By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It’s been 12 years since the Bluefield baseball club won an Appalachian League championship.
Could this be the year for the 15th such title in the long history of baseball at Bowen Field? Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg is cautiously optimistic, but is certainly making no promises.
“I couldn’t be happier with the nucleus of guys we have here to tell you the truth,” he said. “How we start, how we finish, stay tuned.”
The Blue Jays will begin its third season in Bluefield tonight by hosting the Greeneville Astros, with first pitch slated for 7:05 p.m. Holmberg will give the opening day start to 19-year-old second round draft pick Chase De Jong.
“You couldn’t ask for a better kid out on the mound,” Holmberg said.
That doesn’t mean he will pitch very long. Toronto likes to ‘piggy-back’ its pitchers, with De Jong slated to go four innings, followed by southpaw Shane Dawson for four more. They will reverse roles in their next appearance, with Dawson getting the start.
“Mind you, these guys aren’t going nine innings, they are not going 8 or 7, they are not going 6, they might not make 5, we have got piggy-backs too,” Holmberg said. “There is going to be a guy following every guy every night.
“That is two guys a night who are starting. If those guys throw four good innings apiece, it doesn’t leave much opportunity for the bullpen and I like that, I don’t mind that.”
An Appalachian League roster can change often, and Holmberg saw plenty of that last season when more than a dozen players were promoted from Bluefield to Vancouver — helping the Canadians to the Northwest League title — and last year’s opening day starter, Joe Musgrove, and fellow Bluefield starter Kevin Comer, were traded halfway through the season.
That can make it difficult on a coaching staff, but Holmberg is entering his 26th season in a minor league dugout so it was nothing new to him.
“We sent 13 guys to Vancouver last year over the course of the summer,” said Holmberg, who has recorded 1,310 managerial wins. “That is my job and my coaching staff’s job.
“Sure we want to win a Mercer Cup, sure we want to win the Appy League, but we have to prepare these guys and have them have some measure of success so they can get promoted and then they are on their way and we are happy that way.”
This particular roster includes a pair of first round picks, including outfielder D.J. Davis and third baseman Mitch Nay. Davis was the 17th overall pick in 2012, and batted .340 in 12 games in Bluefield. Nay was a first round compensation pick, who signed late last summer.
Both signed for bonuses of at least $1 million.
Three Bluefield pitchers are also top 10 selections, including De Jong and eighth rounder Mark Biggs, both of whom played in the Gulf Coast League last season, and fourth round pick Tom Robson, a Canadian who worked in three games last year for the Blue Jays.
Holmberg likes the promise of that quintet, and echoes the sentiments of the Blue Jays who are glad to escape the heat of Florida for the mountains of Bluefield.
“I am excited to come back, everybody is excited to get out of Florida after spring training and two months of extended,” Holmberg said. “The lights turn on, the bell will ring, they will get a bubble gum card halfway through the season and the statistics will go on the back.
“The Gulf Coast League is a breaking in, and this becomes an extension of that, and just things start to magnify themselves as you graduate through the organization.”
That goes for anyone who is able to take advantage of their chance. Kevin Pillar, a 32nd round pick who led the Blue Jays to the Appalachian League championship series in 2011, has taken full advantage of that opportunity and has already advanced to Double-A in New Hampshire.
“He is a prime example of heart, mind, desire, determination,” Holmberg said. “He just wanted a chance to play and he is on the radar in Toronto, trust me, he has hit wherever he has gone.”
Three other players with local ties will play for Bluefield, including Tazewell product Zak Wasilewski, who turned 20 on Sunday, and is expected to start for the Blue Jays on the mound on Friday.
Other products with regional ties include University of Virginia hurler Scott Silverstein — who was 10-1 with a 2.86 ERA in the spring — and Hurricane native Brett Barber, whose father, Mike Barber, had a hall of fame career on the gridiron at Marshall.
Among the returnees from last season are Davis, Robson, pitcher Albert Tirado, infielder Matt Dean and outfielders Eric Arce, Dennis (D.J.) Jones and Melvin Garcia.
Tirado is one of the several foreign-born players on the Blue Jays, including highly-touted Venezuelan hurler Adonys Cardona and equally promising infielder Dawel Lugo from the Dominican Republic. Both signed massive contracts as 16-year-old kids.
Holmberg has been entrusted by Toronto to develop youngsters in Bluefield into the big league Blue Jays of the future, and he is beginning to see progress as those players make an impact in the organization.
“Having been here now for three years we are starting to show some graduation from some of the players that started here in 2011,” Holmberg said. “I think that creates a history, ‘I remember that guy from four years ago and he is in the big leagues today’, so the foundation was set two years ago and last year and with this group of guys this year.”
Bowen Field has undergone a few renovations for the upcoming season, including a new office for the staff and a meeting room for the players.
“The field looks good, the clubhouse is all clean, and it is our responsibility now as tenants to keep it clean,” Holmberg said. “We will do the best we can, we are young, this year’s club is a perfect club for this league.
“We have 19 and 20 year old kids, some high draft picks, some high ceilings, it is their time...”
Holmberg preaches more than just baseball at Bluefield. He wants his team to learn more than just how to turn the double play or cover first base on a bunt.
“This is a perfect league for them to come in and not only compete and measure their ability against other players, but learn how to walk, talk, dress, do all the things off the field,” he said. “Checking in and out of hotels, leaving tips, dressing properly, getting out in the community, becoming visible and just giving back, trying to give back.”
—Contact Brian Woodson at email@example.com