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Wednesday, April 23, 2014         

LIFE IN THE MINORS


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Hess shows heart to match his talent

By Brendan Sagara

POSTED:



Forty games into our 100-game season, and things with the Winnipeg Goldeyes are going fine. At 23-17, we are only a half-game off the American Association North Division pace, and lead the wild-card race.

Sure it's real early to be counting any chickens, but the season somehow turns into a sprint to the finish at some point. In some ways it feels like just yesterday we opened our season amidst sleet and snow by winning three of four from the longtime rival Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks.In other ways, it seems like there is so much more season to go.

We have already logged a 16-hour bus ride to Gary, Ind., a 14-hour bus trip back home from Lincoln, Neb., and a 14-hour trek south to Kansas City on our Beaver Buslines Sleeper Bus. In between there have been several other bus rides ranging from 8 hours to 10. No matter how long or short the bus ride home, a win on getaway day makes the trip seem a little bit shorter.

Our last trip consisted of three days in 90-degree heat in Kansas City followed by three days dodging thunderstorms and waiting out rain delays in Sioux City, Iowa. After taking two of three in Kansas City, our next goal was to win our series in Sioux City to take a winning mark home on our six-game road trip.

We won the rain-shortened series opener in Sioux City, 5-4, and returned the next night and got beat pretty good, 11-4. So going into our series finale, we really wanted to make a good push and take a getaway day win onto the bus and back home for the 10-hour trip back to Winnipeg.

With our left-hander Isaac Hess on the mound for the start and better weather than we had in our first two games in Iowa, we were feeling pretty good about our chances. Isaac and I go back four years or so to 2007, when we were together with the Windy City Thunderbolts in the Frontier League. That year Hess was a long shot to make our club. With a roster full of players with two to four years of professional baseball under their belts, Hess was by far our least experienced player coming into our spring training camp.

After a standout high school career in Arizona, Hess went on to pitch at South Mountain JC, where he received numerous NCAA Division I scholarship offers, ultimately signing with Pac-10 member Washington State.

But before he could even throw a pitch for the Cougars, he hit a road block. A chronic hip condition left him unable to clear the physical at Washington State, so he was not allowed to play.

So Hess transferred home to the University of Arizona, had corrective surgery, and was again told he could not pass a physical. Instead of quitting, Hess gave baseball another shot after graduation. A few weeks before our spring training started in Crestwood, Ill., just outside of Chicago, our manager Andy Haines called me at home in Hawaii to tell me about a call he got from someone with the Chicago White Sox about a left-handed pitcher who they saw throw in a tryout in Arizona. They said the kid was raw but had some talent and they figured it was worth a call.

Haines then told me that the kid would miss our first week of camp because of his college graduation. At that point, Haines and I joked that if this mystery kid did not throw 90 mph and have an absolute hammer of a curveball, he would have no chance to make our club. Funny thing is that he did. We had Hess throw in a simulated game against our hitters and he sat right around 90 and broke off a couple of tight, downer curveballs.

Haines and I just died laughing right there on the spot, in the middle of the workout. I'm sure the players around us were wondering what the heck was going on behind the backstop. We couldn't help it. This young kid, who played only one year of junior college ball and hadn't pitched in competitive baseball in three years, was going to make our team.

As the year went on, Hess slowly but surely became a true pro, learning the ins and outs of our business. We started him in our bullpen, where we could bring him along slowly and not overwhelm him. And it took a lot of work on both ends. He had to learn what his body needed to prepare each day, and I had to try to mentor him one step at a time.

Through all the adversity, one thing is evident: There is no quit in Hess.

In his first inning against Sioux City that night, he surrendered a double to the Explorers' leadoff hitter, but did not break, striking out the next two hitters before finishing the inning on an infield pop-up. The next inning, our right fielder misplayed a pop fly and played it into a three-base error. At this level, that almost guarantees the run to score. But Isaac dug in his heels and struck out Sioux City's veteran designated hitter, Javier Brito, on a 1-2 curveball in the dirt.

The next hitter was Wally Backman Jr., the son of the former New York Met. With the infield in to cut off the run at the plate, Hess posted another strikeout on a big breaking ball to record the second out.

Standing between Hess and another scoreless inning was Sioux City shortstop Ryan Priddy, a scrappy player I coached against last season when he played for the Tucson Toros in the Golden Baseball League.

This time Isaac pumped three straight strikes past Priddy, finishing him off with a fastball in the inside corner.

Following the lead of our resilient starter, we got on the board and used two homers to help score a few runs to vault us to a 6-3 win on a wind-blown Iowa night. We had won the series and gone 4-2 on the road trip. Great news before we got back on our bus for the 10-hour trip back home to Winnipeg.

After coaching Isaac in 2007, and then against him in two of the past three seasons, sometimes I think there aren't too many things Hess can't will himself out of. He's taken his hard luck on the nose and kept on plugging, and keeps finding success.

I'm real glad to be in the same dugout with him again. And glad he did his part in helping make our return trip home seem a little shorter.

———

Brendan Sagara, a former Leilehua and Hawaii-Hilo pitcher, is a veteran minor league pitching coach in his first year with the Winnipeg Goldeyes.






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