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Almost Live from Modesto: 27 year old amateur watches 22 year old professionals play a game

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I went to watch Ljay Newsome and wound up questioning the direction of my life

Mr. Photogenic Ljay Newsome
Sabrina Barr

Immediately after work on Tuesday I drove two hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic up I-5 to John Thurman Field in Modesto. I was sweating even as the AC blasted at unsafe levels. I was attending my first Modesto Nuts game, my first minor league game, and I was doing it as a credentialed member of the media. I’ve never been credentialed at anything in my life, probably for good reason. My girlfriend brought her camera and had signed on to take photos. Like this one.

The Walnut waits patiently for the coaches to decide which player he will get to eat.
Sabrina Barr

We were quiet on the drive. Neither of us knew what we were doing but aware of our mission to:

  1. Cover and interview Ljay Newsome.
  2. Interview at least one other player.
  3. Prove to ourselves that we belonged.

Not all of those things happened.

It was elementary school day at the ballpark. Which was a blessing, as being surrounded by children learning how to behave allowed me to blend in as a tall child. Keaton Gillogly, who does the very excellent broadcast for the Nuts, was incredibly patient as I held his hand and followed him around the field, nodding as he pointed out where to go and how to act.

We walked into the clubhouse and he asked me who I wanted to interview. I froze. The players perked up, not used to unknown sweater-wearing writer-types in their space. Everyone waited for me to speak. I had a list, I knew. A list of ten players I wanted to interview. It was in my notebook. But I realized it would be insane to open my notebook. The epitome of You Don’t Belong Here. I should know one name. Any name. Just say it. I felt darkness closing in around me. Then, a word materialized.

“Sam,” I said with instant regret. Sam? Sam who? Sam is a sound not a name.

“Sam,” repeated Keaton. He nodded, acknowledging that I had indeed said a name of a player. I was able to breathe as he summoned Sam Delaplane, Modesto Nuts relief pitcher.

I was relieved that somehow my subconscious had produced the #1 player on my list. (I’ll have a profile on K-Artist Sam Delaplane later in the week.)

Now, the game produced its own set of challenges. I am not a scout and I am not a reporter, so what does my actual presence lend to the game? I asked myself this as I sat down to watch warmups. What am I doing here? As I watched I came to a conclusion: Being able to read swings, body language, reactions, voices, etc. The phenomenology of a game you can’t see in a box score. Here’s what it feels like to watch these prospects play in person, if you’re interested.

Ljay Newsome did not disappoint.

Ljay Newsome: Not Dissapointing
Sabrina Barr

This was his final line: 7 innings, 6 hits, 1 run, 0 walks, 8 Ks.

It was his sixth consecutive start of 8 Ks or more. That brings Ljay up to 54 strikeouts on the year… and 4 walks. That leads the Cal League. That leads every league. He has a 1.84 FIP through 6 starts. He’s never been on a top prospect list.

Watching him in person you get a better sense of how this happens. I profiled him here, but essentially a velocity increase has him in the low-90s with plus-plus command of all three pitches and excellent “pitchability.” I’d never seen him in person, though, and in person it’s a different experience.

Ljay Newsome is relentless.

A changeup from Ljay, his gift to you.
Sabrina Barr

Ljay pitches like he hates baseball. As if his goal is to throw the damn ball over the plate as quickly as possible until the agony of playing has ended. I am talking less than 5 seconds between pitches. He’d throw a pitch for a strike. I’d make a little note in my stupid notebook and by the time I looked up the ball was leaving his hand again.

Ljay Newsome makes adjustments like a veteran.

Ljay Newsome: Reminding us that human bodies should not throw baseballs
Sabrina Barr

But Lancaster knew this, too. Lancaster knew that Ljay was pumping high fastballs early in counts. They knew he liked to work ahead.

In the first two innings they jumped on him by doing damage on first-pitch fastballs. Ljay gave up 4 hits and one 1 run with no strikeouts in those early innings and I was sitting there thinking that I’m going to watch Ljay implode for the first time and then ask him questions about it.

Then, in the third inning, Ljay walked to the mound and threw a first pitch changeup for a strike. Then a breaking ball for a swinging strike. Then brushed a fastball against the top of the zone for strike three. And just like that, he was back in control. It was only three pitches but Ljay proved he could throw any pitch for a strike in any count. Lancaster was back on the defensive and for the rest of his 5 innings he struck out 8 and allowed only 2 hits. They couldn’t adjust to Ljay’s vertical assault and they couldn’t take a pitch off to figure him out.

Ljay Newsome is the anti-Justus Sheffield

Ljay Newsome Respects Our Limited Time
Sabrina Barr

I hate to type it but at the moment it’s true. He has no true out-pitch that can rival Sheffield’s slider (his breaking ball has late bite but is not a big swing-and-miss pitch), but he mixes his pitches, he’s unpredictable, he challenges hitters by getting ahead early, and he puts them away with letter-high fastballs. He’s not going to keep this up if he gets promoted, not at this pace at least, but he has figured out the Cal League and deserves to be in Arkansas so he can make more adjustments.

Modesto can’t hit and neither can the Cal League

With Apologies to Connor Kopach who had 3 hits in this game.
Sabrina Barr

Luis Liberato is the only player with an OPS over .800 on Modesto’s roster. But the league is not hitting much as a whole right now, so even a pedestrian slash line (like Dodgers prospect Starling Heredia’s .180./342./328) will get you over 100 wRC+. Watching the teams combine for two runs in the first 10 innings, it felt like one of the new rule changes was that no team was allowed more than one hit an inning.

Even two of their best performers, Luis Liberato and Joe Rizzo, I am still not sold on. Liberato’s hands move a lot in his set-up and I don’t think this power production will stay at this pace or translate at a higher level until he quiets his swing. Similarly, Rizzo’s stance is very wide and his swing is short, allowing him to make contact deep in the zone but restricts his ability to get his lower body into the ball. It reminds me of early video of Jake Fraley’s swing before he tried to incorporate more power. As a third baseman, he’ll have to make some kind of change to rise through the ranks.

Cal Raleigh has pop

Cal’s arms are the size and definition of toned thighs
Sabrina Barr

I know he’s off to a slow-ish start, but when he makes contact it just sounds different. He got hold of an elevated fastball and hit it out for Modesto’s lone run in regulation. You could hear the crack from the concessions, which is where I was standing when it happened, because I am weak. Everyone knew it was gone before the call was made. A switch-hitting Mike Zunino comes to mind. Unfortunately, that also translates to his contact ability as his swing seemed a bit long and he had trouble making adjustments at the plate. He only went 1-5, but what a 1 it was.

Cal Raleigh can catch

Cal Raleigh, Catcher of Baseballs
Sabrina Barr

I know that there have been mixed reports on his catching but I walked away impressed with his ability to frame. His hands are steady and quiet and he got Ljay a few extra strikes, including this one which he pulled up into the zone:

Cal covering up more mistakes than spell check
Sabrina Barr

Honestly, I’m not sure he’s not a better defensive catcher than Omar Narvaez right this second. He has a strong throwing arm, too, and hosed a JetHawk player by three steps on a steal attempt in the 4th. His blocking needs some work, and he seemed a little shaky on reeling in relays to the plate, but it’s hard to tell from one game. His footwork seemed solid, though.

The grind

The “it’s the ninth inning and they are still tied at one” face
Sabrina Barr

The game hit the ninth at 1-1. The sun had set a few hours before and the cold crept in from the trees. The children were lining up and heading back to their busses. It was a school night. The stadium echoed with foul balls landing unclaimed in the metal bleachers.

A scoreless tenth brought more fans to their feet and out the gates to their cars.

Sabrina began to lose focus and she took ten photos like this:

There were many to choose from
Sabrina Barr

“I’m doing a catalogue of butts now,” she announced. “Butts and the umpires who must look at them.”

I nodded. I wondered how much longer we would last. My blood sugar had fallen and I was still nervous for the end-game interview. What if I don’t ask good questions? Would Ljay even want to talk after an extra inning game? I had to teach a class the next day, and I counted the hours of sleep I could still get after our drive home.

Extra baseball

Boy did we
Sabrina Barr

After the JetHawks scored in the eleventh, we thought it was over. I readied myself for the interview, we began to walk towards the clubhouse. Good. Sabrina’s allergies were hitting her hard and the game had ceased feeling like a fun, summer activity. Now it felt more like watching a road crew work under flood lamps. Labor done in the night, long after most people had gone home.

Losing meaning

The descent
Sabrina Barr

The Nuts answered with one run in the bottom of the 11th. Sabrina rubbed allergy-stricken eyes. “Why do you have to wait to hit it to run except when you swing at strike three and someone drops it?” she said, exasperated. “What even is baseball? Swinging sticks at a ball? What?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. The game had ceased to be glued together by reason. It was now a word repeated so many times it becomes a string of sounds.

They scheme, they plan.
Sabrina Barr

“And why is there no clock? All other games have clocks. It’s like going to a play but they won’t tell you when it’s going to be over.”

This walnut has been in a war.
Sabrina Barr

“I don’t know!” I repeated, swallowing existential dread. We retreated to the press box.

Decisions

“All mound visits should be illegal in extra innings”
Sabrina Barr

I watched silently from the press box as the JetHawks scored in the twelfth and the Nuts answered to tie it up. Again. I felt panic strike me as it dripped into the 13th. I should be enjoying this, this is good baseball, I reminded myself. I want to do this, to write about this sport in particular.

Someone mentioned how depressing the clubhouse would be if they lost in extra innings again. I swallowed a rock. I mulled over my decision: stay until the end, whenever that would be, and track down Ljay Newsome to talk about a start that was irrelevant to him two hours ago, or leave early and admit defeat. Sabrina sneezed. I scratched my neck. This was supposed to be my new thing. A professional would stay, I knew that. A professional would get the interview.

“What do you want to do?” Sabrina asked.

Defeat

On the drive home we listened to Keaton catalogue the thirteenth. Modesto fell behind by 5. It would be over and I wouldn't have to be in the clubhouse at 11pm and wade through angry players. I thought we had made the right decision, but instead of relieved I felt empty, defeated. I had spent eight hours preparing for a moment that never came. Part of me wondered if I should even be doing this. I have three other jobs. Was this a sign that I was out of my depth?

“I bet the players feel bad,” Sabrina said, her eyes closed, her head resting against the passenger window. We wouldn’t be home until after midnight. “That’s a lot of work they had to do. And then to lose? Sucks.”

“Yeah.” I tapped the steering wheel. “There’ll be another game tomorrow, though.”

She sat up. Headlights flitted across the window. “We aren’t going tomorrow, right?”

“Naw.” She raised her eyebrows. I smiled. “Maybe the day after, though.”