Boys of summer return to Reno
The boys of summer are back in town with familiar faces and new ballplayers.
The Reno Aces begin their ninth season in Northern Nevada with 12 returning players from 2016, and one player with local ties is more than ready for the season to begin.
Former University of Nevada pitcher Braden Shipley pitched last night in the season opener at Fresno and will pitch the home opener on Tuesday when the Aces honor and then retire the uniform of former manager Brett Butler, the Reno franchise’s first skipper who guided the team to both a Pacific Coast League championship and Triple-A World Series win in 2012.
At Media Day on Tuesday, Shipley, who grew a full beard during the offseason, said it’s disappointing not to start the season for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Reno’s parent team, after competing for half of 2016 at the major league level.
“It’s bittersweet,” Shipley said, “but I love this city of Reno, and I always have fun. I’m looking forward to playing baseball.”
The Diamondbacks picked Shipley 15th in the first round of the 2013 Major League Baseball draft, the same year he was named Mountain West co-Pitcher of the Year in 2013 with a 5-3 record and a 2.76 ERA.
Shipley posted an 8-5 record and 3.70 earned run average before Arizona called him up last July. He finished the second half of the season with a 4-5 record for the D-backs, pitching 70 innings and having a 5.27 ERA. While with both teams, he fanned 120 batters and walked 50.
Shipley’s goal is to return to Arizona before mid-season.
“It’s a different game, a little quicker. You pay for your mistakes a lot more,” he said of life with the D-backs. “This spring I was a different pitcher. I didn’t make too many mistakes. My focus is to pitch well every single time and control the things I can control.”
GROSS TAKES CHARGE
Interim manager Greg Gross said Aces’ pitching will be strong again with three to five starters who have major league experience including Shipley. He said experience is important in the PCL. Gross, who begins his fifth year as the team’s hitting coach, takes over for the team when Arizona called up newly hired manager Jerry Narron to replace bench coach Ron Gardenhire who was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“It’s totally a new unique situation we’re in,” Gross said. “We’ll keep it running smoothly until Jerry gets back.”
Asked if Narron gave the veteran hitting coach advice for managing the team, Gross shook his head no.
“Do what you think is best,” Gross said, repeating what Narron told him. “It’s going to be a team effort among (coaches) Gil (Heredia) and Mike (Lansing) and myself.”
Narron, a native of North Carolina, spent eight years in the majors playing for three teams, and he managed the Texas Rangers and Cincinnati from 2001-2007. Gross temporarily inherits team that finished 2016 with a record of 76-68 and second place in the Pacific Northern Division.
As for the 2017 edition, Gross said the players and he are learning about each other’s backgrounds.
“We’re building a relationship. I get to know them and how they work out and for them to know how I work,” Gross said.
PLAYING THE FIELD
Outfielder Zack Borenstein, who batted .272 and drove in 57 runs in 2016, returns to Reno. Gross said Reymond Fuentes and Jason Pridie also bring experience with the bat. Fuentes hit .257 in Triple-A Omaha and .317 for the Kansas City Royals in 13 games. Jason Pridie finished 2015 with a .327 average at Nashville, but the Oakland A’s released him after the season. He played in Japan last year.
“We have a lot of options in the outfield,” Borenstein said of this year’s talent. “The guys in the infield can also play outfield.”
Offensively, Borenstein said the team hasn’t been together for a long time as a unit because Arizona reassigned players to Reno on the last day of spring training.
Borenstein said his goal is to compete every day at the highest level so he can earn a shot at the big leagues.
Shortstop Jack Reinheimer played 132 games for Reno last year and batted .288, while second baseman Ildemaro Vargas arrived at midseason from Mobile after the Seattle Mariners claimed Mike Freeman. Vargas ripped the ball for a .341 average and hit 20 homers.
Other infielders include Sean Jamieson, second base; former Mariners player Ketel Marte, who was involved in the Hanigan trade, shortstop; Kristopher Negron, third base; and Christian Walker, first base.
Walker takes over for Kyle Jensen, a 2016 Triple-A all-star who batted .289 with 30 home runs and 120 RBIs. Jensen is now playing in Japan.
“We have a lot of competitors, and that will help me,” said Reinheimer, who grew up in North Carolina.
Only one catcher returns. Ronnie Freeman played for Mobile and then Reno for 10 games. He batted .286 in 28 plate appearances. Also behind the plate is Hank Conger, who caught for Triple-A Durham of the International League and 49 games for Tampa Bay.
Heredia, an Arizona native who spent last season in Reno as pitching coach, said he has a rotation of four to five starters and can go six deep on piggyback games.
“We’re strong top to bottom,” said Heredia, who played for four major league teams from 1991 to 2001. “Shipley had an amazing year last year and who knows what he needs to do (to play at the majors). Anthony Banda had a great second half of the year as did (Silvino) Bracho. Matt Koch made the big leagues last year and threw a lot of strikes.”
Koch posted a 4-2 record at Reno and 1-1 at Arizona after being called up. Banda is a 2012 10th-round draft pick and D-backs’ current No. 1 prospect, according to Baseball America.
Heredia and Zack Godley team up again after they spent part of the 2015 season together at Visalia. Godley pitched at Mobile and Reno, where he went 2-1. Arizona called up the South Carolina native where he finished he year with a 5-4 record.
As for the bullpen, Heredia said he has a good group of pitchers who played for Reno last year including Bracho and Jimmie Sherfy, who began the season at Visalia, moved up to Mobile and then finished the season at Reno with a 1-4 record in 23.1 innings in 24 games.