Strength up the middle

Sunday May 27, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Baseball managers will say that for a team to be successful, it should be strong up the middle.

Pittsfield Suns manager Jamie Keefe can't say for sure that his team will be strong from catcher to center field until he sees the 2012 Suns on the field. But based on early scouting reports, Keefe is pretty confident the Suns will be good.

"I think so. I have four darn good catchers, and that's nice," said Keefe. "We feel really strong up the middle. Having [J.J.] Elsesser and [Alex] Davison being able to run around in center field for us ... if you look at it, we have four center fielders."

Elsessar is from Charlotte and Davison is from Bowling Green. UMass Lowell's Jimmy Ricoy and Trinity's Mike Rueger are also potential center fielders.

But it's in the middle of the infield where the Suns, who begin their inaugural Futures Baseball League season in 12 days, where Keefe is feeling particularly confident.

The manager said any combination of Rob McLam of UMass, Chad Funkouser of Brevard College, Brandon Howard of Bowling Green and Fordham Prep standout Andrew Velazquez, will also see time at short and second.

"I've got a pretty good middle that I can work off of," said Keefe. "McLam was All-Atlantic 10 twice this year. Funkhauser has been All-Conference. We've got Brandon Howard, who's played shortstop and second base at [Bowling Green], and I've got Andrew Velasquez, who is a kid coming out of prep school and is the real deal."

The Futures League allows prep school graduates to participate in the league, and Velasquez is ticketed to play at Virginia Tech next year. Keefe said it's also possible that Velasquez might be drafted in the top 10 rounds.

McLam was a two-time Atlantic 10 player of the week, and finished 2012 as UMass' leading hitter at .337.

Funkhouser was named a conference All-Star. He played for Matt McKay, who was a player under Keefe in the Frontier League.

"He had no idea that the kid was going to hit .380 in conference and .346 over the year and put up good numbers," said Keefe. "His coach is just a gamer and a dirt dog and will do anything to win. That's how this kid is."

With a couple of possible exceptions, the members of the 2012 Pittsfield Suns are home resting and getting ready to arrive here next week.

"We're looking at one more [possible] starter. We're working on one more deal, maybe two," Keefe said. "We're at 27. I'm happy with what we've got."

Of the 27 members of Pittsfield's first team in the Futures Baseball League, just over half of the players on the roster are either from New England or New England-based colleges. That's the way the league operates and Keefe's team falls right in line.

"The late part is what killed us" this year, said Keefe. "Obviously, we have to put the best club on the field that we can do. We have a lot of New England players that don't have jobs. We try to pick from the big array of talent out there and grab the best we can from New England and see what we can get."

The Suns players officially arrive in town on June 4. Keefe said there will be workouts on June 5 and 6, and the team will jump right into the proverbial deep end of the pool on June 7, when the Nashua Silver Knights arrive at Wahconah Park to begin the Suns' inaugural baseball season.

One member of the Suns roster is still trying to get here late. Catcher-designated hitter Brendan Slattery is still swinging the bat for Manhattan College and is playing not far from here. Manhattan was playing in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, which is being held at Joe Bruno Stadium in Troy, N.Y.

Slattery went 2 for 4 with a two-run home run in Manhattan's 6-4 upset loss to Rider in the tournament's first round. The top-seeded Jaspers came back to beat Fairfield 1-0 in a loser's bracket game. Slattery was 1 for 3 in that game.


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