Modesto, Calif. -- A four-game sweep at the hands of the worst team in the California League isn't the ideal way to start off a week of baseball, but the Colorado Rockies' High-A affiliate recovered as much as they could the last seven days, winning a 15-inning marathon game on Tuesday, as well as a pitcher's duel on Thursday.
Even so, another 2-5 week puts the Nuts at 19-29 (.396), 11 games out of first place in the league's North Division and just 12 games from first-half elimination. The team has the league's third-worst offense, and they are struggling to score runs of late, but players aren't yet pressing about it. Even aside from the development-first aspects of minor league baseball, speaking with a few of the Nuts this week showed they understand the bigger picture of the long season as opposed to a few-week slump.
"The best thing about the minor league season is the two halves, and we’re not panicking, we're still loose," Nuts starting pitcher Ryan Castellani (No. 19 PuRP) said in the team's clubhouse on Thursday afternoon. "A lot of games, we will have just as many or more hits than the other team, and we just need that one hit. We are that close."
"We’re not bad, we are a good team as we proved last year [at Low-A Asheville], and we have the same core guys," the righty added after being handed the loss on Wednesday despite throwing well and receiving no run support. "Good pitching and timely hitting will win, and we're not far from that."
Yency Almonte, the beneficiary of one of the Nuts' two victories this week, pointed out how nice it is to be backed by a little run support and finally see some timely hitting push things in Modesto's favor.
"Pitching with the lead is probably the best thing for a starter, so that was great," Almonte said after his eight inning, five-hit performance against High Desert this week. "You can just go out there and make your pitches, whereas when you’re losing, it’s like, ‘oh, we’re not scoring right now, so it’s all on me."
A tough-luck one-run loss on Friday night—in which the Nuts got only four hits—dropped the team again to ten games below .500. But as Castellani noted, the league's second half will soon be upon Modesto. If this club is anything like last year's Asheville team, a fresh start in a few weeks may be just what the doctor ordered.
|May 21||@||Inland Empire||L, 4-5||May 28||vs||San Jose||8:05 pm|
|May 22||@||Inland Empire||L, 2-5||May 29||@||San Jose||2:00 pm|
|May 23||@||Inland Empire||L, 0-7||May 30||@||San Jose||3:00 pm|
|May 24||vs||High Desert||W, 5-4 (15)||May 31||--||OFF DAY||--|
|May 25||vs||High Desert||L, 0-3||June 1||@||High Desert||7:05 pm|
|May 26||vs||High Desert||W, 4-3||June 2||@||High Desert||7:05 pm|
|May 27||vs||San Jose||L, 1-2||June 3||@||High Desert||7:05 pm|
★ ★ ★
Spotlight on: RHP Parker French
Parker French, last year's fifth round draft pick, made quick work of Low-A Asheville in his first taste of full season professional baseball last month, needing just four starts (in which he went 2-1 with a 1.17 ERA) before being promoted to High-A Modesto. Drafted not even a full year ago, the righty from the University of Texas is all smiles after getting promoted thanks to early success in the South Atlantic League.
"Honestly, I just made a lot of pitches," French said of what got him promoted from the Tourists so quickly. "I played a game with myself there to see how many times I could execute at a high rate, and the results took care of themselves. It started with fastball command, moving it both sides of the plate, and then the second time through the order mixing in the slider and the changeup, I just got through lineups quick and well."
Now, French, 23, must adjust to the California League, and to hitters one level better than what he'd been preparing for all spring.
"It’s been a good learning experience already," French said on Wednesday in the Nuts clubhouse. "I'm just trying to be myself, and do what I do. Throw the ball low, throw the ball at the knees, work the changeup, that’s a big pitch at this level, and continue to get that work each and every start."
Now six starts into his Modesto career after Friday night's 2-1 loss to San Jose, French is 2-3 with a 2.45 ERA for the Nuts, logging 40.1 innings with 27 strikeouts and just nine walks. Of course, that's no comparison to the two (!) walks French allowed in nearly 50 innings last summer with rookie-level Grand Junction, but there's a reason for that.
"You’ve gotta work the corners more than just the middle third of the plate, because guys are gonna take more pitches here," French offered about the differences he's already seen in High-A. "They’re up there just swinging in rookie ball, and even in Asheville. Here, you’ve gotta make better pitches, throw better strikes. That might lead to a walk and there, but you’re just trying not to give up the extra base hit and the big damage."
On that same note, French is far from a big strikeout pitcher, which makes him a bit of an aberration in the Nuts' current rotation alongside the likes of power arms in Castellani, Almonte, Carlos Polanco, and Sam Howard. For French, then, that means learning another way to get guys out by pitching to contact—and with that, comes continued development of the changeup.
"I feel like I’ve made some strides with the changeup, and it’s become a lot better pitch, throwing it consistently for strikes," French said. "I think that’s part of the reason for my success early on here."
Another strong start (seven innings, and just two runs on five hits) on Friday night proves Parker French is in the right place to be at this point in his career.
★ ★ ★
Welcome to Modesto, Josh Fuentes
After tearing up the South Atlantic League the last several weeks, Josh Fuentes—a California native and, yes, Nolan Arenado's first cousin—has been promoted to the Modesto Nuts. The third baseman was with the team on Thursday but didn't officially enter a game until Friday night's contest against the San Jose Giants, when he went 0-for-3 in the team's loss.
Nevertheless, he's happy to have been promoted after he slashed .398/.442/.677 in Asheville this season, and he's excited about playing ball back in California.
"It's awesome, my family's gonna be there every step of the way. I'm gonna have at least 30, 40 family members every night, so I'm excited to play in front of them," Fuentes said on his first day in the Nuts' clubhouse on Thursday. "I'm kinda used to the California weather and I know a lot of guys on the team, and Freddy [Ocasio], he's a great manager."
But with the promotion will, of course, come an adjustment. Fuentes anticipates it being a bit tougher to hit in the California League than his nearly .400 batting average in Asheville over the last month.
"The pitching's definitely different and they spot it more, [I'm] just trying to be more consistent and just more focused," Fuentes conceded. "I know Modesto's kind of a pitcher's park, in Asheville, it was kind of, hit the balls in the air and it just flew."
"I can go opposite field with the best of them, in my own opinion," Fuentes added. "I struggle a little bit on the inside pitching. But it's my third year in pro ball, so [I'm] definitely working on it. I got some tools, but I got a long ways to go."
Above all, Fuentes seemed excited for the promotion, laughing and joking around with teammates during pre-game batting practice. He also had a long meeting with Ocasio about expectations and his role in Modesto going forward ahead of Thursday night's game against High Desert.
"It's good to know that you get rewarded for hard work," Fuentes said. "I work my butt off every day, whether I was playing or not. I started kind of slow in Asheville, but when I started to pick it up and people started noticing it, it felt good to be rewarded for my well-doings."
Oh, and that whole Arenado thing that Fuentes undoubtedly hears about time and again?
"That's been awesome, he always helps me out. If I have any troubles, I text him," Fuentes revealed. "He played [in Asheville], he played here, it's definitely something special that I'm following in his footsteps. And every spring training, I see him. He gives me bats, he gives me cleats. And the mental side of baseball, he really helps me out. It's been a blessing for sure."
It's not just Nolan that Josh is involved with, either; Arenado's younger brother (and Josh's other first cousin) Jonah is a prospect in the Giants' organization, and he's currently playing in—yep, you guessed it—High-A San Jose in the California League.
★ ★ ★
Yency Almonte's efficiency boom
One Nuts pitcher continuing to draw attention to himself after repeated good mound work is Yency Almonte. Of course, we've heard from the big Miami-born righty recently, but he has kept asserting himself after a very good eight-inning performance were he allowed just two earned runs and five hits on 91 pitches on Thursday. Considering his power profile, that pitch efficiency and desire to pitch to contact ought to be a good sign of maturity in the pitcher's approach.
"Yeah, pitching to contact was key, just trying to keep the ball down and get early contact all throughout the game," Almonte said Thursday night in the Nuts' clubhouse after the team's win. "Once I went into the eighth inning at 70 pitches, I’m like, well, we gotta go out, go get that eighth inning done, and then go for the ninth."
That complete game never happened, unfortunately, but it wasn't necessarily Yency's fault; a long at-bat in the top of the eighth inning raised his pitch count and nullified his ability to go out for the ninth. Jerry Vasto made quick work for the save in his place.
"As soon as that guy at bat [in the eighth inning] got to a full count and kept fouling it off, I was like 'I’m done here, this is probably it and I’m gonna get pulled out,'" Almonte said, grinning ear to ear about his night but still a little mad he couldn't go wire to wire. "So I just tried to keep an even keel, and be consistent throughout the whole game."
"But yeah," he adds mischievously, "I tried to rear back a little bit towards the end."
Almonte sat 92-95 mph all night on Thursday, routinely touching 96 mph and flashing an upper-80s slider. But more than the power pitches—and maybe even more than the efficiency—was his mental development through the only trouble the pitcher found himself in during the start.
In the top of the third inning, Almonte loaded the bases before inducing a routine fly ball to right field for an out, setting up a play at the plate that could've helped get him out of the inning unscathed, or, at the very least, after having allowed just a single run. But a throwing error by right fielder Drew Weeks brought around two runs to score, and Almonte suddenly found himself with the potential third run on third base and more trouble ahead. Calmly, the 21-year-old bore down and finished the inning with no further damage after taking a discernible breath and recomposing himself for the hitter ahead.
"I just tried to breathe, step back a little bit, and not let emotion get the best of me in that situation," Almonte admitted. "Last year I learned about that, but in 2014, I would have been mad. And then it would have gotten worse."
Say what you will about his upper-90s fastball, perhaps this mental clarity and maturity is the most important sign of Almonte's development in the Rockies' organization.
★ ★ ★
Change of pace: RHP Troy Neiman
Sixteen games into his season, righty reliever Troy Neiman is getting noticed in Modesto thanks to solid work as a set-up man to the closer Vasto. And with 31 strikeouts against just 12 walks in 26 innings, Neiman—who throws a fastball, cutter, slider, and changeup—offers a stereotypical late-inning pitch repertoire to match up with California League hitters in close games.
The 25-year-old has done well at it, too; in those 16 games, Neiman is 2-1 with a 1.73 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. But in a quirk somewhat unique to him relative to the stereotypical late-inning power pitcher, the undrafted free agent signee has done it by focusing on his changeup.
"The Rockies focus a lot on changeups and that's probably my best pitch," Neiman said on Thursday. "I've been able to just keep throwing that, and they want me to focus on fastball command, which is what I've been trying to do lately. I mean, you just want to be able to throw strikes in pressure situations. So, that's what they're trying to do."
In addition to his changeup, Neiman sits between 86 and 89 mph with his fastball, so he's not the ideal late-inning reliever touching mid- or upper-90s. But for the Chico State alum, that just means he needs to continue to learn how to pitch.
"In this league, you definitely have to pitch inside, command that fastball inside and keep hitters off of the fastball away," Neiman revealed. "You have to keep them honest by moving the fastball in and out and then throwing your offspeed for strikes so they can't get extended and barrel up balls. You just want to be a little bit more fine with your pitches in this league."
★ ★ ★
Three small children? The (Nuts) case for Peter Lambert
Peter Lambert, the Rockies' second round draft pick last summer, isn't in Modesto—and he likely won't be until next season, even if things go well—but two teammates who know him very well are now with the Nuts after receiving midseason promotions. Knowing how much interest there is around Lambert, and how little of him we've seen in person, we tracked down former teammates French and Fuentes to learn more about the right-handed pitcher who is currently throwing the ball very well with Low-A Asheville.
French, for one, raved about him.
"He’s going to come at you with a four-pitch mix [fastball, changeup, curveball, slider], and the slider is his best breaking ball, probably his best pitch right now. It’s real tight, real hard," French offered. "He throws strikes, attacks, and he’s a really good competitor. Nothing really fazes him. He’s real, real mature."
"Honestly he’s just doing the same thing he did all spring, and that he did last year," French continued, before revealing a new wrinkle in Lambert's game. "He was throwing a little bit of a two-seam fastball in spring training, and he featured that in Asheville a little bit to get in on hitters."
Fuentes, taking it from a hitter's perspective, sees similarly good things from Lambert.
"He's awesome," the Nuts new third baseman gushed in the clubhouse on Thursday. "He goes out there and battles every fifth day and pitches well. He's a good guy off the field, too. He's young, and the fact that he's that good that young, the sky's the limit for sure."
Fuentes can speak highly of a talented teammate, but for French, being promoted away from Lambert is personal. The two pitchers were extremely close, being throwing partners last summer at rookie-level Grand Junction, and then again all through the spring and into the year at Low-A Asheville, while also rooming together in North Carolina.
"Just being competitive with one another with good catch play, challenging each other to get better, we were spending a lot of time together," French conceded about his buddy and former teammate. "So yeah, it's tough to say goodbye, but that’s all part of it. It’s always good to get a promotion, and I’m going to take that any day of the week. But I still keep up with him, we still keep in touch, and I’m really glad he’s having success."
★ ★ ★
Nuts in action: This week's scouting video
COLIN WELMON, RHP
Colin Welmon, the Rockies' eighth round draft pick out of Loyola Marymount last summer, came on in relief of Ryan Castellani on Wednesday night and worked two innings against the High Desert Mavericks. Welmon's statistical profile doesn't point to anything exceptionally noteworthy thus far this year, as he's being used predominantly in low-leverage middle relief situations, but the righty has some deceptive giddyup on his fastball and shows a promising, hard breaking ball.
On Wednesday night (video below), the righty showed off a 90-93 mph fastball that topped out at 94 mph, as well as a 76-79 mph curveball and a 82-84 mph changeup.
★ ★ ★
Nuts notes from the last seven days
Sam Howard, Jerry Vasto still dominant
We've spoken with them so much over the last few months that there is little to talk about right now, but Sam Howard and Jerry Vasto both deserve credit for continuing to throw well in their respective roles. Howard is quietly pacing the starting rotation, and entering his tenth start of the season on Saturday, the lefty is 2-3 with a 3.08 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 49.2 innings pitched. Opponents are batting just .202 against him, in addition to his 1.17 WHIP.
Vasto earned his seventh save of the summer when he closed down Almonte's start on Thursday night. The New Jersey-born lefty has no record in 17 games with a 1.37 ERA, 25 strikeouts in 19.2 innings pitched, and a stingy .169 batting average against. Vasto has also thrown five of the Nuts' numerous extra innings; in those late night tie games, he's allowed no runs, no walks, and just two hits.
"Vasto’s been doing a great job, he has been just pounding the zone, and doing it very aggressively," lefty Tyler Matzek said of the Nuts' closer. "He’s got some kind of deception on it, because guys are not looking comfortable when they are up there hitting against him. He’s got something special that a lot of guys don’t have."
Fifteen more innings!
On Tuesday night, the Nuts played 15 innings in an eventual win against High Desert. Added to their already impressive slate of extra inning contests this year, that gives them the unique distinction of having played the most innings in the California League this year. Sure, that's probably a lead they'd rather not hold, but at least on Tuesday night they were able to eke out a much-needed victory... even if it technically happened at 12:30 am on Wednesday morning.
Carrizales quietly rises to the top, part two
In his last ten games through Friday, Omar Carrizales (No. 27 PuRP) is 17-for-37 (.459) with six multi-hit games, five RBIs, and four walks. He's now slashing .333/.381/.412 on the season in 40 games (153 at-bats), and he's anchoring a much-needed top of the lineup spot for a club that's really struggling to string together hits and baserunners. Carrizales, of course, was on track to win the South Atlantic League batting title last summer before an ice-cold final two weeks of the season dropped him out of contention.
Tyler Matzek watch, part two
On Friday night, Tyler Matzek faced two batters—the first time the Rockies have extended him past his new one-hitter rule—and he retired both in front of a sold-out crowd at John Thurman Field. We had a long, fruitful interview with Matzek on Wednesday; expect a feature coming very soon on the big lefty. In the meantime, he sounds at home in Modesto with his new teammates.
"The guys here have all been great, they’ve all welcomed me in with open arms, and I feel like I’ve been part of the team since day one," Matzek said. "I treat them the way I want to be treated, and I don’t want them to treat me any different. I just think that I’m just another player. We’re all here on the same field, we’re all doing the same thing. When you can put your pride aside and just go out there and work hard, and kick ass, that’s when good things happen."
With that responsibility—and that humility to effectively starting over with his career—comes Matzek's experience and leadership having been where the rest of the Nuts want to be.
"I’m more than willing to help anybody that’s willing to listen, and even though I’m not trying to step on the coaches’ toes and coach, but I do know some things, and I’m just trying to help the guys with whatever they need help with," Matzek said in the Nuts' clubhouse on Wednesday. "I’ve experienced a little more baseball than some of the guys here, just being older, being through the system a little longer, and anything I would have liked to know when I was at their level, I’m trying to help them."
More Matzek coming soon.
★ ★ ★
For more prospect videos, click here to subscribe to Purple Row's YouTube channel. Want to know more about Modesto in the meantime? Or do you have an interview/angle you'd like to see? Reach out to Bobby on Twitter or through email, or reach out to Jen on Twitter. All images in this piece courtesy of Jen Mac Ramos.