Image credit: Jeter Downs (Steve Saenz/Rancho Cucamonga Quakes)
RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. — After a slow start to the season, Jeter Downs is beginning to find his stride.
Downs went 2-for-4 with a double, a home run and two RBIs to lead high Class A Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers) to an 8-3 victory over Lake Elsinore (Padres) on Saturday night.
Downs, the Dodgers’ No. 13 prospect, has homered in five of his last 13 games.
After batting .192 with a .252 on-base percentage and a .358 slugging percentage through the first five weeks of the season, he has hit .302/.370./.566 since May 9.
“The key was just sticking to my approach,” Downs said. “I felt like even in the beginning when things weren’t going my way, I was still doing a very good job sticking to the plan. Things just weren’t going my way. I had to attribute that to just baseball being baseball.”
Downs, 20, was a supplemental first-round pick of the Reds in 2017 and came to the Dodgers alongside fellow prospect Josiah Gray last offseason in the trade that sent Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp and Alex Wood to Cincinnati.
One night after Gray stole the show, Downs took his turn to shine. He extended an early Rancho Cucamonga lead with a sacrifice fly in the second inning, belted a titanic home run over the left field scoreboard in the fourth inning and barely missed another home run with a drive off the top of the wall in left-center for a double in the sixth inning.
In addition to his recent home run surge, Downs has a hit in 15 of his last 21 games.
“Jeter is obviously a very good hitter,” Rancho Cucamonga manager Mark Kertenian said. “I think he’s handled hitting different patterns at the plate, different types of offerings, different sequences. He’s done a very good job of managing himself through that (and) staying aggressive. He’s done some things in some situations, too, where he’ll read the defense, read the field and handle himself appropriately. He’s got good game vision and that’s starting to really come out in action.”
Downs’ defensive progress has been as noticeable as his offense. A shortstop when he was drafted, Downs mostly played second base during his first full season at low Class A Dayton in the Reds’ organization.
Many scouts saw second base as Downs’ future position, but the Dodgers had faith he could play shortstop and moved him back to the position this year.
Downs had trouble with a few popups in the series against Lake Elsinore and made a throwing error when he charged in on a ball and threw off the wrong foot, but he also flashed enough actions and athleticism for evaluators to project him to stay at shortstop in some capacity, even if it’s just part time.
“Shortstop is the position I love the most on the field,” Downs said. “You’re always involved in every play and constantly have to be on your toes. That’s why I love it so much.”
Said Kertenian: “We saw him as a very good young shortstop prospect in the (Rookie-level) Pioneer League. When I was managing in Ogden we played them a bunch. The work he’s put with our infield coach, Elian Herrera, has been exceptional. There’s a strong desire there. He’s taken a step forward. It’s obvious.”
Regardless of where Downs fits defensively, his offense is what made him a high draft pick and what will drive his future.
With the way he’s currently swinging the bat, the future looks increasingly bright.
“Things are starting to fall now and things are starting to build, and I’m gaining more confidence,” Downs said. “It’s all part of it, just growing and progressing.”
NEWS AND NOTES
— Rancho Cucamonga starter Andre Jackson sat 94-96 mph and touched 98 mph with his fastball but struggled mightily to control it. He struck out six batters in 4.1 innings but also issued three walks and threw two wild pitches. He threw his first pitch of the game to the backstop. Jackson’s 85-87 mph changeup was his most effective secondary in his four-pitch mix, which also included an 86-88 mph short slider and an 80-81 mph curveball.
— Rancho Cucamonga center fielder Jeren Kendall, the Dodgers’ No. 17 prospect, hit a leadoff home run in the bottom of the first inning and finished 2-for-5, but he also had his fourth consecutive multi-strikeout game. Kendall, the Dodgers’ first-round pick in 2017, is batting .211/.328/.447 with an 36.5 percent strikeout rate in a repeat season at high Class A.
— Padres’ No. 26 prospect Esteury Ruiz went 2-for-5 with a double, an RBI and a run scored to lead Lake Elsinore. Ruiz has reached base in 12 of his last 14 games and is batting .289/.383/.488 since May 1.