Wingnuts catcher Taylor Freeman has arrived at the same crossroads during the last two offseasons. The first time he made a choice, being a father to his newborn daughter was more important than playing baseball.
Freeman hasn’t changed that point of view, but when it was decision-making time last winter, he didn’t pick one or the other. Instead, Freeman opted for both, moving his family to Wichita for the four-month season while he plays for the Wingnuts.
As focused as Freeman was on fatherhood last season, he found that he was missing baseball. He doesn’t have to miss either one now, as he can often be found with his wife and daughter on the field after games.
"My daughter was born in May, and I figured I’m just going to be a father," Freeman said. "I kind of put baseball on the back burner. Spring rolled around and I started getting the fever. I started thinking, ‘I’m healthy and I’m young, so I might as well bring the girls out here and have fun with it.’ "
Freeman might not have had such an easy decision if he was still in the minor-league system of the New York Mets, who drafted him in the eighth round in 2009 but released him two years later.
The 24-year-old Freeman passed on at least one opportunity to serve as a backup for an independent franchise in 2011, but his desire to return to the game made him less discriminating.
He was offered a backup role by the Wingnuts and not only accepted it, but told manager Kevin Hooper he was committed to it. His circumstances changed when starter Salomon Manriquez was released early in the season, moving Freeman up on the depth chart.
"You take the role you’re given and you just feel blessed to have that," Freeman said. "You hope something goes your way, but you’ve just got to show up every day and whatever job you have, you’ve got to do it."
Freeman and Wingnuts pitcher Derek Blacksher both went to college at McNeese State, and though they were never teammates, they occasionally worked out there during offseasons after they turned pro.
Blacksher recommended Freeman to Hooper, who was looking for the capable backup catcher that has eluded the Wingnuts in previous seasons. Without the presence of Freeman, the Wingnuts’ decision to release .300 hitter Manriquez when it signed third baseman Juan Richardson might have been more painful.
Freeman is batting .273 with six extra-base hits in 44 at-bats. He hit a game-winning three-run homer in the eighth inning at Kansas City on Friday, and though he has been inconsistent on defense, he has continued Wichita’s tradition of strong-hitting catchers.
A year ago, Freeman was satisfied being a father exclusively. Now combining his two passions, he’s happy.
"That’s still my priority, to be a dad No. 1," Freeman said. "My occupation happens to be something I love, so I cherish that and I’ll never take that for granted. I just feel blessed to still be playing ball, and having them here is just awesome. It’s all the better to do well in front of your family."
Bullpen shakeup — When Josh Dew was sold to the Mexican League, the Wingnuts found themselves without a dominant closer. Or so they thought.
Edgar Martinez and Jose Nevarez may not be able to match Dew’s 0.99 ERA in 39 career games with Wichita, but they give the Wingnuts a pair of hard-throwers who can shut down the opposition.
Martinez, nicknamed "Guapo," and Nevarez both carry ERAs below 3.00 and have combined for 24 strikeouts in 21 innings. They’re the only two Wichita pitchers besides Dew to record a save this season.
"The good thing is both of them have closer experience," Hooper said. "(Nevarez) has been real good lately, his stuff has been real good. "It’s the same thing for him and Guapo, too — it’s getting out of those innings quick, not throwing so many pitches. They’ve got such good stuff that if they work ahead, they can be good."
Wichita’s bullpen has become a strength after a shaky start. Five relievers have ERAs below 4.00 and Nevarez and left-hander Nick Walters each average far more than a strikeout per inning.
League leaders — Through Friday, several Wingnuts were among the American Association leaders in major hitting categories. C.J. Ziegler and John Rodriguez are tied for second with 20 RBIs, with David Peralta next on the list with 19. Rodriguez’s four home runs ranks tied for sixth, and second baseman’s Jake Kahaulelio ranks sixth with a 3.79 ERA.
On the pitching side, Ryan Hinson and Josh Lowey are tied for second with three wins apiece.