The Boundless Energy of Lynchburg’s Alexis Pantoja

If you have the chance to attend a High-A Lynchburg Hillcats game this season, you are likely to find Alexis Pantoja (pronounced Pant-Oh-huh) taking up station at one of the infield positions. He has played second base, third base, and shortstop for this edition of the Hillcats, and his glove is his calling card as a baseball player.

“My first [role] model was Derek Jeter,” said Pantoja about what player he watched growing up.

Starting at three years old, he spent every waking moment on the baseball field if possible. His older brother had played in college and he wanted to follow in his footsteps.

“My mom would say, ‘Take it easy, take it easy’, but every time I would go play,” he said. “This is the reason why I love baseball.”

The slim, 5’11” middle infielder from Manati, Puerto Rico, would go on to attend the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy High School in Gurabo, south of the island’s capital at San Juan. According to Baseball-reference.com Pantoja is one of 70 professional players who attended this high school. Among its most notable alums are 2012 first round draftee’s Carlos Correa of the Astros and Jesmuel Valentin, who now suits up for the Phillies, but was a draft selection of the Dodgers.

There is a culture of baseball on this small island, and a reverence for baseball.

“I think it’s the same one,” said Pantoja about baseball culture in Puerto Rico versus the United States. “There is more competition here than in Puerto Rico, but you get a chance to play against guys from a lot of different countries there.”

What Pantoja developed in this atmosphere is an energetic and hard-work attitude about playing baseball. This shows up in his defense, which is considered to be Major League caliber.

“He does a great job defensively,” said Lynchburg manager Rougie Odor. “He just needs to stay consistent swinging the bat, putting in quality at bats.”

Since being drafted in the 9th round of the 2014 Amateur draft, Pantoja has diligently worked his way up through the Indians farm system. Over his first three seasons, from age 18 to 20, he played for both Cleveland Rookie level clubs, in the Arizona League, and in the New York-Penn League.

His all-around defensive skills make him similar to the Yankees Ronald Torreyes, who played at the same three infield positions as Pantoja before his recent trip to the minors. Another comparable player is the Miguel Rojas, who played the middle infield in Lynchburg back in the 2010 season in the Cincinnati organization. Rojas improved on his light hitting, making his defense as shortstop that much more valuable, the same path Pantoja hopes to tread.

“If I take one hundred ground balls every day, it’s all right, that’s my potential,” said Pantoja about his gifts as an infielder. “Give me a grounder, I want it.”

With the recent trip of third baseman Gavin Collins to the disabled list, Pantoja looks to get more at-bats playing third base rather than second, where he’d had most of his playing time before a three week promotion to AA Akron.

“That was a great experience,” said Pantoja on his trip to play for the RubberDucks. “I keep working hard here to get back.”

Though he only got into three games in the three weeks he was with the AA squad, he maintains that positive energy about playing the game he loves.

“This is my third season with him [hitting coach Justin Toole]. I work with him every day,” said Pantoja about improving his hitting skills.

Since his return to Lynchburg, he has improved his batting, with a hitting streak of nine games from May 10 through May 19. He continued to produce against the Carolina Mudcats on a recent three-game homestand.

In the first of three at bats, facing Brewers’ 2016 third round pick Braden Webb, Pantoja struck out on a foul tip deftly snagged by the Mudcats catcher. His next two at bats would be much more productive. He would lace a single to center field off Webb, and in his final trip to the plate, he turned on a breaking pitch driving the ball down the left field line and into the corner for a double.

Unfortunately, Pantoja was the majority of the Hillcats offense that evening as Webb pitched a gem, striking out nine Hillcats in six innings to earn the victory.

Pantoja also contributed on defense playing third base. In the second inning, Lynchburg starter Sam Hentges loaded the bases with no outs. The fourth batter in the inning, Dallas Carroll, hit the ball sharply down the line. Pantoja, moving towards foul territory, gloved the ball, stepped on third base, and made a clothes line throw across to first to get the double play.

His defensive wizardry would limit Carolina to a single run.

“You need to have those types of players,” said Odor about the energy Pantoja brings to the team. “He is one of them that gets the guys going.”

In the offseason, he returns home to Puerto Rico, where he has played in the Puerto Rican Winter League since turning pro as an 18-year-old. Though stints on the disabled list have hindered his progress a bit in previous seasons, Pantoja is making up for as the opportunities present themselves this year.

“Keep everybody laughing, everybody happy,” he said. “That helps the team to play the best that they can.”

Hitting a baseball is the most difficult task in sports. If Pantoja can continue to make excellent plays around the infield and heat up his bat, he will get a return trip to AA Akron and earn a chance for a long career.

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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