Papi Hitting on Thirty-Eight

The number 38 seems to associate itself with High-A Lynchburg Hillcats left fielder Mike Papi. He and his best friend always had this number, as an inside thing, since his sophomore year of high school. He continued to wear it during his college playing days at the University of Virginia, and he was the 38th overall pick in the supplemental first round in 2014. He has kept the number 38 as he has played professionally, first for Rookie level Mahoning Valley, then the Low-A Lake County Captains and now the Hillcats.

Drafted by the Angels organization out of high school, he chose to attend the University of Virginia where he constructed a strong baseball resume. He captured the Atlantic Coast Conference batting title as a sophomore with a .381 average, and tied for the ACC lead in homeruns with 11 in his junior year, prior to being drafted.

With Lynchburg being in close proximity to Charlottesville, the home of the Virginia Cavaliers, he has garnered a great deal of support while playing in the Hillcats uniform.

“The support is unreal.” he says. “You always hear people yelling in the stands, go Wahoo’s and it’s good to have that support and that backing here.”

In his junior year (2014) the Cavaliers were ranked No. 1 in college baseball for most of the season advancing to the final game of the College World Series in Omaha where they lost to the Commodores of Vanderbilt. The team repeated their performance this year ending with a rematch with the heavily favored Vandy team, but this year the Cavaliers pulled out the victory.

“It was just as sweet as winning it myself.” said Papi about his alma mater’s victorious season. “All the former players who went through there set the groundwork for that team to make it all the way and win it. It means just as much to us as it does to them.”

Since being drafted, his past two summers have been spent adjusting to life as a professional baseball player. Until recently he has had limited success following up on his strong collegiate performance. An oh for seven left his batting average at .175 with only nine doubles out of 27 base hits to end the month of May. Since that low point it has been a different season for Papi.

For the month of June he hit .328 with a slash line of .464/.478/.942, the polar opposite of his season to that point. He has continued the offensive barrage and has since been moved up to fifth in the batting order by Hillcats manager Mark Budzinski.

He is still working on making the transition from college ball to the professional ranks.
“There’s definitely a transition period.” says Papi. “Getting myself in a better hitting position, making the transition from the metal bat to the wood bat, and the pitching is better.”

His season began to turn around as the Carolina League All-Star break approached. Going into a four game home-and-home series with the Salem Red Sox, the hits began to fall, culminating with a career high four hit performance in Salem on June 11th.

Talking about the changes to his hitting approach Papi said, “Early on I wasn’t capitalizing on mistakes. I was being too passive, too late on my front side and getting beat.”

In the four weeks since that June 11th game Papi has raised his average from .190 to .245, with two homeruns and has nearly tripled his RBI total from 9 to 25.

The first of his two homeruns came on a Sunday afternoon game in Salem where he got to face Red Sox reliever German Taveras.

“He threw me a fastball and I took advantage of the mistake. It was over the meat of the plate.”

It was also a two run drive that tied the game which the Hillcats would go on to win later in the same inning on a grand slam homerun by Bradley Zimmer.

“At UVA I always liked to hit in those clutch situations, and to tie the game up was nice. I had a similar situation two days earlier where I drove one to the wall that I thought was going out. Probably one of the best balls I’ve hit all year, but it got hung up.”

Papi’s second homerun came just a few days later in Wilmington.

“[Eric] Skoglund is a great pitcher, a mix and match pitcher. I got myself in a good fastball count and got a pitch that was over the meat of the plate that I could drive.”

The resurgence in Papi’s bat stems from his work on changing his mindset as a hitter. Named by Baseball America as the having the best plate discipline in the Indians system, he is currently second in the Carolina League in walks with 59, trailing only Myrtle Beach’s Mark Zagunis who has 61. This is not that unusual for Papi as he led the nation in walks his junior year, with 61, which tied the UVA record.

On top of this he holds the longest hitting streak in the Carolina League for 2015 with a 16 game run.

“Hopefully the streak continues,” he said at the 12 game mark, “and if not it’s a very superficial thing.”

Superficial or not he has worked with Hillcats hitting coach Bobby Magallanes to become more aggressive in his mindset.

“His biggest thing is staying aggressive. It’s an aggressive mindset and intent.” said Magallanes. “He’s got good zone recognition, he does draw a lot of walks, but we are trying to make him be more aggressive, to where he is going to attack the ball every pitch.”

Though his hitting streak ended on July 15th he will continue the approach that has turned his season around.

“Take it one at-bat at a time.” he says. “Just try to have a quality at-bat. Hit the ball hard and be consistent. You can make outs hitting the ball hard. Recently the balls have been falling [for hits] and it’s a good feeling.”

He will continue to wear number 38 and bring his calm demeanor to ballpark every day. As he adapts to the professional game his patience and work ethic will help him build on his past success and develop the opportunities for greater success in the future.

Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN photographer

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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