Familiarity Breeds Success For Young Lugnuts

By all accounts, minor league clubhouses aren't breeding grounds for friendships or a hotbed for camaraderie. Not only are the players competing against their opposition on an everyday basis, but they're also fighting amongst themselves, hoping to someday gain a spot on that heralded big league roster.

Becoming friends with your competition isn't always easy. But this year's Lansing Lugnuts have found a way to make and maintain close relationships, citing chemistry as the reason for their success.

Almost three-quarters of the way through the season, the Blue Jays' low Class A affiliate boasted the most potent offense in the Midwest League, leading the league in scoring. Manager Mike Redmond thinks these numbers are some of the benefits of his team's closeness.

"These guys, they're all right around the same age and for most of them, it's their first full season in professional baseball," Redmond said. "They have fun together, they make each other better, and it's such a hard-working group."

Both the team's success and its strong relationships can be linked to its outfielders. Jake Marisnick has been leading the charge offensively from center field, while fellow MWL all-stars Marcus Knecht and Michael Crouse weren't far behind.

Three Of A Kind

Any concerns surrounding Marisnick's bat, which caused him to drop to the third round of the 2009 draft, have been diminished this season at Lansing. He was among the team leaders in every offensive category while hitting .315/.390/.487 with 11 homers, and gives credit for his achievements to his new approach.

"I'm just going into every game and having fun, not worrying too much about what's going to happen, not trying to control the game," the 20-year-old center fielder said. "I'm just going out and letting my abilities show by having fun and playing hard."

Redmond recognizes Marisnick, along Knecht and Crouse, as the reasons for many of the Lugnuts accomplishments this season.

"These guys are leaders," the rookie manager said. "They lead by example. They go out there and work hard and they've been able to have success. Three guys on the all-star team were our outfielders. And that's because of the effort and the work that they put in to better themselves."

Knecht, who was batting .298/.398/.499, knows there are many positives to working together on the diamond.

"It's always good to have a close-knit team," said Knecht, the oldest of the outfield trio at 21. "It's one of the key successes to winning. I think the organization is recognizing that we have good chemistry as a team, not just as the outfielders. It's always good to get along with your teammates really well."

The three outfielders get along so well on the field that they also live together and share a lot of their free time. But in the back of their minds they know they're in competition, fighting for a chance to move out of Lansing and on to bigger and better things.

"I try not to think about that, but we all know," Knecht said. "We all know our goal and what we're trying to do individually. So we don't let that get in the way of our friendship, but we definitely know."

Crouse, tied with Knecht as the Lugnuts' top home run hitter with 13, thinks that being on the same team at the same position as his friends is just a coincidence. He's known Marisnick since last year, and has spent time playing with Knecht for Team Canada. He thinks the competition within the entire team is healthy.

"We come to the ball park with great positivity every day and everyone on our team is willing to work," Crouse said. "No one wants a day off. Everyone wants in that lineup, so we've got competition within competition which just makes it a great atmosphere for us and allows us to go out there and compete with great teams every day."

Learning The Ropes

In competition, the Lugnuts have fared well, taking the league's second-best record into the last quarter of the season. For many, the 140-game season is longer than any they've experienced before. And while it's just getting them prepared for the big leagues, the reality is that not every player on the roster will make it that far. But Redmond sees definite big league potential in the outfield.

"All those guys, they have a chance obviously to make it to the big leagues and have lengthy careers," the Lansing manager said. "These guys are five-tool players. They show those tools regularly in the outfield and have shown them throughout the season.

"These guys can play defense, they can run, they can throw, they can hit, they have great instincts, they play the game the right way and they work hard. They all have the makings of big leaguers."

The Class A game is one that Redmond is also learning, this being his first year as a manager. He has already managed more games than he ever played in a season in the majors, as he spent 13 years primarily as a backup catcher. Redmond is now just adjusting to life in the minors.

"I've learned a lot. I've learned a lot from these guys," Redmond said. "I've learned about many different things; my relationship with players; you learn how to treat players. There's just so much to learn in this game and that's been the fun part for me that even at 40 years old, I'm learning in a different capacity. That's been exciting and new and it's been a lot of fun."

Though his team is at the top of the league in errors, and near the bottom in pitching, Redmond is proud of the way his team has played. He is also impressed by their hard work and ability to put pressure on other teams.

"Of course we make mistakes and we're not perfect out there, but we learn from them," he said. "And I told these guys I want them to be aggressive. I like them to be aggressive. They go out there, they run the bases hard and it's a fun team to watch. It's been a fun team for me as a first-year manager to have."

The respect between the players and their manager is mutual.

"Mike Redmond's played 13 years in the big leagues and he's just brought that aspect of the game to us," Crouse said. "He's taught us how to play the game right and how to go out there and compete every single day."