LAKELAND, Fla.–In 2013, Tennessee was bursting with high school talent. Dodgers righthander Jordan Sheffield was part of that class, as was Cardinals righthander Dakota Hudson. Ditto for 2017 draftees Wil Crowe (Nationals) and Ben Breazeale (Orioles).
But perhaps the most talented members of that class were Will Craig and Nick Senzel, who played for Wake Forest and Tennessee, respectively, after graduating high school. Both were first-round selections in last year’s draft; Senzel went No. 2 to the Reds and Craig No. 22 to the Pirates.
Their paths crossed again nearly a year later at Joker Marchant Stadium, where both were in the starting lineups for the Florida State League all-star game.
“It’s definitely awesome,” Craig said after the game, which the North won, 5-2. “I’ve known Nick for a long time. We’ve played against each other since we were about 8 or 9 years old, and it was really cool to see us both come out in 2013—he went undrafted and I went really late in the draft—then go to college. And being here now, several years later, it’s awesome.”
Skipped over low Class A this year, Craig hit .288/.393/.432 in the first half of the season with five home runs and 33 RBIs. Perhaps more important, though, he’s changed his body. He’s only down five or six pounds, but he’s cut out sweet tea and late-night eating to help turn fat into muscle, and the results have helped him better endure the grind of his first full season in the minor leagues.
“I’ve worked extremely hard,” Craig said. “In high school I was a bigger guy and then I got to college and I was bigger again. Going from last year to this year, the big thing I wanted to focus on was getting in shape, especially knowing I was going to play down here in the Florida State League.
“If your body’s not in shape you’re going to wear out with all the heat and the humidity and stuff. This being my first full season and playing 140 games, it was definitely one of the things I wanted to work on.”
Senzel finished the first half hitting .303/.364/.471 with four homers and 30 RBIs and, like Craig, thinks all the talent in Tennessee’s 2013 high school class could help raise the state’s reputation as a baseball gold mine.
“I hope so,” he said. “Tennessee kind of gets underlooked. There’s some great states around with Georgia and Florida in the south, but there’s some talented players (in Tennessee) and I hope the way our group plays the game will carry us as role models for kids who are in high school now, and hopefully the way we do things on and off the field will help us be role models.”
Despite their familiarity through the amateur and professional ranks, there’s no rivalry between Senzel and Craig. No side bets about most home runs or RBIs this season. When the Marauders and Tortugas play each other, there will be no performance-based dinner bets.
Instead, both players just want to see the other play their best and continue representing for themselves and for Tennesseeans.
“We just want to see each other do well,” Senzel said. “I wouldn’t say it’s any friendly competition, but we just want to see each other do well.”
• Daytona first baseman Gavin LaValley, whose 15 first-half home runs tied him with Bradenton’s Logan Hill for the FSL lead, swatted a pair of two-run blasts in his first two at-bats on Saturday night. For his efforts he was given the game’s MVP award.
“I was just relaxed. It didn’t really mean anything,” LaValley said. “I was just going out there trying to have fun. I’ve just been trying to relax (this year) and take my pitch when I get it.”
The North’s only other run was also driven in by a Reds prospect. That tally came on catcher Chris Okey’s sac fly to deep center field in the late innings.
• Pirates lefthander Jake Brentz showcased some of the game’s best stuff, albeit at the expense of pinpoint control. Brentz, who has already been traded twice in his career—first from the Blue Jays to the Mariners, then from Seattle to Pittsburgh—fanned two in a scoreless inning. He used two pitches primarily: An upper-90s fastball and an above-average curveball in the low-80s. Both pitches were thrown from a slot that made him especially wicked against lefties.
• Cardinals righthander Junior Fernandez threw just seven pitches before he was removed in an effort to get everybody into the game, but he made an impression. St. Louis’ No. 21 prospect threw seven fastballs at the following velocities: 99 mph, 98, 98, 98, 100, 99, 98. He struck out the lone man he faced to end an inning, then got a groundout to second to begin the next frame.
• Phillies lefthander Cole Irvin worked a scoreless second inning in relief of teammate and starter Jose TaverasS. Irvin, Philadelphia’s fifth-rounder in 2016, sat between 93-95 with a fastball that showed excellent sink and run in on the hands of righthanders, and coupled the pitch with an above-average changeup in the high-80s.
• Daytona second baseman Shed Long notched a pair of hits with the help of uncommonly quick hands that helped him mitigate a bit of a hand hitch at the beginning of his swing. The lefthander made loud contact often throughout the night, after ending the first half hitting .316/.378/.543 with 12 home runs.
• LaValley walked away with the MVP, but Tampa righthander Andrew Schwaab might have had the best night of anyone. The 24-year-old threw a scoreless 1.1 innings, but also provided a pre-game highlight. He caught the ceremonial first pitch from his girlfriend, then returned the ball to the mound, dropped to one knee and pulled a ring from his back pocket and proposed. She accepted. Schwaab was especially fortunate, too, that the rain that delayed the game 45 minutes dissipated earlier than was previously forecast. He had roughly 30 friends and family members on hand, and if the game had been cancelled his plans for a first-pitch proposal would have been quashed.
• Five pitchers in the game threw fastballs at 97 mph or harder: Brentz, St. Lucie righthander Ty Bashlor, Lakeland righty Gerson Moreno, Daytona righty Tanner Rainey and Fernandez. Rainey and Moreno each sat between 97-99 for the entirety of their outings.
• Randy Arozarena won the pregame home run derby, which was cut short by the rainstorm that eventually delayed the game. The 21-year-old Cuban hit five longballs—all line drives—in the first round, and advanced to the second round where he was scheduled to do battle against the four other contestants who each hit four homers in the first round. Under normal circumstances, the winner would have received $500. Because of the rain, the second-round contestants decided to split the prize five ways.
• It’s been finalized for a while, but it was officially announced after the game that Tampa will host the 2018 all-star game at the renovated Steinbrenner Field.