Tag Archives: Fort Myers

Rutgers-bound Besser keeps on buzzing the ball past batters

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Grant Besser’s habit of dodging bats with his pitches got him noticed during his prep days and it continues at the collegiate level.
At South Adams High School in Berne, Ind., the left-hander and four-time first-team all-Allen County Athletic Conference selection whiffed 451 in 241 innings with a 1.27 earned run average. He also hit .397 with eight home runs and 58 runs batted in.
As a senior, Besser fanned 130 in 54 frame and posted a 0.77 ERA and hit .426 with two homers and 17 RBIs for the Brad Buckingham-coached Starfires. He began working out that winter in Fort Wayne with Pittsburgh Pirates strength trainer Dru Scott.
When not pitching, lefty Besser was the unorthodox choice for South Adams at shortstop his last three seasons.
“I knew it looked silly, but I had been playing shortstop all my life,” says Besser. “I can throw from any arm angle. I had a great time doing it.
“Besides I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do it for long. I knew pitching is what I wanted to do.”
Besser played in the 2019 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series in Madison. He was honored as the 2019 Northeast Indiana Baseball Association/Dick Crumback Player of the Year.
The 2021 recipient of the award — Carter Mathison (Homestead/Indiana University) is Besser’s teammate this summer with New England Collegiate Baseball League’s Keene (N.H.) Swamp Bats. Mathison was also the 2021 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Player of the Year.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Besser shined on the mound at Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers.
In 36 appearances (10 starts), he went 6-4 with eight saves and a 2.66 earned run average as the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I Buccaneers posted marks of 16-11 in 2020 (COVID-19 shortened), 44-16 in 2021 and 42-15 in 2022. He amassed 125 strikeouts and 42 walks in 94 2/3 innings.
Besser played no summer ball in 2020 and dealt with an injury at the beginning of the 2021. He came back and hurled five innings in the state tournament and did not allow a baserunner.
“I really saw a spike in all of my numbers for the good (in 2022),” says Besser. “I blew every category away from the previous years.”
He was in 20 games in 2022 and went 3-2 with six saves, a 1.28 ERA, 61 K’s and 16 walks in 42 1/3 innings.
Ben Bizier is head coach at Florida SouthWestern State. Derrick Conatser is Bucs pitching coach.
“I like that toughness to he brings to the table,” says Besser of Bizier.
In his exit interview with Bizier Besser was told that 18 Major League Baseball organizations have been following him as they prepare for the 2022 First-Year Player Draft (July 17-19 in Los Angeles).
“He said there’s a really good chance it happens this year,” says Besser, who turns 22 in September. “Out of high school I had zero (college) offers. Coach Buckingham offered me to Florida JUCO’s. I earned a scholarship at FSW in the spring.
“Money has never been the big thing for me. It’s opportunity and getting my foot in the door.”
This is Besser’s second straight summer at Keene and he has had several meaningful chats with Swamp Bats president and general manager Kevin Watterson.
So far, Besser has made four appearances (one start) and is 1-0 with an 0.87 ERA. In 10 1/3 innings, the southpaw has 10 strikeouts and one walk. The NECBL regular season ends July 30.
Throughout his college experience, Besser has been used in multiple pitching roles, including starter, long reliever and a closer.
“It doesn’t matter to me as long as we get a win,” says Besser. “I’m very versatile.”
Besser has excelled with an ability to keep his head when things get tense.
“It’s mental toughness. I preach it,” says Besser. “I can spot when somebody doesn’t have that mental toughness.
“I’m ready for the situation. I’m consistent with all that I do. I work quick and throw strikes. Preparation and a steady mindset is key.”
Throwing from a three-quarter arm slot, Besser uses a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, change-up and curveball.
“My four-seamer has natural run and a high spin rate,” says Besser. “Up in the zone is where I get the most out of it.
“This summer it’s been sitting 89 to 91 mph (it hit 92 at Florida SouthWestern State).”
Besser’s two-seamer moves in to left-handed hitters and away from righties.
His “circle” change-up break to his arm side and is usually clocked around 83 mph.
“My curveball is more of a slurve,” says Besser of the pitch that’s often delivered at around 78 mph. “I mix and match. Sometimes it’s 12-to-6 and sometimes I sweep it. It depends on the situation.”
Grant is the oldest of Mike and Katina Besser’s two sons. Adam Besser, a right-handed pitcher for Ivy Tech Northeast in Fort Wayne, turns 20 in August.
Mike Besser is a salesman for Moser Motor Sales. Katina Besser is chief financial officer at Swiss Village Retirement Community.
The family moved from Geneva and Berne when Grant was in the fifth grade. Beginning at 9U, he played travel ball for the Muncie Longhorns and Indiana Bandits and then Summit City Sluggers founder Mark DeLaGarza reached out to him and he spent two summers with the 17U Sluggers, playing for head coaches Todd Armstrong and Brent Alwine.
“My parents’ sacrifices let me do that,” says Grant. “The Sluggers gave me a lot of knowledge on baseball.”

With two years of eligibility remaining, has committed to NCAA Division I Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. He signed with the Scarlet Knights over the winter.
Why Rutgers?
“What really attracting me was coming home to the Big Ten,” says Besser, who was born in Fort Wayne and grew up in Geneva and Berne. “It’s up-and-coming program and pretty hard-nosed.”
With Steve Owens as head coach and Brendan Monaghan guiding pitchers, the Scarlet Knights posted an overall mark of 44-17 and Big Ten record of 17-7 in 2022. Rutgers played Michigan in the conference tournament championship game.
After earning an Associate of Arts degree in Business Management at Florida SouthWestern State, Besser is considering a Labor and Relations major at Rutgers.

Grant Besser (Florida SouthWestern State College Photo)

Grant Besser (Florida SouthWestern State College Photo)
Grant Besser (Florida SouthWestern State College Photo)
Head coach Ben Bizier (left) and Grant Besser (Florida SouthWestern State College Photo)

City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Fla.
City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Fla.
Grant Besser (Keene Swamp Bats Photo)

Righty Gaff pursuing baseball dreams with Minnesota Twins organization

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Tanner Gaff grew up in Whitley County, Ind., as a middle infielder who moved to the corners as he got older.
The right-hander doubled as a pitcher.
A 2016 graduate of Whitko Junior/Senior High School in South Whitley, Gaff went to the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne and was a two-way player until his last season — the extra year granted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I had a pretty good year,” says Gaff, who employed Driveline Baseball training methods and increased his velocity going into 2021.
As a pitcher-only in ’21, the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder made 14 mound appearances and went 8-2 with a 4.15 earned run average and 92 strikeouts in 92 1/3 innings. USF went 34-22, setting a school record for single-season victories.
Gaff, who earned a degree in Business Management with a Sports concentration in 2020, still wanted to see how far pitching could take him.
“I had heard nothing but good things about Tread (Athletics),” says Gaff of the business specializing in online performance coaching. He began training remotely with Tread in the summer of 2021.
When Connor Lawhead left the Saint Francis coaching staff and went back to his native Washington, the Cougars were in need of a pitching coach. Gaff filled that role and was part of a staff featuring head coach Dustin Butcher and assistant Kristian Gayday while still honing his own skills.
Then came the time to go to Charlotte, N.C., and train with Tread in-house, which he did from February to May of 2022.
“Butch was happy for me,” says Gaff of Butcher’s willingness to let him pursue his dreams. “He was all for me furthering my baseball career.”
With the help of Tread, Gaff posted videos of him pitching to social media and got the attention of the Minnesota Twins. On May 20, he signed with that organization and is now in Fort Myers gearing up for the Florida Complex League season which opens June 6. The next two steps up the minor league ladder are with the Low-A Florida State League’s Fort Myers Mighty Mussels and High-A Midwest League’s Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels.
Throwing from a high three-quarter arm slot, Gaff possesses a four-seam fastball, slider/cutter, curve and splitter (split-finger fastball).
“My four-seamer has ‘plus’ carry and sits at 91 to 94,” says Gaff, 24. “I’m always looking to gain mph.
When it’s right, his slider is delivered about 80 mph.
“My splitter is one of my most promising pitches,” says Gaff. “I get good swing-and-miss with it.
“I threw it in middle school though I didn’t know it was called a splitter at the time. I’ve always had it in my back pocket. The movement patterns are always consistent. Sometimes it’s left. Sometimes right.”
At Tread, Gaff used TrackMan cameras to learned how to manipulate his splitter and other pitches.
Born in Columbia City to James and Debra Gaff, Tanner spent his youth on a 40-acre farm (20 acres of farmland and 20 acres of wetlands) about 10 minutes from Columbia City, Larwill and South Whitley.
He played in the South Whitley youth league until about sixth grade then travel ball with a homegrown team later the Ken Jones-coached Flippin’ Frogs and Cam Brannock-coached Summit City Sluggers.
As a middle schooler, Gaff was on a Pony League travel team that was coached by then-Whitko head coach Erik Hisner (now at Eastern of Greentown).
“That helped us with high school,” says Gaff, who had some teammates go on to win the Wildcats’ first sectional title in 2017. “We kept our core together.”
Gaff played two years at USF for head coach Greg Roberts and then assistant Butcher took over the program.
“(Roberts) was a really nice guy,” says Gaff. “He cared about his players. Butch is a great coach, but an even better person.
“He changed the culture. Saint Francis wasn’t always typically known as a good baseball school.”
Tanner has two older married sisters — Starr Kane and Isis Ivy.

Tanner Gaff, a graduate of Whitko Junior/Senior High School and the University of Saint Francis (Ind.), signs with the Minnesota Twins. (Minnesota Twins Photo)
Former University of Saint Francis pitcher has signed to play professional baseball with the Minnesota Twins. He trained remotely and on-site with Tread Athletics of Charlotte, N.C. (Tread Athletics Image)

Arsenal making its mark on Indiana travel baseball

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Arsenal Indiana is expanding for the 2021-22 travel baseball season.
The affiliate of Arsenal USA Baseball is to go with 12U, 13U, 14U and 15U squads in its third season.
“Within two or three years I want to have teams from 12U through 17U,” says Arsenal Indiana director Jeff Cleckner. “I want to have one team at each age group and be very competitive.
“I don’t want to water down the brand with seven 15U teams.”
Cleckner, a graduate of Fremont (Ind.) High School (1989) and Purdue University living in Fishers, Ind., says the focus is on skill development at the younger levels and that the older ones grow their mental approach to the game as they prepare for college baseball.
But first the current campaign where Arsenal is fielding a 17U team with Cleckner as head coach and Arsenal Indiana director and a 14U squad guided by Steve Smitherman. In 2020, 16U and 13U teams took the field for the organization.
Playing six weekends of seven — starting with the first one in June — the 17U team has competed or will take part in events sponsored by Prep Baseball Report, Perfect Game and Bullpen Tournaments.
The team placed second during the holiday weekend at the PBR Indiana State Games at Championship Park in Kokomo. The 17U’s were 22-9-1 through 30 games.
The season wraps with the Perfect Game 17U BCS National Championship July 21-26 at Major League Baseball spring training fields in Fort Myers, Fla. All the other tournaments have been staged at Grand Park in Westfield.
“It’s nice with Grand Park,” says Cleckner of the large complex in central Indiana. “Everyone comes to us.”
High schools represented on the 17U roster include Avon, Fishers, Harrison (West Lafayette), Heritage Christian, Huntington North, Indianapolis Cathedral, Indianapolis North Central, Noblesville, Penn, Plainfield, South Adams, Wapahani, Wawasee, Westfield and Zionsville in Indiana and Edwardsburg in Michigan.
Since the older teams can play as many as seven games in five days, there are often a number of pitcher-only players (aka P.O.’s).
“It’s nice to have P.O.’s,” says Cleckner. “We can supplement as needed with position players.
“We’re mindful of arm care and arm health.”
The 14U Arsenal Indiana team began in early April and will play until mid-July and could easily get in 60 games in 3 1/2 months. The 14U team plays in same types of tournaments that the 17U teams plays at Grand Park in Westfield.
Arsenal Indiana tryouts are planned for late July or early August, likely at Grand Park.
A fall season of four or five weekends features a trip to the Perfect Game WWBA 2022/2023 National Championship Oct. 7-11 in Jupiter, Fla., for the upperclassmen.
“The goal of the fall season is getting a little more work going into the winter,” says Cleckner. “You have new kids who’ve joined your team and you’re creating some chemistry and camaraderie.”
The fall also provides more college looks for older players.
Arsenal Indiana trains in the off-season at Finch Creek Fieldhouse in Noblesville.
What is now Arsenal USA Baseball was began in 1995 by Joe Barth Jr. and son Bob Barth as the Tri-State Arsenal with players from southern New Jersey, Delaware and eastern Pennsylvania. Besides USA National in New Jersey, there are affiliate locations in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.
Many professionals and college players have come through the Arsenal program.

Arsenal Indiana’s Grant Brooks, a Butler University commit.
Arsenal Indiana’s Trey Dorton.
Arsenal Indiana first baseman Riley Behrmann.
Arsenal Indiana’s Joe Huffman.
Arsenal Indiana’s Jake Gothrup.
Arsenal Indiana’s Evan Jensen scores a run.
Arsenal Indiana’s Connor Ostrander, a Western Michigan University commit.
Arsenal Indiana’s Braden Gendron.
Arsenal Indiana catcher A.J. Dull.
Arsenal Indiana’s 17U with tournament hardware earned in 2021.
Coach/director Jeff Cleckner addresses his Arsenal Indiana 17U team at a tournament at Kokomo’s Championship Park. (Steve Krah Photo)

Columbus native Gray deliver for Milwaukee Milkmen in a big way

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Peyton Gray has spent July and August dodging bats.

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.

A 2014 graduate of Columbus (Ind.) East High School, where he was a four-year letterman for Olympians head coach Jon Gratz, Gray pitched one season at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo (0-1 with two saves, a 3.58 ERA, 21 strikeouts and 18 walks in 37 2/3 innings in 2015), one at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Fla. (8-1 with one save, a 3.93 ERA, 55 strikeouts and 13 walks in 71 2/3 innings in 2016) and two at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Fla. (6-5 with one save, a 5.49 ERA, 110 strikeouts and 42 walks in 95 innings in 2017 and 2018).

Gray was both a mid-week starter and weekend reliever at Florida Gulf Coast. He came out of the bullpen in the Rockies organization.

With the Milkmen, he has been used mostly for one-inning outings with two exceptions. He has never faced more than seven batters at a time.

“Throwing’s very crucial,” says Gray. “When you’re sore force yourself to throw and break up whatever’s tight in the body.

Gray uses Driveline PlyoCare balls for recovery both on days he pitches and days he does not.

At 25, Gray is one of the youngest on a roster that features no less than six players with big-league experience — pitchers Henderson Alvarez, Tim Dillard, David Holmberg, Drew Hutchison, A.J. Schugel, and infielder David Washington.

“It’s been really good for me to be around an older crowd like this and learn the game more,” says Gray. “It’s pretty close-knit team. Everybody’s very friendly and down-to-earth.

“I watch how they go about their business. As a professional, you’re in charge of your career. You have to know the ropes if you want that career to last long.”

Gray is now with a team managed by Anthony Barone with Hayden Carter (formerly of the Kokomo, Ind., Jackrabbits) as pitching coach that plays its home games in the Milwaukee suburb of Franklin, Wis.

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.

“It makes me happy to make them proud.”

Billy Gray played high school baseball at Columbus North and Jordan Gray at Columbus East. 

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.

Peyton Gray, of Columbus, Ind., has been a lights-out late-inning baseball pitcher for the independent American Association’s Milwaukee Milkmen in 2020. He played at Florida Gulf Coast University before being signed by the Colorado Rockies in 2018.

Elkhart’s Strausborger getting fresh start with Twins

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Spring brings with it a chance for a fresh start.

The sense of newness rings especially true for Elkhart native Ryan Strausborger as he heads into his eighth season of professional baseball.

Strausborger, a 2006 Elkhart Memorial High School graduate who hitting a program-record .500 as a senior first-team all-state shortstop honoree by the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association, recently signed with the Minnesota Twins organization. He will spend his first spring training in Florida’s Grapefruit League after knowing nothing but Arizona’s Cactus League.

“I’m excited about it,” Strausborger said. “It’s a big relief knowing I have a chance with a team. That’s all I can ask for.

“I’ll hopefully start in Triple-A (at Rochester, N.Y.).”

The right-handed-hitting outfielder who turns 29 March 4 plans to take the option of getting to Twins camp in Fort Myers early on Feb. 20. That’s well ahead of the March 7 official reporting date for position players (pitchers and catchers get there first).

“I’m anxious to get into the swing of things,” Strausborger said.

The versatile speedster was selected in the 16th round of the 2010 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Texas Rangers organization after a stellar collegiate career at Indiana State University (he was a three-time all-Missouri Valley Conference performer as a second baseman in 2008, utility player in 2009 and outfielder in 2010).

Strausborger worked his way up the Rangers ladder and made his MLB debut with Texas Aug. 5, 2015 and socked his lone big league home run Aug. 16 of that year.

He spent all of 2016 in the minor leagues and was traded to the Seattle Mariners organization near the end of 2016 and hit .153 with two homers, 11 RBI and six stolen bases in 40 games at Triple-A Tacoma.

Strausborger chooses to see the positives.

“I’m thankful to the Mariners for the opportunity,” Strausborger said. “I met a lot of awesome people and took away a lot of good things.

“I just didn’t show what I bring to the table. I have nobody to blame but myself.”

Having moved from the Rangers to the Mariners, he had already experienced one transition and now he’s getting ready for another after the Twins reached out to Bob Garber, Strausborger’s agent, and showed interest.

The Twins are bringing Strausborger in as an outfielder, but he plans to let the right people know about his utility abilities and hopes to get in some infield reps.

When Strausborger was with the Rangers, former minor league manager and big league coach Steve Buechele took note of his talents.

“He has that one tool that’s unique to the game and it’s valuable,” Buechele said. “It’s speed and he uses that to play good, solid defense and it helps him offensively. It’s a big part of his game.”

Casey Candaele, who was then minor league field coordinator, also praised Strausborger.

“He plays the game right,” Candaele said. “He’s a hard-nosed guy. He has tools that play.”

While he won’t know too many faces, a couple of Strausborger’s former teammates in the Rangers organization — catcher Chris Gimenez and relief pitcher Nick Tepesch and — are now with the Twins.

Since the end of the 2016 season, Strausborger has gotten to play rounds of golf with his dad, Mike, and to practice the acoustic guitar (picking up pointers on YouTube), while splitting his time between Indiana and Texas.

Off-season training has been devoted to strength and conditioning.

“You want to get as strong as you can and go into the season strong and injury free,” Strausborger said.

Winter months have also been consumed with plenty of batting practice. He even got a chance to share his hitting knowledge in a camp put on by the South Bend Cubs Performance Center. His career has had him traveling too much to give lessons on a regular basis, but he can see himself giving back to the game more in that way after he retires.

During his rise through the baseball ranks, he’s noticed the difference in levels comes down to three things — speed of the game, experience and talent.

“Everybody’s good at this level,” Strausborger said. “Everybody’s here for a reason.”

Right now, he’s enjoying the pro baseball experience.

“I’m happy and I’m blessed,” Strausborger said. “Looking back on it, there’s nothing I would change. I love what I get to do for a living and a job and you can’t ask for more than that.”

Once in awhile, Strausborger might find himself glancing back to his high school days or even to the summers on Elkhart’s Cleveland Little League diamonds.

“It helps you clear your head a little bit,” Strausborger said. “You remember that this game has to be fun.”

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Ryan Strausborger, seen running the bases for the Texas Rangers, is now in the Minnesota Twins organization. (Getty Images)