new experience for Stokes and the others advancing to the AAA level for the first time: The AA Southern League is a very pitcher-friendly environment, with teams averaging just under four runs per game. The Pacific Coast League, on the other hand, averaged 5.05 runs per game as a league in 2017. The Sky Sox were almost a full run above that mark at 5.97.
"It's definitely different," Stokes said. "My ABs there in Colorado, because the air's so thin, my first AB the guy threw me a changeup, then he threw me a slider that I thought was a changeup because it didn't really move. Then he threw me another changeup. And I remember after the game I was talking about it and the pitchers were like, 'yeah, in Colorado it's so hard to pitch' because none of their breaking balls are sharp. They don't get that extra bite on anything. It kind of just spins or slides out, kind of. I guess it's the thin air, that's what they said, but it is true that when you're facing guys and their breaking balls, nothing is as sharp. And it's AAA pitchers, everybody's stuff is pretty good. But for some reason it's weird."
Flanagan stressed that while hitting in the Pacific Coast League is certainly different, the hitters' approaches should not be.
"The offensive environments are certainly much different, but there isn't much that needs to be done to adjust their games," Flanagan said. "Simply letting the park factors take their effects usually is all that occurs. Their overall preparation at Biloxi, and their approach to their AB's and their routines really doesn't change. From a conditioning standpoint, we do stress to the guys the importance of dealing with the altitude in terms of hydration, rest, etc, just to ensure that their bodies recover well."
Stokes, Gatewood and Erceg all experienced minor league postseason baseball with the Timber Rattlers in 2014. Stokes said the AAA travel schedule and atmosphere, however, are both a little different.
"In AAA you fly everywhere you go, pretty much. Because it was my first time I really didn't know but you kind of have to balance how you sleep, because every flight when you travel is in the morning, at least that's what I heard. It's in the morning and it's going to be early. So that's a little bit different than in Wisconsin when we bused," Stokes said.
"In terms of the teams from Wisconsin and Colorado (Springs), Colorado is AAA, a bunch of older guys, guys with big league time. You can definitely tell they're more mature about things," Stokes said. "And just watching them how they approach the game, how they handle their business, staying locked in and stuff during the game and not messing around while the game is going on. They would talk and stuff and joke around in between innings and stuff but once our pitcher starts pitching everyone's locked in and just trying to pay attention and find stuff out."
Flanagan said he was pleased with Stokes and the other callups' performances at the AAA level.
"It was a very small sample size, but everyone that went up to Colorado Springs represented themselves very well. The most important part was simply getting some work in, and being around the playoff atmosphere," Flanagan said.
For his part, Stokes said the experience gained from his brief stint in the Pacific Coast League will help him going forward.
"Just playing with those guys, I hadn't played with anybody on that team yet. I approach the game pretty serious too, but I'm still just learning how guys that have been in the show, how they approach things. So I feel like it definitely gives me a leg up, experiencing that. Having been at every level now except for the big leagues and comparing it, that gives me a leg up, I think," Stokes said.
Flanagan also stressed the potential long-term benefits of getting players exposure to postseason play.
"Anytime you can get young players around the playoff atmosphere it has benefits," Flanagan said. "Each of the players realizes they have a lot of work to do to reach their goals of playing in the big leagues. But each of them put themselves in position to earn this experience, and it should be definitely help them as they move forward."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.