Lehigh Valley Men's Baseball League history will be made when the defending Premier Division champions and runners up square off in the LV MSBL's first televised game.
The DM Palmisano Sanitation Rangers take on the UMB Pirates at 6 p.m. tonight (Friday, July 27) at Easton Area High School in a game being broadcast on RCN-TV in a rematch of last year's Premier (Black & Blue) Division championship series.
The Rangers lead the all-time series between the teams 6-2, including a split of a doubleheader earlier this season.
We went in-depth with Rangers Manager Jason Gonzalez and Pirates Manager Jorge Rodriguez to find out what makes them -- and their teams -- tick.
The Rangers and the Pirates were the top teams in a top heavy division last year but now you find yourselves in third and fourth place. What's different?
RODRIGUEZ: As an evaluator of baseball talent and ability and thirty years experience coaching -- the teams that entered new into the (Premier) division this year and decided to make the leap, they did their due diligence, they bolstered their rosters. They knew they were going to have to play better to beat these two teams and what we brought. You can see it on the rosters ... they bolstered their rosters. Plain and simple.
GONZALEZ: Had we played all the games, instead of all these washouts ... we’d probably be in second place. I can’t do anything about the rain. The last time my team lost three in a row was 2014. We lost three in a row this year then God decided to have it rain for 40 days and 40 nights for us to think about it.
You'll almost certainly be in the playoffs even if you're not one of the dominant two like last year. What do you need to do or what adjustments do you need to make to go all the way?
RODRIGUEZ: I've been on the course all season long. I've missed a lot of guys this year. What I did not count on was injuries. Three key injuries to long time Pirates (Elliott Freeman's season-ending broken thumb, plus lower body injuries to Collin O'Connor and Nolan Santana). They're healing. They're getting better. As they get better, the other guys who are playing a lot are getting better on the field. Now I have 15 solid guys where I can put any nine or 10 out there and compete with everybody. And I'll have 6 guys on the bench who can be starting. Establishing the pitching staff, the rotation, who's in the bullpen and what they're responsibilities are going to be and how we're going to use the bullpen, how to use the bench -- that's what we need to kind of fine tune in the last couple of weeks.
GONZALEZ: We need to maintain the same mindset we’ve always had. We have the guns to do it. In the 21 years I’ve been on this team we’ve really only been a 1 seed four times. We’ve made a living being a 2-4 seed and pretty good at it. We’ve been to the finals 15 times. One of the big changes in my lineup is going to a hard 9 batting order. No more hitting 10+ guys. I never really liked doing this anyway. My guys know that during the season I am flexible with stretching the batting order, but in the playoffs, I hit the top 9 that perform. That will not make everybody happy but I gave my guys enough opportunity to win the playoff start and be the guy. My on the field decisions are never personal. They are objective. and our objective is to win another championship. I couldn’t tell you how many times we’ve knocked off 1 and 2 seeds in the playoffs. We are very capable of being a one seed, but we didn’t execute. Our last 3 regular season games will be played like playoff games.
How do you feel you match up with the teams in front of you?
RODRIGUEZ: I like to rotate the pitchers. I aim for 25 percent of their innings to come in the playoffs, where they're still approaching their peak. Now in the championship I've got them right at their peak. The idea is to have them crescendo up to their peak and I use all summer long to do that.
GONZALEZ: I think the Rays and Braves are very good squads. Some would give the edge to the Braves after taking 3 from us. When we play them again we will then see if this is indeed true. Ever since we came into the league the Rays have always played us tough, so I never take them lightly. Going to a hard 9 batting order makes us dangerous because we can turn the lineup over and get to our big guns. We probably have a good 8 guys that can hurt you with the long ball, so you really can’t sleep on anyone I send to the plate. Perennial aces on the bump like Daron Whitmore and Josh Brietholze are dirty come playoffs. Scott Moore has had some huge games for us as well. We also have Eric Howell another gamer waiting in the wing. All these pitchers never let up. I am confident. Focusing on winning is the best thing for us. I tend to not think too much on what other teams are doing. In the end both sides have to play the game and settle it. Our squad has a ton of playoff experience and knows how to weather the storm in a series. We don’t ride one pitcher. That’s a big mistake other teams make because of the humbling nature of this sport. Everybody has a bad day.
The division is a bit more well-rounded this year. Do you like that, or is it more like "Nah, I'd rather be in first"?
RODRIGUEZ: I recruit college players ... I have to be able to say with confidence that I'm putting them in a competitive division, that they're having a competitive summer, that they're playing with other competitive college players or better. I have to say that with confidence. They've got to know they're playing against like minded and like talented players, not fat guys like me. I didn't say old, I'm not ready to say that. When I win it all, I want to say that I won it all against the best there is in the entire area.
GONZALEZ: Of course I like a well rounded division. I prefer playing the best. This team traveled up to New York to play NYPD this year and their entire starting lineup were ex-pro’s. We lost that game 3-1 but they didn’t score after the second inning, and we fought. I never want to lose ever, but I learn from it. In all fairness I’d rather play every round in the playoffs. Having a bye disrupts momentum. The only time a bye is good is when you have guys that are banged up, or on vacation. I will never concede a game to get a lesser seed though.
Both teams are regularly among the top in homerun hitting, including the Rangers leading the league this year and the Rangers' Joe Wernimont being the individual leader. Tell me about your own sluggers and what makes them tick and what makes them so good.
RODRIGUEZ: Our top slugger is also rounding in as our top pitcher, Jared Quintero. He's a Division 1 player. I like to have one or two of those guys every year by letting them know what I can offer them: I say hey, I can get you (pitching) innings every week. And they can still hit and pitch and play the field which they don't always get to do in college. He's from St. Peter's Unviersity in Jersey City. He's kind of like our Shoehei Ohtani.
GONZALEZ: Joe puts in the time to be a good hitter. He’s a student of the game and never misses practices. There is no other hitter this year that can match those numbers. And they are legit numbers because we are tough as nails with our statistics. Our team has always been great at hitting because we make sure we have a ton of repetitions.
Who's your player or players to watch? Someone who steps up when the pressure's on.
RODRIGUEZ: Quintero is definitely one. PJ Van Orman would be another. Dillon Dunne. CJ Lopez. Chris Pignotti. That's the infield. We have a D3, a D2 and a former D2 out there. I expect to see those guys come up big. Dillon Dunne will also close out the game as well.
GONZALEZ: Joe Wernimont. Kid's a beast even though the Braves coach was going to hit him 6th in the allstar game. What a joke!? Danny Deleon. Turned things around since last year. He’s been great for me. Henry Concepcion. Find a smoother shortstop than this kid. I dare you. Any league! Daron Whitmore. Gamer on the bump in any league. John Alfaro. Reversed last seasons sub-par year and is really ripping the ball.
Name someone who's really one of your unsung heroes and why.
RODRIGUEZ: He doesn't get a lot of playing time because of everyone in front of him but my draft selection this year Salvatore White. He's a lefty. There's a lot I like about the kid, this kid lives in Williamsport Pa and he's hardly missed a game. Driving two plus hours every Sunday. He's gotten one start. Not because he doesn't deserve it. He's got three college outfielders ahead of him plus three other seasoned MSBL guys in front of him. I think he's batting .500 and it's all off the bench. He's definitely one of my Mr. Pirate guys. My other guy is Ernie Millon. He's 55 years old and he's an MSBL veteran. He had a squeeze play for an RBI. He stole a bag and got the team pumped up. He's a spark plug. If you can call a 55-year-old guy a spark plug.
GONZALEZ: Joe Wernimont. He’s my captain, and helps me so much with this team. He takes a lot off my plate as a manager. Not unsung though.
What are some of your team rituals or bonding experiences?
RODRIGUEZ: These guys are misfits. For them -- it's not something I'm a part of -- but on the bench, they're constantly talking to each other from the bench to the field. If it's a goofball play, or someone gets a hit to get off the schneid, they're good with each other ... You couldn't tell if they're winning by 10 or losing by 10. You could only tell by looking at me, shaking my head.
GONZALEZ: We completely harass one another. When someone shows weakness, it’s like blood in the water for this team of sharks. Comments before the game, during the game, after the game, text messages. The worst thing you can do on this team is get angry because these guys show no mercy. After the games we go to a sports bar and hang. Our Thursday night practices are laid back but we get a lot of work in. We hang after practice and catch up a little.
How would you describe your team's demeanor? Serious bunch? Kind of goofballs?
RODRIGUEZ: They're a playful bunch.
GONZALEZ: Everyone on this team expects to win a championship. Even the new guys. We are serious on the field. In the dugout we are bad ball breakers.
The Rangers and Pirates are pretty close geographically. Do your players know each other well off the field?
RODRIGUEZ: A lot of these players do know each other, played with each other, I've coached against some of his guys and I've coached some of his guys on youth travel teams. They know each other quite well. What it does is take away some of the edge. There's no anger in this game. We stay on our side and do what we do and they stay on their side and do what they do. Jason's team, they're a little more intense. It doesn't necessarily go together, the two styles, but they don't clash. We don't ever have a problem. With each other that is.
GONZALEZ: Jorge and I enjoy talking with each other. He’s a passionate manager and I have great respect for him and his team. One of my former players is with him. The son of a former Ranger plays for Jorge too, Collin O'Connor. Yes I am that old. I think both managers want to keep the title in the Monroe County area.
Who's the class clown on the team? Who keeps everybody loose?
RODRIGUEZ: Dillon Dunne. Just the way he plays. He's serious in the box. He's serious when he's on the mound. He takes the game seriously, but he has fun doing it. But he does not like to lose.
GONZALEZ: Daron Whitmore and Joe Wernimont by far. They tend to target a certain individual on the team that has battled injuries but is crucial to our success. I will leave his name out of this discussion.
What do you do well as a team -- what can you rely on pretty much every game?
RODRIGUEZ: This season, hmm, it's kind of like, we've just been steady. Pitching, hitting, defense, it's like we'll do two of the three well for a week or two, and then another week we'll do a different two things well. And we had one stretch where we did all three things well and we had a good stretch. The days of waiting for Elliot to come up and hit a three-run homer are over. Ernie Millon drops down a squeeze, or we're trying to get to a certain hitter against a certain pitcher. I've been doing more of that this year. A little more managing has gone into this season than in the past. It's been more of a juggling act.
GONZALEZ: We play the game hard and apply pressure to the opposing pitchers. Hard nosed baseball.
Where do you think you might like to improve a little?
RODRIGUEZ: Defensively. It doesn't mean switching players. We need to improve the way we play defense with the guys we have. They're good defensive players.
GONZALEZ: Myself and a few other guys are not hitting like they should. When we are hitting ... can’t touch us.
As a coach if there's one message you're instilling in your team every game, every week, what is it?
RODRIGUEZ: There are a couple of terms I use, and I don't like to call out instructions because they don't need it at this level. But two terms I like: "Okay let's reset," that's when we start to kick the ball around or something, and then immediately followed by "next pitch." What are you guys going to do now?
GONZALEZ: Expect to win because expectations force you to work harder. It’s not enough to want to win. Everybody wants to do something. Expectations make you accountable because you have to work to get it!
What do you admire most about your opponent?
RODRIGUEZ: The Rangers are one tenacious group of baseball players. These frickin guys do not let up. They don't let up. I was trying not to curse. Whoever they put up there, whatever they do, whoever's at bat, whoever Jason plugs in. They keep at ya. You're never really ahead six-nothing against them. I've beaten them twice, we've played them eight times. And in both of them they almost came back. ... They're a seasoned, seasoned bunch.
GONZALEZ: They’re dangerous. They can beat anybody at any time. You never know who will step up for him.
What does your opponent do well that you need to stop or need to be aware of in Friday's game?
RODRIGUEZ: One, who's their starter? They have two or three guys that are top guys. The one top guy is Daron Whitmore and we've seen him three times in the eight games. He one-hit us twice. And we finally hit him last year in the championship when he probably -- he plays on more than one team -- when he maybe had too many innings under his belt. But he's one-hit us twice. If he's on the mound, our runs are going to be difficult to come by. And now I've got to answer on my side. That one pitcher puts us on an entirely different level of focus. Not that the other two guys are slouches.
GONZALEZ: They can keep it close enough to always stay within striking distance. They also can jump out to a lead.
What do you admire most about your opposing manager?
RODRIGUEZ: His intensity. I mean, he's no spring chicken. He's not 49 (like me), no, but whatever he is he's still managing and playing which is incredible especially at this level. The fact that he's able to do both and be in the running for a championship every season -- you know how tough that is to do? Manager is a full-time position and then he also plays a full-time position on top of that and that's a real testament to his intensity and focus.
GONZALEZ: He is passionate about the game. You either have it or you don’t. He has it.