BOWLING GREEN, Ky.–It had been a while since Jorge Ona had played any kind of organized baseball, and he’d never in his life been as cold as he was Thursday.
That didn’t stop the 20-year-old Cuban from putting on an impressive show in his first official game in the Padres organization.
Ona, one of the most talented players in Cuba at the time he left the island in July 2015, signed in June 2016 with the Padres for a reported $7 million. He signed a 2017 contract and saw some time on the field in spring training, but hadn’t played in an organized game in about 18 months, he said Thursday.
No matter. In a game that featured 35 strikeouts and just 10 hits, Ona had two of low Class A Fort Wayne’s three hits, including the key two-run triple in a three-run sixth inning in the TinCaps’ season-opening 4-1 win over Bowling Green (Rays).
Ona displayed no rust or lack of field time. His compact frame looked sturdy in the batters box and he looked far more mature than his 20 years. After a year and a half away, he was ready to play.
“I prepared for this moment,” Ona said through a translator after the game. “(But) the most important part was the team won.”
The game began with temperatures in the 40s and it got colder as the night went on. Ona said he had “never” felt as cold as his did Thursday, but made an effort to stay warm.
“I continued to be in motion in the dugout,” he said, “and was sprinting on and off the field to be ready.”
TinCaps manager Anthony Contreras said Ona’s play and poise belies his youth.
“Yeah, not just today but all through spring,” Contreras said when asked whether Ona seemed advanced for his age. “He has a more advanced approach. And he has the body of (an older player). He has impressed me with his approach.
“The Cuban players that I’ve run across, they’ve all seemed as hitters to have been a lot more advanced than other Latin kids I’ve come across,” said Contreras, in his second year in Fort Wayne. “It’s a tribute to how they train and how they do things down there. They play at a high level from a young age, and I think you can see it when they come to the States and are meshed in with a bunch of American kids and Latin kids . . . they seem a tick or step further than them in their approach and at-bats, and Ona’s no different.
“You can see why (the Padres) think so highly of him.”
Ona is part of a young, but prospect-packed TinCaps roster that also includes Top 30 prospects such as shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., infielder Hudson Potts and lefthander Logan Allen, not to mention center field Buddy Reed, a second-round pick last June from Florida, and 17-year-old second baseman Eguy Rosario, the youngest player in the Midwest League.
Ona dealt with another different thing Thursday: U.S. pitchers. He said he has found pitchers in the States throw harder than their Cuban counterparts, especially in recent years as more talent departed the island.
Hot Rods Not So Hot Thursday
The Rays’ low Class A team also boasts a prospect-laden roster, with Top 30 Prospects Josh Lowe (No. 6), Jesus Sanchez (No. 7), Garrett Whitley (No. 10), Adrian Rondon (No. 14) and Lucius Fox (No. 16), as well as Nathaniel Lowe.
Nathaniel Lowe had two hits, but Fox and Josh Lowe both were 0-for-4 with four strikeouts Thursday.
Contreras said the combination of cold, first-game jitters and the pitching of TinCaps starter Jesse Scholtens all played a part.
“It was a mixture of everything,” Contreras said of the combined 35 strikeouts. “Try to remember these guys are 17, 18, 19 years old, playing their first game, and they had some calls not go their way, but that’s going to happen.”
Bowling Green starter J.D. Busfield struck out seven in five strong innings, while Scholtens struck out 11 and walked none in 5.2 innings.
Scholtens was particularly impressive, spotting his low-90s fastball and slider well and taking advantage of inexperienced hitters.
Burt Hooton, the former Dodgers pitcher and veteran pitching coach of the TinCaps, said Scholtens impressed him.
“It looks like he knows how to pitch,” said Hooton, who first saw Scholtens in spring training. “He controls all of his pitches, he moves the ball up and down, in and out. That’s the mark of a pretty good pitcher.”
In the era of high-velocity arms, Scholtens stands out for his fringe heat, but Hooton discounted that.
“The worst thing that happened to pitching is the radar gun,” Hooton said. “If a guy can pitch, he can pitch. If he threw 88, he’d probably do just as well, if he threw 97, he’d do just as well. If you can pitch and consistently get people out, I think that opens eyes.”