The right-handed pitcher from Columbus, Ind., playing independent professional baseball has been dominant in his back of the bullpen role.
As the closer for the American Association’s Milwaukee Milkmen, Gray goes into play today (Aug. 26) with a 2-0 record, 10 saves and a 0.00 earned run average. In 24 innings, he has yet to allow a run and has struck out 41 (15.375 per nine innings) and walked 10.
“For the most part, I try to stay with myself and pitch to my strengths,” says Gray. “I’ve been able to catch some breaks.
“It’s been fun so far.”
A 6-foot-3, 200-pounder, Gray delivers a fastball, slider and change-up from a three-quarter overarm slot. The slider breaks in on left-handed batters and away from righties and the “Vulcan” change sinks.
But it’s his four-seam fastball that’s been his out pitch. It travels 90 to 93 mph and — he learned while working out in the off-season with Greg Vogt of PRP Baseball at Finch Creek Fieldhouse in Noblesville, Ind. — that it has an above-average spin rate.
The 2020 season marks Gray’s third in pro ball. He was signed as a non-drafted free agent by the Colorado Rockies in 2018 out of Florida Gulf Coast University and played rookie-level and Low Class-A ball in the Rockies system in 2018 and 2019.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Association is operating with six teams — Milwaukee, Chicago Dogs, Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks, Saint Paul Saints, Sioux Falls Canaries and Winnipeg Goldeyes — playing a 60-game schedule. When the season began, Milwaukee was one of three hubs. Later on, Chicago and Saint Paul opened back up and began hosting games. Winnipeg has been playing mostly road games.
Milwaukee is about a five-hour trip from Columbus meaning his family has been able to see him play in-person.
“They’re huge baseball fans,” says Peyton of father Billy Gray and older brother Jordan Gray. “They get to live their baseball dream through me. They’ve traveled and supported me through all these years.
From 12 to 17, Peyton played travel baseball for the Indiana Blazers. Billy was head coach of that team in the early years and Shelbyville’s Terry Kuhn filled that role in the later ones.
Bowling is a big deal in the Gray family. Billy owns Gray’s Pro Shop in Columbus Bowling Center. Jordan is the men’s bowling coach at Marian University in Indianapolis and his fiancee — Jerracah Heibel — is an associate head bowling coach at MU. Billy Gray is a Knights assistant.
Lisa Gray, wife of Billy and mother of Jordan and Peyton, works for Bartholemew County Youth Services Center.
Peyton Gray holds a Criminal Justice degree from Florida Gulf Coast and goes on ride-alongs with police officers during the baseball off-season. He says he sees himself going into some form of law enforcement in the future.
“If you just show up on your high-intensity or game days, you’re not going to get much better,” says Vogt. “Guys are around other guys with high energy and motivation who do not skip drills, warm-ups and recovery.”
During the week, there are also high school players (many of whom are in travel ball tournaments Thursday through Sunday) working out, too. There is weight training, Core Velocity Belt work to emphasis the lower half and the use of PlyoCare Balls.
Each player follows an individualized workout plan based on their Driveline Baseball profile.
“Everyone does a pre-assessment,” says Vogt. “We measure strength, power and velocity and create a plan off that.”
Because of COVID-19 many of the players have not been able to get on an outside diamond in a sanctioned game for months.
Many were not able to do much in the way of throwing or lifting weights for two months.
College players saw their seasons halted in mid-March. High school players heading into college lost their campaigns altogether.
Minor League Baseball has not began its 2020 season nor has the Utica, Mich.- based USPBL .It’s uncertain when or if MiLB will get going. The USPBL has announced it will start with smaller rosters June 24 and expand when fans are allowed at games.
“It’s just a really fun time to come out here and really put all the work that me and all these guys put in throughout the week to a test,” says Polley. “It’s really cool to be able to see the guys come out here and thrive whenever they’ve made adjustments.
“It’s a time to relax and get after each other.”
Donning a T-shirt defining culture as “A wave that inspires a community to achieve greatness” (by Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson), Polley relates to the atmosphere at PRP Baseball and Finch Creek.
“They bust your butt during the week and whenever it’s time to play, it’s time to play,” says Polley. “We don’t worry about the mechanics or the drills we’re working on throughout the week. Let’s see what you got and you make adjustments week to week.”
Polley’s focus was on having a good feel for all his pitches and moving the way they’re supposed to based on Rapsodo-aided design.
Though the timetable is unknown, Polley says being prepared to return to live baseball is the key.
“I view this as an opportunity to improve my craft,” says Polley. “I come off and throw and lift everyday to make myself better.
“Whenever it is time to show up, I’m going to be better than whenever I left.”
Polley came down with the coronavirus in March after coming back from spring training in Arizona and was unable to throw the baseball for two weeks.
For that period, he and his girlfriend stayed away from everyone else and meals were brought to the bedroom door by Polley’s parents.
With facilities shut down, he was able to train in a barn and at local parks.
“To just be a kid again was really cool,” says Polley. “As a kid, you’d go to the park with your friends and practice. You’d compete and try to get better.
“That’s all it has been this entire quarantine. You come back into a facility like (Finch Creek) ready to go.”
Vogt has noticed an attention to detail Polley.
“If the minor league season happens, he’s going to be ready to go,” says Vogt.
“This gives me a chance to compete and feel out my stuff,” says Milto. “I get a chance to improve and see what’s working and what’s not working.
“This time is kind of weird, not knowing when or if we’re going to go back. So I’m just here, seeing the competition and staying ready.”
Milto just began coming to PRP Baseball this past week after hearing about it through friends.
“I really love all that they offer,” says Milto.
While maintaining strength, Milto also makes sure he stays flexible.
“For longevity standards and being able to move well consistently for as long as possible, I think it’s important so I work on by flexibility,” says Milto. “Especially with my upper body. My lower body is naturally flexible.
“I’m working on by thoracic rotations and all that kind of stuff. It’s helped me feel good everyday.”
Milto just began adding a cutter to his pitch assortment.
“Using the cameras and the Rapsodo here is really helping me accelerate the development.
“I’m feeling it out (with the cutter). I’ve already thrown a slider. I’m trying to differentiate those two and make sure they look the same out of my hand but different coming to (the batter).”
Milto says he’s made a switch in his take on how electronic devices can help.
“At first, I didn’t buy much into the technology,” says Milto. “It was all just too much to look at. As of late, I’ve started to pay more attention to it. I’ve realized the benefits of it.
“My mentality has been to just go out there, trust my stuff and compete instead of I need to get my sinker to sink this much with this axis. But I’ve started to understand how important that stuff. You make everyone look the same until it isn’t.
“It’s immediate feedback when you’re training. You release it. You know how you felt. And you know exactly what it did.”
Gray, 25, is a right-hander who played at Columbus (Ind.) East High School, Western Michigan University, Gulf Coast Community College and Florida Gulf Coast University before being signed as a minor league free agent by the Colorado Rockies in 2019. He was released in February 2020 and reports to the Milkmen this weekend.
“I see that they get results here,” says Gray. “It’s always great to push yourself and compete with others that are good at sports.”
Gray, who has been working out with PRP Baseball since prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, counts down his pitching strengths.
“I compete. That’s a big one,” says Gray. “I throw strikes. I’m determined to get better and be the best version of myself.”
When the quarantine began, Gray had no access to a weight room.
“I did a lot of body weight stuff and keep my body there,” says Gray. “I was lifting random stuff. I was squatting with my fiancee on my back. I was finding a way to get it done.
“I knew at some point COVID was going to go away and baseball was going to be back and I needed to be ready.”
Strobel, 25, is a left-hander who played at Avon (Ind.) High School and for the final team at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. (2017) before pitching for the independent Frontier League’s Joliet (Ill.) Slammers that summer. He underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery and missed the 2018 season. He appeared in 2019 with the AA’s Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats. When not pitching, he’s helped coach pitchers at Avon and for the Indiana Bulls 17U White travel team.
Strobel coached at Grand Park early Friday and then scooted over to Finch Creek for PRP “Compete Day.”
“I try to mimic what we do here,” says Strobel of his pitching coach approach. “It’s mainly work hard and be safe.
“Summer ball is now acting like the high school season. It’s been about getting everyone up to speed. Some guys were not throwing over the spring. They just totally shut down. You have other guys who’ve been throwing.”
Strobel has been training with Vogt for about four years.
“I like the routine of everything,” says Strobel. “Everything’s mapped out. You know what you’re doing weeks in advance. That’s how my mind works.”
And then comes the end of the week and the chance to compete.
“Everything’s about Friday live,” says Strobel. “Everyone has a routine getting getting for Friday.”
Strobel has been told he’s on the “first call” when the USPBL expands rosters.
He was “on-ramping” in February when the pandemic came along and he switched to training at the barn before coming back to Finch Creek.
“I really didn’t have to shut down,” says Strobel. “It’s just been a long road from February and still throwing.
“I help out in any way that I can,” says Sullivan, who reached out to Vogt in the spring of 2019, interned last summer and then came on board full-time. “We mesh well together because we believe in a lot of the same sort of fundamentals when it comes to pitching and developing a pitcher.
“It helps to have an extra set of eyes and that’s where I come into play. I dealt with a lot of mechanical issues myself and my cousin help me out. That sparked me to want to do the same for other players.”
Sullivan is pursuing his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
“Once I have that, it opens up a lot more doors and opportunities for me in the baseball world,” says Sullivan. “Baseball has had a funny route to where it is today. When I grew up a lot of times you threw hard because you were blessed and had the talent.
“Now, it’s been proven that you can make improvements — whether it be in the weight room, overall health or mechanical adjustments in your throwing patterns — and can train velocity.
“A lot of people are trying to find a balance of developing the mechanical side of things while strengthening things in the weight room. They kind of go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other.”
Sullivan says that if the body can’t support the force that’s being generated through it, it’s going to lead to a faster breakdown.
“That’s where the weight room comes into play,” says Sullivan. “Being able to transfer force is kind of the name of the game right now.”
“You’ve got to keep a level head,” says Ryan. “Baseball’s a game of failure and you have to deal with failure.
“It’s about being mentally-prepared and mentally-ready.”
Ryan Thurston played his earliest organized baseball at the youth league in Madison and then travel baseball with the Greenfield-based Indiana Bandits, coached by Jeff Montgomery. In his 16U and 17U summers, he played for the Cincy Flames.
“He pitched in the big leagues (with the 1987 and 1988 Chicago White Sox),” says Thurston of Pawlowski. “He really knew his stuff.
“He taught me a lot about different pitches and when to throw them and being the the best I can be.”
Thurston graduated from Madison Consolidated in 2014 and Western Kentucky in 2017 with a graduate school year at WKU in 2018 (he played for the Hilltoppers in parts of five seasons and earned a financial management degree).
At Madison, he won four baseball letters at Madison, earning all-state honorable mention as a senior. He was all-conference and team MVP three times. He also garnered three letters in basketball.
At Western Kentucky, he pitched in 66 games (52 as a starter — 14 in each of his final three seasons) with 13 wins, 299 strikeouts (second in program history) and 174 walks in 306 2/3 innings (third in WKU annals).
As a senior, the lefty pitched a career-high 80 2/3 innings while allowing a career-low 15 extra-base hits. He finished the season with a 4.24 ERA, although that mark stood at 3.08 prior to his final two starts. He was the only pitcher in Conference USA to secure wins over both Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech.
Thurston signed as a free agent with the Toronto Blue Jays organization and pitched in 13 games (nine in relief) in 2018 before being released.
With the RailCats, a team he joined May 26, Thurston is 2-0 with a 2.58 earned run average. In 35 1/3 innings, he has 33 strikeouts and 16 walks.
Ryan Thurston, a 2013 Madison (Ind.) Consolidated High School graduate who pitched at Western Kentucky University from 2014-18 and holds a financial management degree from that school, is now a relief pitcher for the independent Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats. (Steve Krah Photo)
“The best part of my game is my ability to make anything happen,” says Rosselli, a 6-foot-2, 220-pounder. “I don’t really have a cap on the limits on what I can do during a ball game. I don’t have a roof. I feel like when we’re down, I feel like I can be that guy every time (to pick the team up).”
Through games of June 13, Rosselli was hitting .284 with seven home runs, 20 runs batted in and 15 runs scored in 20 games played.
In four seasons at Indiana State (2014-17), Rosselli hit .290 and clubbed 22 homers, 16 doubles and stole 14 bases.
While playing for the summer collegiate Coastal Plain League’s Edenton (N.C.) Steamers in 2015 and 2016, Rosselli set a league mark for homers over a two-year period with 24 (10 in 2015 and 14 in 2016). Edenton won the league title in 2015.
Rosselli played 60 games with the Dogs in 2018 with a .240 average and eight homers.
A teacher of speed and agility classes who also works as a rehabilitation aide at Athletico Physical Therapy in Terre Haute in the off-season, Rosselli says his speed is displayed more in his ability to get around the bases and to track down fly balls than a 60-yard dash time or stolen base total.
“Baseball is really not a straight-line speed sport,” says Rosselli. “How much torque and power you have, that has a bigger impact.”
From a young age, Rosselli learned from parents Bruce (a former Indiana State track and field star who was an Olympic bobsled driver) and Cheryl (a former world-class table tennis player with 27 international titles for the U.S.) that to succeed you have to have carry yourself with certainty.
“They stuck that in my head,” says Rosselli, 26. “Know your the best, you’re going to perform at the highest level
“In any sport I’ve ever done, there’s never been a different message.”
Rosselli graduated in 2012 from North Vigo, who he hit .373 with eight home runs and 51 RBIs and was named the Wabash Valley Baseball Player of the Year as a senior for the Shawn Turner-coached Patriots. He redshirted his first year at ISU before playing four years for Sycamores head coach Mitch Hannahs.
The ISU coach emphasized the simple things.
“It is just a game,” says Rosselli. “But in order to play it, you have to grind it out every single day.
“We were blue collar baseball players that gave our best every time. In order to succeed, we had to put int he work. That gave us a mental edge on team’s we played. It allowed us to believe in ourselves.”
That’s why Indiana State was able to stand up to powers like Vanderbilt.
Playing for the hometown Rex in 2014 gave the younger Rosselli another full season of swinging the wood bat.
He graduated from Indiana State with a degree in Sport Management. He minored in motorsports management and marketing.
With the Chicago Dogs, Rosselli plays for a squad managed by former big leaguer Butch Hobson. D.J. Boston is the hitting coach.
“The competition level is a lot higher than I thought it was going to be (in the American Association) last year and it’s even better this year,” says Rosselli. “It’s just a very competitive league, which I like.”
While the average age on the Dogs is 27, that number is brought up by Carlos Zambrano, a 38-year-old right-handed pitcher who played 12 seasons in the majors with the Chicago Cubs and Miami Marlins and is making a comeback.
“He’s had a really big impact on me,” says Rosselli of Zambrano. “He’s a pastor now. His life has changed around since he found God. He’s a new man. He’s brought that to the team.”
Tony Rosselli is single. Older sister Paige is in marketing sales for Embroidery Express in Terre Haute.
Tony Rosselli, a graduate of Terre Haute (Ind.) North Vigo High School and Indiana State University, is in his second year with the Chicago Dogs of the independent professional American Association. (Chicago Dogs Photo)
Tony Rosselli played four seasons at Indiana State University (2014-17) before beginning his professional baseball career — first with the Utica (Mich.) Unicorns and now with the Chicago Dogs. (Chicago Dogs Photo)
Tony Rosselli, a graduate of Terre Haute (Ind.) North Vigo High School and Indiana State University, brings a combination of power, speed and confidence as a player with the Chicago Dogs of the independent professional American Association. (Chicago Dogs Photo)
O’Conner spent the entire 2015 season at Double-A Montgomery and led the Southern League in total chances (91) and threw out 29 of 60 base stealers.
“For me, it’s big part of the game,” says O’Conner. “Being able to control the running game can keep runners off of bases in scoring position and keep them from scoring runs. If the pitcher can give me a good time to the plate, mix his looks in.
“It’s really more on the pitcher and the infielder making a good tag along with me making a good throw. It’s just not me, it’s everybody involved.”
In 2016, he began the season in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League because of a back injury. He was promoted to Double-A in August.
It was discovered he had a herniated disk and he had two back surgeries in October and November and and was removed from the 40-man roster in December.
“I’m all good now,” says O’Conner of his procedures. “The back pain really wasn’t the issue, it was the sciatica down my leg. I needed to get it fixed.”
O’Conner started 2017 at Double-A and was promoted to Triple-A Durham in August. The Bulls won the Triple-A National Championship.
Justin is the son of Muncie’s Randy and Kim O’Conner and has an older brother and a younger sister.
Jacob O’Conner is in law school in Cincinnati. Kirsten O’Conner, a former Ball State University softball player, is a nutritionist in Illinois.
Justin O’Conner, who was Indiana’s Mr. Baseball at Cowan Junior/Senior High School and a first-round draft selection of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010, is now with the independent St. Paul Saints. Released by the San Francisco Giants organization, the catcher signed with the team shortly before the beginning of the 2018 season. (St. Paul Saints Photo)
After being released by the Chicago White Sox organization in 2016, Shoemaker signed with St. Paul in February 2017.
The right-handed stick finished second in the AA in slugging percentage (.603) and on-base percentage (.435), tied for second in extra-base hits (44), tied for third in home runs (21), tied for fifth in walks (55) and eighth in average (.318).
Shoemaker opted to re-sign with the Saints for 2018.
“To me, independent baseball is more about baseball,” says Shoemaker. “It’s not so much about getting guys ready for the game. They want to win in this league. (St. Paul manager) George (Tsamis) is big about putting nine guys not the field who want to win.
“In (affiliated) minor league baseball, you have prospects and guys have to play. It’s not like that here. You’ve got to show up everyday wanting to win. And if you’re not one of those guys, you find yourself sitting on the bench.”
“He was tough on us and made us work hard,” says Shoemaker of Conley. “You learned a lot about the game of baseball if you just listened to him.
“He was very instrumental with helping me further my baseball career.”
What Shoemaker remembers most from his time at Indiana State was how head coach Lindsay Meggs and his staff helped him make the transition to big-time baseball and the brotherhood of the players.
“Going from junior college to Division I baseball is a jump,” says Shoemaker, who was used mostly as a left fielder with the Sycamores. “During my time at Indiana State, we had a really close group of guys. We wanted to win together as a team.”
He hit safely in the first 28 games of his pro career in 2009.
“I was a 19th-round guy and a senior sign,” says Shoemaker. “I’ve always had to prove myself and wanted to prove myself. So I wanted to get off to a good start.”
At Bristol, Shoemaker led the Appalachian League in doubles (21), on-base percentage (.426), extra-base hits (30) and ranked second in slugging percentage (.585), third in average (.351) and total bases (120) and fourth in home runs per at-bat with 1 out of every 22.78. He was chosen as a Postseason All-Star in the Appy League in 2009.
In 2010, he spent the entire season at Single-A Kannapolis.
Shoemaker was an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star in 2011 while finishing second in the South Atlantic League in average (.319) and fifth in on-base percentage (.399) and was promoted to High-A Winston-Salem in July.
In 2012, he went 2-for-4 in the Carolina League-Cailfornia League All-Star Game and was Carolina League Postseason All-Star and Orgainzational All-Star.
The right-handed thrower missed all of 2013 after surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder and biceps and was claimed by the Miami Marlins in the Rule 5 Draft in December
“It was more of over-usage tear,” says Shoemaker. “It wasn’t something that drastically happened.”
Shoemaker got into major league spring training games with the Marlins in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
After playing a combined 55 games at Double-A and Triple-A in 2016, the Marlins traded Shoemaker back to the White Sox July. He spent few games at Double-A Birmingham and was released by that organization in August 2016.
Some after that, his independent baseball experience began.
Supporting him along the way are the people at home in Clay County.
“I’m real close to my family,” says Brady, the son of Brian and Lorie Shoemaker, brother of Natalie (Shoemaker) Lizanich, husband to Chelsea Shoemaker and father to 9-month-old son Drew Shoemaker. “I always have been.
“My grandparents have been a big part of my baseball career.”
Ed Pearce, his grandfather on his mother’s side, passed away April 20 as Brady was getting ready for the season. Grandmother Janet Pearce survives.
Both grandparents on his father’s side — Don and Nina Shoemaker — are gone. Grandmother Nina did in 2014.
Saint Paul (5-1) opened the season at the Gary SouthShore RailCats. The Saints, which are in the AA’s North Division, are scheduled to come back to Gary July 20-22 and visit the Chicago Dogs in Rosemont, Ill., June 15-17 and Aug. 23-25.
Brady Shoemaker, a 2005 Northview High School graduate who played at Olney Central College, Indiana State University and in the Chicago White Sox and Miami Marlins organizations, is in his second season with the independent St. Paul Saints in 2018. (Saint Paul Saints Photo)
“It is not a developmental league, but it is an opportunity league — an opportunity for everyone from the radio broadcasters looking to break into professional baseball to groundkeepers to general managers and managers,” says 13th-year Gary manager Greg Tagert. “And, most importantly, it’s an opportunity for players who may have never gotten the opportunity to continue their careers or extend their careers.
“What it’s done for the industry cannot be underrated.”
But the emphasis is on the pennant race (Gary went into play Monday, Aug. 7, at 40-33 and seven games behind first-place Lincoln in the AA Central Division; the RailCats were two games out of the wild card lead in a 100-game season) and not getting a player ready for the next level.
“We make no apology to the players,” says Tagert. “We tell them from the beginning, we are all about winning.
“When a player steps through the door, it’s not about: Is he going to get his at-bats? Is he going to bat third? Is he going to pitch the sixth inning every night?
“Sometimes the players find that out the hard way. They’re used to a different type of format. They are surprised at the level of competition and the emphasis put on winning … It’s not for every player, just like it’s not for every manager.”
A manager in independent baseball since 1995, Tagert enjoys the challenge of having the ability and the responsibility of building a team.
Unlike affiliated ball where players and coaching staff are assigned to a franchise and are told how to develop the talent with hopes of one day seeing them in the big leagues, Tagert makes all on-field personnel decisions.
“Player procurement and all the player decisions sit at this desk,” says Tagert. “That’s something I would not give up.
“It is the lure of the job for many of us (independent baseball managers) … The challenge is great. But it’s like anything else in life. If it was that easy, it wouldn’t be any fun.”
League rules limit rosters to 23. An additional one player may be on the disabled list during the regular season. Of those 23 players, a maximum of five may be veterans and minimum of five must be rookies. The remaining players will be designated limited service players and of those LS players only six (6) may be LS-4.
Tagert says the classifications create a unique kind of parity in the league and also creates opportunity.
The American Association is full of players with MLB experience and others who played at the Triple-A or Double-A level.
Right-handed pitcher Jorge DeLeon, a reliever for Gary, played for the Houston Astros in 2013 and 2014.
MLB scouts regularly cover the independent leagues.
Allensworth, who played at Madison Heights High School and Purdue University, was a first round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1993 and played in the big leagues with Pittsburgh, the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets. He was with the RailCats in 2006 and 2007.
Haynes was a first round pick of the Oakland Athletics in 1997. He played in Gary in 2006 and then with the Los Angeles Angels in 2007 and Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.
Byrdak made his MLB debut with Kansas City in 1998. He played in Gary in 2003 and became the first former RailCats player to play in the big leagues with the 2005 Baltimore Orioles.
Wes Chamberlain, who played six MLB seasons including in the 1993 World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies, was a RailCat in 2003.
Texas Rangers hitting coach Anthony Iapoce was a former RailCats outfielder (2004-05).
The team has retired No. 23 for right-handed pitcher Willie Glen (2005-07, 2010) and No. 45 for Gary native and coach Joe Gates. Glen played at Plainfield High School and the University of Evansville. Gates played at Gary Roosevelt High School and briefly with the Chicago White Sox.
The RailCats were part of former Northern League and began as a road team in 2002 while 6,139-seat U.S. Steel Yard was being constructed along U.S. 20, South Shore rail lines and I-90 (Indiana Toll Road) and very close to the steel mills.
The first RailCats game at U.S. Steel Yard was May 26, 2003.