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‘Walking medical phenomenon’ Barrett on quest to return to Nationals staff

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Aaron Barrett still has a hard time believing that he broke his humerus — that long bone in the arm that runs from the shoulder to the elbow — while pitching a baseball.

Barrett, an Evansville native and Washington Nationals reliever, was on his way back from Tommy John reconstructive surgery on his elbow (Sept. 3, 2015 by Dr. James Andrews). Things seemed to be progressing well 11 months after the procedure.

The power right-hander was one week from being sent on a rehab assignment in 2016 when snap! — his arm broke on the 11th pitch of a 20-toss simulated game.

“I went into shock,” says Barrett of the painful moment. “It’s crazy the amount of force and torque I used to break that major bone.

“I must’ve thrown that one pitch very hard.”

Doctors told Barrett that he is the first to break the humerus after Tommy John surgery.

“I’m a walking medical phenomenon,” says Barrett, who debuted in the big leagues with Washington in 2014 and made his last MLB appearance in 2015.

And now he’s working to make a comeback.

Turned from a starter to a reliever in his first professional season (2010), Barrett made the big league team out of 2014 spring training and appeared in 50 games and was 3-0 with a 2.66 earned run average, 49 strikeouts and 20 walks in 40 2/3 innings while also pitching in 10 games and 10 innings at Triple-A Syracuse.

In 2015, Barrett made 40 MLB appearances and was 3-3 with a 4.60 ERA. He fanned 35 and walked seven in 29 innings, but landed on the 15-day disabled list with a right biceps strain in both June and August.

“I was pitching nearly everyday and I was in pain for two or three weeks before I went on the DL,” says Barrett, who was soon transferred to the 60-day list. “Being a reliever, throwing everyday is part of the grind.”

Along the way, it was discovered that Barrett had a 90-percent tear in his Ulnar Collateral Ligament and so he underwent the reconstruction then he had his next setback.

But Barrett, signed to a two-year contract by the Nationals to rehab, began throwing again last summer and has worked hard at the club’s training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla.

He now finds himself close to getting closer to the road back to the majors.

Barrett and other players rehabbing injuries have been competing in extended spring training camp games against other organizations along the Space Coast.

“I’m building arm strength and knocking the rust off,” says Barrett. “I hope to go north on a rehab assignment the next few weeks.”

Washington has full-season affiliates in Hagerstown (Low Single-A), Potomac (High Single-A), Harrisburg (Double-A) and Syracuse (Triple-A) and Barrett expects that his assignments will come as a progression.

Barrett — aka “The Bear” — has stayed connected to his buddies in the big leagues and watches the broadcast of nearly every Nationals game.

“I still have many close friends on the team, guys I came up in the farm system with,” says Barrett.

The 6-foot-4 righty holds the distinction of being selected four times in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft — in the 44th round in 2006 by the Los Angeles Dodgers, in the 20th round in 2008 by the Minnesota Twins, in the 27th round in 2009 by the Texas Rangers and in the ninth round in 2010 by the Nationals.

Barrett explains why he kept going back into the draft.

“The money was not enough for me to turn away from college,” says Barrett. “I wanted to finish my (liberal arts) degree (three minors — history, sociology and park and recreational management — equals a major). “I  was a ninth-round senior. That’s pretty good. It all worked out.”

Barrett is a 2006 graduate of Evansville Central High School, where he played for coach Jason Engelbrecht. He played two seasons at Wabash Valley College (2007, 2008) in Mount Carmel, Ill., for coach Rob Fournier and two seasons at the University of Mississippi (2009, 2010) for coach Mike Bianco.

Using Barrett some out of the bullpen, Bianco discovered that his stuff played up and he was able to let it go in shorter mound stints.

After turning pro, Barrett developed the mindset of throwing several times a week.

“With the intensity of the later innings, I thrived,” says Barrett.

In 2012, he broke out while pitching in Low-A, High-A and the Arizona Fall League. He was in Double-A and in 2013 and then got the call from Triple-A to the majors in 2014.

The middle son of Dave and Jackie Barrett, Aaron played at Golfmoor Little League on Evansville’s west side before his family moved to the north side where he took to the diamonds of the Highland Baseball Club.

As a 13-year-old, Barrett was on a team that went to Nebraska and won a national championship. Among his teammates was Preston Mattingly, son of Don Mattingly and still one of Aaron’s best friends, and Adam Champion.

Preston Mattingly was a first-round MLB draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006 and played in the minor until 2011.

Champion played four years at the University Arkansas-Little Rock and then two years in the minors and two in independent baseball.

Ryan Barrett, Aaron’s older brother, graduated form Evansville Central in 2003 and played shortstop for four years at the University of Evansville.

Younger brother Drew Barrett was a left-handed-hitting infielder who played two years at Wabash Valley and two at Lindsey Wilson College (Columbia, Ky.).

Two cousins — Evansville Central graduate Jason Barrett and Evansville Reitz Memorial graduate Zach Barrett — also went on college baseball — Jason at Ball State and Zach at Olney (Ill.) Central College and Middle Tennessee State University.

“Evansville is such a good baseball town,” says Barrett. “The state of Indiana doesn’t give it enough credit for how good of a baseball town it is.”

While working on the baseball field to make his hometown proud, Aaron is also spending quality time with wife Kendyl and 7-month-old daughter Kollyns.

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Aaron Barrett, an Evansville native, is working to get back to the big leagues with the Washington Nationals after breaking his humerus while rehabbing from Tommy John elbow surgery. (Washington Nationals Photo)

 

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Baseball odyssey takes many twists, turns for Vincennes native Ashley

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Nevin Ashley always wanted to be in charge on a baseball field.

Coach Bill Cary let him play different positions on the North Knox High School team.

But Ashley was always drawn back to catcher.

“He was great because he knew at that age I had a future in baseball,” says Ashley. “He challenged to think about the game in a little bit more of an in-depth way. That really helped me, especially as a catcher.”

Cary, who was on the South staff for the 2006 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches All-Star Series when Terre Haute North Vigo catcher Josh Phegley was MVP, encouraged Ashley to call pitches and manage the game on the field.

“I began taking extra time to read batters and see any adjustments they might make,” says Ashley. “That helped me have the long career that I had.”

The 2003 North Knox graduate went on to play three seasons at Indiana State University (2004-06) and 11 in professional baseball.

At ISU, he learned much from head coach Bob Warn and pitching coach C.J. Keating.

Warn’s last season with the Sycamores was also Ashley’s last in Terre Haute.

“He was definitely an old school baseball coach,” says Ashley of American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Warn. “He was a good influence on my career. I learned his will to win and how important it was.”

Keating and Ashley went over scouting reports so the receiver would know the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. He would study the starters and potential pinch-hitters the night before games.

“I met a lot of good people at Indiana State that I stay in contact with,” says Ashley. “I was fortunate for those years of my life.”

Ashley was selected in the sixth round of the 2006 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and set out on a long minor league journey.

From team to team and organization to organization, he just kept going.

“I had a lot of perseverance and a lot of people in my corner,” says Ashley, the son of Dan and Jamie Ashley, younger brother of Natalie and Nathan, the grandson of Robert and Patricia Ashley and Jim and the late Shirley Cardinal, the husband of Ashley (yes, she’s Ashley Ashley) and father of two boys — Gaige (5) and Aiden (1).

His parents rarely missed a home game while Nevin was in college and came to see him whenever possible when he became a professional.

Not able to travel much, his paternal grandparents followed on the Internet. If the feed went bad or something about their Nevin on-air was incorrect, they were sure to get a phone call.

“She knows best, so you better listen to her,” says Nevin of Grammy Ashley.

Nevin, who was born in Vincennes, began his baseball players tagging along with Nathan at the Vincennes Cub League. Heading into his freshmen year at North Knox, Nevin played American Legion Baseball in Vincennes. His next three summers were spent with the Indiana Bulls. He went back to Legion ball for the summer prior to Indiana State.

Ashley played for the Springfield Rifles in the Central Illinois Collegiate League in 2004, Solano Thunderbirds in the Sierra Baseball League and Horizon Air Summer Series in California in 2005 and briefly with the Eau Claire (Wis.) Express in the Northwoods League in 2006 before signing with the Devil Rays.

Ashley strapped on the catching gear day after day, year after year.

Things he began learning back as a youngster were being reinforced and he was getting acquainted with analytics as part of the scouting report.

“It’s good and a bad thing,” says Ashley. “I’m kind of old school. But (analytics) is very crucial. Stats show that a guy might pull the ball on the ground so we make a shift.”

To stay on the same page, there would be a constant dialogue between innings involving Ashley and his pitching coach and — if he had a catching background — his manager.

“All that being said, it’s still up to the pitcher,” says Ashley. “Those stats go on his baseball card.

“As a good catcher you have to build a relationships with each and every pitcher and build their trust. Some guys you need to coddle a little more. Some you have to push — and maybe even make them a little mad — to get the best out of them.”

In 2007, Ashley smashed 12 of his 66 career minor league home runs for the Columbus (Ga.) Catfish. He played in the 2009 Arizona Fall League with the Phoenix Desert Dogs.

For all his hard work, he finally got called up to the big leagues in as a reserve for the Rays (by this time they had dropped the Devil) during the 2010 playoffs. He did not play.

In 2011 (and again for a short time in 2015), Nevin, Ashley and Gaige went to learn another way of living and about baseball in the Dominican Winter League.

“It was a great experience,” says Nevin, who was with Gigantes de Cibao in 2011 Toros del Este in 2015. “I wanted to submerge myself into their culture. Now I have a better understanding of why Latin players they play the will they do. All that showmanship, fans thrive on it. It’s good for baseball.”

A seven-year run with the Tampa Bay organization ended when Ashley declared free agency and signed with the Cincinnati Reds before the 2013 season. That year, he played not far from where he grew up with the Triple-A Louisville Bats.

He was again granted free agency and signed a minor league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and was assigned to the Indianapolis Indians in 2014. He got called up to the majors again with Pittsburgh in New York. The catcher he was going to replace decided to play through injury and Ashley was sent back to Triple-A.

Once again, he became a free agent after the season and caught on with the Milwaukee Brewers and went to their Triple-A affiliate, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox.

That summer, Ashley was called up to the bigs late in the season. After 870 minor league appearances, he made his MLB debut on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015 in Miami. He was 31 years old. Batting eighth in the Milwaukee order, he collected his first big-league hit — an RBI double in his first at-bat — off Tom Koehler.

Ashley would finish the season with one more hit — an infield single off Carlos Contreras on Sunday, Sept. 20 in Cincinnati — and a .100 batting average. He got into 12 games and drove in one run and scored two.

After the 2015 season, Ashley declared free agency and signed a minor league deal with the New York Mets and played with the Triple-A Las Vegas 51’s in 2016 until being traded to the Texas Rangers organization in June and putting on the colors of the Triple-A Round Rock Express.

Once again a free agent, he joined the Seattle Mariners organization for 2017.

In Arizona for spring training, Ashley suffered a pretty severe concussion that kept him off out of games for the whole season.

“When I first started playing, concussions were not looked as thoroughly as they are now,” says Ashley, who turned 33 in August. “As a catcher, I had my bell rang plenty of times. I shook it off, took a few aspirin and kept going.

“This was different. I had two little ones at home. I started looking at my priorities in life.”

Ashley opted to retire as a player and come home to Evansville to sort out his future.

The tagline on his Twitter profile at @nevin_ashley reads: Baseball is what I do, not who I am.

It is followed by a Bible verse — Philippians 4:13. That passage — “I can do all things through Christ who strengths me.”

“I’m trying to mend,” says Ashley. “I still having constant migraine headaches.

“I’ll move on from there. I don’t know if I’m going to stay in the baseball world. I have a few opportunities. Right now, I’m going to catch up with all the family time I missed.”

Nevin and Ashley grew up together. They were wed early in his professional baseball career and she and the couple’s oldest son have put in plenty of miles together.

“We decided that we were going do this baseball thing together — no matter what,” says Nevin. “We signed up for it. It doesn’t make it any easier. We have had to deal with a lot of ambiguity.

“But she’s independent. I don’t know how any of the baseball moms do it. They go through a lot out there that not a lot of people see. They think it’s glitz and glamour and it’s not.”

While baby Aiden imitates a bowling ball.

“He runs into everything,” says Nevin. “My 5-year-old, he loves baseball.”

Gaige was eight days old when he attended the first of many baseball games.

“I don’t push it at all, but if he wants to play baseball that will be special for me,” says Nevin. “He’s a lefty. He’s going to have to find a different position.”

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After 10 years in the minors, Milwaukee Brewers catcher Nevin Ashley hits a double in his first Major League Baseball at-bat Sept. 9, 2015 in Miami. The Vincennes, Ind., native began his professional career in 2006 and retired in 2017. (MLB Photo)

 

Right-hander Ruxer doing his baseball homework

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

As a finance and accounting double major at the University of Louisville, Jared Ruxer studied figures as they relate to business.

“I’ve always liked numbers,” says Ruxer, a 2011 graduate of Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis.

Now that his business is baseball — he is a 6-foot-3 right-handed pitcher in the Kansas City Royals organization — Ruxer is examining concepts like Spin Rate and Extension that are a part of TrackMan or Statcast technology.

According to MLB.com, a pitcher’s Spin Rate (SR) “represents the rate of spin on a baseball after it is released. It is measured in revolutions per minute. The amount of spin on a pitch changes its trajectory.”

For Extension (EXT), “a pitcher must begin his throwing motion while standing on the pitching rubber — which is 60 feet, 6 inches away from home plate. This does not mean pitches are actually thrown from 60 feet, 6 inches away from the plate.

“The point at which a pitcher releases the ball is actually a few feet closer to home plate than the pitching rubber itself. Extension quantifies exactly how much closer a pitcher’s release point is to home plate.”

The higher EXT the better and the less time the hitter has to react to the pitch.

“I’ve been looking at the TrackMan data and getting an understanding of that and how to apply it,” says Ruxer, 25. “I’m getting more into the biomechanics of pitching. I’m also learning to manage the running game better and getting really good at PFP’s (Pitcher Fielding Practice) and things like that.”

Ruxer was chosen in the 29th round of the 2011 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and did not sign, opting to go to Louisville. He pitched for the Cardinals 2012-14.

He was named Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America, National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association All-America, Big East Conference Rookie of the Year and third-team all-Big East while making 16 mound appearances (14 starts) and going 8-3 with a 3.38 earned run average, 32 strikeouts and 15 walks in 77 1/3 innings.

As a sophomore in 2013, he made 19 appearances (seven starts) with a 0-1 mark and a 5.63 ERA, 35 strikeouts and 21 walks in 38 1/3 innings. Louisville went 51-14 and played in the 2013 College World Series.

Ruxer’s junior campaign in 2014 saw him make 13 starts and go 7-1 with a 2.27 ERA with 68 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings before an elbow injury ended his season. He named second-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference. The Cardinals (51-15) returned to Omaha for the 2014 College World Series.

Two days before the 2014 MLB draft, Ruxer underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery and did not pitch that summer. In the fall, he went back to Louisville and complete his degree.

The righty made his first professional pitch until 2015 with the rookie-level Orem Owlz. That initial season back, he worked 29 2/3 innings over 14 appearances (11 starts) and was 0-3 with a 4.85 ERA, 33 strikeouts and 11 walks.

“That first short season was tough,” says Ruxer. “It definitely took awhile (to bounce back from surgery). I didn’t feel like I was a 100 percent and back to myself until 18 months later. I had to pitch through it.

“I had to learn how to pitch a little more because I didn’t have all my velocity back yet.”

Ruxer split the 2016 season between the Low Class-A Burlington Bees and High Class-A Inland Empire 66ers, combining for a 4-8 record, 3.08 ERA and 29 appearances (19 starts) with 99 strikeouts and 31 walks over 111 innings.

The first full pro season was also when he was introduced to the TrackMan data.

Knowing the Angels were using it as an evaluation tool, Ruxer began doing his homework and studied ways to improve his numbers and performance.

He found that change could be made through grip, arm action and some minor mechanical cues.

“Some days the ball has a little more carry. Some days it has a little more sink on it,” says Ruxer. “You make adjustments based on that.”

On Dec. 1, 2016, the Angels traded Ruxer to the Royals. He spent most of the 2017 season with the High Class-A Wilmington Rocks, going 5-7 with a 3.45 ERA in 24 appearances (17) starts with 84 strikeouts and 29 walks in 109 2/3 innings.

In three games (one start) and six innings with the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, he was 0-0 with a 16.50 ERA, one strikeout and seven walks.

Ruxer says the differences in the way he was handled by the two organizations is very slight.

“The Angels were very hands-off,” says Ruxer. “It was on me.

“The Royals were a little more proactive.”

While player development staff are there to help, Ruxer has learned that how players progress in pro baseball is largely up to them.

“It’s going on our stat sheet,” says Ruxer.

The Royals sent Ruxer to the 2017 Arizona Fall League to work on a breaking ball and he relieved in nine contests with the Surprise Saguaros. He went 1-0 with a 3.75 ERA. In 12 innings, he had 12 strikeouts and nine walks.

More than three years removed from Tommy John surgery, Ruxer is back to letting it rip on the mound.

“I’m pretty high-effort now,” says Ruxer. “I’m not holding anything back. I get a lot more results when I do that.

“There’s no reason to leave anything in the tank. There’s not too much thinking ahead. You’ve got to get the guy out standing in the box and the rest is secondary.”

Looking to his diamond past, Ruxer played in the Fall Creek Little League, where he was a teammate of current Texas Rangers minor league pitcher David Ledbetter.

Ruxer played travel ball for the Indiana Prospects at age 12 and for the Indiana Bulls at 13 and 17. From 14 to 16, he was with the Indiana Braves, a team father Jim helped organize.

At 18, Ruxer was with the Midland Redskins in Ohio. The summers after his freshmen and sophomore seasons at Louisville, he hurled for the Wareham Gatemen of the Cape Cod League.

In his three seasons at Louisville, Ruxer learned from head coach Dan McDonnell and pitching coach Roger Williams.

“(McDonnell) taught me about managing the running game, PFP’s and was a stickler for bunt defense,” says Ruxer. “(Williams) called all the (pitches). I liked that. We could just go out there and pitch and just worry about our stuff. He did all his homework on the hitters. I trusted him. I didn’t shake off too much.”

While catchers in the minor leagues are allowed to develop their pitch-calling abilities, Ruxer notes that almost all pitches in major college baseball are called by coaches.

“Their job’s on the line. They want to control the game,” says Ruxer. “I get it. They have time to read up on the hitters. You are a student-athlete. There a lot of things going on. We can’t afford to lose games.”

Ruxer played three varsity seasons at Lawrence Central. He went 5-2 as a sophomore, 6-1 as a junior and 6-1 as a senior with a total of 155 strikeouts. His final high school season saw him earned all-state, all-Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference and all-Marion County honors.

Dan Roman (who is now head coach at Brownsburg High School) led the program when Ruxer was with the LC Bears.

“That was a blast,” says Ruxer. “Dan was awesome. “When it came to pitching, he showed me how to pitch to certain hitters and about reading the hitters’ swings. I learned how to attract hitters and started learning how to manage the running game.”

After an extended 2017 season, Ruxer managed to get away for some vacation and quality time with family — father Jim in a Certified Public Accountant, mother Lisa is a recently-retired as a physical education teacher at Carmel High School and younger sister Addie is life science recruiter in Chicago after graduating from Indiana University.

Ruxer will spend the rest of the off-season working out in Indianapolis. He has trained at both St. Vincent Sports Performance and the new Pro X Athlete Development. Former MLB pitcher Joe Thatcher is involved with Pro X.

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Jared Ruxer, a Lawrence Central High School and University of Louisville graduate, is a right-handed pitcher in the Kansas City Royals organization. (Wilmington Blue Rocks Photo)

 

Pirates approach attracts Hickerson back to coaching

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Baseball is about pitching, hitting and fielding.

But it goes deeper than that for Bryan Hickerson.

When Hickerson finished his last assignment in an 18-year stint in baseball-related ministry, he went looking for a job in professional or college baseball.

Through his work with Unlimited Potential Inc. — based in Winona Lake, Ind. — Hickerson had gotten to know folks in the Pirates organization through former Personal Development Coordinator Anthony Telford and spent as much time as he could the Bucs at various levels.

Hickerson, a former University of Minnesota left-hander who pitched for nine pro seasons and went 21-21 with the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies from 1991-95, and moved to the Warsaw area in 2001 to begin his work with UPI, helped coach during the 2015 season at Winona Lake-based Grace College.

He last coached professionals in 1997 with Bakersfield and 1998 with San Jose in the Giants system.

“There are more analytics now then when I coached then,” says Hickerson, 54. “But the biggest difference is in me and not the game itself. In my perspective, it’s about people and developing trust and relationships with the people you work with. The Pirates are big on that. That’s what attracted me to the organization.

“Baseball is baseball. Who you get to do it with makes all the difference.”

Hickerson served the Pirates in 2017 as the pitching coach with the Double-A Eastern League champion Altoona (Pa.) Curve.

After the EL season, he spent time with players in the Florida Instructional League and Arizona Fall League. Three pitchers who were with Altoona — Mitch Keller, Brandon Waddell and J.T. Brubaker — were sent to the AFL’s Glendale Desert Dogs.

“I went there to touch base,” says Hickerson. “I went to see how they were doing mentally (after a season which began with spring training in Bradenton, Fla., in February) and to see if they were growing or just going through the motions.”

The Pirates’ purpose statement — Changing the world through baseball — appeals to Hickerson.

“It’s a process of developing men — the staff and the players,” says Hickerson. “We invest all this time. Are they going to be difference makers?”

That goes for those on a path toward the big leagues and those that will fall short — which is the vast majority.

“It’s not just about developing a baseball player,” says Hickerson. “It’s the heart, mind, soul and body. It’s refreshing to see in professional athletics.”

Players in the Pirates system are asked to take stock of themselves.

“We make them understand who they are,” says Hickerson. “We get them to answer the question: ‘Why do you play professional baseball?’ The answer is what motivates you day in and day out.

“We peel back the layers until they come to grips with why they’re there.”

For some it might be about being rich and famous. For others, the goal may be very different. Players fill out a comprehensive “blueprint.” The plan is likely to change as the player grows and matures.

“You have to commit to a process of growth and understand your strengths and weaknesses,” says Hickerson.

It is the duty of coaches to help players through the process toward reaching their maximum potential while also buying into the team culture. The latter is not always easy in a game where individual statistics are valued so highly.

“It’s easy for a player to care about their own stats and not the team,” says Hickerson. “We want them to care about the whole.

“Once sports becomes a business how do you compel men to pull together and do something special?”

Double-A baseball is unique.

By that point, many players have achieved a high level of on-field skill. While the 30 Major League Baseball organizations have multiple rookie level and Class-A teams, there is just one Double-A team for each. That means it is very competitive.

“Competing in baseball is non-stop,” says Hickerson. In each organization, there are 150 players competing for 25 big league jobs. The Indianapolis Indians are the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate.

Even though the competition can be cut throat, it does no good to root for a teammates’ downfall.

“You still have to get better,” says Hickerson. “Hoping for someone else fails never makes you a better baseball player.”

By the time they reach Double-A, many players have wives or are engaged.

“We don’t disregard that,” says Hickerson. “We help them in that area. I could have the attitude that as long as you can compete on the field, I don’t care what your life is like. I don’t think that ever builds a team.”

It’s the idea of “people and process over program and product.”

This kind of people-first approach will only work if all adhere to it.

“I have to be all-in,” says Hickerson. “(Players) know if I’m just giving lip service. You have to get to know the person. What kind of man is he? That takes time.”

Hickerson expects to find out where the Pirates will send him 2018 sometime in December and then will start getting ready for spring training.

A native of Bemidji, Minn., Hickerson was drafted in the seventh round of the 1986 MLB First-Year Player Draft out of the University of Minnesota.

After his first full season (1987), he hurt his arm while lifting weights and underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery and missed the entire 1988 campaign.

“I went from the prospect to a suspect real fast,” says Hickerson.

While at Minnesota, he met future wife Jo (a member of the Gophers track and field program). With her support, he and “shear stubborness” he kept working and got back on the field.

“I was not willing to give up when things got tough,” says Hickerson. “It seemed like it was a really, really long shot for me to make it at all.”

He stuck with it, made his MLB debut with San Francisco in the miiddle of the 1991 season and played for as long as he could.

Bryan and Jo have four children — Emily, Joey, Claire and Tommy. The youngest is a college sophomore. Essentially empty nesters, this gave him a push to re-join the world of baseball coaching.

And he is enjoying it — one relationship at a time.

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Bryan Hickerson (left) and wife Jo share a moment during a break in his duties as a minor league coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates. After 18 years in ministry with Unlimited Potential Inc., former big leaguer Hickerson went back into coaching with the Pirates because he likes their relationship-based approach.

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Bryan and Jo Hickerson on the field at an Altoona (Pa.) Curve game. Bryan served as pitching coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Double-A affiliate in 2017.

 

David Ledbetter talks about baseball and life so far

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

David Ledbetter is coming off a 2017 baseball season — his fifth in pro ball —  another in which he continues to rack up experiences on and off the diamond, something he has been doing since he and twin brother Ryan roamed diamonds around central Indiana. The Ledbetters first attended Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers then transferred to Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis and helped the Eagles win IHSAA Class 2A state championships in football in 2008 and in baseball in 2009 and 2010, attended the same college (Cedarville University in Ohio) and were both selected in the 2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Texas Rangers (David in the third round and Ryan in the 19th).

Both are married — David to Elizabeth Dec. 28, 2012 and Ryan to Maddie Dec. 28, 2013 — and are right-handed pitchers. The sons of Ron and Sherrie Ledbetter are set to turn 26 on Feb. 13.

Recently, David agreed to an IndianaRBI Q&A session.

Q: Did you and your brother grow up in Hamilton County?

A: We grew up in Lawrence for quite a few years and then moved to Hamilton County during middle school and into high school. Gotta love the Indianapolis area!

Q: What Little League or travel teams did you play on before you turned pro?

A: Haha! We usually played on teams that weren’t exactly national powerhouses, but where we valued the relationships and could actually have a lot of fun playing a game. I may leave a couple names out on this list, but I can remember playing for the Carmel Stix, Indiana Wolverines, Indiana Cubs (B-team mind you. Always chase your dreams), the Fishers Mudsox, and then the Indiana Mustangs for a couple years.

Most importantly, we played with the Fall Creek Little League All-Stars when we were 11 and 12 – the greatest little league team ever!!

Q: I know your high school coach Dan Ambrose went to Cedarville. Is that how you ended up there? Is there another reason?

A: No, we went to Cedarville because it was an opportunity to be educated on our faith, make impact as freshmen on the team, play both ways, and receive a little discount to help out our parents on tuition. We went on a visit sometime during our junior senior year and I literally just knew that was where I was supposed to go. The Holy Spirit was prodding me!

Q: What did you learn from Coach Ambrose which has stuck with you?

A: The little things matter! He said this all. The. Time. I’m not lying! He may have said this like at least once every practice. And I hope he still talks about it like he did back then because it holds true no matter what’s going on. Baseball, basketball, relationships, marriage, whatever! The little things always matter.

Q: Why did you choose Heritage Christian?

A: We went on a missions trip with many of the guys from that team our sophomore year in high school. Through that, we got to meet D.A and some of our future teammates and we LOVED them. It wasn’t like (Hamilton Southeastern) was rough, we absolutely loved HSE too! But it came down to being around people of faith and growing ourselves in a culture that focused activities (like baseball) around Christ first.

Q: What did you get from Cedarville coach Mike Manes that carries on?

A: Manes was a great baseball coach, but a better life coach. He has a lot of wisdom that transcends the baseball field and I believe what I most learned from him was the importance of staying consistent in your work. Don’t miss workouts, don’t be late.

Everyone says that kind of stuff. But Manes stressed the importance of bringing consistency into everything you do. If you’re going to bring the energy, you’d better be bringing it all the time. Every piece of practice is an opportunity to get better, so don’t waste those moments. Bring the same conviction and focus every time. Be someone that your team can depend on no matter the situation.

Q: What are your best memories of your time at HC?

A: Best memories. Whoof … There’s a lot of those. But I’ll try and just keep it to baseball. Winning back-to- back state championships with a team of brothers is definitely up there. Becoming part of a senior core that you could truly believe in is probably the coolest thing I can remember … Let me explain. I can remember our junior year that we had a senior core of incredible men. They brought fun to the field every single day.

But you know you were going to GET AFTER IT just the same. And that made us very hard to beat. It’s hard to beat teams that just plain have a lot of fun (because having fun does require some success too). Being apart of that culture and seeing what it took to be the best, then putting that on our backs as seniors was incredible.

Because that’s more than just a single game or moment, that’s a year of decisions that led to a fruitful year. Cam McWilliams, Scott Kreeger, Sterling Harpst, and my brother Ryan were can’t-miss players who cared more about being great men than we cared about winning a few games. But you could bet your butt we’d be bringing everything we had to every game.

Q: What do you consider your strengths as an athlete?

A: I am consistent in my work. I bring positive energy and do my best to show my teammates that I value them for being them, not just for what they can do on the field. I try to be as genuine as possible with everyone, having an interest in why they are the way they are and why they do what they do. I also like to work, I don’t want to leave myself a doubt that I gave it everything I had when my time is done.

Q: Can you describe your pitch repertoire? How often do you throw a fastball vs. a breaking pitch?

A: I try to throw strikes and then balls that look like strikes. Simple as that. And throwing one versus the other is largely dependent on what hitter I’m facing. It’s like reading a book. The hitter will tell you their story in each swing. My job is to read that short story and go from there.

Q: How competitive are you and your twin?

A: Very. But there is a lot of self-control developed from years and years of competing together. We bring our compete no matter what, but you leave satisfied that you’ve done absolutely everything you could to prepare. When you just have a lot of competitiveness, but no discipline it can lead to a number of problems.

Q: Isn’t it funny you both landed in the Rangers organization? Were you signed by the same scout?

A: It’s truly unbelievable – an act of God, I do not doubt. Roger Coryell signed us both!

Q: What did you learn in the 2017 Arizona Fall League (playing for the Surprise Saguaros), which included Lawrence Central High School graduate and Kansas City Royals minor leaguer Jared Ruxer)?

A: I learned about my teammates, how to throw a better change-up, that hitters hit ball sometimes and others they don’t, and that you can make a living pitching if you throw strikes consistently where you want.

Q: Generally, what does your off-season look like from now until you go to spring training?

A: Each year has brought new experiences and memories. The first few years I was able to stay around Cedarville, get a couple jobs and do my preparation there because my wife was still in school pursuing a pharmacy degree. This year we are in Columbus (Ohio) as she is fulfilling a PGY-1 at Riverside Methodist Hospital, and I’m working to complete a Master’s degree in Business Administration as well as continuing to do workouts.

Side note from David … If you are reading this and you know any pharmacists – Reach out to them and tell them you love them and you appreciate the work they do. #pharmsohard

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David Ledbetter, a product of Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis and Cedarville (Ohio) University, pitched in his fifth professional baseball season with the Texas Rangers organization in 2017. (Round Rock Express Photo)

 

Pobereyko giving it his all along his winding baseball path

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

The baseball career of Matt Pobereyko can’t be draw with a straight line.

The 6-foot-3 pitcher from Munster, Ind., has zigged and zagged his way and pursued opportunities at every turn.

“I’ve never been out in the greatest spots in the world,” says Pobereyko (pronounced Poe-Buh-Reek-Oh). “But I wouldn’t change the path that I’ve taken. It’s all been a learning experience.”

Pobereyko graduated from Hammond Bishop Noll Institute, where he did not crack the varsity lineup for then-Warriors coach Paul Wirtz until his junior season and graduated in 2010.

“P-Dub is awesome,” says Pobereyko of Wirtz. “He gave me a chance to pitch when somebody else went down. We are still friends. He coaches at Merrillville now we stay in touch.”

Pobereyko’s five-year college career started with two seasons for coach Steve Ruzich at South Suburban College in South Holland, Ill., and three for coach Todd Lillpop at Kentucky Wesleyan College.

The righty is grateful for Lillpop.

“He was a great guy,” says Pobereyko. “He kept an offer on the table for me. He gave me every opportunity I could get. He gave me his all and I — in return — gave him my all on the field.”

In 2012, the pitcher underwent Tommy John arm surgery. He went 2-2 for KWC in 2013 then tossed just three innings in 2014.

Coming back strong in 2015, Pobereyko went 9-2 with a 1.84 earned run average and 104 strikeouts in 73 1/3 innings. He was the Panthers’ team MVP and an All-Great Midwest Athletic Conference first team selection and expected to get selected in that year’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

While waiting on the draft, he went to coach with the Midwest Collegiate League’s Northwest Indiana Oilmen.

A starting during the college regular season, it was in the summers of 2013 and 2014 with the Oilmen that Pobereyko was asked to be a late-inning relief pitcher.

He has been strictly a reliever in pro baseball.

Pitching from the stretch ever since his Tommy John surgery, Pobereyko says he’s always been max-effort guy whether he’s been a starter or a back end of the bullpen guy.

“I’m aggressive and that puts me into that role,” says Pobereyko, who is comfortable throwing a fastball, forkball or slider in any count. “(As a reliever), I’m able to put that little extra something on it and use a a little more adrenaline. That gives me a leg up being comfortable with it when not every hitter is comfortable with it.”

When the MLB call never came in 2015, the hurler went to the pay-to-play California Winter League for the first two months of 2016 and dominated, allowing just two earned runs (1.05 ERA) and fanning 17 in 13 1/3 innings. He drew the attention of Dennis Pelfrey, manager of the independent Frontier League’s Florence (Ky.) Freedom.

Pobereyko performed well enough in 20 games for Florence (1.33 ERA, 31 K’s in 20 1/3 innings) to be signed as a free agent with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

He took the mound at the Rookie, Low-A and High-A levels for a total of 15 games. After going 1-2 with three saves, seven games finished and whiffing 36 in 27 innings, he was released in October 2016.

Hooking on again with Pelfrey and Florence in 2017, Pobereyko showed well enough (1.00 ERA, 38 K’s in 18 innings) for the New York Mets to come calling and signed with that organization on June 22.

In 23 games and 34 1/3 innings with the Columbia Fireflies of the Low Class-A South Atlantic League, Pobereyko went 3-3 with a 3.15 ERA and racked up 53 strikeouts. He finished 11 games and recorded two saves. For less than a week, he was a teammate of Tim Tebow.

“I didn’t see any of the chaos and sold-out stadiums,” says Pobereyko. “He was just a regular guy in the locker room and the dugout.”

Pobereyko now finds himself among the best minor leaguers from each MLB organization in the Arizona Fall League.

So far, he has finished two games for the Scottsdale Scorpions and is 0-0 with a 0.00 ERA and four strikeouts in 2 2/3 innings.

He relishes the challenge of the AFL.

“I’m being put to a little bit of a test,” says Pobereyko. “This forces you to make your pitches a little sharper. It shows me what I need to do to compete at a higher level.

“I’m just very thankful for the opportunity (the Mets) gave me. They’ve really put the ball in my hands for my career to show what I can do.”

When the AFL wraps play in November, he sees himself coming back to northwest Indiana to work, train and give baseball lessons. The past few years, he’s done that at Morris Baseball and Softball Center (owned by Munster graduate and former pro Bobby Morris) and Triple Crown Baseball & Softball Academy (ran by former big leaguer Brent Bowers) — both in Schererville.

But Pobereyko, who turns 26 on Christmas Eve, is not looking too far down the road right now.

“Thinking where I’m going to be in the future is an additional stresser,” says Pobereyko. “I want to be in the now.”

Matt is not the only member of his family firing baseballs the past several seasons.

Younger brother Danny Pobereyko pitched at Noll and finished a four-year mound career at Butler University in 2017, twirling all but six of 60 appearances in relief. The 6-foot-5 right-hander played for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League during the summer of 2015.

A knee injury made Danny decided to end his playing career. He is now teaching and working on his master’s degree at Northern Michigan University. A Creative Writing major at Butler, he is also working on a baseball-themed novel.

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Matt Pobereyko, a 2010 Hammond Noll Institute, delivers a pitch for the Scottsdale Scorpions on the 2017 Arizona Fall League. He is a member of the New York Mets organization. (27 Outs Baseball Photo)

 

Versatile VanMeter seeking opportunties in Reds organization

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Versatility is valued by the Cincinnati Reds.

That’s why they have Josh VanMeter playing multiple positions for the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos.

“I take more than one glove to the park everyday,” says VanMeter, a 2013 Norwell High School graduate who has played third base, left field and first base in his last 10 games and is listed on his MiLB.com profile as a second baseman. “It’s good for my career to play many different spots. I’ve definitely enjoyed it.”

Dick Schofield, a former major league shortstop, is Pensacola’s defensive and third base coach and has helped VanMeter with positioning and attacking the ball.

While guiding Pensacola into a Southern League playoff berth, Blue Wahoos manager Pat Kelly has continued to get at-bats for lefty-swinging VanMeter.

“(Kelly) likes the way I go about my business,” says VanMeter, a 5-foot-11, 165-pounder. “I’m a guy who plays the game the right way. I give you competitive at-bats day in and day out.

“Show up and compete. That’s a big thing in the game of baseball.”

In his first 125 games and 451 at-bats at Double-A, VanMeter was hitting .264 with five home runs, one triple, 29 doubles, 52 runs batted in, 45 runs scored and 15 stolen bases.

With Gookie Dawkins as his hitting coach, VanMeter says he is improving his knowledge of the strike zone.

“You learn to lay off the tough pitches, especially with two strikes,” says VanMeter, 22. “It’s about not missing good pitches to hit.”

VanMeter was traded by the San Diego Padres to the Reds organization Dec. 9, 2016 and was told by agent Joe Speed how that would increase his opportunities. He was selected by San Diego in the fifth round of the 2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

He had committed to play at Illinois State University, but decided to go pro and signed with area scout Mark Conner (now director of scouting for the Padres).

“The opportunity to go straight into pro baseball was something I couldn’t pass up,” says VanMeter. “I thought I was mentally ready to play baseball everyday

“I promised my mom after I got drafted I would someday get my degree.”

Josh is the middle child of Greg and Amy VanMeter. Older brother Tyler played high school soccer. Younger sister Carlie was a cheerleader at Norwell and is now on the cheer squad at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne.

After closing his record-setting Norwell career with a Class 3A Indiana state championship, Josh VanMeter played for the Arizona League Padres that summer before spending all of 2014 with the Low Class-A Fort Wayne TinCaps.

In April 2015, VanMeter suffered a leg injury while turning a double play at second base. Playing at Fort Wayne’s Parkview Field, he collided with Lansing Lugnuts runner Rowdy Tellez. The result was a broken left fibula and months of grueling physical rehabilitation.

VanMeter walked on an aqua treadmill with the water level lowered every two days. He underwent painful deep tissue massage stop the build-up scar tissue. He did end up playing 25 games in Fort Wayne in 2015 before moving on to High Class-A Lake Elsinore then Double-A San Antonio as well as the Arizona Fall League in 2016.

He split his time between second base and shortstop in 2013 and 2014, played second base in 2015 and was a third baseman in 2016.

So popular was VanMeter — the first player from northeast Indiana to play for the TinCaps — that president Mike Nutter decided to honor the player with his own bobblehead.

“It was pretty special,” says VanMeter. “Pat Kelly made a big deal about it in spring training. Getting to play in Fort Wayne was special that year and a half.”

VanMeter played travel baseball from 2007-12 with the Fort Wayne-based Summit City Sluggers, playing for father Greg (now Sluggers president) and diamond veteran Mark Delalarza.

“That was a great experience,” says Josh VanMeter. “(Delagarza) had a huge impact on me. He taught me to be a man and made me the player I am today. I wouldn’t trade any of that for the world.”

Josh’s profile in the baseball universe raised with his MVP performance while playing fall ball for the Andy Slack-coached Reds Midwest Scout Team at the Perfect Game Kernels Foundation tournament in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2012.

Playing for coach Andy McClain at Norwell, three-time all-stater VanMeter set school records for career doubles (44) and single-season pitching wins (14) and walks (41) while tying for single-season home runs (9) in 2013 and single-season hits (53) and doubles (20) in 2011. The win record had been held by Jarrod Parker, who went on to pitch in the big leagues.

“(McClain) is always there for me,” says VanMeter. “He’s just a great person. He has held me accountable.”

During the state title run, VanMeter saw how McClain handled a team featuring 10 seniors.

“We knew what we had to do to win a state championship,” says VanMeter, who scored both runs on hits by Jonah Patten in a 2-1 win against Jasper. “He gave us a lot of freedom and that was good for us.”

With VanMeter at point guard, Norwell was a 3A basketball state runner-up in 2012. He went on to become a school record holder for 3-pointers, No. 2 in all-time scoring and third in assists.

“High school with him was a lot of fun,” says Greg VanMeter, who was calling much of action on the internet for www.wellscountyvoice.com. The site covers Knights football, boys basketball, girls basketball and baseball games.

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Josh VanMeter, a 2013 Norwell High School graduate, is in his first season in the Cincinnati Reds organization with the Pensacola Blue Wahoos in 2017. (Barrett McClean/Pensacola Blue Wahoos Photo)