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Frosty Microbrews: Rattlers wrap up a long season at Instructional League

October 19, 2016

It's been almost a month and a half since the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers played their final game of the 2016 season on September 8. For many members of this year's team, however, the season didn't actually end until Friday.

Each year the Milwaukee Brewers invite many of the organization's youngest players and recent draft picks to take part in their fall Instructional League camp following the minor league regular season. There they spend a few weeks playing games against other teams of minor leaguers, Korea's SK Wyverns and the Chinese National Team.

"I have no problem saying that I think this is the best group we've had in the eight years that I've been involved as a minor league coach," Timber Rattlers manager Matt Erickson said. "A good mix of talent, athleticism and some character guys with some baseball feel. I'm excited about what's to come here, and if we can put a few of those drafts together this could happen quicker than later."

Statistics and game results aren't closely tracked or published for Instructional League games. As such, players and coaches are free to focus on the process of getting better and, in many cases, try something new. One of the players trying out a new role this fall was 2016 Timber Rattlers third baseman Lucas Erceg, who received the opportunity to get into some games at shortstop.

"I played shortstop in high school and, coming into instructs, a couple of my coaches told me that they're going to try me out at short just to see how I do out there," Erceg said. "I'm pretty sure it's just experimental, but if I get some innings in at short this next season then I'll play hard just like I do at third."

Erickson said he was surprised by how well Erceg handled the new position.

"It didn't look awkward, it looked pretty natural to him," Erickson said. "And I think that was big for him, to prove to everybody that if needed he's able to play the position. Plenty of arm strength over there. I think he projects as a third baseman and I think that's where we want him to be, but he showed that there's some value in his versatility if we need to move him for any reason."

2016 Timber Rattlers infielder Jake Gatewood is no stranger to positional changes, having played shortstop for the 2015 Rattlers before moving to third to open the 2016 season, then later moving again to first. He described his comfort level at first base as "still a work in progress."

"I think it's going to take me a little bit to get first, just because I've never played the left side of the infield before," Gatewood said. "Third base is a little easier because going from short to third, it's still on the same side of the field. It's always going to be something I'm going to have to get used to."

In addition to first and third base, Gatewood also saw some time in left field this fall. It was the first time he's received any significant playing time in the outfield as a professional.

"It's a little different," Gatewood said. "It's actually a lot different, especially out here with the "high sky" as they call it. But it's been fun. Everything's new, so it's been fun trying to learn all the new positions."

Erickson cited one of the National League's budding young stars as a template for expanding Gatewood's positional flexibility.

"It's the Kris Bryant factor with him: Put him on the corners, first base, third base, left field, right field," Erickson said.

Pitcher Conor Harber was also invited to fall camp, and given an opportunity to work on some mechanical tweaks that could help him in 2017.

"Just working on my delivery and making sure I'm going in the right direction, towards home plate, and not falling off the mound. Just little stuff like that," Harber said.

Harber is one of many players wrapping up a long season, having been with a team for all but a few days since reporting to spring training in March. He took a moment to reflect on what he's learned this year.

"Working on my mental game has been probably the biggest thing," Harber said. "Not worrying about baserunners and, when you get in jams, relaxing a little bit, taking a deep breath and working through it."

Instructional League is a very different environment from the regular season, with games typically played in front of a handful of scouts and the occasional fan. Erickson said success in that environment requires players to be able to motivate themselves.

"It's still competition but nobody really knows aside from yourself and the people who are here," Erickson said. "The results are not publicized. So I think the work and the process are very important, and that's obviously relayed. You can work on specific things, maybe specific weaknesses with the individuals here because the numbers are down. And with that being said, that's one of the reasons I think we've had a really good camp. The competition level is good and the self-motivation has been impressive for these young people. Very few times did we have to kick them in the rear end to get them to kickstart themselves. They were ready to go, there was some energy, and we performed well on the field."

Erickson worked two stints with the Instructional League Brewers this fall, taking a hiatus in the middle of their campaign to spend some time with the major league Brewers during their road trips to Texas and Colorado in September.

"It's been a lot of travel, airplane flights, got to see some parts of the country, but it was a great experience in Milwaukee and we got to go down to Texas. Not many people have caught a touchdown pass at AT&T Stadium and then gone over and thrown batting practice at The Ballpark In Arlington (now known as Globe Life Park) in the same day, and I got a chance to do that," Erickson said. "Then we went to Colorado, a great ballpark there. And the young Brewers were still playing hard at the end of the year. So it was fun to be a part of that and continue discussions with big league coaches and see how it's run at that level. That experience is truly invaluable."

Meanwhile, this was Gatewood's third Instructional League season. He said it gets easier with experience.

"We've actually had a lot of changes with everything that's happened the last couple of years, but every year when you come back you're more comfortable with all the coaches and the players and some of that," Gatewood said. "And then getting to see the new players and stuff is always a lot of fun. Getting to know them every year is fun too. So I think instructs is awesome, for all of us to get to come, and it's been a blast here so far."

On the other end of the spectrum, as a 2016 draft pick Erceg was experiencing fall camp for the first time.

"I love it. Just being able to go out and play every day just like the season. Getting up early and starting the day early is awesome, you get a lot of work in and get very tired. But all in all it's been a great experience so far."

For everyone involved, however, the opportunity to go home and take a break from baseball for a bit is a welcome development. Harber was quickly able to list off some of the things he's looking forward to.

"Just being able to relax and put my feet up and enjoy some non-baseball related stuff. Hanging out with the family, and doing some of my hobbies. Stuff like that," Harber said. "I'm a big outdoorsman, so I'll be going back and doing some hunting and fishing and hanging out with my buddies."

Erickson also found himself missing home and ready for a break at the end of camp.

I love the game and I love what I do. I like to teach. The players make it fun, some a little bit more than others. But I'm ready to be done for a while," Erickson said. "I think most people at this time are ready to watch the few teams left in the big leagues in the postseason, that's still really fun to watch. But I'm ready to be done with baseball for a little bit, get back home, spend some time with my family. That will be enjoyed. I haven't been home in a while."