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July 29, 2011 at 2:43 PM

Greenville Drive Notebook - July 2011

Bogaerts upbeat despite struggles

Though he’s come down to earth after a torrid start in affiliated baseball, shortstop Xander Bogaerts is far from discouraged by his first season with the Low Class-A Greenville Drive.

After he made the unprecedented jump from the Dominican Summer League to a full-season affiliate, Bogaerts has seen his numbers decline in July. Before going 3 for 5 with a double, a home run, and 3 RBI in Tuesday’s 11-4 win at Hagerstown, Bogaerts had just 1 hit in his last 8 games and saw his batting average plunge to .206. For the season, Bogaerts is batting .222 with 7 home runs, 21 RBI and a .750 OPS in 37 games.

Principally responsible for the drop-off is the difference in pitching he is now facing. Early on, he feasted on fastballs—he estimated that all but one of his home runs came on heaters—just as he did in the Dominican Republic and Extended Spring Training, where pitchers rarely throw breaking balls. Now, opposing pitchers attack him with off-speed pitches.

“Here, you have cutters, sliders, and curveballs,” Bogaerts said. “They mix it in very well. I’ve been striking out a lot. I’m not used to that.”

Unfortuantely, there’s no quick way to improve pitch-recognition, an aspect of his game that Bogaerts rarely had to work on to this point. But getting at-bats every day at such a high level will certainly help.

“His age tells us that he needs repetition after repetition,” manager Billy McMillon said. “He’s one of the youngest guys in the league. He’s been playing solid defense and offensively, we’ve seen the power and we’ve seen him, at times, hit the ball for average. He’s got to use this experience and build upon it and get better.”

Despite the results, little doubt exists that Bogaerts is in over his head.

“We thought that he was going to be competitive in this league, and he’s shown that he’s competitive,” hitting coach Luis Lopez said. “We don’t care about their batting average; we care about their daily routine and how they approach the game. This organization would not send someone to a league to fail.”

In the approach and daily routine category, Bogaerts earns high marks. In triple-digit heat before Sunday’s regular pre-game warmups, Bogaerts and teammate Henry Ramos were doing extra conditioning in the outfield. And even when he isn’t in the lineup, Bogaerts is involved in the game. On a scheduled day off Saturday, Bogaerts sat next to Lopez and asked questions for the entire game—to the point that the hitting coach had to ask him to stop so he could chart the game properly.

“It’s fun to have kids like that because you see the hunger,” Lopez said. “They’re humble, and they want to learn. That’s something you don’t teach. This is what they live for.”

Consistency key in Jacobs’ first full season

In a season that has seen Greenville’s other top performers promoted to High-A Salem, outfielder Brandon Jacobs has spent the entire season with Greenville, where all the athletic outfielder has done is hit on a night-in, night-out basis. Jacobs is batting .323 with 14 home runs, 63 RBI and a .935 OPS in 86 games, and he hasn’t gone more than two games in a row without a hit.

“He’s been very consistent,” McMillon said. “I think that’s the key to his season this year. From day one, he’s been solid offensively and defensively. I see a lot of upside to him. Is he ready now? No, but if he can iron out some things and improve on that consistency, he has a chance to be a major league player for a long time.”

Lopez said that consistency comes from Jacobs’ ability to not give away at-bats, as well as the player’s penchant for finishing bad days at the plate strongly and stopping the negative momentum before it builds up.

The preparation for his first full season began in the winter, when Jacobs worked hard to transform his football body into a baseball body. Instead of trying to get bigger, Jacobs worked to tone his body, doing lighter lifts with more reps than the power lifts required for football players.

He carried his work ethic into spring training, where he took advantage of all the hitting instructors and hit every morning with Lopez. There, he saw more advanced players putting in extra work, just as he was.

“Some of the guys in there [that early], [Will] Middlebrooks, [Ryan] Kalish, [Chih-Hsien] Chiang, [Che-Hsuan] Lin—that’s a lot of good hitters, and they were putting in the extra work too,” Jacobs said. “That’s something I’ve done all my life, to try to get that advantage.”

While he admitted to wearing down at the tail end of a long season, Jacobs said the work he did prepared him well for the 142-game season, and that the only change to his routine this coming offseason will be in the interest of adding speed. His 26 stolen bases are second on the team this season, but he feels he could do better.

“In my early high school years, base stealing was something I was heavily into,” Jacobs said. “In ninth grade, I might have had 30 steals in a full season, which was 60 games. I want to get back to that.”

Coyle fighting to find a groove

In a debut campaign marred by bad luck on the field, second baseman Sean Coyle isn’t letting his batting average or anything else take away from his outlook on the season.

“Numbers only tell so much of the story,” Coyle said. “I’m learning a lot. Of course, I’d rather be hitting .300 than whatever it is I’m hitting, but this is a struggle that I’m learning so much from. I’m not glad to be struggling, but it’s something that will really help me in the long run.”

Coyle, who has posted a line of .241/.357/.470 with 10 home runs and 40 RBI this season, looks to be putting some of those lessons into use as the Drive enter the final month of the season. In his last nine games, Coyle is batting .375 with 3 homers and 7 RBI. He’s shown signs of turning around before—most notably a 17-game stretch between April 21 and May 12 in which he hit .299 and raised his average from .121 to .240—only to have his progress derailed by injury.

“At the beginning of the season, things were kind of coming together at the plate, then I strained my shoulder diving for a ball.” Coyle said. “I came back from maybe a week, and then I got hit in the face. It’s been tough to get things going then be on the DL, then come back, but that’s something you just have to deal with. I’m learning from it.”

Coyle is also working to refine the approach that earned him so much praise coming out of high school. His 71 strikeouts in 72 games aren’t indicative of a player with an advanced approach, but Lopez said Coyle embodies the organization’s philosophy of being “selectively aggressive” at the plate.

“My dad would always preach, ‘Don’t swing at his pitch, swing at yours,’ " Coyle said. “When you’re swinging at strikes, you’re going to be in a pretty good place. Sometimes, you’re going to swing at a pitch you know you can handle and you’re not going to get all of it, or you’re not going to put a perfect swing on it, but the more piches that you swing at that are in the zone and you know you can handle, the better success rate you’re going to have.”

This approach—looking for pitches that he can drive—could account for the curious splits Coyle has put up this season. With 10 home runs, 19 doubles, and 6 triples, over half of Coyle’s 63 hits have gone for extra bases this season.

“I think it’s just a matter of hitting balls that I know I can drive, and the balls that I’m not hitting as hard just aren’t falling. It’s an odd stat, but I don’t know how else to explain it.”

Dominguez, Kang give new meaning to “riding the bus”

While the headlines are made when highly touted teammates make the trip from Greenville to Salem or Salem to Portland, infielders Drew Dominguez and James Kang have been making the same trips all season without fanfare—and with little complaint from either.

Given the organizational lack of depth in the infield, Kang and Dominguez are frequently called upon to fill in at other levels, picking up at a moments notice.

Kang has played 5 games for Triple-A Pawtucket, 14 with Salem, and 13 with Greenville this season. Dominguez has played 19 with Greenville and 1 with Double-A Portland, though he’s spent time on the Salem roster as well.

Dominguez, who became the first Wesleyan University player to sign with a major-league team in 44 years when he signed as an undrafted free-agent after the 2009 draft, is grateful for the opportunity to be playing baseball at all. He plans to attend law school, but for now, is enjoying the ride—every last one of them.

In one whirlwind stretch in June, Dominguez moved five times in ten days. He joined Portland on June 11 from Greenville, and returned to the Drive on June 13. On July 15, he was assigned to Salem. He traveled from Kinston to Potomac with Salem, who then sent him to Portland on June 18. On June 20, he rejoined the Drive, where he’s been comfortably playing ever since.

Both players have had to deal with their belongings being scattered along the east coast. As soon as things arrive in one place, they’re frequently on the move to another—if they arrive at all.

Dominguez’ baseball gear didn’t make it to Akron, where he played his only Double-A game on June 18.

“There was a mix-up in Potomac, but the guys up there in Portland were really good to me,” Dominguez said. “I used [Ryan] Dent’s glove, [Oscar] Tejeda’s bats, [Matt] Spring’s batting gloves, and Paul [Buccheit] the trainer’s contacts. They even lost my contacts. It was unique, but he had the same prescription as I do, so it all kind of worked out.”

Couch controlling SAL hitters

Since taking over Anthony Ranaudo’s spot in the starting rotation, right-hander Keith Couch has quietly been the Drive’s most consistent starter. After allowing 6 runs in his first start against the Bryce Harper-led Hagerstown Suns, Couch has gone at least 5.0 innings and allowed 3 earned runs or less in each of his 10 starts. As a starter, Couch has a 3.22 ERA with 54 strikeouts and 6 walks in 54.1 innings He has walked only 11 total batters on the season in 99.0 innings.