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Confidence carries Plainfield, Butler grad Mitchell into pro baseball with Dodgers system

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Applying advice provided by two of his college coaches, Connor Mitchell earned the right to play professional baseball in 2018.

Mitchell, a left-handed pitcher, finished up a four-year diamond career at Butler University in Indianapolis in 2018.

Dave Schrage has been the Bulldogs head coach and Ben Norton the pitching coach since the 2017 season.

Mitchell credits both men for helping him as a collegian and in getting selected in the 27th round of the 2018 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“The biggest thing I took away from Coach Schrage is that everything matters — on the field and off the field,” says Mitchell. “All the little things play a role in whether you have success. If you’re doing every thing right way in the classroom and the weight room, all of it makes a difference.”

Norton helped implant a confident mindset.

“He told me to go after hitters and never be hesitant,” says Mitchell of Norton. “Pick a pitch you have conviction with and just throw it.”

Throwing from a high three-quarter arm slot, Mitchell delivered four-team and two-seam fastballs that typically traveled at 88 to 92 mph. He also used an adapted “circle” change-up, slider and cut fastball.

In his final Butler campaign, Mitchell made 14 mound appearances (all stars) and went 3-4 with a 4.85 ERA. In 68 2/3 innings, he racked up 80 strikeouts with 19 walks.

For his college career, the southpaw pitched in 41 games (32 starts) with a 8-10 record and 4.74 earned run average. In 160 innings, Mitchell struck out 149 and walked 66. He was a medical redshirt his sophomore year when he had to have an ulnar nerve transposition procedure.

“I had some discomfort when I threw and tingling in my fingers,” says Mitchell. “There have been no issues since then.”

After being drafted in June, the 6-foot-4, 180-pounder worked in 17 games (all in relief) for the rookie-level Ogden (Utah) Raptors. In 29 2/3 innings, the lefty went 4-0 with a 6.67 earned run average, 20 strikeouts and six walks.

Dodgers minor league stops after Ogden are the Low Class-A Great Lakes (Mich.) Loons, High-A Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) Quakes, Double-A Tulsa (Okla.) Drillers and Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers.

Mitchell enjoyed his first pro season.

“I liked how efficient and focused everything was,” says Mitchell. “It streamlined. Everybody knew what they needed to do.”

After a week back home in Plainfield, Ind., Mitchell went to Arizona in mid-September and is to spend a month at Camelback Ranch in Glendale for the Dodgers instructional league.

“We’ve been doing a variety of things from pitch design to defense work,” says Mitchell. “It’s been good so far.

“(The Dodgers) give us a lot of freedom, but the expectation for all of us is very high. It feels like a family.”

Support from his actual family comes from father, mother and younger brother — Brooks, Laura and Jackson. His parents own a small drywall sales business in Plainfield. His brother is a freshman baseball player at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind.

Connor Mitchell is a 2014 Plainfield High School graduate. fanned a combined 90 batters in 55 innings during his sophomore and junior seasons for the Quakers, who were then coached by Jeff McKeon.

In the spring of his senior year, Mitchell competed in the Perfect Game Iowa Spring League, where he was named to the Top Prospect Team. He traveled from Indiana to meet his team on days he was scheduled to pitch.

“That league was awesome,” says Mitchell. “There’s a ton of good players in Iowa and the surrounding states.”

Born in Indianapolis, Mitchell spent his early years in Reelsville, Ind., in Putnam County. After moving to central Indiana, he played travel baseball for the Avon Attack, USAthletic and two stints with the Indiana Mustangs, where he formed a friendship with future Butler teammate Garrett Christman.

Mitchell and Christman were roommates throughout college and both graduated in May with degrees in Human Movement and Health Science.

He’s a great player,” says Mitchell of Christman, who was both a shortstop and pitcher at Butler and was drafted by the San Francisco Giants this year. “He does it all.

“He really came on as a pitcher. He eats innings and gets a lot of ground balls. I’m excited to see what he does professionally.”

Mitchell and Christman played for former pro outfielder Chris Estep with the Mustangs.

“He was a big influence on me growing up, developing as me as a player and a person,” says Mitchell of Estep. “He taught me how to handle failure. He’s also fun to be around.”

Brother Jackson also played for the Mustangs.

The Mitchell boys were born four years apart — Connor (23) on Sept. 11 and Jackson (19) on Sept. 10.

Connor was 6 and Jackson 2 on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“When it happened, I could tell something bad had happened,” says Connor. “It’s definitely a somber day, knowing what that day means to our country.”

Over the years, the brothers and their family have celebrated their birthdays together.

“We enjoy the day and enjoy being together,” says Connor, who plans to enjoy his time back in Indiana this winter by working out and maybe giving back to younger players through private lessons.

Then it’s back to Arizona for spring training to resume his pro baseball career.

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Connor Mitchell made his professional baseball debut in 2018 with the Ogden (Utah) Raptors in the Los Angeles Dodgers system. He is a graduate of Plainfield (Ind.) High and Butler University in Indianapolis.

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Garrett Christman (left) and Connor Mitchell both graduated from Butler University in Indianapolis in the spring of 2018. They were travel ball teammates for the Indiana Mustangs then baseball teammates and roommates at Butler. Noblesville High School graduate Christman is now in the San Francisco Giants organization and Mitchell the Los Angeles Dodgers system.

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Butler University baseball teammates Josh Walker (left) and Connor Mitchell were both pitchers for the Bulldogs.

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Connor Mitchell, a graduate of Plainfield (Ind.) High School and Butler University in Indianapolis, stares in for the Ogden (Utah) Raptors in the Los Angeles Dodgers system. (Kevin Johnson Photo)

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Connor Mitchell, a graduate of Plainfield (Ind.) High School and Butler University in Indianapolis, lets go for the Ogden (Utah) Raptors in the Los Angeles Dodgers system. (Kevin Johnson Photo)

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Connor Mitchell, a graduate of Plainfield (Ind.) High School and Butler University in Indianapolis, winds up for the Ogden (Utah) Raptors in the Los Angeles Dodgers system. (Kevin Johnson Photo)

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Connor Mitchell, a graduate of Plainfield (Ind.) High School and Butler University in Indianapolis, delivers a pitch in 2018 for the Ogden (Utah) Raptors in the Los Angeles Dodgers system. (Kevin Johnson Photo)

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Fort Wayne’s McKinstry builds Baseball I.Q. at early age, now in Dodgers chain

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Zach McKinstry started thinking about baseball — really thinking about it — as a youngster in Fort Wayne.

Alex McKinstry started talking with his middle child about the intricacies of the game as he practiced his craft year-round. It was a thrill to be able to swing the bat during the winter thanks to Rich Dunno and his indoor facility.

“Growing up around the game, I felt I was ahead of the kids in Fort Wayne with baseball,” says Zach, now 23 and a middle infielder in the Los Angeles Dodgers system. “I got to play it almost all year-round. That was was really nice.”

Alex McKinstry was Zach’s coach in his final travel ball season and is still a coach with the Fort Wayne Diamondbacks. The instructor at Bill C. Anthis Career Center in Fort Wayne was head baseball coach when Zach played at Fort Wayne North Side High School and is now the junior varsity coach at Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran High School.

Zach’s older brother, Alex McKinstry, played four years of college baseball — two at the University of Northwestern Ohio and two at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne.

Zach was born in Toledo, Ohio, but moved with the family to Fort Wayne before elementary school. He started at Holy Cross Little League then played travel baseball from 10 on. First, there was the Summit City Thunder then Summit City Sluggers, Strike Zone Spiders and Manny Lopez-led Fort Wayne Cubs (now the Fort Wayne Diamondbacks).

Zach McKinstry played football and baseball at North Side, graduating in 2014. He then played two stellar seasons at Central Michigan University, earning co-team MVP honors in his final season of 2016 after hitting .325 with 10 doubles, two triples, 31 runs batted in and 12 stolen bases. Over two years, he hit .321 with 14 doubles, five triples, 45 RBIs and 20 pilfered bags.

As a draft eligible sophomore, McKinstry was selected in the 33rd round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Dodgers.

The 2016 season was split between the Short Season Class-A Arizona League Dodgers and Low-A Great Lakes (Mich.) Loons. He played for Great Lakes, High-A Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) Quakes and Double-A Tulsa (Okla.) Drillers in 2017.

McKinstry started the 2018 campaign at Great Lakes and is now back with Rancho Cucamonga. In a combined 39 games, the left-handed swinger is hitting .388 with three home runs, eight doubles, two triples and nine RBIs.

Mostly a shortstop at Great Lakes, he has seen more action at second base with the Quakes. Rancho Cucamonga has a highly-touted shortstop in Gavin Lux and a top-notch second baseman in Omar Estevez.

Drew Saylor is the Quakes manager and Justin Viele the hitting coach.

LA’s Triple-A affiliate is the Oklahoma City Dodgers.

Going back to his younger days, McKinstry counts his Baseball I.Q. as one of his strengths.

“It’s being able to think the game on my own and having a feel for the game of baseball,” says McKinstry. “I understand what’s going on.

“My best tool is on tool and defense. I have the arm for throwing the ball across the diamond.”

As a batter, he’s been used in the Nos. 1, 2, 8 and 9 slots in the order.

“I’m a get-on-base kind of guy,” says McKinstry, who carries a .526 on-base percentage for 2018 and .365 for his pro career. “I get on for guys who can hit the ball hard in the air.”

Steve Jaska was Central Michigan’s head coach during McKinstry’s time with the Chippewas.

“He had a passion for the game,” says McKinstry. “He carried himself very professionally. He knew what he needed to do to win baseball games and he taught me how to be a winner.

“He also taught how to take your losses and use them to you advantage — learn from what you did wrong and what you could have done differently.”

Though Jaska did not name captains for 2016, McKinstry was considered one that spring.

“He taught me how to be a leader,” says McKinstry of Jaska, who led leadership training in the off-season. “I really value him for that.

“He let me carry that team a little bit.”

Coming out of his shell, McKinstry developed the ability to speak to a roomful of ballplayers as well as go one-on-one.

“He could always rely on me to go to a freshman.” says McKinstry.

Besides Zach and the two Alexes, the McKinstry family features wife/mother Tracy (who is employed at James Medical) and daughter/sister Haley. The latter was a soccer player at North Side.

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Zach McKinstry, a Fort Wayne North Side High School graduate who played at Central Michigan University, is now in the Los Angeles Dodgers system with the Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) Quakes. (Steve Saenz Photo)

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Zach McKinstry, who went to high school and played youth and travel baseball in Fort Wayne, Ind., was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2016 and now plays with the Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) Quakes. (Steve Saenz Photo)

With a little help from dad, Sampen pitching in Dodgers organization

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Caleb Sampen, a right-hander in the Los Angeles Dodgers system, is a second-generation professional baseball pitcher.

His father — Bill Sampen — toed the rubber for pay for 10 seasons and appeared in 182 major league games with the Montreal Expos, Kansas City Royals and California Angels.

Selected in the 20th round of the 2018 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft out of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, Brownsburg (Ind.) High School graduate Caleb Sampen had been in three pro games though July 10 — all with the Short Season Class-A Ogden (Utah) Raptors.

Caleb has picked up pointers from his father. But it hasn’t been too much.

When Caleb was getting started in the game, Bill was coaching his two older sons. Isaac and Sam played for the West Side Crusaders.

“I was just around,” says Caleb Sampen. “(My father) didn’t force any mechanics on me. He let me be an athlete.

“It wasn’t like I had a pitching lesson with him everyday.”

The elder Sampen decided when his older boys were reaching their teens that he would stop serving as a coach for their teams and he never coached any of Caleb’s squads.

“It was best for them to learn to play for other people,” says Bill Sampen, “I thought that was part of the process. I think that’s the best route for kids.

“I got to step back and just be a dad and enjoy watching them play.

“I just played coach when they asked me questions.”

In November, Samp’s Hack Shack baseball/softball training facilities will reach the ninth year in Brownsburg (5,200 square feet) and mark one year in Plainfield (7,500 square feet).

The Indiana Expos travel organization are in their second season and have seven teams in 2018. None of them have fathers coaching their own sons.

Bill Sampen says that policy for Expos coaches achieves a couple things.

“It allows us to be completely honest and give honest and objective feedback,” says Bill Sampen. “And they just get to watch their kid play.

“I know I enjoy the value of just sitting back and being a dad. The truth is they’re not going to play very long. Enjoy the journey. Don’t stress so much.”

Bill Sampen coaches the 16U National team, David Brewers the 16U American, Derek Hankins the 15U National, Nick Spence the 15U American, Isaac Sampen the 14U National, Leo Tobasco the 14U American, Tony Meyer the 13U National.

Calling the teams the Expos was not Bill’s call.

“My family decision informed that was what the name was,” says Bill Sampen. “You can see I have no clout.”

Bill coached the Bethesda Christian School baseball team for about a decade before starting his training business.

“It’s a very pure level of coaching I have now,” says Bill Sampen, “I appreciate that.”

During the school year, he has students from 4 p.m. on. But he is involved seven days a week most of the year as either an instructor or travel ball coach.

His 16U team has been in Georgia, competing against some of the best from all over the continent.

“Our upper age groups do more extensive travel,” says Bill Sampen. “We’re helping them get exposure. They get to see kids committed (to colleges) all over the place.

“It’s good for our players to see the skill level and talent that’s out there. We want to play people that the only way we can beat them is if we out-execute them.

“Do things right day in and day out. If you have a plan and do the routine things, you’re going to be in baseball games, no matter who you’re playing.”

Knowing that some players will not go on to college, they are getting to have experiences they may not have without travel baseball.

“We want to hope them grow and develop — not just as baseball players but as people,” says Bill Sampen. “It’s the life skills that carry past baseball.

“If you’re trying to win trophies, I think you’ve got the wrong purpose.”

Caleb Sampen grew up in Brownsburg and played at Brownsburg Little League until seventh grade when he started his travel ball experiences. He donned the uniforms of the Indiana Outlaws, Indiana Prospects and Indiana Bulls and Indiana Blue Jays.

At Brownburg High, where Caleb graduated in 2015, his head coach was Eric Mattingly.

“He always talked about doing the little things right and an attention to detail,” says Caleb Sampen, who played shortstop when not pitching for the Bulldogs. “You take care of every little piece so you’re well-prepared.”

At Wright State, Sampen had Greg Lovelady as his head coach and Justin Parker his pitching coach his freshman year before both went to the University of Central Florida.

“(Parker) always talks about lower half and using your legs,” says Caleb Sampen.

The next two years, Jeff Mercer was head coach and Alex Sogard led the pitching staff.

(Sogard) didn’t try to change me a whole lot on the mound,” says Caleb Sampen. “He was pretty individualized, which I liked a lot.”

Recently, Mercer became head coach at Indiana University and Sogard was promoted to head coach at Wright State.

Sampen also got the chance this past year to learned from Diamyn Hall, NCAA Division I baseball’s first full-time mental skills coach.

“We worked on routines and being ready to go,” says Sampen of Hall. “He gets you in that mindset and having self awareness.”

In Caleb Sampen, Bill sees a cerebral kid.

“He’s got an idea,” says Bill Sampen. “I can’t take any credit for any successes he’s had.”

The father does see some similarities to himself.

Bill Sampen developed his abilities while playing baseball and basketball at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill.

“I see the way he moves and his athleticism,” says Bill Sampen of Caleb. “He has a long, loose arm and does things naturally.”

In two seasons at Wright State (2016 and 2018), Caleb went 14-4 in 26 games (21 as a starter) with a 2.92 earned run average, 90 strikeouts and 37 walks in 141 2/3 innings. He missed the 2017 season after having surgery on the ulnar nerve in his elbow.

On a pitch count because of the college workload in the spring of 2018, Caleb Sampen, 21, began his pro career with two relief appearances and a short starting stint. He was 0-1 with a 7.71 ERA, seven strikeouts and one walk in 4 2/3 innings.

Jeremy Rodriguez is the Ogden manager. Dean Stiles is the pitching coach.

The next stops on the Dodgers minor league trail are the Low Class-A Great Lakes (Mich.) Loons, High-A Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) Quakes, Double-A Tulsa (Okla.) Drillers and Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers.

Caleb says he goes to the bump each time with an aggressiveness mindset.

“You’ve got to go out and attack with your strengths,” says Caleb Sampen, who uses a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, change-up, 12-to-6 curveball and cutter.

What about the change-up?

“It’s own own little mix I’ve perfected over the years,” says Caleb Sampen. “I use an off-set two-seam grip and throw it with my ring finger and middle finger. I keep my index finger off the ball as much as possible.”

Amy Sampen, a former Brownsburg teacher, is now an virtual educator and is the “boss” as co-owner of the Hack Shack, according to Bill.

Isaac Sampen (24) and Sam Sampen (23) both played at Parkland College in Champaign, Ill. Sam graduated highs school a semester early and joined his older brother.

Isaac Sampen went on to play at Eastern Illinois University and Sam Sampen at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Besides coaching and helping with the coordination of the Expos, Isaac now helps in many ways at the Shack. Sam has an outside job and also helps out at the training facilities.

In his time around the game, Bill Sampen has seen an increase in research and scientific data related to throwing a baseball.

“It’s validated some things that should have been done all along,” says Bill Sampen. “It can be very valuable in preventing injury.

“It seems that injuries are still there in spite of new data and new science.”

The likely reason?

“It’s the intensity of weight training,” says Bill Sampen. “Velocity is based on arm speed and not body strength.

“There are big, physical guys that can’t throw hard.”

And yet 5-foot-11, 180-pounder Billy Wagner regularly hit 100 mph and won 47 games and saved 422 in the bigs.

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Caleb Sampen, a 2015 Brownsburg High School graduate and former Wright State University pitcher, makes a delivery for the Ogden (Utah) Raptors in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. (Ogden Raptors Photo)

 

Fort Wayne native Reith sharing knowledge as pitching coach in Rays system

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brian Reith played professional baseball for 13 seasons with parts of three in the majors (2001, 2003 and 2004 Cincinnati Reds).

Reith, a 1996 Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran High School graduate, has plenty to impart to young players as pitching coach for the Low Class-A Midwest League’s Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods.

But it’s not just about what goes on between the white lines.

“This is about more than just baseball for me,” says Reith. “It’s about young men. The game’s going to be over at some point and, hopefully, they can have a sound future somewhere else.”

Reith, 40, encourages players to approach him about anything.

“They can come to about off-the-field stuff and on-the-field stuff,” says Reith. “I try to be stern, but I try to be a friend to them as well.”

With his young pitchers on the mound, he emphasizes something that helped him during his pro playing career.

“What I focus on mostly is fastball command and getting them to understand the four quadrants of the (strike) zone, how effective that can be and how it sets up their other pitches,” says Reith. “By doing this, starters can also help relievers later in the game.”

Reith says it’s a matter of mechanics for some pitchers and — for others — confidence in their fastball.

“Fastball command was extremely important for me,” says Reith, a 6-foot-5 right-hander who graduated from Concordia in 1996 and was selected in the sixth round of that years’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the New York Yankees. “I first learned that in the (High Class-A) Florida State League. In Double-A, I had catchers who forced me to use my fastball. It really opened up a lot of doors for me.”

In the majors, his first manager was former big league catcher Bob Boone. Former MLB pitcher Don Gullett was the pitching coach.

“I had a lot of conversations with Bob Boone about pitch selection and different hitters and what to look for,” says Reith. “(Don Gullett) taught me a lot about work ethic.”

Dave Miley later took over as Reds manager. He ended up as head coach at Franklin County High School in Brockville, Ind.

Reith pitched for the Indianapolis Indians in 2005. Trent Jewett was the manager and Darold Knowles, who won 66 games and save 143 in 765 big league appearances, the pitching coach.

From 2007 to 2009, he played independent ball — first with the Somerset (Mass.) Patriots and then the Camden (N.J.) Riversharks and Joliet (Ill.) Jackhammers.

Sparky Lyle, who pitched in 899 big league games with 99 wins and 238 saves, was the manager and Brett Jodie, who made eight MLB appearances in 2001 with the Yankees and San Diego Padres, the pitching coach his first season in Somerset.

“(Sparky Lyle) stayed back and let us do our thing,” says Reith. “I was pitching pretty well while I was there.

“Brett Jodie helped me out quite a bit. I played with Jodie in the Yankees organization.”

The 2018 season marks Reith’s fourth in the Tampa Bay Rays system. He spent the past three years as pitching coaches with the Short Season Class-A New York-Penn League’s Hudson Valley (N.Y.) Renegades.

There are many former Hudson Valley pitchers on the current Bowling Green staff and Reith sees the value in the continuity.

“It’s always good to have a base and knowledge of how they learn and what they’re working on to start a season off,” says Reith. “It’s definitely helped.”

Reith recalls his time in the Midwest League with Dayton in 2000 and relates those experiences to his Hot Rods.

“It wasn’t that long ago I was in their same shoes,” says Reith. “I try to remember what I was going through and what my mind was like.”

Everyone shares in the grind.

“Travel is pretty brutal for us,” says Reith. “But the guys deal well with it.”

According to Google Maps, the distance between the stadium in Bowling Green and MWL sites are as follows: Beloit (Wis.) Snappers 510; Burlington (Iowa) Bees 494; Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels 561; Clinton (Iowa) LumberKings 530; Dayton (Ohio) Dragons 279; Fort Wayne (Ind.) TinCaps 389; Great Lakes Loons (Midland, Mich.) 616; Kane County Cougars (Geneva, Ill.) 479; Lake County Captains (Eastlake, Ohio) 477; Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts 524; Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs 436; Quad Cities River Bandits (Davenport, Iowa) 512; South Bend (Ind.) Cubs 392; West Michigan Whitecaps (Comstock Park, Mich.) 493; Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Appleton, Wis.) 621.

Toward the end of his playing career, Reith earned on online degree in business management from the University of Phoenix. When he retired as a player, he went to work in the corporate world and landed with Champs Sports in Bradenton, Fla.

At the same time, Reith was coaching 14- to 18-year-olds in Sam Marsonek’s SCORE International program — combination travel baseball organization and ministry.

“I really enjoyed teaching the young kids,” says Reith. “That really sparked my interest in what I could do at a different level.”

When the Rays came calling, he started coaching professionals.

Reith’s early diamond days were spent at Wallen Baseball League in Fort Wayne, where teams played by American Amateur Baseball Congress rules and runners could lead off at a younger age the Little League. The league turned 50 in 2008.

He played travel ball for the Fort Wayne Seminoles and Fort Wayne Warriors and four years as a pitcher and outfielder at Concordia for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Jack Massucci.

“He’s an extremely hard worker and a very knowledgeable guy,” says Reith of Massucci. “I didn’t know too much about situational baseball and he taught me a lot.”

Massucci is well-known around Fort Wayne for his long-time association with the Wildcat Baseball League.

Brian is the son of Steve and Nancy Reith, who live in the Fort Wayne area along with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Brian’s sister, Stacey, resides in Fishers, Ind.

Bowling Green has made two visits to Fort Wayne this season and is due for another July 6-9.

Brian, wife Kellie and their children reside in the Bradenton/Sarasota area in Florida. The family — parents, son Dixon (7) and daughter Kinsie (6) — have been together most of the season in Bowling Green. Recently, Kellie went back to Florida to ready to give birth to a second daughter in about two weeks.

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Brian Reith makes a mound visit as pitching coach for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods. The Fort Wayne native is in his fourth season of coaching in the Tampa Bay Rays system. (Bowling Green Hot Rods Photo)

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Brian Reith signals his approval as pitching coach for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods. He is a 1996 graduate of Fort Wayne (Ind.) Concordia Lutheran High School and played 13 professional baseball seasons, including parts of three in the majors. (Bowling Green Hot Rods Photo)

 

Former North Central (Farmersburg), Evansville right-hander Strain now pitching in Dodgers system

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Connor Strain’s baseball journey began in west central Indiana and it currently has him playing near the thumb in Michigan’s “mitten.”

Strain, who grew up in Sullivan County, Ind., played three varsity seasons at North Central High School in Farmersburg and five seasons at the University of Evansville, is now a Los Angeles Dodgers farmhand and a reliever for the Great Lakes Loons of the Low Class-A Midwest League.

A 6-foot-1, 190-pound right-hander, Strain regularly hits 92 to 95 mph on the radar gun with his sinking two-seam fastball. He also has a change-up and a “slurve” (combination slider and curve).

“I’m working on a true slider,” says Strain, 23. “I’ve been throwing 35 to 40 pitches on two days rest, depending on the situation.”

Strain was selected in the ninth round of the 2017 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Dodgers, but did not make it into a regular-season minor league game until 2018.

Going into play June 27, he was 2-0 with a 1.40 earned run average with 16 strikeouts and eighth walks in 19 1/3 innings. After suffering a groin injury in his second spring training outing, he was kept in Glendale, Ariz., for extended camp until making his Loons debut May 17.

“I’ve been focusing on keeping my body healthy,” says Strain, who was a starting pitcher at Evansville. “I’m working on getting a feel for my pitches during catch.”

What strikes him about the Midwest League?

“I was surprised with how nice the parks are in this league,” says Strain, who plays home games with the Loons at Dow Diamond.

Midland, Mich., is also closer to his hometown Shelburn, Ind., (about 450 miles) than Glendale.

Strain credits UE head coach Wes Carroll and pitching coach Cody Fick for advancing his development.

“Coach Carroll taught me the mentality of being comfortable while I’m uncomfortable,” says Strain, who pitched for the Purple Aces 2013-17 with 51 appearances (42 as a starter). “Throughout my college years I grew and learned how to handle things and how to compete and attack everything with the right mindset.”

Strain calls Fick the “biggest competitor I’ve ever been around.”

“He has an absolute will to win in everything he does,” says Strain of Fick. “He cares about the game about as much as anyone I’ve seen in my years in baseball.”

Done with class work as an accounting/business management major, Strain says he plans to do an internship in the off-season to complete his college degree. More than once, he was named to the Missouri Valley Conference Honor Roll.

At North Central, Strain lettered as a sophomore for Thunderbirds coach Darin Simpson then played his last two prep seasons for Craig Grow.

“(Grow) taught me how to enjoy the game,” says Strain. “He is one of the absolutely nicest human beings I’ve been around. He always has a smile on his face. He taught me to treat people the right way.”

As a North Central senior in 2012, Strain posted an ERA of 1.30 for 30 innings and he hit .398. As an all-stater, he had a 1.54 ERA in 70 1/3 innings and hit .451 as a junior. The Thunderbirds went 25-7 and were 2011 IHSAA Class 1A state runners-up.

Strain got his baseball start at Northeast Youth League and then played travel ball for the Farmersburg Outlaws.

Connor’s parents are Jeff Strain and Paula Strain. He has two brothers — fraternal twin Tyler Strain and Callan Strain.

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Connor Strain, a product of North Central (Farmersburg) High School and the University of Evansville, is now pitching in the Los Angeles Dodgers system with the Midwest League’s Great Lakes Loons. (Great Lakes Loons Photo)

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Connor Strain delivers a pitch in 2018 for the Midwest League’s Great Lakes Loons. (Great Lakes Loons Photo)

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As Los Angeles Dodgers farmhand, former North Central (Farmersburg) High School and University of Evansville pitcher is playing for the Midwest League’s Great Lakes Loons in Midland, Mich. (Great Lakes Loons Photo)