GRAND JUNCTION, COLO. -- San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic is known as "The Cradle of Shortstops", but it is a 19-year-old outfielder in the Rockies system named Raimel Tapia, who hails from the region, that has scouts and his coaches turning their heads in his first season at Rookie-level Grand Junction.
Tapia has grabbed some headlines recently for breaking a hit record set by first round draft pick David Dahl, tallying a hit in 29 consecutive games and currently sitting with an impressive slash line of .365/.397/.539, good for a .963 OPS with four triples and three home runs. In his last 10 games he has 11 hits, four walks, three stolen bases and only three strikeouts.
"He loves the mano y mano aspect of hitting," says Developmental Supervisor Tony Diaz. "(Tapia) is the purest hitter on the team." A team that, of course, includes the very talented and highly-polished Ryan McMahon, which puts some perspective into the level of praise given by Diaz.
I spoke to Raimel on the field after a game in which he slapped a beautiful opposite-field double (extending his streak to 25 games) just inside the left field foul line with the kind of slice on the ball that makes you want to frame it and put in a museum. Our translator was hard-throwing relief pitcher Carlos Estevez, who also strikes me as a likely candidate for team goofball. Carlos is a great guy to talk to and made the entire interview a lot of fun.
"When I get in the box," said Tapia (through Estevez), "I'm thinking 'this guy can't beat me.'"
I asked him what it would feel like if he broke David Dahl's hitting streak record. "It would mean a lot," he replied, "I want people to say, 'hey that's Tapia, the guy with the hit record!"
Tapia, of course, went on to break Dahl's streak, reaching 29 games before going without a hit on Aug. 2 in Orem. Losing the streak was no big deal to Tapia, and he used that same approach to keep it going to the impressive number on which it stopped.
"I didn't feel any pressure," Tapia told Bryan Kilpatrick -- through the same translator (Estevez) -- the day after the streak ended. "I felt good and thank God because of it," Tapia added.
"I just tried to hit the ball well every at-bat, and wasn't thinking about the streak."
I asked about a curious mechanic I noticed where he occasionally goes into an exaggerated crouch when hitting. As I asked the question I began to mimic what I was talking about and he immediately busted up with a hearty laugh, knowing before translation exactly what the question would be.
"I do that for two-strike counts sometimes, or to approach a pitcher with a good breaking ball. I am always studying the pitcher. Always looking for more." Both Diaz and Tapia agree that if the young outfielder has a flaw, it's the tendency to be overly aggressive in multiple facets of the game.
Tapia has drawn just seven walks in 183 plate appearances this season. He knows that number needs to increase.
"The organization hasn't said anything about my lack of walks, but I know I have to take more," Tapia said. "I just feel like I should swing when every pitch I see is right where I can hit it."
The over-aggressiveness at the plate sometimes carries out into the field. "I need to work on not overthrowing the cutoff man, hitting him right in the chest," Tapia remarked.
I mentioned to Diaz that I couldn't tell without a stopwatch how fast Tapia actually was but that he looked like he could run pretty well. "He doesn't have blazing speed," he says, "but he runs the bases well and has smart speed. And he gets really good jumps in the outfield and has a plus arm." Again, that's when Tapia isn't being overly aggressive. Still a plus, though.
Another point of the conversation that had the three of us sharing a laugh revolved around a source that told me that Raimel is the most hazed member of the team. "I heard they like to play pranks on you," I said. He laughed and nodded in agreement. "That's all a part of being a team. It's all fun. This is a great team."
A young man from one of the poorest regions in the Dominican Republic named Raimel Tapia now owns a hit streak record for my hometown Grand Junction Rockies. Even with the language barrier, his personality and joy for the game shine through every element of his play and each moment of his conversation. His ballpark-wide smile needs no translation. He is a constant reminder that baseball is a kid's game. And, one that is played the same regardless of location.
"It's the same baseball, especially when I see the Latin players I played with in the Dominican Summer League, said Tapia. "I know them so well; I know they're going to come with their fastball because they know they have good arms so that's what they like to throw. I can hit it."
"Some of the American players are better than what I saw (in the DSL), but I just try to get better everyday," Tapia added.
Though he's still a long way from contending for a spot on a major league roster, Raimel plays with the kind of spark that the big league players in the Rockies organization so desperately need right now. His attitude and style play out like a cross between Juan Pierre and Dexter Fowler, and if it turns out he can hit like those guys, or maybe even better, the Rockies may have a real gem.
His infectious energy and bold confidence prompted Tony Diaz and I to agree that it is sometimes a good thing that, in Diaz's words:
"At times, he thinks he is Superman."