For the second time in as many seasons, Clinton manager Eddie Menchaca has turned the LumberKings into second-half contenders after a disappointing first half of the year.
Last season, Clinton rebounded from a last-place first-half finish to make the playoffs. After another last-place finish at the midway point this year, Menchaca has the LumberKings leading the Western Division. Clinton (24-16) has a two-game lead over second-place Burlington more than halfway through the second half.
“You’ve got to build from the bad,” Menchaca said. “I think these kids understand. They went through some adversity. It was tough. But at the same time, they understood that they weren’t that kind of team. Getting a new, fresh start helps everybody realize that all that’s over with. The biggest part now is them understanding they can play anybody. That’s huge for our team.”
The LumberKings had six new players join their roster within the last month. Kevin Rivers, who played in 87 games with Clinton in 2011, returned and was batting .299 with 16 RBIs through his first 23 games.
But for many of the new additions, it is their first foray into Class A baseball. Clinton has three first-year professionals on their roster and an 18-year old.
“It’s definitely a little challenging for them,” Menchaca said. “But it’s baseball. They’re coming in here with hunger. They want to play, which is huge. They go about their business the right way. They prepare themselves the right way. That’s all you really want. I think the guys in the clubhouse have done a pretty good job with them, as far as making them feel like part of the team right away and helping them understand that we’re trying to do something here in the second half.”
Menchaca said he had to be a little more careful with some of the younger players who are new to professional baseball.
“We’ve got some regulations with them as far as how many games they can play,” he said. “We just want to monitor them and make sure they’re feeling good, feeling healthy, so they can go out there and compete. ... You do want to overdo it, but at the same time if they’re doing it right, they’ll play. That’s what we’re preaching in the Mariners organization. If you’re getting it done, you’re going to play. I don’t care how old you are or where you come from.”
Two of the new additions were setting the league on fire through their first eight games.
Chris Taylor — a 2012 fifth-round draft pick from the University of Virginia — is hitting .344 and 18-year-old James Zamarripa was batting .370 through his fist eight games.
“To be honest, I’d never seen Taylor play,” Menchaca said. “I knew about him since the draft. Just looking at his swing, it doesn’t surprise me that he can hit. He’s made some adjustments right out of the chute. He’s good a pretty good swing and a good idea about what he’s doing. In that sense, baseball-wise, he’s pretty advanced.”
Just about two months ago, Taylor played in his final game for Virginia as they bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the regional phase.
“It’s actually gone by pretty quickly,” Taylor said. “It feels like just yesterday I was playing in the regional tournament with Virginia. I’ve enjoyed playing in Everett and now here in Clinton. I feel like I really fit in well with a lot of the guys and they’ve made it pretty easy on me.”
Taylor said turning pro after his junior year was a difficult decision, but he thought the opportunity was too good to pass up. There have been some challenges though.
“It’s playing every day,” Taylor said. “At Virginia, we played three or four games a week. You have to understand when to rest your body a little bit. You can’t take 100 swings in the cages every day. You’re going to get aches and pains and you have to be able to play through them.
“Off the field, there’s not much to worry about. If you’re playing well, you’re feeling great. If you’re not, you’re frustrated. But you don’t have to worry about going back and finishing your homework or anything like that. You hang out with the guys and enjoy yourself.”
Taylor said he wants to work on becoming a more consistent all-around player while with the LumberKings.
“It’s exciting to come in here and try to help this team win the second half and go to the playoffs,” Taylor said. “That’s what you play for to try to win a championship. I’m going to do what I can to help the team.”
Zamarripa signed out of high school as a 17-year-old sixth round draft pick. He hasn’t had much trouble with Midwest League pitching, so far.
“Zamarripa has been a little bit of a surprise, just being so young,” Menchaca said. “I watched him some in spring training. He’s been with us for two years out of high school. The talent is there. Everyone talked about his speed and how good this kid can be. It’s nice for us to have him on our team.”
Zamarripa said there wasn’t really much secret to the success he was having.
“I’m just staying really relaxed at the plate,” he said. “I’m seeing the ball well. I’m trying to work on things during practice with the hitting coach.”
He said turning down San Diego State University and a Hall of Fame coach was a tough decision, but it’s been worth it so far.
“It was a family decision,” Zamarripa said. “We went over the pros and cons of going to college and having Tony Gwynn as a coach — which I loved. But it’s always been my dream to play professional baseball and try to get to the big leagues. You never know if this window is going to open again. I wanted to take the opportunity and start my career early.”
Now he’s excited to be in Clinton and the LumberKings are excited to have him and Taylor. Clinton is 7-3 since Taylor was called up July 25. Zamarripa and first-year pitcher Matt Brazis followed the next day.
The other first-year professional on the team is catcher Tony Demello. Menchaca is hoping the new additions mixed with key pieces already in place will propel the LumberKings back into the postseason.