By BRIAN WOODSON
PRINCETON — Ready or not, the first pitch must be thrown.
The Princeton Devil Rays have barely been together two days, but the season must start tonight. The schedule says so.
“I look forward to getting the ball rolling,” Princeton manager Jamie Nelson said. “I do wish we were playing (sooner), but I know with the guys just getting here, we need a couple of days to get ready, no doubt.”
While the remainder of the nine-team Appalachian League have already played at least one game, the Devil Rays had to wait an extra couple of days. That is fine with Nelson, who was still trying to put names with faces earlier in the week.
“We don’t even have our whole club here so those two days are going to help us,” said Nelson, during Monday’s ‘Meet the Devil Rays’ event. “I don’t think it is going to put us behind that much.
“I think our inexperience will either get experience and show that, or our inexperience will show, but I wouldn’t say it is a big advantage. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t even know everybody’s name so I’m looking forward to learning that.”
Princeton, starting its 20th season as a professional baseball franchise, will host the Kingsport Mets in its opener at 7 p.m. at Hunnicutt Field. Admission is free, with the first 700 fans receiving magnet schedules and the initial 500 through the gate also taking home a Devil Rays’ ballbat pen.
“I look forward to it,” Nelson said. “The bios that I’ve read on these kids are very exciting to me, I look forward to working with everyone of them.”
The 68-game schedule, including 34 home games, will feature a young Princeton squad that includes just five returnees from last season, and another player who was here in 2005.
Four are pitchers, including Tyree Hayes, who will start the opener for the Devil Rays. Hayes, the son of former major leaguer Charlie Hayes, was 3-1 with a 2.48 ERA in nine appearances last season for the P-Rays. The 18-year-old will be joined on the staff by returnees Chris Andujar, Chris Fessler and Matt Fisher.
“Ty is ready to go,” said Nelson, whose 108 wins is 21st in league history. “I’m looking forward to see what he can do. He’s getting better.”
Other than first baseman Eligio Sonoqui and outfielder Justin Reynolds — a catcher with Princeton in 2005 — the remainder of the squad is new. Only 10 Devil Rays participated in extended spring training, so Nelson, pitching coach Marty DeMerritt and hitting coach Rafael DeLeon have had plenty to do in just a few days.
“That part is hard, to get the camaraderie and the chemistry, that’s hard and to me that’s the luck of the draw,” said Nelson, whose P-Rays were 28-36 last season, fifth in the Eastern Division. “I do like the kids that we have here this year.
“I thought I had a great group here last year, and if I can get anything close to that we’ll have a good time at the very least.”
Starting its 11th season as an affiliate with the Devil Rays, Princeton won its lone Appy League crown in 1994, and reached the championship series in 1998, only to lose to Bristol.
Adding another title would be nice, but Nelson knows that isn’t paramount for the Devil Rays.
“The one thing we keep in mind, regardless of how we do in the win-loss column is we get better in August and sometimes it’s hard to look at that,” Nelson said. “I know as a fan it’s hard, but that’s our bottom line is to continue for these guys to grow as ballplayers and human beings and hope that they’re playing better baseball in August.”
Among the top newcomers for the P-Rays is third-round pick Nick Barnese, a high school pitcher from California, and outfielder Dustin Biell, a fifth-round choice from Washington.
Combining solid high school contributors with college athletes such as new P-Rays Kevin Boggan from Boston College, UCLA’s Kevin Brophy or catcher John Mollicone from Fordham can be a difficult task.
“You don’t know how they’re going to handle that so there is a lot of luck that goes into championship baseball, you’ve got to get that chemistry,” Nelson said. “I think the Yankees have proven that over the course of the last seven or eight years.
“Yeah, they pay for a playoff team and they’re going to make the playoffs, but when is the last time they were in a World Series. It’s hard to buy that, it has to just evolve and develop and the unfortunate thing about us is we only have 2 1/2 months to do it.
“By the time you’re a month-and-a-half in, they’re ready to go home so you’ve got to come up with some motivational speeches in the middle of July.”
While some managers would have departed Princeton long ago, Nelson enjoys spending a few months each summer in Mercer County.
“As far as a manager, yeah, it would be fun to manage at a higher level — A- ball, no — if I was going to do it, I’d want to do AA or nothing,” Nelson said. “The thing I like about being here is the people and the town.
“I’m familiar with it so I don’t have to make an adjustment and the travel here is very nice. I don’t want to go to 8-to-10 hour bus rides, but obviously you’d like to think you could make a difference at a higher level with the mental game and here you’ve got to stick with your ABCs.
“I enjoy working with these young kids, they’re eager to learn, usually they’re willing to listen and they want to do better...The toughest thing here is sometimes the brand of baseball is not always easy to watch, but you’ve got to take the bad with the good.”
Nelson is confident with the help of DeMerritt and DeLeon that the P-Rays will only continue to get better as the season progresses.
“Both of those guys are just tireless workers so I can’t say enough good thing about them and what they bring to the table,” Nelson said. “I know one thing, these kids will be better in August, there’s no doubt in my mind, and they’ll benefit from that experience, no question.”
P-Rays: Kingsport will send Jorge Rodriguez to the mound tonight against Hayes...Princeton’s Jeremy Hall and Kingsport’s Pedro P. Martinez will pitch in Friday’s series finale.
—Contact Brian Woodson