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KINSTON, N.C.-- It's been a tough road this season for Indians third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff. Coming out of the Arizona Fall League last year, the 24-year-old emerged as the top third baseman in the organization, passing the oft-injured Matt Whitney and Pat Osborn.
A sixth-round pick out of Nevada in 2003, Kouzmanoff is the ultimate blue-collar player. While nothing particularly stands out in terms of tools, Kouzmanoff makes all the plays on the corner, with a reputation of a banger who gets dirty and wants to do nothing but win.
"He's the prototypical third baseman to me," a scout with an American League club said. "He's the type of guy you have to see over a stretch to get a good read on, but even then it doesn't do him too much justice. He gets down and dirty over there and at the plate everything is consistent hard contact. The more you see him, the more you like him and the more you understand why coaches love him."
Kouzmanoff batted .314/.331/.488 in the Fall League, but sustained a back injury going after a foul ball down the line. As he zeroed in on the ball, Kouzmanoff realized where he was, but it was too late--he slipped and fell down the dugout steps, with his spine hitting every concrete step on the way down.
He missed a few days in the AFL, and then went through a conditioning program in the offseason, but the pain lingered throughout spring training. Still, Kouzmanoff battled through the injury and broke camp with high Class A Kinston.
Through the first two months in the Carolina League, Kouzmanoff batted .348-9-45 in 185 at-bats. But the pain worsened and he was shut down for two months to rehab alongside Indians first baseman Michael Aubrey, who also has gone through serious back issues this season. But as with Aubrey's injury, the pain stretches down into his hamstrings, making any type of rehab to strengthen the core muscles in the back difficult.
Kouzmanoff returned to short-season Mahoning Valley briefly to start the month of August before heading back to Kinston last week.
And although there is still lingering pain in his back, Kouzmanoff is more worried about the mental side and being tentative to play all out the way he always has.
"Going to my right now I get a little scared when I feel the warning track underneath me," he said. "I looked over and I was 10 feet from the fence freaking out. I thought I was going to hit it pretty hard. It's something I have to be aware of. I have to be careful."
But still, Kouzmanoff refuses to curb his appetite for playing hard. And if there's one thing the rehab taught him, it's not to take anything for granted.
"Rehab was the toughest thing I've gone through, just being injured and out of the game for so long," he said. "That's never happened to me before. It drove me nuts. I wanted to blow my brains out. I went into a big mental slump, thinking I was never going to get through it. I wasn't thinking positive at all. But once I changed that, I realized I had what it takes. I have the physical strength and the mental strength now that I don't think I had before. And there isn't one day I put on this uniform and not think of how fortunate I am to be here."
And he still couldn't be any less intense. Kouzmanoff, whose head is nearly always shaved clean, grew out a Mohawk earlier this year. The hairdo was apparently just for fun, though all it did was further enhance his image of a tough guy--or a guy who is slightly unstable, a la Robert DeNiro's character Travis Bickle in the 1976 film "Taxi Driver."
"Well, the hair that I do have was a bit longer than I usually have it," Kouzmanoff said. "Brad Snyder was my roommate at the time and I was like 'Screw it, I'm just going to shave my head.' As I was messing around, I shaved a Mohawk into it. He convinced me to leave it for a day and basically that day turned into a month. I even dyed it black, but that's when it looked really terrible. I just looked like a scumbag, so I had to get rid of it. But then I had this long, white, untanned strip on my head, and that just looked great. Fans hated it and I loved that. I'd take my hat off before I got into the dugout just to have some fun with them."
• Speaking of the Indians, outfielder Franklin Gutierrez is swinging a hot bat since being called up to Triple-A Buffalo last week. In 22 at-bats, the 22-year-old Venezuelan is hitting .318 with a pair of doubles. He went 2-for-4 in the Bisons' 3-1 win Tuesday against Richmond. Gutierrez struggled early on with Double-A Akron, where he was still dealing with the after effects of elbow surgery last year as well as adjusting to a new stance in the batter's box. In 383 at-bats with the Aeros, Gutierrez batted .261/.322/.423 with 25 doubles.
• Double-A New Hampshire righthander Josh Banks is known as a strike-thrower, but this is ridiculous. Over his last eight starts and 69 innings, Banks hasn't walked anyone. But it hasn't been all good news for the 23-year-old--he's 1-4 during that stretch. Banks got his first win over that span yesterday in the Fisher Cats' 4-1 win against Norwich. On the season, Banks is now 8-11, 3.86 with an amazing 130-8 strikeout-walk ratio in 142 innings.
• Double-A Binghamton hitting coach Dave Hollins was always known as an intense player, and that has apparently carried over to the next phase of his career. Hollins has been suspended indefinitely by the Eastern League and may face additional disciplinary action from the Mets for his involvement in a brawl during the opener of a doubleheader against Portland Monday night. Hollins, 38, was coaching first base in the sixth inning when Mets shortstop Corey Ragsdale was apparently hit by a pitch from lefthander Randy Beam. Sea Dogs manager Todd Claus argued that the pitch never hit Ragsdale, and during his conversation with the umpires, Hollins yelled into the Portland dugout. Moments later, according to the Portland Press Herald, Hollins charged the Sea Dogs' bench and tackled Portland pitching coach Fernando Arroyo.
League president Joe McEacharn reviewed a videotape of the incident and said he hopes to determine Hollins' suspension before Friday. "In short, coaches are held to a higher standard," McEacharn told the paper. "There are no circumstances under which that is acceptable."
• Orioles outfielder Nolan Reimold was promoted to high Class A Frederick, going 2-for-4 in the Keys' 5-1 win against Potomac yesterday. Reimold, a second-round pick this year out of Bowling Green, batted .294 with nine homers in 180 at-bats at short-season Aberdeen this year.
• Kevin Frandsen continues his rapid ascent through the minors. After hitting .351 in 291 at-bats at high Class A San Jose and .287 in 129 at-bats at Double-A Norwich, the Giants second baseman made his Triple-A debut last night. It was more of the same, as he went 3-for-4 with two doubles. Frandsen, 23, was the Giants 12th-round pick in 2004 out of San Jose State.
• A trio of notable hurlers took a beating in the South Atlantic League on Tuesday. Even though he struggled to a 3-5, 5.55 record in the short-season New York-Penn League, the Marlins still promoted first-rounder Jacob Marceaux. His SAL debut was nothing to write home about as he allowed three earned runs and seven hits in four innings.
After putting up a 1.17 ERA in April, Asheville's Sam Deduno has struggled. The 22-year-old righthander only lasted three innings last night as he allowed six earned runs. He is now 7-6, 5.26 with an impressive 100 strikeouts but an equally unimpressive 53 walks in 77 innings.
Things have been a little better for Savannah's Collin Balester this season, but he suffered one of his worst outings of the year as he could not get out of the fourth inning. The 19-year-old righthander was touched up by Charleston for six earned runs over 3 2/3 innings to lower his record to 7-6, 3.66.
• While Angels shortstop Brandon Wood has suffered through a power slump and now finds himself tied with Asheville first baseman Joe Koshansky for the minor league home run lead with 35, he's picked up his doubles pace and is now tied with Mitch Maier for the minor league lead in that category as well with 44. Wood went 2-for-4 with a pair of two-baggers in high Class A Rancho Cucumonga’s 5-4 win over Visalia. With 83 extra-base hits on the season, Wood has 13 more than any other minor leaguer.
• A number of 2005 draftees have made an impact in the low Class A Midwest League this season, and you can now add Tigers outfielder Clete Thomas to the list. A sixth-round pick out of Auburn, Thomas was 3-for-6 with a pair of stolen bases and four RBIs in West Michigan’s 10-5 win over Kane County last night. He is batting .315/.394/.403 with 27 runs in 33 games for the Whitecaps.
• One of the hottest pitchers in the minors during the first half of the season, Cubs righthander Sean Gallagher has hit a bit of a wall at low Class A Peoria. The 19-year-old righty, who went 8-2, 1.43 in the season’s first three months, gave up five runs in 4 1/3 innings on Tuesday in the Chiefs’ 10-3 loss to South Bend on Tuesday, and has a 4.70 ERA in nine starts since July 1st.
• In took 10 games, but Florida third-round pick Matt Goyen picked up his first professional win last night, striking out six while allowing just two hits over 5 1/3 shutout innings in short-season Jamestown’s 5-2 win over Mahoning Valley in the New York-Penn League. In 45 innings for the Jammers, the 6-foot-5 lefty is 1-5, 4.03 with 44 strikeouts.
• Although he was considered the most advanced high school hitter in this year's draft, John Drennen had a real struggle in his first two months of pro ball. Through July, the 18-year-old was hitting .169 in 83 at-bats for Burlington of the Rookie-level Appalachian League. August has been a different story for the supplemental first-rounder out of Rancho Bernardo High in San Diego. After going 2-for-3 with a home run and a walk last night, the lefthanded-hitter is now hitting .425/.531/.825 in 40 August at-bats. Overall he's hitting .252/.343/.496.
• Speedy Cubs outfielder Davy Gregg, a 27th-round pick in June out of South Carolina, stole his league-leading 32nd base of the season in short-season Boise's 8-2 win against Salem-Keizer. He has more than twice as many steals as his closest competition in the Northwest League.
• Rangers first baseman Freddie Thon went 3-for-4 with a homer and six RBIs in short-season Spokane's 8-4 win against Vancouver. The Rangers' 18th-round pick in 2004 out of Brevard (Fla.) Community College is improving upon his successful debut last season in the Arizona League. He is hitting .288/.314/.521 with eight home runs and 31 RBIs in 146 at-bats.
• Dodgers outfielder Adam Godwin went 4-for-4 at Rookie-level Ogden, raising his average in the Pioneer League to .336. Since starting his pro career 1-for-11, Godwin has hit .359 in 117 at-bats. Interestingly, the 11th-round pick in June who led NCAA Division I with 84 stolen bases in 93 attempts at Troy this spring has stolen just five bases in 10 attempts at Ogden.
• Angels righthander Nick Adenhart took the loss in his longest professional outing in the Arizona League. Adenhart, who signed for a $710,000 bonus as a 12th-round pick out of Williamsport (Md.) High in 2004, missed all of last season after Tommy John surgery and has slowly worked his way back in the AZL since debuting June 26. He allowed four runs (two earned) on five hits and three walks while striking out four in six innings of work. He is 1-2, 4.50 with 36 strikeouts and 22 walks in 34 innings this year.
• Twins shortstop Paul Kelly, a second-round pick this year out of Flower Mound (Texas) High, went 2-for-5 with a double, three RBIs and his first professional home run in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. He now has five extra-base hits in 105 at-bats on the season.
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