Three Days in Orem

Orem Owlz manager Tom Kotchman won his 1,500th career game Friday night at Ogden.

 

There’s a scene in Miracle, the Disney movie about the 1980 U.S. Olympics hockey team, where coach Herb Brooks has his team skating back and forth on the rink for hours after a lackluster performance.

I see a lot of Herb Brooks in Tom Kotchman, which isn’t surprising considering Kotch began his managing career in 1979. A few months after Brooks’ miracle, Kotchman was named the Manager of the Year in the Rookie-A Appalachian League as he took the Bristol Tigers to a 36-33 record.

Kotch took a page out of Brooks’ coaching manual last night, keeping his players at the ballpark hours after they dropped a twinbill and three-game series to their division rivals, the Casper Ghosts.

As detailed by Jason Franchuk’s article in today’s Provo Daily Herald:

The Owlz last won Friday night. It was Kotchman’s 1,500th victory at the minor-league level.

A manager doesn’t reach that ultra-rare milestone without knowing how to push a few buttons. Many of Kotchman’s former players regard him as a master, still remembering the tactics (some more crude than others) he used to get the most out of them.

It’s this group’s turn to see, hear and feel them. The season unofficially started late last night, after the season’s 14th game. Kotchman walked his players through various fielding and baserunning drills.

It was 9:30 p.m. as the team on a rare losing streak in Utah County on Kotchman’s watch took the field again.

This might have been the toughest opponent yet for the young, mostly new professional ballplayers: a manager who had every whim to extend the already long day far beyond 14 innings.

Kotchman wasn’t in a hurry to go back to his hotel room — just to get this season on track, and re-focus a lot of players after a hot start to the season has been tempered.

My hotel room at the Hampton Inn was across the street from the ballpark. I peeked out the window around 10 PM and saw they were still at it.

I joined the team Friday night for their road game at Ogden, about 75 miles up the I-15 from Orem. The Owlz won 5-3 in 10 innings, 10-1 in their first 11 games to give Kotch his 1,500th win, but I kinda had a feeling that the Herb Brooks “moment” wasn’t far off. There was a certain sloppiness to their game, some players seemed to lack focus or not take their new profession all that seriously, perhaps still acting like they were in high school or college instead of having to produce to earn a living in professional baseball.

Another problem on Sunday was that the pitching staff was gassed. After 10 innings on Friday and 13 innings on Saturday, they faced another 14 innings on Sunday. (Minor league doubleheader games are seven innings each.) Kotchman had to carefully manage the pitch count for his staff in both games, essentially running the pen, leaving struggling pitchers out on the mound even though they were getting pounded.

Things were bad enough Saturday night that catcher Ivan Villaescusa was used in the 13th in mopup relief after the game was lost. Things were worse when Ivan had to pitch again to mop up Game #1 of Sunday’s doubleheader.

Kotch hoped to nurse lefty starter Buddy Boshers through Game #2 as far as he could. Boshers pitched an inning on Thursday at Ogden. He pitched into the third and was replaced by Chris Scholl after giving up a run, but the Owlz led 4-1 after three.

It all fell apart in the top of the 4th.

The Ghosts scored a run but it was still 4-2 with two outs and runners on first and second. Scholl induced a ground ball by Andy Goff to shortstop Darwin Perez, but Darwin tried to showboat the ball and it bounced off his glove for an error, loading the bases. Kane Simmons then doubled, clearing the bases, giving Casper a 5-4 lead. Kotchman was forced to replace Scholl with Jayson Miller.

Perez was yanked from the game after the inning.

Casper posted two more runs in the 7th off reliever Reyes Dorado, and the Ghosts won 7-4.

The Ghosts have a bit of arrogance about them. Shortstop Carlos Martinez spiked the ball after catching a pop fly to end Saturday night’s marathon, a gesture that did not go unnoticed in the Orem dugout. I have a feeling these two teams will duel for the division championship come September, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a brawl sooner or later.

I recorded an interview with Kotch the afternoon after winning his 1,500th game. Click Here to listen to the interview, Windows Media Player required. We also talked about Kotch’s first year in the Angels system, the 1984 Redwood Pioneers that were 53-17 in the second half in the California League that year, which I believe is still a league record. Tom gave me a print of the team photo, which I’ll scan and post here when I get the chance.

As always, we talked prospects.

Kotchman scouted and signed Ryan Chaffee, the Angels’ third round pick who’s currently at Tempe rehabbing a foot injury. Kotchman described Chaffee as “a combination of El Duque (Orlando Hernandez), Mark Fydrich, and John Lackey.” (The thought of John Lackey with The Bird’s personality boggles the mind …) I can’t wait to see him pitch.

Based on what I saw, the top prospects on the current roster would be third baseman Luis Jimenez, left fielder Roberto Lopez and right fielder Angel Castillo. As with many young Latin players, plate discipline is a problem for Jimenez and Castillo but they do exhibit potential power. Lopez, a college senior from USC, is 22 (turning 23 in October) so my first instinct was to think he’s old for this league, but you can’t knock his start — an AVG/OBP/SLG of .491/.540/.702 in 13 games. An alumnus of Rancho Bernardo High School (and baseball factory) in San Diego, he was selected in the 25th round of the June draft. If he keeps up this pace, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Angels move him up to Cedar Rapids or even Rancho Cucamonga before season’s end.

Will Smith is the highest-round pitcher on the staff, but I didn’t see him pitch and I really didn’t see enough of the others to form an opinion.

As for the Owlz operation, I have to say it looks like they’ve finally established themselves in “Happy Valley.” They’ve had a tough go of it, because the Utah Valley region had no real tradition of professional baseball. Since Provo-Orem is Mormon Central (BYU is six miles down the road), historically they’ve never drawn on Sundays.

Saturday night, they drew 3,700 and I’d guess they had 1,500 for Sunday, which is an astonishing number for them. They decided to turn Sunday into Dollar Days — one dollar to enter, one dollar for hot dogs, etc.

The on-field entertainment was solid and constant, the fans never lacking for something to keep them active between innings. The office staff constantly worked the concourse, greeting fans and seeking opinions about their product.

I also noticed more Angels caps and shirts than ever before. I went to a Mimi’s Cafe in Orem for breakfast on Sunday wearing an Angels T-shirt. As I walked in, a gentleman said to me, “Go Angels!” Wow, I’d never heard that before in the eight years I’ve been coming here.

The Owlz Booster Club was omnipresent and the host parent program is strong. A special thanks to outgoing president Brenda Ridley, who doubles as a host mom, for all her hospitality and support while I was there. Brenda works at the aforementioned Hampton Inn and arranged for the room overlooking the ballpark. As she pointed out, I could look out the window at any time to see what was going on. It turned out to be a veteran move by Brenda as I was able to watch Kotch administer a Herb Brooks moment into the wee hours of Sunday night …

1 Comment

**Word of warning for those of sensitive tastes, this clip is from the movie “Major League” and includes swearing.**

For those who missed the game, Perez took a swipe at the ball that looked something like:
[www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ccUDrB_8jQ] . . . :-D BeesGal

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