On a warm, blue-sky Monday afternoon at Nat Bailey Stadium, the Vancouver Canadians edged the Everett AquaSox 1-0 to take a one game lead in the best-of-three West Division series of the single-A Northwest League.
Mexican standout Roberto Osuna struck out six batters in three innings and four relievers combined for the one-hit, no-run win.
“First of all, they were aggressive,” Vancouver manager Clayton McCullough said about the pitchers who faced elimination down the stretch as the C’s maintained the slightest of advantages.
“The moment didn’t phase them any, which I think has to do with the games we’ve been playing the last month. We’ve had our backs somewhat against the wall the whole time, trying to fight to get into this thing. They’ve been pitching in pressure situations for the majority of the year. All the experience they’ve gained this summer has played big dividends today because they weren’t phased by the moment and they executed pitches.”
When the developing ballplayers -- most of them far from their own families in a foreign city where some don’t speak the language -- keep their cool in front of 4,698 hometown fans at Scotiabank Field, McCullough recognizes the success of more than just a playoff win.
“You look at what the kid is like when they first get here at the beginning of the year or, for some kids, in the middle of the year. You hope that, at this point in the year, they’re much better players,” he said.
Better, more mature players who are learning to handle pressure, avoid distractions and approach baseball like the profession it is and understand a short-season single-A club can be an important beginning to a career with the affiliate MLB club in Toronto.
“We’re trying to give them a good foundation to work from so they can build their skills, build their professionalism. Right now it’s getting them to play they way the Blue Jays want and learn how to be an adult,” he said. The youngest Canadians is Osuna; he’s 17. The oldest, Jonathan Lucas, turns 25 in December.
“The mature kid, the kid who can handle himself away from the field and also understand that when he comes here it’s about taking care of busines at the field, those kids, they develop quicker but for some it takes longer,” said McCullough. “But that’s all part of it here. Luckily we do have a pretty mature group: they like to play, they want to play. That’s a big battle we face here, just getting those kids to learn that they have to show up every day and learn how to do that on a daily basis.”
But just like professional baseball players, minor leaguers make mistakes. On Aug. 28 Blue Jays prospect Marcus Stroman turned in a positive drug test and was suspended without pay for 50 games. The first-round draft pick pitched briefly this summer with the Canadians and had purchased an over-the-counter energy supplement. He apologized.
A positive drug test is unfortunate anytime it happens and organizations go to great lengths to educate their players, said McCullough.
“It disappoints me and everybody. Sometimes kids make mistakes and things happen. The big thing is […] it’s always how you respond when you make a bad decision. Do you do your best to come back and atone for that? And if you do, you can learn from it and you can grow.”
At the end of August, McCullough was named NWL manager of the year. A member of Toronto Blue Jays organization since 2007, last year he was named the best manager of the Florida State League in his second campaign with Dunedin single-A ball club.
The numbers, score sheets and stats will only speak so much for a young prospect, he says, and the managers in Toronto consider what the manager in Vancouver has to say about athletes within the Blue Jays system.
“Throughout the summer, coordinators come through from the front office to come by and see these guys so they get a look at them, but we’re with them every day. And they do, they rely on our input quite a bit on how a kid is progressing. Even if the numbers don’t look good, is he doing better? Is he getting better at the things we want him to? They do call frequently, and we’re constantly giving updates on all these guys. Certainly the bulk of the decisions made are by people who get paid to make those decisions. We are here to try to get them better.”
Born in North Carolina, McCullough, 32, was drafted to Seattle Mariners in 1998. His father, Howard, is a long-time scout with the Arizona Diamondbacks. McCullough was a catcher for the Pirates at East Carolina University where he studied in communications and was then drafted but the Cleveland Indians, this time in the 22nd round. As a rookie with the Burlington Indians, now the Royals and no longer affiliated with Cleveland, McCullough batted .278 with three doubles and eight RBI. In three seasons, he moved up and down the Indians organization but didn’t suit up for a major league game.
The Canadians club, said McCullough, is the best he’s worked thanks to involved owners and good leadership. Plus, he said, his job is on-field decisions are made easier by pitching coach Jim Czajkowski and batting coach Dave Pano.
“Those guys put in the work as well as the players,” said McCullough. “The individual players have gotten better but the team is playing as good right now as they have all year.”
The Canadians play Game 2 and Game 3, if needed, Tuesday and Wednesday night at 7:05 p.m. in Everett.