It's been around six months since the first members of the 2018 Wisconsin Timber Rattlers began reporting to spring training at Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix. While the Timber Rattlers have learned a lot over that time, they're also feeling the wear and tear from the grind of a Midwest League season.
"Towards the end of the season when you've got 120-some games in already, you're playing usually not at one hundred percent, but at the same time you've had the experience of a full season, so you're a better baseball player between the ears right now than when they started in April. Hopefully they can build off those experiences and use it in the last couple of weeks of the season," Timber Rattlers manager Matt Erickson said.
Entering play on Thursday pitcher Dylan File was second on the Rattlers and 13th in the Midwest League with 118 2/3 innings pitched this season. When asked about the differences in his game between now and the start of the season, he noted the difference in how he's feeling.
"The biggest difference is probably that my body's not all there, so it's a lot harder to get the ball in the zone and keep it in the zone and keep it down in the zone," File said. "I'd say from the beginning of the season to now my pitches have gotten a little sharper, so I'd just say my body not always being 100% is probably the biggest difference."
As of Thursday 15 players who opened the season with the Rattlers on April 5 are still with the team: File is one of them along with pitchers Gabe Friese, Matt Hardy, Nelson Hernandez, Carlos Herrera, Robbie Hitt and Michael Petersen, catchers Brent Diaz, KJ Harrison and Payton Henry, infielders Gabriel Garcia and Gilbert Lara and outfielders Zach Clark, Jay Feliciano and Tristen Lutz.
It's been an especially long season for Harrison, who batted just .166 with a .301 slugging percentage in his first 48 games. In the next 60 games, however, he hit .264 and slugged .445 to get hit season back on track.
"For me it's all mental," Harrison said. "You've got to stick to the approach. You know it's going to be what it is, but that's what we do. We're baseball players. The season is that long, and you want to play into October for the playoffs as well. That's what you work for offseason. So once you're here you've just got to stay mentally strong and physically in shape, which we have done the whole season."
Harrison said he's proud of the way he was able to rebound following a difficult start to the season.
"I think the biggest thing is to keep your head up," Harrison said. "I started very slow in the first half. I was trying to find myself and things like that, but to come from where I was at the beginning of the season to now, I'm very proud of myself. I kept my head high. I'm taking that with me into next season. When things don't go your way for any reason, just get out of it as quickly as you can and know that it's a long year and you've got a lot more AB's to go."
For most members of the Timber Rattlers the 2018 season will be easily the longest of their lives to this point. Gabriel Garcia credited the coaching and training staffs for helping him prepare for a long grind.
"I kind of had an understanding, what to expect and what was going to happen. The biggest thing our trainers and coaches say a lot is just 'stay healthy.' Eat right, get through your routine, do everything you need to do to stay on the field."
Garcia noted the importance of nutrition in helping a player survive and thrive through a long season. The Milwaukee Brewers organization has made a significant investment in recent years to ensure minor league players have access to healthy, appetizing meals.
"You've gotta eat right, I think that's one of the biggest things you can do," Garcia said. "Obviously keeping your body healthy, stay away from injuries. But even if your body doesn't feel 100%, you still go out there and give everything you've got that day. We're humans, we're not going to feel 100% every day, but as long as we're giving 100% every day, that's what we should be doing. Not trying to do too much, not trying to overdo things, just keep it simple and go about your business every day."
Erickson said helping guide his players through a long season is "an everyday job" for him and his coaching staff, but noted that the onus shifts onto the players to know their bodies and continue to give all they can late in the year.
"Now it's on them," Erickson said. "The definition of a 'grinder' for me is somebody that understands what their body is, understands that it may not be 100% but doesn't use that as an excuse for effort and attitude. It's our job to go out there, each and every guy in the clubhouse, and give everything they have, whatever that is that particular day. If we can do that collectively, we'll have a shot to continue to play some good baseball games."
Timber Rattlers hitting coach Hainley Statia also said that at this point in the season he's counting on players to understand their own needs and manage their own daily workloads.
"They know what they need to do now. You just don't overdo anything. If they tell you they're good, they're good. You just trust them that by this time they know their strengths, they know what they need to do before a game. So there's no extra work, none of that stuff," Statia said.
Despite the challenges that come with a long season, the Timber Rattlers have experienced some success down the stretch. Wednesday's win improved their record to 14-9 in the month of August and 30-29 in the second half. Nine of their games in August have been decided by one run, and they're 8-1 in those contests.
"We've done a really nice job here, especially here in August, of finishing games, and competing late and finding ways to win," Erickson said.
That success has left the Timber Rattlers in position to make a late charge for a postseason berth. Entering play Thursday they were 3.5 games back of Quad Cities for the Western Division Wild Card with 12 games left to play.
"We're all working for it and that's our main goal at the end of the season," Harrison said of a potential playoff spot. "We're trying to play good baseball here in the games we have left."
In the meantime, Garcia has another upcoming event to look forward to: He'll be featured on the Timber Rattlers' eleventh and final bobblehead of the 2018 season as part of Hispanic Heritage Day on August 30. Garcia, a native of Puerto Rico, said he's "definitely, one hundred percent, super excited" for that day.
"A couple of people back home want me to send them bobbleheads and stuff like that. A lot of people have reached out to say it's a big accomplishment. I don't think I'm there yet, it hasn't clicked that, 'woah, I've got a bobblehead,' but I'm pretty happy about it," Garcia said.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.