Hanging out at the batting cage at Slugger Field, a visitor is treated to a steady whack … whack … whack — the summer sound of wooden bats smacking horsehide-covered baseballs. Hitters practicing their art.
The pitch comes in … whack!
Then do it again. Get your swings in and step out for the next man. Then step back in again for more swings. Batting practice — universally known as BP — is a ritual for every team before every game of an endless summer.
It’s an ancient thing, dating from the mists of baseball time when old Abner Doubleday chucked in a few to the Mighty Casey, and the Mudville Nine, before the crowds arrived at the ballpark. To help the hitters get their timing down. Smooth out their swings.
And it comes right up to tonight when the Louisville Bats take their pre-game BP swings before handing the field over to the visiting Scranton Wilkes-Barre Rail Riders. Scranton is here through Thursday, followed by the Durham Bulls Friday through Sunday in the Bats current home stand.
It’s a promising new season for Louisville, which hasn’t posted a winning season since 2011 but came within a game of .500 last year. Weak hitting has been a negative hallmark for those clubs, but the Bats boast a raft of new hitters, signaling this might be the year the Bats’ bats begin to speak.
It’s a vibe you pick up at the batting cage in batting practice, where there seems to be more crack in the whacks.
Getting out the sticks
The batting cage is just what it sounds like, a portable wire cage shaped like a band shell, with the open side facing the field. The cage catches all the dubs and flubs and prevents fouls balls from plunking innocent bystanders. The batting practice pitcher (on this day, it’s bench coach Darryl Brinkley) throws from behind a wire shield, with a seemingly endless supply of baseballs.
Brinkley kind of aims his pitches in like a dart thrower aims darts toward a target. Sometimes he’ll throw to tough spots, like for a player wishing to work on pitches low and away, say. But mostly the BP pitcher’s job is to lay them in for the hitters to connect. Get their swing going. Get their timing down. Catch the ball on the sweet spot on the bat.
Alongside the cage, batting coach Jody Davis suggests some “situations” to Bats hitter Juan Perez. “Runners first and third,” chants Davis. “Easy RBIs, easy money.” And Perez, who is handy with the bat, cants his swing to match the situation.
Every once in a while, one of the whacks is a real WHACK! Outfielder Seth Mejias-Brean steps in and really creams one — a ball that comes in belt-high and goes out flaming. It’s a line drive that rockets over the left-field fence, good and gone. Everybody around the cage gives that a little “atta-boy” and watches to see how far the ball will sail.
Everybody, that is, except Mejias-Brean, who looks at his bat, checks his grip and acts like that one was nothing — and what he’s really thinking about is staying in the groove to see if he can cream another one.
Then Jesse Winker steps into the cage.
And there’s just a little difference. Winker is the team’s top hitter, finishing at .303 in 2016 and looking for more in ’17. Winker is a hot hitting prospect, and — if things go well — is likely to be called up to the majors sometime this summer by the Bats’ parent club, the Cincinnati Reds.
“I just expect to do my job — play hard, have fun — do what I always do,” says Winker, a lean, left-handed hitter. “We’ve got a great group of guys. I just come here to do my business and play hard. That’s how I go about the game.”
Of course, it’s the standard ball players’ lines. Straight out of the movie “Bull Durham.” But nobody minds Winker saying he’s just here to help the team because when he hits, it WILL help the team.
“I think Jesse Winker and a couple other guys are going to be very solid,” says Bats manager Delino DeShields. “Any time you repeat a level, you should be better, so I’m looking for big things from Jesse. Not to put any pressure on him — I just want him to continue to be a good hitter.”
In the cage, Winker taps a little liner over short. He gets around on the next pitch and the ball carries to the wall. Then he takes a pitch. Which is important.
Even in batting practice, Winker is selective with his swings. What he’ll swing at, and what he won’t. He’s trying to cut back on strikeouts. He struck out 59 times in 2017 (with 59 walks), which isn’t bad. But a hitter refines his hitting.
A few less strikeouts means a few more walks, a few more hits, more getting on base. He’s begun this year with four whiffs and six walks and is batting .323 after two weeks of play.
“When I get two strikes, I’m not a big fan of striking out,” says Winker. “Obviously it happens, that’s part of the game. But I feel my job as a hitter is to put the ball in play. If I’m going to make an out, I’m going to make it tough on the pitcher.”
Interestingly, Winker, who is already a trim guy at 6-feet-3, says he’s slenderized his frame, shedding maybe 10 pounds to get to 205. All he’s done, he says, is eat healthier food and lay off Mountain Dews and Dr. Peppers. Though there are exceptions. “I’ll still eat my pizza and wings during Buffalo Bills games,” the Buffalo native says with a grin.
An eye out for the first Kentucky Derby winner
DeShields cautiously sounds the bugle for other Bats batters.
He mentions Sebastian Elizalde, who hit .297 last year with the Reds’ AA club in Pensacola, Fla., and has come out of the gate hitting .429 this spring. He’s currently second in hitting in the International League.
“Sebastian Elizalde is a sleeper in our organization,” says DeShields. “He’s a kid that can really hit, and he seems to have a knack for driving in runs. He’s done it at every level.”
DeShields also likes the consistent hitting of second baseman Juan Perez. He mentions Bats starters Brandon Dixon and Tony Renda and is pleased with the fielding of shortstop Zach Vincej.
Fans will be interested in Phil Ervin, Cincinnati’s No. 1 draft choice in 2013, out of Samford College in Alabama. Ervin will see plenty of playing time in his first season at the AAA level. In just the few glimpses we’ve gotten, Ervin has shown some good swings but is often fooled by crafty AAA pitchers.
Ervin hit just .239 last year at Pensacola, with 13 home runs. He socked two home runs Sunday at Columbus.
“Phil’s batting average hasn’t been real high, but he’s done some other good things on the baseball field,” says DeShields. “I think a big thing for him at the plate is to open up the field some (hitting to all fields). He’s been kind of pull-heavy the last couple years. He has just enough power to get him in trouble sometimes.”
The prospect this scribe likes best hasn’t arrived in Louisville — yet. That’s Aristides Aquino, who begins 2017 at Pensacola. Aquino played here in a Reds vs. Bats exhibition game March 30 and put a charge into the ball. The 6-4, 220-pound outfielder has size, and speed, maybe, too. Plus you gotta love that first name, Aristides — the same as the first Kentucky Derby winner.
Catcher Chad Wallach is an interesting new Bats player. Taking swings in the batting cage, Wallach is kind of eager, and fidgety, probably trying to remember the 93 things he’s been told to when he steps to the plate. But he’s a big guy who looks like someday (after he perfects his catching, which is always Job One), he might relax and drive the ball a distance.
The Bats other catcher is Rob Brantly, a AAA veteran with big-league experience. We imagine Brantly as a good handler of pitchers — which Louisville will surely need.
We’ll catch up with the pitchers by and by. Right now, we’re looking, and listening, for the Bats’ bats to make some noise.