By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Hunter Wood knows there is plenty to learn as a professional baseball player currently toiling with the Princeton Rays.
Who knew breathing was part of it.
Wood, who has worked in five games as a relief pitcher for the Rays, recently listened in as a local psychologist met with a fellow pitcher.
“He was up there working on the breathing and I never knew that breathing was a big part of pitching,” Wood said. “I have been trying it out and working on it and it has actually helped.”
It’s not just breathing that Wood is focusing on while in Princeton.
“Just getting developed more, try to put some weight on and stuff like that, and cut the walks down,” he said.
Wood is tall at 6-foot-1, but Arkansas native and product of Howard College in Big Spring, Texas is a slim 166 pounds. He plans to consume plenty of food while in Princeton.
“I could put on 25 or 30 pounds and it wouldn’t hurt a bit,” he said, with a smile.
Drafted in the 29th round by the Tampa Bay Rays in June, Wood wasted no time getting to Florida, spending three days in extended spring training before traveling to Princeton.
“I expected it,” said Wood, of hearing his name called. “I just didn’t know where I would go.”
He had been drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 32nd round in 2012, but Wood chose college baseball. He didn’t hesitate the next time the chance came.
“There was no doubt I was going to do this either way,” said Wood, who will turn 20 on Aug. 12. “I told the guys whenever I got drafted, ‘How quickly can you get me down there.’”
He wasn’t exactly thrilled with the initial schedule once he arrived.
“I went to Florida for three days. Waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning to get to the facility was kind of hard,” Wood said. “I am glad I am in Princeton so I don’t have to wake up early.
“You would wake up and you would have to shower and put on our collared shirts and stuff like that and get on the van at 6 o’clock. We played at dead in the middle of the day when we were down there.
“I didn’t play in games, I was just practiced with the team and then I came here.”
Outside on one forgettable appearance, Wood has performed admirably for the Rays, allowing three hits and two runs, while striking out two and walking two in 4 2/3 innings.
His other outing led to a 12.60 ERA. He did pick up a win on June 25 against Burlington.
“I hope I keep doing what I am doing, except (that) outing wasn’t very good,” said Wood, who has a four-pitch repertoire, including a curveball, change-up, slider and a fastball that tops out at 94. “Besides that I have been doing pretty well, but there is always room to improve.”
Wood worked in 12 games at Howard in the spring, compiling a 1-1 record and 33 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings with a 6.33 ERA. He was one of five players drafted from the Hawks in the June amateur draft, and Princeton teammate Clayton Crum is also a former hurler at Howard.
Nick Sawyers, who played last year for the Rays, also played at baseball-savvy Howard. No wonder Wood felt ready to take it to another level in the professional ranks.
“My junior college I went to has always been ranked number one in junior college,” Wood said. “It helped me out quite a bit with the changes from metal (bats). It is just different, them batters down in junior college, you have got 1 through 4 are usually pretty good.
“If you give them wooden bats they would be just as good as all these other guys hitting right now. It prepared me, but I am still having to learn how to pitch to these guys.”
He’s doing it while adjusting to life on his own, something he had already experience while in Texas.
“When I went down to Howard in Texas down there in Big Spring, I was 10 hours away from home for nine months,” he said. “I have always been a home boy and that was hard, but after being gone for nine months, being here for 2 1⁄2 to 3 months isn’t going to bother me.”
Wood has liked what he has seen so far in Princeton, and expects the Rays to win their share of games this season.
“I like it, it is nice, everybody is good,” Wood said. “We are coming together as a team right now, we have put a couple of wins together so I think we are going to end up getting on a hot streak here for a little bit and I think we will keep it going too.
“We are putting pieces to the puzzle together and we will just see how it goes from there.”
Bringing a variety of players together and making them into a cohesive unit can be a tall task in the short season Appalachian League.
“You have got me as a country boy and you have got four or five southern boys,” Wood said. “I don’t say they stick together, but the Latino’s kind of stick together, we stick together and we have our groups, but when are in the field and in the locker room we are all together as one.”
Wood and the Rays recently enjoyed one of four days off they’ll receive this season, with the next one on tap next Tuesday. While getting paid to play a game is a great way to make a living, days off can still be a luxury to enjoy.
“We are completely off and I will be glad I won’t have to see a baseball,” said Wood, prior to last Tuesday’s scheduled off day. “I love the game, I am not going to say it gets old, but one day won’t hurt.”
Princeton had expected to begin the Mercer Cup series last Wednesday with Bluefield, but rain washed out those plans. The 11-game competition between local teams will now start on July 26 in Bluefield.
“I have heard about it and it is a big deal around here,” Wood said. “The G.M. (Jim Holland) ‘hates’ the Blue Jays so they make it a big deal and I am excited to play for the Mercer Cup.”
It’s the first of what Wood hopes are part of many professional rivalries he’ll be a part of in his career.
“This has always been a dream of mine, I am glad I can finally get with it,” Wood said. “I just have to keep progressing and hopefully I will get my chance. Every time I go out to the mound I have got to do the best I can so I can move up.”
—Contact Brian Woodson: