Rocket Rides Talent In AFL
Wheeler's Solar Sox off to fast start
MESA, Ariz.—Deep inside Hohokam Stadium on Monday afternoon, sitting in a tucked-away office was a smiling Rocket Wheeler.
Manager of the 89-win Myrtle Beach Pelicans in the high Class A Carolina League this past season, Wheeler couldn't help but beam a little, or shrug his shoulders for that matter.
The Mesa Solar Sox, the team he is piloting this year in the Arizona Fall League, is humming along at 11-6, and take a gander at the leaderboard as the AFL reaches its halfway point this week. The team ERA? It's the league's best, at 4.26, with three pitchers searing through the Arizona heat within the individual top 10, including red-hot Tommy Hanson. The team batting average? Yep. It's tops, too, with the names coming in like rapid-fire on the individual top 10—hogging half the list. Corpus Christi's Drew Sutton of the Scottsdale Scorpions is tops at .529, but right behind is Tyler Flowers at .467.
In the land of developing prospects, it only stood to reason then that a 13-2 wipeout loss to the Peoria Saguaros on Monday—the White Sox's Lucas Harrell delivered three scoreless innings, by the way—was nothing more than a fly in need of a swatter.
"It's been going well," Wheeler said, not necessarily intending to offer an early understatement-of-the-week quote. "This team has been pretty solid in situational hitting. When it comes to getting guys on, they go up with the mindset of getting the guy over. A lot of it is Ryno."
That would be Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, the former Cubs great who managed the low Class A Peoria Chiefs this season and serves as the Mesa hitting coach.
Just consider the Flowers-Jason Donald duo:Flowers, a Braves catcher on that Myrtle Beach team this year, and Donald, a Phillies third-round pick in 2006 who spent this year at Double-A Reading, are all over the leaderboard. Flowers is tied with two others for a league-best five home runs, and the duo ranks third and fourth (.545, .543 respectively) in on-base percentage and first and third in slugging (1.100 by Flowers and .696 by Donald).
"Jason Donald's just been outstanding," Wheeler said, and he's been so good that Wheeler personally hopped out of his chair, marched through the clubhouse and went on an unsuccessful search and rescue mission to wrangle Donald for an interview for this story.
(Don't blame Donald, who wasn't playing the part of a politician in deep trouble and ducking questions. Instead, a long travel day and sixth-inning arrival steered me quickly to Wheelers' office, just not in time to find Donald, who I hope to see later in the week.)
Donald hit .307/.391/.497 with 14 home runs and 54 RBIs in 362 at-bats in the Eastern League. He also hit .381/.571/.536 in the Beijing Games to help Team USA win an Olympic bronze medal.
"I've played him at second base, played him at third. He's a solid defensive player. He's a big leaguer in my eyes," Wheeler said. "And when you watch him on days he doesn't play, I love his work ethic. He takes balls at short and second and third. He's taking advantage of every opportunity."
And it doesn't hurt that a couple of his former pupils at Myrtle Beach, Flowers and Hanson, have led the way.
Hanson has 14 strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings and angles for win No. 3 on Wednesday afternoon against Red Sox righthander Clay Buchholz as Mesa plays host to Scottsdale.
"Hanson's been flat dealing," Wheeler said. "I had him in the second half of '07 (in Myrtle Beach) and he got his feet wet in the league. When he started off this year, he was on a mission. You could tell. He's pitching with a vengeance."