July 2011

Duckworth Dominating

Since the All-Star break, the best starting pitcher in the International League has been Brandon Duckworth.

(Photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)

The 35-year-old veteran picked up his 4th win in the last 15 days on Friday night, as the PawSox beat Lehigh Valley 4-3.

“It has been a pretty good stretch, and hopefully we can keep it rolling,” Duckworth said.  “It’s been great.  It seems like everything has been going my way.  Tonight was kind of a grind (3 ER in 5 IP) and I was able to get through everything.  The bullpen came in and did a great job and I got great defensive help in the outfield.”

It’s no coincidence that Duckworth is 4-0 with a 1.93 since the All-Star break.  Brandon was able to spend time at home in New Jersey with his wife Janeen, daughter Sophia, and twins Easton and Aliya who were born on June 2nd.

“They ended up being born six weeks early and my son was in intensive care for more than a month,” Duckworth said.  “We still have some things going on, but it’s a lot less critical right now.  That peace of mind helps out so much.  It seems like it’s been a crazy two months.  I just feel more at ease.  I know that everything is good at home, so now I can go out there and have fun.”

Brandon got to see the twins again while the PawSox were in Allentown, PA.

“I was able to go home and see them since we had the 11:00 am game on Thursday and I live just over an hour away,” Duckworth said.  “Knowing that the kids are OK and my wife is OK puts my mind at ease and helps me focus.”

Friday’s win over the IronPigs pulled Pawtucket within two games of Lehigh Valley for first place in the IL North with 36 games to go.  The PawSox lead the Wild Card race by a half-game over Gwinnett and two games over Scranton/WB.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Duckworth said.  “It’s a lot better than sitting here saying, ‘I can’t wait for the final month to be over so we can go home.’  We want to win.  There’s something at stake and I think it gets everybody going a little bit.”

Duckworth has pitched in 134 major league games over parts of 8 seasons with Philadelphia, Houston, and Kansas City, and hopes to add the Boston Red Sox to his big league resume before the season is finished.

“I want to finish strong and give the team a chance to win in each and every outing,” Duckworth said.  “Obviously, I’d like to pitch well enough to be under consideration to go up at the end of the year.  I know I have what it takes to go up there and pitch.  I’ve been there plenty of times before on teams that were going into the playoffs, so that’s my goal.”

If the next 37 days are like the last 15, it’s not out of the question.

* * * * *     

Lars Anderson had an RBI single and a pair of walks on Friday to extend his current hitting streak to 6 games (8-for-20, .400, 3 2B, 2 HR, 5 RBI).

“He’s shortened his swing a lot and he is swinging the bat like he was earlier in the year and driving the ball all over the field,” said PawSox hitting coach Chili Davis.  “He just needs to stick with it.  If he sticks with it, he’ll become the hitter that he should be.  I think that kid has huge potential.  He’s got a beautiful swing – one of the prettiest left-handed swings that you’re going to see.  He just needs to focus on doing the right things and not trying to force himself to be a certain type of hitter.  He’s in a situation here where he’s hitting in a spot in the order where we want to see him drive in runs.  Whether he hits 30 home runs or 10 home runs, he can drive in runs.  He’s not one of those left-handed hitters where you say, ‘He doesn’t hit left-handers.’  He stays in there well against left-handed pitchers and he has the power to drive the ball from the left field line to the right field line.  He needs to use the whole field.  I like where he is right now, and I’d just like to see him stay there.”  

* * * * *

The PawSox open an 8-game homestand on Saturday as they host Louisville at 6:05.  I have to miss the game for a family commitment, but I hope you’ll join Steve Hyder and Steve McDonald for radio coverage beginning with the pre-game show at 5:50 on the PawSox radio network and pawsox.com.

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.

Chili Davis On The Passing Of Former Teammate Hideki Irabu

PawSox hitting coach Chili Davis was stunned to learn that his former New York Yankees teammate Hideki Irabu was found dead on Wednesday of an apparent suicide by hanging.

“It’s sad to hear the news of him passing – especially with the idea that it might be a suicide,” Davis said.  “That would be my second ex-teammate to commit suicide along with Donnie Moore.  It’s sad to hear.  I know he has a family and I know that it’s a great loss for them.  I’m really sad to hear that.”

Irabu signed a 4-year, $12.8 million dollar contract with the Yankees in 1997 after being dubbed the “Nolan Ryan of Japan.”  But he never lived up to the hype, going 34-35 with a 5.15 ERA in 6 seasons with the Yankees, Expos, and Rangers.  George Steinbrenner famously referred to Irabu as a “fat toad” after the pitcher failed to cover first base in an exhibition game. 

“He had a lot of pressure on him from being one of the dominant pitchers out of Japan and coming to the Yankees,” Davis said.  “These guys are like national treasures coming over here.  For guys like Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, and Hideki Matsui, they come over here and not only do the American media put a lot of pressure on them, but they have the Japanese media following them everywhere that they go.  After every start that he made, Irabu had to answer twice as many questions as an American pitcher.

“He had very little escape.  We might look at it and say, ‘Yea, but he made the big bucks,’ but players here that make a lot of money don’t have to undergo that kind of pressure.”

Davis and Irabu won World Series rings together with the Yankees in 1998 and 1999 – Chili’s final two major league seasons.

“He was an intense guy, but I had a lot of fun with him,” Davis said.  “I went out to dinner with him and spent a lot of time in the outfield with him trying to learn Japanese.  The words he taught me are basically the ones that you learn in any language as a ballplayer… he taught me all of the bad ones first.  I liked him.  He had an up-and-down career.  He would go out one day and you would marvel at his stuff.  Then he would go out the next start and you would wonder where that stuff went.  But he was a good teammate.”

* * * * *

The PawSox will look to earn a split in their 4-game series at Lehigh Valley on Friday night at 7:05.  I hope you’ll join us for radio coverage beginning with the pre-game show at 6:50 on the PawSox radio network and pawsox.com.

Pawtucket opens an 8-game homestand on Saturday, and it’s Clay Buchholz Bobblehead Night at McCoy Stadium for the first 4,000 kids (14-and-under).

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.

Ryan Kalish Expects To Play Soon

The key word is “soon.”

(Photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)

After missing 91 games – and counting – with shoulder and neck injuries, Ryan Kalish says that he expects to be back in action in the near future.

“It’s been a long, long year with all of the injuries, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Kalish told me on Thursday.  “I feel like I will play soon and I’ve been putting in a lot of hard work to make this happen.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to get on the field very soon.”

How soon?

“I don’t know the timeline,” Kalish said.  “It’s day-to-day depending on how I feel.  I’m swinging and throwing and everything is coming along.  The sooner the better.”

The 23-year-old outfielder suffered a partially torn labrum and a SLAP tear in his left shoulder while making a diving catch on April 21st.  The shoulder was sufficiently healed in late May to allow Ryan to be the designated hitter in a couple of extended spring training games, but neck pain halted his progress.

“I would say that the shoulder is 100%,” Kalish said.  “The neck is more of the thing right now.  That’s what has kept me out for the last six weeks or so, but I feel really good.  It’s been a really long time since I’ve felt good so it’s a very gratifying feeling right now.  When I first had neck pain, I figured it would be three days because I’ve had a stiff neck before.  But it obviously was more than a stiff neck.”

If Kalish continues to progress, he’s likely to have a brief rehab stint with Single-A Lowell before returning to Pawtucket.  Since there are only five weeks left in the minor league regular season, Ryan also hopes to play winter ball to make up for lost at-bats. 

“As long as I’m healthy, I just want to play,” Kalish said.  “I haven’t played much this year, so I think it’s in my best interest to play somewhere and I look forward to it.  Wherever it is, it’s fine with me.”

Kalish was Boston’s Rookie of the Year last season, and was widely considered to be the heir apparent to J.D. Drew as the Red Sox right fielder in 2012.  But while Ryan has been on the disabled list, Josh Reddick has seized the opportunity to make his case for winning the job by batting .358/.400/.613 with 9 doubles, 3 triples, and 4 home runs in 35 games with Boston.

“That is the way of the world right now, and Josh is one of my good friends and I’ve never been happier for anyone,” Kalish said.  “It’s incredible to see what he’s doing and I’m just so happy for him.  I don’t know what’s going to happen next year and I can’t even think about it.  I just want to play baseball and whatever happens – that’s just the way it works.  I’ll just be excited to be playing somewhere.”

Let’s hope it’s soon.

* * * * *

The PawSox snapped their 3-game losing streak with a 2-1 win at Lehigh Valley on Thursday, meaning they trail the first place IronPigs by 3 games with 38 to go.  The PawSox currently lead the I.L. wild card race.

Pawtucket concludes an 8-game road trip on Friday night at 7:05.  I hope you’ll join us for radio coverage beginning with the pre-game show at 6:50 on the PawSox radio network and pawsox.com.

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.

So What About Lavarnway’s Defense?

On Tuesday night, Ryan Lavarnway had a pair of doubles and 4 RBI in an 8-7 loss to Lehigh Valley.

After 38 games with the PawSox, the 23-year-old catcher is batting .367/.440/.735 with 15 doubles, 13 HR, and 40 RBI.  Overall, in 93 games between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket, Lavarnway is batting .318 with 27 HR, and 78 RBI (.995 OPS).

But I know what you’re wondering:  What about his defense?

(Photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)

Any time that I talk, write, or tweet about Lavarnway’s hitting exploits, I hear from somebody that wants to know if the kid can catch.  It’s almost as if people that haven’t seen him behind the plate think that every-other-pitch rolls to the backstop.  In truth, Lavarnway has been solid behind the plate so far for Pawtucket, but the “great bat, mediocre glove” label is tough to change.

“That label is irrelevant,” said Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen.  “I think if Ryan keeps his ears closed and focuses on the task at hand, then there is no label.  If he continues to work and improve, then he’s going to catch in the big leagues.”

In 20 games behind the plate with Pawtucket, Lavarnway has 0 errors, 4 passed balls, and has gunned down 27% (6 of 22) of the runners that have tried to steal against him.  But evaluating how he calls the game and receives the ball is difficult to quantify statistically. 

“The defense is steadily improving,” Hazen said.  “It’s the hardest position to play, and every day, every week, and every month, Ryan gets better and better.  That’s the best quality that I can say.  His work ethic is tremendous and he’s put every ounce of his energy into becoming a major league catcher, and we believe that he’s going to be one.  If he continues to make progress, he’s going to catch in the big leagues.  The offense is outstanding and he brings that to the table every day, but the defense is continuing to improve.”

With his offensive potential, Lavarnway doesn’t need to be a Gold Glove Award candidate to have a long career as a major league catcher.  Hazen says the key for Ryan is to simply keep working on his craft.

“Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek still do their daily stuff with (bullpen coach) Gary Tuck every day, and Salty has been in the big leagues for three-plus years and ‘Tek has been there forever,” Hazen said.  “That shows you the amount of time, effort, and energy that it takes to continue to refine your game – even at that level.  Ryan’s work ethic is going to allow him to catch in the big leagues.”

* * * * *

The newest member of the PawSox was once traded for a Hall of Famer.

Left-handed pitcher Royce Ring – who joined the team on Sunday – was one of three players sent from the White Sox to the Mets for Roberto Alomar in July of 2003.

“He was a great player and that was an interesting time for me,” Ring said.  “I was in my first full year after being drafted by the White Sox and I had no idea what was going to happen after that.  That’s turned into 8 teams in 10 years so it’s been interesting.”

Ring started this season with Triple-A Tacoma (Seattle org.) and opted out of his contract in early July after going 2-1 with 2 saves and a 6.08 ERA in 27 games.

“Things weren’t going well with the Mariners and I didn’t feel like I had a good opportunity to get to the big leagues with them,” Ring said.  “I opted out and after a couple of weeks and a couple of offers; I signed with the Red Sox. Boston is a great organization and I’ve heard great things about them.  They’re in contention and I know that they are looking for people to help them out in the big leagues.  So it’s a good place to come and hopefully prove to them that I can be one of those guys.”

Ring has a career 5.29 ERA in 99 major league games with the Mets (2005-06), Braves (2007-08), and Yankees (2010).  The 30-year-old has previously pitched in the International League for Norfolk, Richmond, and Scranton/WB, but is just getting to know his Pawtucket teammates. 

“I’ve never played with anybody on this team, but I’ve played against them since I’ve been in Triple-A for quite a long time,” Ring said.  “It’s been a really easy transition because it’s a great group of guys and it seems like everybody gets along. 

“There’s been interest from the Red Sox in the past, so I knew that Boston could be a possibility and when they called me to come out and play, I jumped on the opportunity.  It’s a great place to get a chance.”

* * * * *

It’s Kyle Weiland vs. Roy Oswalt on Wednesday night at 7:05, as the PawSox meet LehighValley in game two of their 4-game series.

I hope you’ll join us for radio coverage beginning with the pre-game show at 6:50 on the PawSox radio network and pawsox.com.

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.

No Place Like Home For Hottovy

When Tommy Hottovy went home for the All-Star break, he figured that the timing was perfect. 

(Action photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)

His wife Andrea was on the verge of having their first child, and three days at home would likely allow him to be there for the delivery.

“It was something that I was really getting nervous about as we got close to the All-Star break,” Hottovy said.  “I was worried that I was going to be stuck at an airport somewhere when my son was born.”

That fear returned when Andrea didn’t have the baby on Monday… or Tuesday… or Wednesday.

“We were getting to the point where I was going to have to come back to Pawtucket after the All-Star break,” Hottovy said.  “My flight was scheduled for Thursday morning, but my wife went into labor and we had to go to the hospital at 4:30 in the morning.  So I didn’t make my flight and the baby arrived at 1:14 in the afternoon.  Things always happen for a reason.  And when you try to make plans, things never work out that way.”

He’s not kidding. 

(Cameron Hottovy photos courtesy of Tommy Hottovy)

“My son Cameron was born on Thursday and I was supposed to fly back to Pawtucket on Saturday,” Hottovy said.  “But I got a call late on Friday night from the Red Sox telling me that I might be designated for assignment.  They wanted to let me know that if that happened, I could cancel my flight and stay home.”

That’s exactly what happened.  When the Red Sox promoted LHP Randy Williams from Pawtucket on July 16th, they needed a spot on their 40-man roster and elected to designate Hottovy for assignment.  So while he waited to find out if he would be claimed by another organization or clear waivers and return to the Red Sox, Tommy was home with Andrea and their newborn son. 

“I got designated on Saturday, but the waiver process doesn’t start until Monday, so I got to spend an extra five days at home,” Hottovy said.  “You can’t put a price tag on the time I got to spend with my wife and son.  You don’t ever wish to be designated for assignment, but if there was a time and place for it to happen, it couldn’t have been much better.”

It’s been that kind of year for the 30-year-old lefty who made his major league debut on June 3rd and spent most of that month with Boston.  Because of his success against left-handed batters this year – they are batting .132 (7-for-53) vs. Hottovy between the majors and minors – Tommy thought that he might get claimed by another team.

“I thought there might be an opportunity for me to be a left-handed specialist for somebody, but I’m excited to be back with the Red Sox,” Hottovy said.  “I love it here and I’ve been here my whole career.  Who’s to say that I can’t get called up again?  I’ve been through the process now, I know what it takes, and I feel really good about what I am doing.  Maybe when the end of the season rolls around, they’ll need another guy in the bullpen to help out.”

If so, Hottovy will head to Boston to take part in a pennant race.

If not, he’ll gladly go home.

* * * * *

For the fourth time this year, the PawSox won the first three games of a series but were unable to complete the 4-game sweep as they lost at Buffalo on Monday 8-7.  That loss, coupled with Lehigh Valley’s 4-1 win over Columbus, means that Pawtucket is two games behind the IronPigs in the IL North with 40 games to go.

The PawSox open a huge 4-game series at Lehigh Valley on Tuesday night at 7:05.  I hope you’ll join us for radio coverage beginning with the pre-game show at 6:50 on the PawSox radio network and pawsox.com.

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 Hall of Fame Dad

Sunday was not only Hall of Fame induction day in Cooperstown – a similar ceremony took place about four hours away in Buffalo as broadcaster Jim Rosenhaus and catcher Tony Pena were inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame.

(Photo of Tony Pena, Jr. and Jim Rosenhaus courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons)

Pena’s plaque was accepted by his son – PawSox pitcher Tony Pena, Jr.

“I was honored to be here today and to receive it in his name,” Tony said.  “I will definitely send him a picture of it and congratulate him.  I’ll send some pictures to my mom, my brother, and my sister.  We’re a pretty close family.”

Tony Jr. had not been born when he dad played in Buffalo, but he has heard plenty of stories about the 1979 season when Tony Sr. batted .313 with 34 HR and 97 RBI for the Bisons.

“He told me that he raked,” Tony Jr. said with a laugh.  “He had a great year here, and the following year, he got called up to the big leagues.”

The younger Pena made it to the majors as a shortstop in 2006, and now he’s trying to return to the show as a pitcher.  This is his second full season on the mound since being converted, and Pena is having an excellent year for the PawSox, going 7-4 with 3 saves and a 3.34 ERA. 

(Photo courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)

“He’s everything we look for in a conversion candidate – athleticism, the ability to repeat his motion, and a loose and clean delivery,” said Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen.  “He shows a lot of interesting qualities.  He’s only been doing this for a year-plus now, and it’s hard to evaluate the performance because he doesn’t have much experience behind him.  Having said that, the performance in the last month has been outstanding – especially his ability as a sidearming righty to start and go through left-handed hitting lineups a couple of times.  That’s a challenge for any right-handed pitcher, but especially somebody that throws from that arm slot.  It’s been really impressive.” 

“I’m happy, but I’m the type of person that’s never satisfied,” Pena said.  “I’m always trying to get better.”

With Kyle Weiland in Boston and Felix Doubront on the 7-day disabled list, Pena is currently being used as a starter with impressive results.  Toss out a bad outing on July 16th where Tony allowed 6 ER in 3.1 IP, and Pena has a 1.61 ERA in his other five starts (5 ER in 28 IP).

Despite the impressive numbers, Pena looks forward to returning to the PawSox bullpen.

“I prefer relieving,” Tony said.  “As a reliever, you have a chance to be in there every day.  As a starter, you’ve got too much time on your hands.  Being a former infielder, I was out there every day.”

Playing every day behind the plate was one of his father’s most impressive qualities.  Tony Pena, Sr. caught at least 140 games in six different seasons, won four Gold Glove awards, and was a 5-time All-Star. 

But according to his son, that’s not what makes Tony Sr. a Hall of Famer.

“I’m most proud of him as a dad,” Tony Jr. said.  “That’s the number one thing.  He taught me how to play the game, but he also taught me how to be as a human being.  He taught us that whatever it is that you’re doing, you should do it with pride and give it all you’ve got.  If you do that, you should be happy with yourself.”

* * * * *

It has been slightly more than three months since Ryan Kalish injured his left shoulder while making a diving catch at McCoy Stadium.

(Photo courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)

In late May, the 23-year-old outfielder played in a few extended spring training games as a designated hitter before suffering a neck injury that halted his progess.

But Kalish is back to working out every day with Pawtucket, and the Red Sox still hope that Ryan will play again this season according to farm director Mike Hazen.

“He’s doing well,” Hazen said.  “He’s swinging the bat and is not having any concerns physically which is a huge thing.  We’re still going to take it slow.  We don’t want to have another setback.  We want this guy ready to go up and help the major league club at some point in the second half which means he has to be healthy.  All signs – knock on wood – look good, and hopefully he continues to progress.”

There are only six weeks left in the regular season for Pawtucket, and Kalish would probably need a rehab stint at the Single-A level before joining the PawSox.

Might that happen soon?

“Soon is a very vague term and we will probably keep it that way,” Hazen said.  “We can’t put a time frame on it yet because we need to go through the progression.  We’re hoping that if everything continues to progress and he has no physical issues, then yea, we’ll be able to keep increasing the workload every day until we reach the point where he’s back playing.  We’re encouraged by what we’re seeing.”

* * * * *

One of the links that I recommend on the right side of this page is Ken Levine’s blog.  Ken was my broadcasting partner one summer with the Syracuse Chiefs and while I’m confident that he enjoyed working with me, I suspect it was not the highlight of his career considering that he been a writer for such TV shows as MASH, Cheers, Frasier, and The Simpsons and has been a play-by-play announcer for the Orioles, Padres, and Mariners.

Ken’s son Matt recently got married and you can tell by the dessert that he’s a rabid Red Sox fan.

(Photo courtesy of Ken Levine)

Here’s how Ken described it on his blog:

Matt’s sister, Annie was a big hit. The dessert was gourmet cupcakes and Annie designed a replica Fenway Park to showcase them (complete with a hand-drawn Green Monster). And then her speech was one of the highlights of the night. Example: “When my brother told me he had a new girlfriend who was also an engineer and loves the Red Sox I thought, ‘my brother has an imaginary girlfriend’.”

For their first dance Matt and Kim selected “Sweet Caroline”, a Bosox staple. Thank goodness the Dodgers aren’t their favorite team. Their first dance might have been “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”    

* * * * *

The PawSox produced one of their most dramatic wins of the season on Sunday as Lars Anderson’s 2-out, 2-run home run in the 9th inning gave Pawtucket a 7-6 win in Buffalo.

The PawSox lead the International League wild card race, and remain one game behind Lehigh Valley in the IL North.

Pawtucket will go for a 4-game sweep in Buffalo on Monday night at 7:05.  I hope you’ll join us for radio coverage beginning with the pre-game show at 6:50 on the PawSox radio network and pawsox.com.

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.

From Pawtucket To Cooperstown

This is Hall of Fame induction weekend in Cooperstown and 50 of the 65 living Hall of Famers are expected to take part in this year’s festivities, including Lehigh Valley IronPigs manager Ryne Sandberg.

After spending three days in Pawtucket this week, Sandberg missed Thursday’s game at McCoy Stadium to travel to Cooperstown.

“Just going there and being amongst the Hall of Fame members – that’s still a treat for me and that will never end,” Sandberg told me.  “To sit next to Willie Mays, or Mike Schmidt, or Sandy Koufax – the names go on and on.  I go there and take it all in.  The Hall of Fame does a very nice job of making it a casual setting where all of the guys get together for golf, dinner, and parties, so we all get to hang out.  Going back is always a treat.”

Sandberg was inducted in 2005 along with former PawSox and Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs.  Is the 10-time All-Star and 9-time Gold Glove Award winner still in awe when he’s around his childhood heroes?

“To some extent, but maybe a little bit less than seven years ago because I know them now and they’re great guys,” Sandberg said.  “I’ve become friends with a lot of them – my wife and Bob Gibson’s wife got very close from going to the Hall of Fame, so now we get together and go to dinner in the off-season and stuff like that.  I never thought that I would be going to dinner a few times a year with Bob Gibson – a guy that I wouldn’t have wanted to stand in there and try to hit off – but he’s a great guy and now we’re friends.  That’s really what comes from this and it’s a very unique club.”

This is the second time in a little more than a month that Sandberg has returned to Cooperstown.  On June 15th, Lehigh Valley had an off-day before beginning a series in Pawtucket, so on the bus ride north from Allentown, the team took a detour to the Hall of Fame.

“That was organized and orchestrated by the Phillies organization,” Sandberg said.  “They want to try to get each affiliate up there within the next four or five years.  They thought it was a great opportunity since I’m the manager at LehighValleythis year to start that off.  The travel wasn’t bad and I know that once the guys got there, they saw some great stuff.  We spent about 3 hours there, had lunch, and had a great off-day.  All in all, I thought it was terrific.  Some of the players had been there, but others that hadn’t must have thought that it was awesome.”

Sandberg’s Hall of Fame plaque mentions the “tireless preparation” that helped him become one of the best second baseman in major league history.  Now he’s working toward becoming a big league skipper, and plans to use this weekend to pick the brains of some of best managers ever.   

“When I got into managing in 2007, I found myself going to the Hall of Fame and sitting at the same table with Earl Weaver and Tommy Lasorda and Frank Robinson,” Sandberg said.  “It’s pretty cool to hang out with them and see if I can pick something up.  I hope to do more of the same because I’m always trying to learn something.  Any little crumb that I can pick up along the way that will continue to help me be a better baseball man.”

* * * * *

By the way, when the Lehigh Valley IronPigs made that bus ride to Cooperstown in June, they used a bus company that causes frequent confusion and occasional hysteria when it rolls into International League ball parks.

Bieber Tourways is based in Kutztown, PA and has nothing to do Justin Bieber (although I’m sure they would welcome his business).

* * * * *

In March, I told the story of how Bubba Bell – now with the Buffalo Bisons – became friends last winter with hockey legend Wayne Gretzky (you can read it here).

Bell gave private hitting lessons this past off-season to Gretzky’s son Trevor, who was recently selected in baseball’s amateur draft.

“He just got drafted in the 7th round by the Cubs,”Bell told me before Friday’s game against Pawtucket.  “He’s really close to signing.  He’s got some shoulder issues that he’s going to get taken care of so that he can start playing next year, but as far as I know, he’s about to sign and go to Arizona.  He’s going to let his dad handle his representation which I thought was the best idea in the world.  I’m excited for him to get his shoulder taken care of and see what happens.”

The Toronto Sun reports that Trevor has in fact signed with the Cubs.  According to the paper, the fact that Chicago has not announced the signing could possibly mean that Gretzky received more than the slotted bonus money.

* * * * *

Fighting For First – The Pawtucket Red Sox will look to move into a tie for first place in the I.L. North for the first time since April 22nd as they face the Buffalo Bisons in game two of a 4-game series at Buffalo’s Coca-Cola Field on Saturday night..  The PawSox won the opening game of the series 4-2 on Friday as Ryan Lavarnway went 2-for-4 with a 2B, HR, and 3 RBI.  That victory coupled with Lehigh Valley’s 6-3 loss to Columbus, closed the gap between the 1st-place IronPigs and 2nd-place PawSox to one game.   The series in Buffalo continues tomorrow at 1:05 pm before concluding on Monday at 7:05 pm. Pawtucket then moves to Allentown,PA for a key 4-game series vs.LehighValley. Pawtucket returns home one week from tonight (Saturday, July 30) for an 8-game homestand that features four games vs.Louisville and four more vs. the Buffalo Bisons.

I hope you’ll join us for radio coverage on Saturday beginning with the pre-game show at 6:50 on the PawSox radio network and pawsox.com.

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 Big Bat and a Big Brother

The legend of Ryan Lavarnway grows.

(Photo courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)

On Tuesday night, the 23-year-old catcher launched one of the longest home runs that I’ve seen at McCoy Stadium in 5-plus years of broadcasting PawSox games – a majestic blast to dead center that landed halfway up the roof on the concessions garage beyond the outfield wall (watch video of the HR here).  I would estimate that it traveled at least 430 feet.

After 32 games at the Triple-A level, Lavarnway is batting .388 with 12 2B, 11 HR, and 31 RBI.  His OPS is an astounding 1.220.  To put that into perspective, there are only two major league players with an OPS over 1.000 this season – Toronto’s Jose Bautista at 1.155 and St. Louis’s Lance Berkman at 1.004.

Ryan’s last 7 games have been downright absurd – he’s batting .615 (16-for-26) with 6 HR and 12 RBI.  No wonder Lavarnway’s teammates have started to call him “Babe”…as in Ruth.

Now let me share something about Ryan Lavarnway off of the field.

(Owen Karsmarski, Ryan Lavarnway, and Blake Karsmarski)

Before Tuesday’s game, Ryan gave 14-year-old twin brothers Blake and Owen Karsmarski a behind-the-scenes tour of McCoy Stadium.  He has been mentoring the twins as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program since he was a student at Yale University.       

“I signed up for it in college during my sophomore year,” Lavarnway said.  “We kind of did it as a group – as the baseball team.  We signed up for a six month Big Brother program and I fell in love with my little brother Blake and we’ve been in contact ever since.  One of my teammates at Yale had his twin brother Owen and they lost contact, so I kind of adopted him as my second little brother.  It’s great – I still get to see them every once-in-a-while since they’re from Connecticut, right near the Yale campus.  They’re great kids and they’ve grown up fast.  It’s kind of funny for me to say that not having any kids of my own but they’re great guys.

“Back when I was in school they’d come over and we’d grill some burgers, play catch, and take a tour of the campus, or I’d take them to a restaurant and just chat about stuff.  Now I don’t see them as often, but they come out to the game, come on to the field during batting practice, come into the locker room and meet the guys and get free equipment from the guys – the guys are usually great about it.  They got a couple new bats today, a couple of batting gloves, so it’s pretty cool.”

Blake and Owen spoke glowingly about what Lavarnway has meant to them.

“I got to know Ryan about five years ago through the Big Brother Big Sister Association and my relationship with him has been amazing – he’s just like a real brother to me,” said Blake Karsmarski.  “We get to go out on the field and hang out with Ryan, but it’s just about spending time with him for me.”

“I enjoy his company a lot,” said Owen Karsmarski.  “Usually if we get here early enough we’ll go out to the field while they take B.P. and we’ll get to shag some balls.  Then we come in the clubhouse and hang out for a bit before they have to get ready.  He definitely feels like a real brother”

“It’s amazing for me,” Lavarnway said.  “I just hope they get another positive male influence in their lives.  It’s tough these days for kids to come out right and stay out of trouble, but they’ve been doing a great job. Their grades have improved in school – Blake was getting into a little bit of trouble in school when I met him, but he’s doing great so my hope is that they grow up and are functioning members of society.  They’re great kids and they can be very successful in whatever they want to do. For me it’s just a great experience to be with them and watch them grow up.”

* * * * *

With a 7-2 win over Lehigh Valley on Tuesday, the PawSox have pulled within 2 games of the first place IronPigs in the IL North, and moved into the lead in the Wild Card race by a half-game over Durham.

The PawSox will look to take their third game in a row from Lehigh Valley in a Wednesday matinee beginning at 12:05.  I hope you’ll join us for radio coverage beginning with the pre-game show at 11:50 in the morning on the PawSox radio network and pawsox.com.

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.

It’s Time You Get To Know Ronald Bermudez

What would you think of a 23-year-old kid who skipped Double-A and batted .290 with a .477 slugging percentage in his first taste of Triple-A action. 

Sounds like a pretty good prospect right?

I think it’s time to introduce you to outfielder Ronald Bermudez.

(Photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)

In early May after injuries to Ryan Kalish, J.C. Linares and Yamaico Navarro, the PawSox needed a healthy body for what figured to be a short stay in Triple-A.  Rather than disrupt a more highly-touted prospect that early in the season, Boston moved Bermudez from High-A Salem to Pawtucket, even though Ronald was only hitting .194 (6-for-31) in 9 games in the Carolina League.

“He wasn’t supposed to be here – he came up as a replacement for all of the injured players that we had,” said PawSox hitting coach Chili Davis.  “The book on him was that he was a good defensive outfielder, but don’t expect too much offense from him.”

“I only expected to be here for a couple of weeks, but I never talked about it,” Bermudez told me.  “I just tried to come here and do my job.  I’ve tried to work with Chili, and every time that I get the opportunity to play, I try to play hard.”

Bermudez looked completely overmatched in his first five games with Pawtucket going 0-for-17, but since then he’s produced the statistics that I referenced earlier – a .290 batting average (31-for-107) with 12 doubles, 1 triple, and 2 HR in 35 games. 

“He’s a big, strong, kid that’s never really hit on a consistent basis in the minor leagues, but we’ve given him a chance to play and he’s made the best of it,” said PawSox manager Arnie Beyeler.  “He’s a spark on this team because we can put him near the bottom of the order and he can drive the ball.  You have to respect the pop that he has and he’s done a really nice job of taking advantage of an opportunity.” 

“What I love about him is that he has really good bat speed,” said Davis.  “He just needed to be more fluid with his swing.  He takes good rips and when he makes contract, he’s going to hit the ball hard somewhere.  If he doesn’t chase pitches down and out of the zone, he’s going to hit the ball hard.”

Bermudez is in his 6th year in the Red Sox organization after being signed as an international free agent from Venezuela when he was 17 years old.  He led the Dominican Summer League with a .349 average in his 2nd professional season (2007), and was a South Atlantic League All-Star last year when he batted .281 with 28 doubles, 3 triples, and 10 HR in 95 games with Greenville.

But Ronald entered the season with a career .270 minor league batting average (.338 OBP, .394 SLG, .732 OPS) and is not currently listed among Boston’s Top 60 prospects by Soxprospects.com.

“I don’t really care if I’ve opened any eyes or not, I just want to play well for the team,” Bermudez said.  “I always ask Arnie and Chili what I can do to be the best player that I can be.  I want to stay here all season and I’m trying to play well every day so that they’ll keep me here.”

“He’s a great kid,” said Chili Davis.  “He’s very respectful, he comes in to work, he keeps his mouth shut, and he soaks up information.  He and Jose Iglesias have that ability to retain information.  When you tell him something, it soaks in and they use it.

“He’s a worker.  He came here from A-ball and I think he’s doing a pretty damn good job up here in Triple-A.”

* * * * *

The PawSox will send Felix Doubront to the mound as they look to pull within 2 games of first-place LehighValley as they host the IronPigs on Tuesday night at 7:05.  I hope you’ll join us for radio coverage beginning with the pre-game show at 6:50 on the PawSox radio network and pawsox.com.

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.

All Aboard The Lavarnwagon

If he keeps this up, Ryan Lavarnway could join the list of famous graduates from his Alma mater – and no, I’m not referring to Yale University where the 23-year-old catcher is still two semesters shy of his philosophy degree.

I’m referring to El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, CA, where the graduates include actors Christopher Knight (Peter Brady in The Brady Bunch), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (“McLovin” in Super Bad), and William Zabka (Johnny “Sweep the Leg” Lawrence in The Karate Kid). 

(Photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)

Lavarnway is batting .317/.388/.580 (.968 OPS) with 15 2B, 23 HR, and 63 RBI in 84 games between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket, and while Red Sox fans are starting to hop on the “Lavarnwagon” (a term coined by PawSox fan Don Werner), Ryan says that he is ignoring the growing buzz about his minor league exploits.

“I have no idea about that,” Lavarnway said.  “I’m going to take care of my business on the field and anything else is superfluous.  That can really become a distraction and I’m going to try not to let it be.”

Despite going 0-for-4 with a walk in Sunday’s 13-3 loss to Durham, Lavarnway is batting .417 with 6 home runs in his last 16 games for the PawSox.  Prior to Sunday’s game, I asked Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler the following question:  If Red Sox manager Terry Francona called you today and asked if Lavarnway is ready to hit in the major leagues, what would your answer be?

“I would have a tough time saying no,” Beyeler told me.  “The thing this kid does really well is that he has an idea at the plate.  He has a plan up there and he knows the strike zone.  He’s a big, strong kid so he can drive the baseball.  He’s had a few balls fall in, but he’s driven the baseball.  He uses the whole field well and he takes what pitchers give him.  He watches how guys are working people and he goes up there with a plan.”

Lavarnway has already increased his home run total for the third straight year, going from 21 at Single-A Greenville in 2009, to 22 between High-A Salem and Portland in 2010, to 23 this season with nearly 50 games to go.

Praise for Ryan’s hitting ability is always accompanied by questions about his defense.  In 15 games as Pawtucket’s catcher, Lavarnway has thrown out 29% of opposing base stealers with 0 errors and 2 passed balls, but it’s hard to evaluate a catcher’s defensive ability solely by using traditional stats. 

“He’s doing a nice job,” Beyeler said.  “The big thing is getting to know pitchers – he doesn’t know a lot of these guys.  These veteran guys have the 55-foot breaking ball that they throw with two strikes that is a little bit tougher to block and he’s adjusting to that stuff.  He gets rid of the ball very well on stolen bases.  You guys keep track of the caught stealing percentage, but the stuff we use is how they do when they have a chance or don’t have a chance.  He’s done a nice job.  You put the whole package together and you’ve got a pretty good ballplayer.”

In his first 30 games at the Triple-A level, Lavarnway has an OPS of 1.121.  To put that into perspective, there is only one player in the big leagues with an OPS over 1.000 this year –Toronto’s Jose Bautista at 1.171.

Is Ryan surprised by his stats so far with Pawtucket?

“I don’t think that surprised is the right word,” Lavarnway told me.  “I don’t know if I expected this kind of production, but I’ve prepared myself on a daily basis to be able to do this and I’m going to continue to do that and hopefully keep producing.”

“I think that’s him,” Beyeler said.  “He just expects to do well and he’s always asking questions and trying to improve.  He knows his swing, he’s got a great idea of what he’s trying to do at the plate, he’s not afraid to use the whole field, and he’s not afraid to strikeout.  He’s not afraid to take a good swing and miss and he gets after it.” 

It sounds like it’s almost time to update the Wikipedia page for El Camino Real High School.

* * * * *

The PawSox open a 4-game series at McCoy Stadium against first-place Lehigh Valley on Monday night at 7:05.  I hope you’ll join us for radio coverage beginning with the pre-game show at 6:50 on the PawSox radio network and pawsox.com.  The game can also be seen on Cox Sports Television throughout Rhode Island.

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.