Here’s the latest installment of “Talkin … ” with Lincoln Saltdogs radio personality Jason Van Arkel:
Q: Every team in the AA North Division made significant changes to their team during the offseason. Lincoln’s significant changes came during the second half of last season. As defending league champion, how do you feel about having a large portion of the team returning for 2010?
It’s funny. When you look at it, we kept most of our lineup and replaced a good portion of our pitching staff. “The lineup’s set, but what’s the pitching going to look like?” Well, it’s been the opposite. We’re the worst hitting team in the league right now, got off to a slow start almost across the board. But it’s been our pitching that has been carrying us.
We’re still kind of looking for a fifth starter. We’re going to try to explore that tonight, we have (Angel) Castro going and (Chris) Cullen following him. Those guys are going to try for the fifth starter’s role, but I think we’re pretty much set in terms of our pitching. The question is, are our (hitters) going to heat up? Is (Albenis) Machado going to get back to form? Is Rafael Alvarez, who’s been improving, going to hit better? Is Shawn McGill going to bounce back — he missed over a week with an injury. Are we going to get Chris Brown back, our second baseman who’s been out for a couple of weeks right now.
We may have to make some moves. (Manager Marty Scott), if last year is any guide, is going to be patient. We were bad in the first half and he didn’t make a big set of moves until late June, and that really infused some talent into the team. I don’t know if we’re set yet. You look at the numbers on paper, the guys and their history say this is going to be a formidable lineup, much more so than it has been. But I think Marty eventually may have to make another move or two depending on how some of these veterans kind of progress. Maybe some guys are at the end of the line, we don’t know that yet.
Q: Phil Hawke comes into Friday night’s game to pitch the last inning and is having fun and joking around, and it really takes the tension out of what had been a heated situation. How important is his leadership on this team?
He is the leader of the team. He’s got a great attitude. The one thing that frustrates him is when he has a bad at-bat, and (that frustration is directed only at himself). But he keeps everybody else loose. Even talking today, he was joking about how ‘We’re going to get a 15-run lead by the seventh inning and I’m going to pitch three innings and get a save.’ Just stuff like that, he keeps everybody loose.
Then Marty’s attitude is always good. Marty never gets too high after a win or too low after a loss. Even though last night we got killed, there was the bench-clearing incident, you saw how angry Marty was on the field. On the bus after the game he’s smiling, joking around with the coaches. He’s able to put it behind him, and the team really feeds off that.
Q: What has former Lincoln ace Jarrett Gardner done for the pitching staff as its first-year pitching coach?
I really think it’s been a huge boost. No knock on Matt Nokes last year, Matt was a former big-league catcher and really looking for a coaching job and he had worked with Marty in St. Paul as a player so Marty made him his pitching coach. But Matt’s more of a hitting guy, and he’s a hitting coach now in Class A.
Gardner, he knows this league, he knows the hitters, he knows some of the pitchers and he knows how to teach the game. He’s been teaching back in Oklahoma in the offseason for several years, so he really knows how to teach the game. And he knows what to say to each guy. When he goes out and talks to a veteran like Chris Britton on the mound, he knows he doesn’t need to say much to him, just give him a chance to catch his breath. Gardy also knows what to say to a young guy, how to settle him down and get him refocused. He does a lot of work with them on the side, much more so than we’ve had the past couple years. He’s obviously still learning, it’s his first year as a coach, but he’s really shown a lot of promise.
Q: Is there one hitter in the lineup whom the offense hinges on more than the others?
I really think it’s Albenis Machado because he’s hitting leadoff. He had two hits last night — obviously in a 14-1 game it didn’t make much difference, but it’s good to see him get a multi-hit game. He’s shown a good eye at the plate, he’s drawn a lot of walks, but the hits haven’t been there. He’s doing a lot of extra work in the cage, trying to find his swing again, trying to get it right. If he starts hitting and getting on base at the top of the order, that’s going to set up RBI opportunities for everybody else and I think it will get everybody else going. I know Phil Hawke has been at-bat with nobody on base more times than I can count this year. If we can start getting those RBI guys up with guys on base, I think it will pick everybody up.
Q: The last guy I want to ask you about is Juan Richardson, a former Double-A player who got hurt last year and hasn’t been able to show what he can do here. What do you expect from him?
He has shown some promise. He went and played winter ball to try to get back in shape — he got hurt (in Wichita) in game three (of the 2009 season) and missed the entire year. His winter ball numbers weren’t that good because he’s still trying to get back in shape. He’s getting hits, the batting average is OK. He’s only hit the one home run so far. He’s got tremendous power, he’s still not quite right at the plate. But he’s been working his way back a little bit. It’s been good for him to get some time at third; I’m sure it was good for him to play a full game here at third base just to get that out of the way. We dropped him down to No. 6 in the order, not because he hasn’t been hitting, but because (Argelis) Nunez has been hitting so well. You look at it on paper — Hawke, Nunez, Alvarez, Richardson — you look at the numbers they’ve put up throughout their careers, that’s a scary 3 through 6. If Richardson really starts providing power at the bottom of that, this is going to be a scary lineup.