Summer Ball Notebook: All-Star Edition
The Major League Baseball All-Star Break came and went as it always does during the dog days of summer. Mammoth home runs and celebrity games make up much of the fanfare and the buzz created around the event that was played out at San Diego’s Petco Park this season. On a smaller scale, without that fanfare and little buzz, another dozen or so all-star games popped up across the country in the last two weeks displaying the talents of some of college baseball’s finest student-athletes.
The break from the grind of summer ball is much shorter than in the majors. MLB teams get a short four-day break from games, but in summer ball one, maybe two, days are all that is afforded. It’s all the same for those players that choose to continue playing competitive baseball immediately after the collegiate season concludes. The added batting practices, groundballs and bullpens are all executed with the same two end goals in mind. One: improve for the upcoming collegiate season. Two: prepare for the grind of professional baseball.
Collegiate summer leagues often use the all-star break as an opportunity to get the entire league in one place at the same time. The greatest advantage is putting every player on the field as a showcase to MLB scouts in a combine, pro-day style event.
This summer, three Sooners made their respective all-star teams in three different leagues in three extremely different corners of the country. On the west coast, catcher Renae Martinez was named a California Collegiate League All-Star as a member of the Neptune Beach Pearl. In New England, infielder Thomas Hughes represented the Pittsfield Suns as a Futures Collegiate Baseball League All-Star. Down in Texas, infielder Kyle Mendenhall of the Acadiana Cane Cutters was honored as a Texas Collegiate League All-Star.
Renae Martinez | C | Neptune Beach Pearl | California Collegiate League
Martinez, who hails from San Pedro, Calif., started 23 games behind the plate for Oklahoma in 2016. He hit .246 with a .415 slugging percentage, .380 on-base percentage and 20 runs scored with five doubles and two home runs. Martinez had previously played summer ball for the Alaska Goldpanners in Fairbanks last summer and with the Walla Walla Sweets in Washington the season before.
“This is my first time here playing in northern California,” stated Martinez. “It’s cool to experience and definitely different than southern California. It’s more of a city life than it was in Alaska; which is all nature and wilderness.
“The talent in the California Collegiate League is pretty good this year. The all-star game was a really cool setup with a combine in front of the scouts before we played the game.”
The Pearl is atop the standings with a 30-12 record and Martinez, whose strong finish to the collegiate season has carried over, has been one of the team’s most consistent hitters with a .303 average in 24 starts. He has gone deep twice with 20 runs scored and 15 driven in, while slugging .416 with a .392 OBP.
In the final nine games of Oklahoma’s season, Martinez hit .423 (11-for-26) with 11 runs, six RBI and three doubles.
“I’ve been playing pretty well the last few games; getting the average up a little more,” Martinez acknowledged. “I’ve been seeing the ball really well and catching really well to get myself ready for next season. Playing every day makes a big difference. Once you’re in a rhythm hitting, you get to stay in it rather than lose it in spot duty, which can be hard to get your timing down.”
Thomas Hughes | IF | Pittsfield Suns | Futures Collegiate Baseball League
A summer in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League includes a summer crisscrossing New England several times per week. Several locally historic fields, some of them one-time home fields of minor league affiliates of the Boston Red Sox or New York Mets, dot the map that includes teams in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Shortly after the FCBL held its all-star game, Hughes and the Suns experienced a typical summer ball Tuesday night. In the seventh smallest state in the country, a bus ride of three hours is extremely rare, but a trip along the Mass Pike between Pittsfield and Lynn, the home of the North Shore Navigators is just that. The Suns would come out on top with a 5-3 win, but not until a 13-inning affair would decide the game.
Hughes went 3-for-7 on the night, while batting third and playing shortstop. The summer has been an extremely successful one for the utility infielder that was primarily used as a late-inning defensive replacement as a freshman. From his play on the field and at the plate to the routine of being a baseball player every day, travel included, Hughes has relished his opportunity in Pittsfield.
“I absolutely love it,” said Hughes. “It’s a ton of fun. You can’t beat playing every single day.”
Hughes is in the lineup nearly every game for the Suns and hitting at a .286 clip with a .436 OBP. He has scored 25 runs and driven in 19 with nine doubles; earning himself a spot on the FCBL West All-Star Team.
“[The all-star game] was a lot of fun,” recalled Hughes. “The guys were awesome. We really didn’t have any awkward stages when meeting all the new guys. It was a long day. We had a pro day before and then a home run derby and then the game. We were together all day long and we just had a ton of fun with it.”
Though the travel may be long, some of the destinations and ballparks have a special charm to it that have added to the summer experience.
“Martha’s Vineyard is a cool one, but it’s a ways away. It’s a four-hour bus ride and then a 30-minute ferry ride to get there. It’s kind of cool going to a game on a ferry,” said Hughes of the Sharks, where OU teammate Dylan Grove has played this summer.
As for his home park in Pittsfield, Wahconah Park is infamous for home plate facing west and games needing to be paused or delayed to allow the sun to set before resuming play.
“Sometimes [the sunset] happens before the game even starts or we’ll push back the start of the game by an hour because the sun sets literally right behind the hitter’s eye,” explained Hughes. “It is up to the hitter, the catcher or the umpire. Anybody can call it at any time and it usually happens around the first or second inning. If we play at 5:00, which is on Sundays, it will happen right around the eighth or ninth inning, which is kind of tough, but it’s funny.”
Still, the biggest takeaway for Hughes from his summer is the opportunity to play every day. For the Sooners, he made just five starts and hit .136 (3-for-22) with four runs, four RBI and a .375 OBP.
“I didn’t get a ton of [at-bats] in school ball and I knew that my role was to play defense late in games,” summed up Hughes. “My goal coming in was to get a ton of at-bats, get better offensively and play defense at a pretty high level. I feel like I’ve been able to do that in 130 at-bats or so with a couple of weeks left. One of the bigger things for me has also been to not get frustrated when you’re playing every day.”
Kyle Mendenhall | IF | Acadiana Cane Cutters | Texas Collegiate League
Before Mendenhall steps on to the field, the first thing anyone notices is the kind of teammate he is. He is always vocal in the dugout, quick to offer a celebratory high five and constantly putting the team first. Once he crosses the lines and finds his spot at second base, he then dazzles with his defensive ability. His range and quickness to turn a double play have made him one of the sleekest fielders in the Big 12 the last two seasons.
Following his freshman season in 2015, Mendenhall was one of the few Sooners to not play summer ball. Instead, he stayed in Norman to work out and get stronger. A year older and stronger, he is enjoying a summer centered entirely around baseball in the Texas Collegiate League.
“The experience has been awesome,” said Mendenhall. “Being from San Diego, meeting a lot of Midwest kids in Oklahoma and then coming down here and meeting a lot of kids from the south has been different, but a lot of fun. Baseball-wise, it’s been a great experience. The competition is awesome. We’re playing guys from the SEC and Oklahoma State. The wood bats are different, but it’s also been a good change of pace from metal to wood and seeing how everyone adapts and how the pitching is a little bit different.”
Mendenhall hit just .183 in 35 starts as a sophomore with 23 runs scored and 15 driven in. This summer, he has begun to produce at a higher rate offensively with a .263 average and 19 runs scored before being one of 11 teammates named to the TCL All-Star Team.
“It was a lot of fun,” Mendenhall recalled of the all-star game. “A lot of the guys from every team, we’ve become good friends with them. There are only five teams in our league so we play them pretty much every week. It was cool seeing everyone coming together and having fun. We took the game seriously, but we’re mostly just happy that we made the All-Star team.”
Like his Oklahoma teammates participating in summer ball, Mendenhall has grown accustomed to the daily routine. It is one that has helped him focus on the game and his goals of coming back and helping the Sooners take the next step as a program next year.
“On a typical day, I wake up around 9:00, log in to my online class to knock that out and then go to the gym with a couple guys on the team, said Mendenhall. “From the gym, we’ll grab something to eat then head to the field for batting practice and get right into the game.
“It definitely makes the routine a lot easier, being able to just focus on baseball and knowing that that’s the reason why I am here. It’s easier to get into a rhythm and figure stuff out.”