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2005 Futures Game Notebook
By Will Lingo and John Manuel
DETROIT—The minor league home run race is over.
Dodgers third baseman Andy LaRoche virtually conceded Sunday before the Futures Game.
“He’s got me,” LaRoche said of Brandon Wood, the Angels shortstop at high Class A Rancho Cucamonga, who has a 28-26 lead over him. “Now that I’m up in Double-A (Jacksonville), he’s got it.”
The duo mustered most of the U.S. team’s offense in a 4-0 loss Sunday to the World team. Because of B.J. Upton’s presence on the U.S. team, LaRoche and Wood didn’t start side-by-side in the Futures Game; Wood came off the bench in the fifth inning and had one of the U.S. team’s four hits, an infield single. LaRoche started at third and had two singles, one in the second and one in the fifth.
LaRoche, 21, hit 21 home runs at high Class A Vero Beach in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, then hit five in his first 19 games in the Southern League with Jacksonville. But he hasn’t been able to catch Wood, 20, who has been maddeningly consistent with his power at Rancho Cucamonga this season.
Wood, though, wasn’t buying that LaRoche is out of anything. And by his comments, it’s obvious that Wood is aware of who is chasing him for the home run lead in the minor leagues.
“Two homers is all—he’s not out of it,” Wood said. “There’s not a lot of difference between 28 and 26. I know what he can do; I’ve seen where he’s hit seven in a week or four or five (games) in a row.
“I can see where it might be a little harder in Double-A. But he’s obviously a really good player.”
Lastings Milledge hoped he would be promoted at the all-star break—the Florida State League all-star break. When that didn’t happen, Milledge didn’t fret.
“I was like, ‘OK, I’ll just stay here all year and work on my power numbers, just try to help the team and do as well as I can (at high Class A St. Lucie),” the Mets outfielder said. “Now it’s pretty exciting that I’ll get to go up.”
The Mets told Milledge prior to the Futures Game that when he leaves Detroit, his next destination is Double-A Binghamton, not St. Lucie. It will be Milledge’s first taste of Double-A, and he knows that even though the Mets have a capable center fielder in $119 million man Carlos Beltran, the major leagues aren’t far away from Double-A.
“A lot of guys get called up from Double-A,” he said, “but our organization is a little bit different. They don’t like to move guys too fast, so it’s not likely to happen in our organization.”
Milledge played left and center field in Sunday’s game and grounded out to shortstop in his only at-bat. He realizes that with Beltran signed to a seven-year contract, the Mets may not consider him their center fielder of the future, and he worked hard in spring training taking fly balls in the outfield corners.
But in his words, “I still want to be the starting center fielder in Shea Stadium. If they say right field or left field, that’s fine, I’ll do what they want me to do.”
• Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta was wearing two new items on his right side during batting practice, both hopefully temporary. First, he had seven stitches in his right ear and earlobe, courtesy of a Visalia batter he couldn’t remember. “I got hit on the follow-through,” the high Class A Modesto catcher said, “and it got me in the ear.” And in batting practice, his jersey had his name on it, but bore a Marlins logo on the right sleeve. The jersey was meant for Marlins catcher Josh Willingham, who was initially slated to be on the team before a big league promotion. Iannetta had a Rockies patch on his jersey for the actual game.
• The most formidable BP quartet of the day featured Marlins outfielder Jeremy Hermida, Devil Rays outfielder Delmon Young, Diamondbacks first baseman Conor Jackson and Dodgers third baseman Andy LaRoche. But the best hitter in the group was actually the pitcher: U.S. manager George Brett. Brett was active around the cage throughout BP, offering lots of advice to his players, most of it about trying to hit the ball hard rather than far. “If you hit it hard, it will go far,” he said.
• Cubs outfielder Luis Montanez was a late addition to the game in the World outfield. He also had been a late addition to the Midwest League all-star game, replacing first baseman Alberto Garcia. “I’m already used to being a fill-in,” Montanez said with a laugh. He said it was the first time he had played as a representative of Puerto Rico. Montanez was the third overall pick in the 2000 draft and looked like a flop, but his career has regained momentum after he moved to the outfield last season. “It has been like starting over,” he said.
• The pitching staffs were loaded with hard throwers, with Tigers righthander Joel Zumaya leading the way for the U.S. staff by pitching at 97-98 mph and touching 99. “He was throwing 98 pretty easy,” catcher Ryan Garko said. “I called for a curve and he said, ‘No, I’ll just throw another fastball.’ And he blew it by guys.” The World staff was highlighted by Rockies righthander Juan Morillo, who touched 99 several times. “I just wanted to do good in front of all these people,” he said. Morillo also confirmed reports that he threw 104 mph last year. “That’s what the paper said,” he said.
• Tigers righthander Justin Verlander started the game in front of the fans in Detroit, the first time he had been back to Comerica Park since signing with the team late last summer. Verlander made his big league debut early this week, but it was on the road. He touched 97 mph in the Futures Game, though he touched 99 in his first big league start. He was surrounded by local media before the game, and fans ringed the U.S. dugout to get his autograph. “It’s fantastic, but I’m just trying to approach it as a regular start,” he said. “I learned a lot in my first (big league) start. Hopefully I can carry that over and improve.”
• Perhaps the giddiest player at the Futures Game was Giants infielder Kevin Frandsen, who replaced Marcus Sanders both in the U.S. infield and as the organization’s representative. Frandsen, recently promoted from high Class A San Jose to Double-A Norwich, seemingly has had a charmed year. Drafted in the 12th round last June out of San Jose State, he joined his favorite team, the hometown Giants, and began his first full season playing in the same ballpark, San Jose’s Municipal Stadium, where he spent his college career. After playing with the Giants as a nonroster spring training invitee to big league camp, he earned a promotion to Double-A and a Futures Game nod.
But the whole year hasn’t been perfect. Frandsen’s lost his older brother D.J., who died last September after a 19-year battle with kidney cancer. Frandsen wears a red bracelet representing the Jimmy V (Jim Valvano) Foundation, emblazoned with the motto “Don’t Ever Give Up” to remember his brother, and says his brother is on his mind every day.
“From a baseball standpoint, it’s been my best year,” Frandsen said. “I’m speechless to be part of this game, to get drafted by my hometown team, to play in my college ballpark—it’s been great. This game is so cool because I get to see all these guys that I read about in Baseball America.”
The only downer on the field for Frandsen came when he hit into a game-ending 1-2-3 double play, which came with the bases loaded and with him as the tying run in the bottom of the seventh and final inning.
• For the record, Orioles righthander James Johnson prefers to be known as J.J. Johnson; that’s what’s stitched on his glove. He entered the game Sunday in the sixth inning and gave up three consecutive hits as well as a run to the World team.