February 2011

Talking K’s and Canines With Jason Rice

Jason Rice had an eventful off-season.  He pitched in the Arizona Fall League, took part in the Red Sox Rookie Orientation Program, and even got engaged.


But none of those things were the activity he mentioned first when I asked the 24-year-old Californian if he did anything interesting this winter.


“I got a puppy – a black lab named Cutter,” Rice said with a big smile.  “I actually have two dogs – both Labradors – one is named Rookie and the other is named Cutter.”



(photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)


The dogs made the trip to Ft. Myers and Rice is taking part in his first big league training camp as a non-roster invitee.  Jason tossed a perfect inning in Boston’s first exhibition game – a 6-0 win over Boston College on Saturday.


“He’s got a big arm,” said Red Sox Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting Mike Hazen.  “We’ve had him up to 98 mph – he probably sits more like 94-95 – but he has a hammer for a curveball as well.  As he’s gotten more consistent within the strike zone, we’ve really seen the performance take off.  We want to see that continue over the next year or so.  He has a major league arm – now it’s about command and being able to pitch through situations.  We’ve been very pleasantly surprised with what we’ve had over the last couple of years – especially considering how we got him.”


The Red Sox obtained Rice from the White Sox organization prior to the 2009 season in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft.  After bouncing back-and-forth between the rotation and the bullpen in four minor league seasons with Chicago, Rice has been used exclusively in relief in two seasons with Boston.  Last year, the 5’10” righty earned Eastern League All-Star honors after going 3-2 with 13 saves and a 2.85 ERA (71 K in 60 IP) for Double-A Portland.


“My goal every year is to climb one level higher,” Rice said.  “I think I’m progressing at a good pace right now and I hope I can do well enough in spring training to put myself in position to get to Pawtucket when they need me there.”


In addition to having an outstanding season in Portland last year; Rice was named the Sea Dogs’ Citizen of the Year for frequently speaking to kids at hospitals, schools, and summer camps.


“I grew up in a tough neighborhood in Southern California and I wish that somebody in my current position would have talked to me and my friends,” Rice said.  “Now that I have a chance to do it – I need to do it.”


Rice sounded like an excited kid when I asked him about his experience in the Red Sox Rookie Orientation Program in January.


“It was amazing – out of this world,” Jason said.  “I had always wanted to visit Fenway Park.  I’ve always wondered what the park looks like.  When I got invited to the rookie program and got a chance to talk to Theo and Tito, it was unbelievable.  It was overwhelming and a humbling experience at the same time.  You have to know the history behind it and all of the guys that have played there.  It’s my dream to be there.”


He wouldn’t be the first person to name a dog “Fenway.”


I’d love to hear from you.  The address is dhoard@pawsox.com.


If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard


And I’ve finally joined Facebook.  Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad.

Wild Ride Continues For Knuckleballer Zink

You know it’s a bad year when you get hurt on an amusement park ride.


And to make matters worse, that wasn’t Charlie Zink’s only injury.


Allow me to go back to the beginning.


Zink knuckle resize.jpg 

(photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)


After spending eight seasons in the Red Sox organization and making it to Boston in 2008, knuckleballer Charlie Zink signed as a minor league free agent prior to last season with the St. Louis Cardinals.  Things didn’t work with St. Louis and Zink was released at the end of spring training, but he wasn’t out of work for long as he joined the Twins’ Triple-A team in April.


But after three rocky outings with Rochester, Zink went on the disabled list.


“I felt some pain in my shoulder as far back as 2008,” Zink told me.  “It never hurt bad enough to stop pitching – it was just a little pinch – but it was just enough to make it uncomfortable to actually throw over the top.  Finally it got to the point when I mentioned something last year in Rochester.  It wasn’t even my shoulder – my fingers were going numb.  They thought I might need Tommy John surgery so I had to get MRIs done on my elbow and shoulder and that’s when they diagnosed the problem with my shoulder.  Luckily it wasn’t Tommy John and I only needed a minor procedure.”


Following surgery to remove a bone chip in late May, Zink went to the Twins complex in Ft. Myers for rehab on his shoulder with the hope of returning to action in August. 


That’s where the amusement park comes in.


“While I was rehabbing in Florida, they gave us a three day weekend and I wound up tweaking my neck,” Charlie said.  “My fianc came down to Florida to visit me and we took a trip to Universal Studios because we knew that the Harry Potter ride had opened up and we heard it was amazing.  We went on so many rides that I guess it could have happened on any of them, but my neck started to hurt on the Harry Potter one.  I had to go get an MRI on my neck for having a bulging disc.”


Five months later, Charlie is fully recovered from both injuries and ready to return to the mound.  He recently signed with the Lancaster Barnstormers of the independent Atlantic League where his manager will be former PawSox and Red Sox manager Butch Hobson.


“I love knuckleballers,” Hobson said in a news release announcing Zink’s signing.  “Charlie was the International League Pitcher of the Year in 2008, and he still has something to prove. I think he is going to be outstanding for us.”


“My agent told me a lot of teams were scared away because of my surgery – a couple of teams were interested but wanted to see me throw,” Zink said.  “Butch Hobson from Lancaster had been calling him multiple times to see if I would sign there with an agreement that I could get out of the contract if I signed with an affiliated team.  He really wanted a knuckleballer and he’s seen me throw so I figured it would be a good opportunity.”


Zink fenway resize.jpg 

Zink spent parts of five seasons with Pawtucket, highlighted by an All-Star campaign in 2008.  That season, Charlie went 14-6 with a 2.84 ERA for the PawSox and made his major league debut at Fenway Park in a wild 19-17 win over Texas.


“I accomplished my dream and I had a blast doing it,” Zink told me.  “I’ve never had as much fun as I had with that whole team that we had in 2008 in Pawtucket, and I felt so welcomed as part of the Red Sox family.  It was just amazing.  I loved that team that we had there, and the guys were great to be around.”


That season, Charlie led the International League in WHIP (1.11) and ranked second in opponent batting average (.223).  Zink says his knuckleball is back to 2008 form.


“It had been harder for me over the last couple of years to get my arm up high enough,” Zink said.  “Every time I tried to throw over the top, my body said no because I’d feel the pain.  So I started throwing from a three-quarter arm slot or even lower because it didn’t hurt.  That made my knuckleball really predictable because when I throw it from a low arm slot it’s always going to move from right to left.  I need to throw it right over the top to have it move either way.


“Now it’s consistently inconsistent.  It’s moving all over the place and it never has a consistent movement.  I’m throwing it again where it’s unpredictable, so it’s fun to watch.”


At the age of 31, Zink is not ready to give up the dream of returning to the big leagues.


“I haven’t had a whole lot of fun playing in awhile,” Charlie said.  “It’s been a couple of down years and I want to see if I enjoy it anymore.  My arm feels great and I’ve been killing catchers with my knuckleball.  I want to see how it translates into a season.  If it doesn’t work out, my golf game has gotten really solid and maybe I’ll get my pro card and become a teaching pro.  But my window of opportunity in baseball is a lot shorter than my opportunity to play golf.”


Lancaster opens the season on April 29th and roughly one month later, Charlie and his fianc Maddie are expecting the birth of their first child – a son.  Perhaps the youngster will grow up to be a fan of the Harry Potter books.  Despite the neck injury, his dad loved the amusement park ride. 


“It was amazing,” Zink said.  “We really want to go back, but Maddie is pregnant now so that means no rides.  Maybe when the baby is a few years old, we’ll take him there.”


I’d love to hear from you.  The address is dhoard@pawsox.com.


If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard


And I’ve finally joined Facebook.  Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad.

It Won’t Be The Start Of Camp For Nate Spears

When the Red Sox hold their first full-squad workout this Saturday, minor league infielder Nate Spears will have already been hard at work in Ft. Myers for more than a month.


Spears tight.jpg 

(photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)


“I’ve been down here since the 16th of January and reported on the 17th,” Spears told me.  “It was the first week that they opened the complex.  It was me, Oscar Tejada, and a bunch of rehabbing pitchers.”


The 25-year-old infielder was not only eager to get to work, but is also looking to stand out among the 61 players invited to major league camp.


“It’s my first big league camp,” Spears said.  “I’ve gone back and forth and played in some big league spring training games, but this is my first big league camp and I’d like to make a good first impression and get my foot in the door a little bit.”


Spears earned the invitation to Boston’s camp with an outstanding season last year at Double-A Portland.  Nate was an Eastern League All-Star as he batted .272 (.380 OBP/.463 SLG) with 30 doubles, 4 triples, and 20 home runs.  The Sea Dogs second baseman led the league in walks with 84 and runs scored with 104. 


“It was a fun year,” Spears said.  “It was one of the best years that I’ve ever had professionally and I hope to reproduce it this year and maybe be a little bit better.  I’ve been working hard this off-season.  I’ve been lifting hard and hitting in the cages.  My body feels great and I’m looking forward to getting out there on the field.”


Spears swing.jpg 

Nate was a 5th round draft pick out of high school by the Orioles organization in 2003, before being traded to the Cubs for Corey Patterson in 2006.  The Red Sox signed him as a minor league free agent prior to last season and moved quickly to re-sign him this year.


“They came to me at the end of the year and locked me down pretty quickly,” Spears said.  “I really didn’t want to test the waters.  The Red Sox are a first-class organization and they’ve treated me with the utmost respect ever since I’ve been here.  They’ve become like a family and it’s been great.”


Spears has Triple-A experience from his time in the Cubs organization and is a strong candidate to begin this year as Pawtucket’s starting second baseman.  His chances of earning that spot could be helped by the fact that he posted big numbers last year while playing for the PawSox’ new manager Arnie Beyeler.


“Arnie is a great guy and we clicked from the beginning in spring training,” Nate told me.  “He tells you what he expects and then lets you go out there and play.  It’s been fun playing for him and I hope to play for him this year.”


Spears not only had a great season on the field in 2010 – he ended the year by getting married to his girlfriend Amy on New Year’s Eve in Indianapolis.  They hope to take a real honeymoon next off-season, but for now, a trip to Ft. Myers two weeks after the wedding was just fine.


“She came down to Florida for a week with me when I drove down, so we had some time together,” Nate said.  “After the wedding was over, I wanted to get down to Florida as soon as possible.  I’m ready to get after it.  It’s been a long, productive off-season and I’m ready to see what it has done for me.”


I’d love to hear from you.  The address is dhoard@pawsox.com.


If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard


And I’ve finally joined Facebook.  Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad.

The Sign Points To Pawtucket For Fife

After spending all of last year in Portland, pitcher Stephen Fife is looking to climb Boston’s minor league ladder to Pawtucket in 2011.  To remind himself of that goal this winter, the Utah native simply needed to hop in his car and drive north.


Fife mound.jpg 

(photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)


“I actually stayed here in Warwick, Rhode Island with my girlfriend for a couple of months,” Fife told me recently.  “I was right down the road from Pawtucket – maybe 15 minutes away.  All of her family lives in Massachusetts, so every time we went to see them or visit friends in Boston, we drove right by the sign for McCoy Stadium.”


There’s a good chance that he’ll see more than just the sign this summer.


The 24-year-old righty was 8-6 with a 4.75 ERA in 26 starts for Double-A Portland last year and showed enough potential to be selected for the Red Sox Rookie Development Program.  It is reserved for Boston’s minor league prospects that are considered the most likely candidates to advance to the big leagues over the next two seasons.


“It was a huge honor,” Fife said.  “There are 150-180 guys in the minor league system and to be one of the 11 that got selected to come to this program speaks highly of what they think that I’m capable of.  It was a special time for me and I’m grateful and truly honored.”


Fife motion.jpg 

Boston picked Fife in the third round of the 2008 draft (85th overall), and he has steadily climbed one minor league level in each of his first three seasons.   


“We drafted him out of Utah and he’s performed his whole way up the system,” said Red Sox Director of Player Development Mike Hazen.  “He’s got a steady mix of three pitches that he can throw for strikes.  A 91-92 mph sinker, with a curveball and a changeup.  He’s been durable and put up good numbers everywhere that he’s gone.  Anybody that can show that consistency with three pitches is somebody that we’re interested in.”


“My goal is to break camp with Triple-A,” Fife said.  “They told me that I’ll be competing for a spot in the Triple-A rotation in spring training.  It’s up to my performance.  If I wind up being a Double-A starter to begin the year that’s fine by me, but it’s special to be thought of as a possible Triple-A starter after just one year in Double-A.  I’m pretty excited to have the opportunity to either start in Double-A or Triple-A, but it’s definitely a goal to see time in Pawtucket this year.”


After spending much of his winter in the Ocean State, Fife hopes to spend his summer there too.


“To be that close to Pawtucket this winter, it puts that thought in your mind, ‘Did I do enough today to put myself in a position to get to the next level.’  It’s been an easy reminder.”


I’d love to hear from you.  The address is dhoard@pawsox.com


If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard


And I have finally joined Facebook.  Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad.

New Season, New Ride For Nava

The old beat-up truck is history.


Nava grinning.jpg 

(photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)


After receiving no signing bonus and earning a meager $1,100 a month when he joined the Red Sox organization in 2008, Daniel Nava finally made a few bucks last year when he spent more than two months in the big leagues.  The 27-year-old outfielder didn’t go on an off-season spending spree, but did make one significant purchase. 


“You know the truck that I had right?” Nava told me.  “The one that everyone made fun of?  I had a red, ’95 GMC pickup that was completely breaking down, and I went out and got a new car because my mom was even making fun of me.  She said, ‘Hey Daniel, are you going to drive that truck across country?’  Last year I did, so I said, ‘Actually, I think I might.’  And she goes, ‘Do you think that truck will make it?  It’s kind of old and it sucks.’  When your mom starts making fun of your car, you know that it’s time to move on and look for something else.  So I gave that car to my brother and went out and got something for myself.  That was my only purchase.”


For the record, the new ride isn’t exactly a Lexus or Escalade.


“I got an ’08 Dodge Charger,” Nava said.  “It’s got four doors which I’ve never had before, so I can actually put things in the backseat or the trunk.  Little things like that are funny to me because when you have a truck you don’t have a trunk, so I was like, ‘I have a trunk – this is awesome.'”


The Charger is enough of an upgrade that Daniel had it shipped to Florida instead of driving cross-country.  Nava is already in Ft. Myers and began working out at the Red Sox spring training complex last week.


“I got out here on Monday night (January 31st), and that’s the norm for me,” Nava told me.  “When I first came out here I was trying to make a minor league squad back in ’08, and I’ve stuck to the idea of getting in here as soon as I can.


“I’m here with a bunch of other guys – Ryan Kalish is here, Doubront, Papelbon has also been out here, and a bunch of other guys as well.  There’s a Fantasy Camp going on, so we mold our schedule around what they’re doing.  We usually come out around 10:00 and play catch, take batting practice, fly balls, and do a little conditioning.  It’s pretty light, but I think that’s the way it should be when you’re just getting back into spring training mode.”


Nava follow through.jpg 

Last year, the switch-hitting Californian batted .289/.372/.458 with 10 HR and 48 RBI in 77 games with Pawtucket, and .242/.351/.360 with 1 HR and 26 RBI in 60 games with Boston.  His rise from former team manager at Santa Clara University to starting left fielder for the Boston Red Sox was one of most remarkable stories in sports in 2010, and it’s a tale he shared in several speaking engagements this winter.


“I did get an opportunity to share the story of what’s taken place at some schools and the church I attend back home, and that’s something that I really enjoyed,” Daniel said.  “I know when I was the underdog in high school or college and I heard athletes and other people come and talk, I loved hearing that stuff because I was trying to hold on to any hope that I could get.  To be able to come full circle and do that for other people was kind of ironic.  All I did was simply share my story and what I believe in.  It was cool to see the response that I got from people.  Obviously not everyone had the same reaction, but some people approached me and said, ‘I do see some hope.’  That was really cool.”


Nava finished last season in Boston, but could begin this season back in Pawtucket following the Red Sox off-season signing of free agent Carl Crawford and the anticipated return of injured outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron.


“To be honest, I’m glad that we got (Crawford) because I know that he’s going to help the team and whether that means that I’m up there more or less, I know that I still have to go out there and do my job,” Nava told me.  “Throughout the whole course of me coming up through the minors and making it to the big leagues, I’ve tried to keep that simple approach.  Go out there and do your job and things will fall into place.  Personally, I think it’s going to be awesome for the Sox because it gives them a better chance to make the playoffs, so I can’t worry about whether that might take playing time from me.  That’s not how I think or how I operate, so why start now?”


In other words, Daniel’s car has changed, but his attitude hasn’t.


I’d love to hear from you.  The address is dhoard@pawsox.com


If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard


And I have finally joined Facebook.  Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad.

A Smart Bet To Advance To Pawtucket in 2011

The last former Yale Bulldog to play for the Pawtucket Red Sox was current Oakland A’s pitcher Craig Breslow.  As I wrote about in a previous entry, Breslow was recently named “The Smartest Athlete in Sports” by The Sporting News


Red Sox catching prospect Ryan Lavarnway is also a former Yalie.  Can he match wits with Breslow?


“I don’t know if I’m as smart as Breslow – especially if he’s the smartest person in sports,” Lavarnway said with a laugh.  “I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Craig a little bit and he’s a great guy.  He really helped me make the transition from amateur ball to pro ball.  He went out of his way to try to help me learn how to turn my mind off when it’s appropriate.”


Lavarnway screen.jpg 

(photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)


Lavarnway was a 6th round draft pick by Boston in 2008 and has rapidly climbed the minor league ladder.  Last year between Single-A Salem and Double-A Portland, the 23-year-old catcher batted .288 with 27 doubles, 22 HR, and 102 RBI (.393 OBP/.489 SLG).  As a result, Ryan recently took part in the Red Sox Rookie Development Program which is reserved for Boston’s minor leaguers that are considered the most likely candidates to advance to the big leagues over the next two seasons.


“It was a great opportunity, and I think it speaks to how far I’ve come,” Lavarnway said.  “I don’t think I was on the radar two short years ago, despite being selected early in the draft.  I’ve absolutely worked my tail off – especially defensively because that’s where I needed the most work.  Coming to this program means that they’ve noticed my hard work.”


Lavarnway was an outfielder in his final two years of high school ball in California, and didn’t start catching at Yale until his sophomore year.  He was drafted largely for his bat after setting the Ivy League’s all-time record with 33 career home runs. 


“The defense is catching up to the bat,” said Red Sox Director of Player Development Mike Hazen.  “I would say that two years ago, the bat was way ahead of the defense but I wouldn’t say that’s the case anymore.  Even though the offense has been really consistent and really productive over the last three years in the minor leagues, the defense is steadily catching up.  He’s working very hard on his footwork and his throwing and his receiving.”


They don’t teach “Catching 101” in the Ivy League, but Lavarnway says the decision-making process behind the plate is as mentally stimulating as some of his course work at Yale.


“It really is actually,” Lavarnway told me.  “It’s the pitcher vs. the hitter, but I’m the guy that suggests what to throw.  It keeps my mind active and I love feeling like I’m involved in every pitch.  I love the camaraderie that develops between me and the pitcher to try to work through a game.”


“I still think that whatever you would consider ‘book smart,’ there needs to be a degree of being ‘game savvy,’ Hazen said.  “Learning how to call a baseball game is thorough experience, and he’s a very attentive, studious person.  He pays attention to what goes on, and that’s the biggest part of it.”

Lavarnway bat.jpg 


Soxprospects.com projects Lavarnway to begin this season at Double-A Portland, but if Ryan posts the type of stats that he’s put up in each of the last two seasons, he’s likely to advance to Pawtucket at some point in 2011.  When Craig Breslow was with the PawSox, the Ivy Leaguer was stereotypically assumed to be a master of all subjects.  Lavarnway says he receives the same treatment from his teammates.


“Any time there’s a small bit of trivia like, ‘Who sang this song in the 80’s?’ they think the Yale kid must know it,” Ryan said.


Does he try to answer their questions or just fake it? 


“It depends on the day.  Sometimes I’m like, ‘How would I know that?’  And other times I just make something up and they say, ‘Oh yea, that sounds about right,’ Lavarnway said with a grin.


Pretty smart, don’t you think?


I’d love to hear from you.  The address is dhoard@pawsox.com


If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard


And I have finally joined Facebook.  Just search for Dan Hoard and look for the photo of me with the handsome lad.