There were just five games left in the regular season but, instead of packing their bags and looking ahead to the pending offseason, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers were packing in a busy day of workouts. Less than 90 minutes before first pitch of their game against Beloit there was a full house in Jeff Paxson's training room, a group lifting weights in strength and conditioning specialist Connor McCarthy's weight room and a group taking extra swings in the batting cage.
Wisconsin catcher Payton Henry was among the latter group despite having had arguably the longest season of any Timber Rattlers player. Henry caught 93 games in his first Midwest League season, crouching behind the plate for over 800 innings of balls in the dirt, foul tips and snap throws to second base.
"I feel like my body's held up really well, and I'm happy with that," Henry said. "I'm just trying to battle through the ups and downs and ride the waves as much as I can, keep doing the best I can every day, whether that's defensively or offensively. Just trying to keep myself in the loop and keep going."
Pitcher Michael Petersen has also been a member of the Timber Rattlers throughout the 2018 season and also absorbed a heavy workload: His 67 2/3 innings pitched were tied for the sixth most in the Midwest League among full time relievers. He said his biggest source of pride from the season has been staying healthy.
"This has been a long season, and it's tough," Petersen said. "It's tough on your body. You start in the freezing cold and it takes you a while to get warm, then it warms up and it's drinking water to make sure that your legs aren't cramping, and then it gets cold again and you're over here trying to bundle up. Just trying to do all that is really tough."
It's also been a long season for members of the 2018 draft class, many of whom started playing games in February. One of them is 18th round pick Scott Sunitsch, whose career took a big step forward down the stretch with Wisconsin: He started four games in the season's final weeks and allowed just four runs over 21 innings for a 1.71 ERA.
"The biggest thing I'm proud of is the strides I've made in getting to this spot, proving that I can start, because this is my first year starting," Sunitsch said. "I know they weren't sure if I was going to be a starter or a reliever, but I've made it this far starting, so I'm going to stick with it."
For the stretch run Sunitsch joined fellow 2018 draft pick Aaron Ashby in the rotation. Like Sunitsch, Ashby also made a good impression in his Midwest League debut: He posted a 2.17 ERA in seven starts for Wisconsin and struck out 47 opposing batters in 37 1/3 innings. He downplayed his success when asked for his proudest accomplishment, however.
"(I'm proud of) meeting a lot of new people and becoming friends with all these guys," Ashby said. "That's been one of the coolest things for me. I had a pretty good season or whatever, maybe, but that was the main thing, meeting all these guys and becoming close with all the guys here."
For all four players, 2018 was their first taste of full season baseball. Peterson acknowledged that the mental adjustment to a full professional season was challenging.
"It's definitely difficult. When you're playing shorter seasons, going back to college and high school, you could get fired up for every game. You could put in your music, you could do all your stuff to be head-banging-against-the-wall fired up. This season you can't physically do it, your heart would explode. So it was figuring out, 'hey, these are the days to be fired up, these are the days to relax,'" Peterson said.
Henry, however, said he was happy with how last winter's work prepared him for a long year in 2018.
"I thought I did a really good job of keeping my body up to par for the everyday grind of the full season. I think it's held up well," Henry said. "But I think my preparation has been second-to-none, and I think that's what's kept me playing for the whole season. That's a tribute to everyone here that's helped me do that: the coaches and training and medical staff and all that. So yeah, I don't think I'll take anything different, but there's always something to work on and something to get better at, so we're always putting in time and putting in work to get better."
Their 2018 regular seasons came to an end on Monday but Henry, Petersen, Ashby and Sunitsch won't be off for long: They all have fall assignments upcoming. There's a short window between the end of the regular season and the start of Instructional League in mid-September, and Sunitsch said he plans to spend that time doing some fishing and recovering his car.
"I left my car in Helena back when I was with the Helena Brewers, so me and my dad are going to go drive out there and make a fishing trip out of it, so that should be fun," Sunitsch said. "Home is in Seattle, so it's only a ten-hour drive. But it'll be fun. We'll get to bring the fly rods and we might even bring the rafts, so we'll see."
For most of the Rattlers, the brief break between the end of the season and the start of their next assignment is a welcome chance to relax and catch up with loved ones.
"Just spending time with family, that's what most of us want to do," Henry said. "So I'll go back home to Utah, hang out with my parents and my siblings and my family members there, and just kind of get to spend time with them for a while. That'll be really nice because we don't get to see our family a lot while we're out here. So I'm looking forward to that, and I'm looking forward to getting after it once I give myself a little while off, and get back going with baseball and regular offseason training."
Henry's break will also give some of his bumps and bruises an opportunity to heal. He's has been hit with baseballs in nearly every possible way in 2018: foul tips and balls in the dirt while catching, thrown baseballs while running the bases and pitched balls as a hitter, including one that led to a Wisconsin walkoff win on August 31. He said, however, that he's not looking forward to taking time off from blocking pitches.
"No, that's fun. I enjoy that," Henry said. "That's one of the pride factors of being a catcher is being able to pick up your pitcher and be able to block for him. That's one of the things I like doing. I do like that, and you get used to the bumps and bruises of it. That's our job. I'll miss that, probably, the most."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.