‘A way to give back’

Yankees prospect Kyle Roller leads Red Rams Hit-a-thon

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

* Photo gallery – More than 1,100 images
* July 21, 2014: Roller eyes the show as hometown watches
* July 20, 2014: Richmond followers Roller to Charlotte

HAMLET — The number to beat was 72.

That was the point total former Richmond Senior standout and current New York Yankees farmhand Kyle Roller put up in a hitting clinic Saturday afternoon on Hamlet Middle School ball field. Seven points for a called shot, five for a fly ball to the outfield or any fair ball that hits the fence, three for a ball in the infield, one for a foul ball and zero for anything else.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Hamlet Middle School Principal Jim Butler looks on as Kyle Roller signs autographs after a hitting session on Saturday in the inaugural Red Ram Hit-a-thon.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Hamlet Middle School Principal Jim Butler looks on as Kyle Roller signs autographs after a hitting session on Saturday in the inaugural Red Ram Hit-a-thon.

Like Roller, each current member or prospective of this spring’s Red Rams baseball team, along with a few special guests — 19 in all — took their turn at matching or beating Roller’s effort.

Seventh-grader Luke Presley, who plans to try out for the team next month, was up first. He said he’s played for about five years and considers himself to be a pretty good ballplayer and said it was difficult for him to self-critique and point out his own strengths and weaknesses.

Turns out he can at lest hit. Presley finished with 31 points and held the top spot in the standings until fellow seventh-grader Dallas Cowick approached the plate. His hitting was worth 42 points, but the very next hitter, eighth-grader C.J. Greene, was already working his way to the No. 1 spot by the time Cowick had returned to the dugout.

Greene, batting fourth, finished with 44 points. Three batters later, Austin Talton came to the plate. Turns out he can hit, too. The seventh-grader — who also aspires to join the Red Rams on the diamond this spring — was the first batter to not miss a single pitch or let one go by, which also counted against each batter’s 20-pitch limit. He finished with 64 points.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com The hitting clinic was a hair-raising experience for Hamlet Middle School seventh-grader Dallas Cowick.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
The hitting clinic was a hair-raising experience for Hamlet Middle School seventh-grader Dallas Cowick.

Seven batters cam to the plate and didn’t threaten Talton’s — scores ranged from six to 41 points, the latter by eighth-grader Storm Graham. But eighth-grader Dawson “the Hammer” Bryant put a rest to the idea that Talton might finish first. He finished with 64 points — putting the leaders of the debut hitting contest in a tie.

At that point, Red Rams coach Ralph Butler didn’t have a tiebreaker in mind. He didn’t have long to devise one, however. He didn’t need it, as Jahan “the Cobra” Jones became the first of 16 hitters to call his shot — that hit was worth seven points alone — and finished with a clinic-best 68 points.

Alex Anderson hit next-to-last and finished with 60 points.

After the clinic, Red Ram softball hurdler Greyson Way put on a clinic of her own — from the pitcher’s mound. Butler said a lot of boys figure that the larger ball used in the girls’ game is easier to hit.

The boys quickly figure out their theory might depend on the pitcher.

Roller heads to Spring Training

Roller, 26, stands at 6-1 and 250 pounds. A power hitter who’s working to improve his average, he’s a contender to take over first base for Yankees future Hall of Famer Mark Texiera — as soon as this year, if the aging Texiera continues his injury-plagued ways.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Jahan "the Cobra" Jones led all amateur hitters by talking 68 points. He also had the first and only called shot of the day.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Jahan “the Cobra” Jones led all amateur hitters by talking 68 points. He also had the first and only called shot of the day.

With his height and girth, Roller — who turns 27 on March 27 — generally hits fourth or fifth in a lineup. On Saturday, he found himself in a rather unusual spot — the leadoff spot. Butler scheduled Roller to hit first because he was due to leave straight for early Spring Training in Florida.

Butler soft-tossed to Roller at the plate. It’s early, and Roller isn’t quite into live pitching. After a couple of swings to adjust to the activity, Roller was ready. And the baseballs flew. His performance was finished with an ovation from the audience of several dozen.

Ever the perfectionist, Roller wondered what might have been. After all, 75 was only three points away.

“The dirt infield kind of throws you off,” said Roller, who’s now accustomed to profesionally manicured ballfields at the Triple A level with his Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Railriders.

While Roller was on a strict schedule, he didn’t leave as quickly as he might have hoped. There were far too many requests to baseballs and gloves to sign, photos to pose for and hitting advice to offer when asked.

Roller’s team is expected to play in North Carolina twice this season. The Railriders travel to Charlotte to take on the Knights from April 30 through May 3. Wilkes-Barre plays at the Durham Bulls May 14 through May 17.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Eyes on the ball for New York Yankees prospect Kyle Roller.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Eyes on the ball for New York Yankees prospect Kyle Roller.

There are plenty of pundits who have weighed in on Roller’s future. Some thought he’d be taken in the Rule V draft but, for the second straight year, the up-and-coming first baseman and designated hitter was unclaimed. Others suggested Roller could be traded to another American League team, where his one weakness — defense — could be less of an issue and fill the role of DH.

Roller, however, said he doesn’t worry about any of that.

“I can only control what I do,” said Roller, who plans to stay in an apartment away from the team hotel in order to focus on the game and isolate himself from the partiers. “I just keep doing what I’m doing.”

That makes sense. What he’s been doing has gotten him to where he is today. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. Roller said he picks one or two things each offseason to work on. This year, he aims to improve his two-strike approach at the plate and decrease his strikeouts.

He split the 2014 season between Double A Trenton and Triple A Wilkes-Barre. Combined, Roller had a career-high 146 strikeouts in in 456 at-bats — a strike out almost a third of the time. Unfortunately for Roller, his strikeout rate increased from Double A (26.9 percent) to Triple A (33 percent).

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com After a few pitches to warm up, Kyle Roller gets in a groove and admires one of his long balls on Saturday during the inaugural Red Rams Hit-a-thon.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
After a few pitches to warm up, Kyle Roller gets in a groove and admires one of his long balls on Saturday during the inaugural Red Rams Hit-a-thon.

Still, Roller acknowledged he “had a decent year” — one that couldn’t have gone unnoticed by team officials. He hit nine home runs and drove in 23 runs in 21 games in the Eastern League. When he was promoted, Roller kept hitting — tallying a .283 batting average with 17 homers and 51 RBI in 104 games.

But the best way to get into the swing of things — pardon the pun — was to help Butler and the Red Rams raise money for new uniforms, field improvements and equipment, including a speaker system for the press box.

Roller was asked to help by way of his fiancee, Katie Drouin. Drouin is a teacher at Hamlet Middle School. With Drouin and several other family members along to watch, including his parents, Roller put on a show.

It was, Roller said, “a way to give back. It was pretty cool.”

Clinic results*
* Kyle Roller’s score didn’t officially count. Jones won, and received a $50 Walmart gift card and an autographed baseball with the signatures of Roller of St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff member Seth Maness. A plaque with Jones’ name will hang on the Red Rams’ concession stand wall commemorating the event. Talton and Bryant finished second and third and received autographed baseballs.
Kyle Roller 72
1. Jahan Jones 68
2. Austin Talton 64
2. Dawson Bryant 64
4. Alex Anderson 60
5. Jake Ransom 48
6. C.J. Greene 44
7. Dallas Cowick 42
8. Storm Graham 41
9. Chase Hudson 31
9. Luke Presley 31
11. Hewston Owens 28
12. Stewart Davis 21
13. Rasheed Patrick 19
14. Dylan Canup 15
15. Jacob Braswell 14
16. Noah Blake 13
17. Tripp Stewart 10
18. Mitch Paul 7
19. Will Chappell 6

 

Filed in: Featured News, Hamlet, Latest Headlines, Sports

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