Smoak alarms.

I was pumped when Seattle sent lefthander Bobby LaFromboise to the mound for the ninth inning in Thursday’s Rangers-Mariners instructional league game.  

Not because he’d had an impressive rookie season after the Mariners spent an eighth-round pick on him in June.

Not because that’s a great baseball name.

I was pumped because I’d seen Justin Smoak hit lots of balls hard for two days, but he’d faced only righthanders, meaning he’d hit only left-handed.  I wanted to see him step in from the right side.  

The downside to seeing LaFromboise stroll out to the mound was that Smoak had singled in the first inning, rifled an opposite-field double to the wall in the sixth (staying back on a changeup), and destroyed another changeup in the eighth, putting such a charge into it that the right fielder simply swiveled in place, watching it sail a mile over the fence as the Rangers dugout issued a unified “WHOA!!”  

Hitting for the cycle is hard to do.

It’s hard enough to hit for the cycle when the opponent is only forced to get 24 outs, which was the case yesterday, as Seattle came off the field after getting just one out in the fifth and two outs in the eighth, due to the Rangers lineup forcing Mariners pitchers to reach their pitch limits.

It’s hard enough to conceive of Smoak achieving the cycle himself, considering he not only didn’t hit a triple during his run with Clinton this summer — he had zero triples among his 246 hits in a legendary career at the University of South Carolina.

The idea that Smoak would hit his first triple since high school lost even more traction as the lefty took the ball, turning Smoak around.  The odds are surely longer for a right-handed hitter since it’s more difficult to pull a three-bagger off if you hit the ball on the left side of the field.

For Smoak to even get the chance, 18-year-old pinch-hitter Guillermo Pimentel (who served as batboy for the first eight innings) had to come through, after Engel Beltre and Marcus Lemon each popped out to start the top of the ninth.  Pimentel rapped a shot back to the box, but LaFromboise was only able to deflect it and Pimentel chugged down the line to beat out an infield single.

Up stood Smoak.  In the right-handed box.

He swung (hard) through a curve.  He swung through a change, lunging.  After watching one miss, he spoiled another curve, and then took a fastball low.  A wild LaFromboise pickoff attempt sent Pimentel to second base, and Smoak settled back in with a 2-2 count.

The big southpaw came back with another fastball, and Smoak fired it the other way, a line shot that split the center and right fielders and checked up near the fence.  Smoak, showing the same sort of closing speed that he displayed on that foul pop-up on Wednesday, was thinking three right out of the box, and he not only got it, but landed on third standing.

Since the stats don’t count, the books will still show that Smoak is tripleless since high school, but there was at least one fan in Peoria yesterday (and not many more) who can vouch for the fact that, in what amounted to a practice game, Smoak did in fact hit a ninth-inning triple that completed the cycle.

An hour earlier, I wrote on my notepad “AT-BAT OF THE CAMP” when Beltre stepped up with men on first and third and one out in the top of the fifth.  I wrote “AT-BAT OF THE CAMP” after Beltre, who had swung at the first pitch of the game (flying out to right center) in a frustrating example of non-leadoff-hitter-ness, didn’t get overly caught up in the obvious fifth-inning RBI opportunity and watched a curve go by for ball one and a low and outside fastball go by for ball two.  After fouling pitch three to left field, Beltre let another fastball go by for ball three.  He then fouled a curve back and then, with the hit-and-run on, fouled another pitch off.  It was after that sixth pitch that I wrote “AT-BAT OF THE CAMP.”  If Beltre starts to show more patience consistently, watch out.

Beltre then hit the seventh pitch of the fantastic at-bat a thousand feet.  Absolutely crushed it down the right field line, standing at the plate in admiration long enough to review all seven pitches in his mind.

Then there was the pitching.  Texas sent Wilmer Font, Carlos Pimentel, Martin Perez, Joe Wieland, and Kyle Ocampo to the hill.  Think I enjoyed that?

Font sat 91-96.  The reason Beltre was shading every hitter to the opposite field while Font worked was not a concession to any spray charts.  The big 18-year-old was overpowering.  In the first inning, he induced weak groundouts to himself and to second baseman Marcus Lemon and, after a base on balls, struck out the cleanup hitter looking.  In the second, he added another strikeout, another comebacker, and a groundout to third after a mis-hit single to right.  Font needed 31 pitches to get through his two frames, throwing 22 for strikes (half of them looking).  

When I saw Pimentel last October, he was consistently up in the zone but still unhittable.  Yesterday, when he missed, he missed low, and he unleashed a few jaw-dropping power curves in his two perfect innings of work, which he completed needing only 21 pitches despite striking out three.  The 18-year-old worked at 87-89.

Perez got through his two innings in just 24 pitches, but Seattle did square up a few times.  Smoak and slick 17-year-old Edwin Garcia turned a nifty 3-6-3 in the fifth and Leonel “Macumba” De Los Santos (who replaced Jose Felix behind the plate in the sixth) gunned down a would-be basestealer in support of Perez.  The 17-year-old brought a live fastball and a handful of really good curve balls to the mound during his stint.

Wieland works fast.  He threw a two-strike curve to the first Mariner he faced that the hitter had no chance on.  Macumba cut down another two runners trying to steal on Wieland’s watch.  

Ocampo drilled the first batter he faced but closed out the win, showing maybe the best curve of the game on a day when just about everyone Texas sent to the mound complemented a plus fastball with a really good curve.

Couple other things from Thursday.
 
Sixteen-year-old Esdras Abreu needs some work in the outfield.

There’s yet another T-shirt that the players wear during morning workouts: “Texas Rangers: Building Champions” on the front, “Winning Is a Habit” on the back.

You watch righthander Michael Main and lefthander Tim Murphy get in their work, and it’s not surprising that they were prospects as outfielders, too.  That’s no knock at all on their pitching.  Just an observation on their obvious athleticism.

Willie Eyre threw a side and looks healthy.

Mark Hamburger threw a side and looks very, very impressive. 

I don’t know whether every organization does this, but I still like the custom of the pitcher and catcher, even on a side bullpen session at 10 a.m. in fall instructional league, meeting halfway between the mound and the plate to shake hands once their work is done.

Another triple-digit day of heat.  The pair of jeans I brought (just in case) mocks me from the bottom drawer, just as much as the 45-mph speed limit signs on Bell Road do.  Useless.

Baseball America slotted Julio Borbon as the number 11 prospect in the California League this season, and placed four Frisco players in its Texas League rankings: Chris Davis (2), Elvis Andrus (5), Borbon (8), and Max Ramirez (9). Pretty sure Derek Holland lacked enough innings to qualify in the Cal League or Texas League feature.  Same with Neftali Feliz in the Texas League.

Milton Bradley reached 502 plate appearances on Wednesday, qualifying him for the league batting title (he sits at .32432,
third behind Joe Mauer’s .32950 and Dustin Pedroia’s .32511) and securing a $525,000 bonus for reaching the 500-plate appearance plateau.

More important to me is whether Bradley finishes the season as a Type A or Type B free agent.  He’s apparently right on the line.  If he’s a Type A, it may make him less attractive on the free agent market (since signing a Type A costs a team its first- or second-round pick, which Texas would get in addition to a supplemental first, while a Type B costs the signing team nothing, netting the player’s 2008 club just the supplemental first), which does three things.  First, there’s the obvious bonus in draft pick compensation if he does sign elsewhere.  Second, less market interest would theoretically bring his price tag down (dollars and years) if the Rangers are interested in bringing him back.  And third, if he doesn’t find the multi-year deal he likes, I sure don’t mind the fallback of him accepting our arbitration offer and getting a one-year deal to stay.

Texas has clinched a draft pick in the top half of the first round, which means if the club signs someone else’s Type A this winter, all it forfeits is its second-round pick.

San Francisco lefthander Jonathan Sanchez is 1-7, 7.47 in his last 10 starts.  I’m still interested, maybe even more so now.

Kansas City’s Zack Greinke?  He’s 5-3, 2.32 in his last 10 starts, with eight quality starts.

I wish I saw Ron Washington bring Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Gerald Laird, and Hank Blalock off the field during the top of the ninth on Wednesday.  I dig that sort of stuff.

Hamilton’s autobiography, “Beyond Belief” (solid title), hits bookstands on October 14.

(If you’re thinking about preordering the book, please consider clicking the Amazon link at the top of http://www.newbergreport.com). 

Blalock, who once hit for two minor league cycles in the span of three days (a bicycle), will shoot for five straight games with home runs tonight in Anaheim.

As Smoak was rounding the bases on his eighth-inning home run, I thought to myself, “He ought to be doing this in Kissimmee, not Surprise.”  What a mistake by the Astros.  Their loss.

Speaking of Astros’ losses, Nolan Ryan reportedly arrives in town on Monday.  He’s probably seen everything that this game has to offer, but I can say that I’ve seen something that he hasn’t, and that none of us may ever see again:

A Justin Smoak cycle.

Because you’ve got to have the triple.

You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

 

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