The Midwest League season is still young for the 2014 Wisconsin Timber Rattlers but, if Sunday's doubleheader split against Peoria is any indication, they could get some major contributions from unlikely sources in 2014.
Wisconsin lost the first of two seven inning games 3-2 despite drawing nine walks, including seven against Cardinals top prospect Alex Reyes. One of those two runs came from speedy outfielder Johnny Davis, who reached on an error and came around to score. Davis had a pair of hits, stole two bases and scored a pair of runs in the two games today, which isn't bad for a player that hasn't actually spent much of his life playing baseball.
"He's a track guy trying to learn how to play the game and it's been amazing," Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson said. "Last instructional league I watched him play and was like, 'Wow, this is going to be a project.' But the way he's picked up on things through last fall and this spring, he's really put himself in a decent situation. He's learning, and with more game experience we anticipate him to get more baseball feel. Today he made two great catches in center field and if he doesn't make those catches it's probably a different game. And then you saw what he can do on the bases. His speed is a difference maker."
"Really, I'm just trying to get better every day," Davis said. "I just started playing this game and I'm just trying to learn."
The Brewers drafted Davis in the 22nd round last year after he had played just one season of collegiate baseball and he stole 17 bases in 30 games for the rookie-level AZL Brewers last season. His two today were his first of 2014, and both followed bunt singles.
"I'm trying to bunt at least one time a game," Davis said. "It's a good way to get on base and I can steal some bags."
Davis eventually scored the winning run in the second game, reaching on a bunt in the sixth inning, stealing second and scoring on an error as Wisconsin rallied for a 3-1 victory. Wisconsin was in a solid position to win because of the efforts of starting pitcher Preston Gainey, a 2013 Timber Rattler back for his second tour with the team.
"He's a guy that's repeating and you kind of hope that he'd come out like that and be consistent," Erickson said. "And we needed it, obviously. He pounded the zone and put us in a good situation to win that game."
Gainey, an eleventh round pick out of the Naval Academy in 2012, pitched five shutout innings and turned heads in the first by reaching 94 on the stadium radar gun. That's up a click or two from last season, and could change his fortunes as a prospect.
"This offseason I did a lot of work with my delivery and my mechanics and actually came into spring training throwing the ball pretty hard, as compared to what I did last year," Gainey said. "Everything feels good, I'm taking stress off my arm and trying to use my legs more."
Gainey posted a 5.11 ERA over 25 appearances with Wisconsin last season, but his increased velocity has drawn some attention within the organization.
"He's capable of mid-90's," Erickson said. "He was one of the guys that our pitching coordinator Rick Tomlin said, 'His arm strength is improving.'"
Gainey's control, though, could also be a significant factor in his future.
"Last year he'd get in trouble because he really didn't have much command or control of his off speed pitches and he'd fall behind and they'd just sit on his fastball," Erickson said. "Throughout spring training I saw a couple of his starts and he did a nice job of getting his breaking stuff over, and that makes your fastball a little better."
Gainey also recognized that his defense, including Davis, worked hard to help him out today.
"He's (Davis) just got incredible speed. With the defense I have behind me it's great to pitch for," Gainey said. "You know that if you get the ball put in play they're going to make a play behind you."
Today's doubleheader gave Wisconsin a chance to get a couple of players who have been waiting for a chance their first Midwest League opportunities. Infielders Francisco Castillo and Steven Holcomb saw the field for the first time today.
"We have some guys, even on the bench, guys that we haven't seen yet, and they're pretty good little baseball players and they can help us out," Erickson said. "I wanted to make sure they got involved at some point today, and it worked out that they got to play both games. Early in the year I want to make sure everybody touches the field, and then the game figures it out for you."
By winning the second game Wisconsin clinched a split with Peoria in the opening series. They're off tomorrow before heading out on the road to West Michigan and South Bend, and Erickson said wrapping up the brief homestand with a victory was big for this team.
"It's a lot better to leave the first homestand 2-2, as opposed to 1-3."