There will be some continuity for the Amarillo Sod Poodles in 2023, something which may be new – and beneficial – in defining the quality of play on the field.
When the Sod Poodles go on the road Thursday at 6:35 p.m. to open their Texas League season with a three-game series at Frisco, there will be a whole lot of familiar faces on the field, at least to fans in Amarillo. Of the 28 players who are expected to be listed on the opening day roster, 20 of them played in Amarillo last season.
Manager Shawn Roof, who himself is in his third year at the helm of the Soddies, sees that as nothing but a positive.
“Familiarity is awesome with these guys,” Roof said. “What was really good last year is we had a bunch of guys come up the last two weeks of the season. The best part about it is they know what to expect and they know what the staff is about. They know what the ball park looks like and where the wind’s going to blow, where to park and where to go eat.”
Enjoying the comforts of a now familiar home won’t be realized until next Tuesday night at 7:05 p.m., when they Soddies open their Hodgetown schedule with a six-game series against Corpus Christi.
Two days before starting their comparatively brief series at Frisco, the Sod Poodles christened Hodgetown for the first time this year by taking some live batting practice. It couldn’t have been more fitting that the infamous Texas Panhandle gusting winds were in full force all afternoon and in the early evening.
That’s often led to some outrageous offensive displays from both the Sod Poodles and their guests in Hodgetown’s four-year history. If the wind is coming out of the south in particular, it’s a boon for right-handed hitters and a potential hazard for patrons of Bar 352 just beyond the left field wall.
Roof knows that can be a blessing and a curse for hitters.
“You can’t get pull happy,” Roof said. “I don’t care what the weather’s doing, if you stick to your approach in the middle of the field, you’re going to get a pitch in and put your hands on the middle of it and have a good at-bat. We talk about the situations of the game and what’s best for their play. If they start trying to pull too much you’ll see it, because they’ll start striking out too much.”
If conditions present a dilemma for hitters, it’s at least double that for pitchers. It can at times be discouraging for those coming to town for the first time after pitching in less hitter-friendly parks.
A couple of pitchers for the Sod Poodles should be used to it this season, though. Left-hander Kyle Backhus appeared in 11 games last season and posted a 2-2 mark with 17 strikeouts and three saves in 13.1 innings last year as a reliever to close the season.
“I’m going to try to take everything I got last year from myself and the other guys I played with and try to just pass along the knowledge,” Backhus said.” I’m going to still be learning myself. I didn’t get to really go through the ringer for the whole season so I really got just a small sample size. Don’t be intimidated, just throw your game.”
Another reliever, right-hander Blake Workman, had similar results in his limited time in Amarillo to end last season. Workman was 2-1 with 20 strikeouts and only three walks and two saves in 16.2 innings and will likely share closer’s duties with Backhus.
Having success in Hodgetown is a no-brainer, the way Workman sees it.
“To put it simply, don’t let ‘em hit the ball,” said Workman, half-seriously. “Aside from the obvious, figuring out what your stuff is and how it works. I like to keep the fastballs at the top of the zone and the breaking balls just around the zone. For me that works.”
Roof doesn’t want his pitchers to overthink their approaches at Hodgetown.
“Everyone’s different,” Roof said. “They come out here and have a good outing and the wind’s blowing in a little bit, they’re going to get comfortable. Some guys it takes a little bit longer. We’ve talked to them a little bit about it.
“We aren’t going to make any excuses about the way this ball park plays. Both teams are going to have to deal with it. It’s not about the home run you give up, it’s about what you do before that, the walks, the hit by pitches and the bloop singles.”
Despite the numbers, there’s not a tremendous amount of starting pitching experience returning. Bryce Jarvis, the first-round draft pick of Amarillo’s major league parent club Arizona Diamondbacks in 2020, will start in the season opener and spent all of last season with the Sod Poodles.
However, it’s Arizona’s 2021 first round pick which might attract the most attention this season. Shortstop Jordan Lawlar, who’s the organization’s No. 2 rated prospect and No. 11 in Major League Baseball, will start the season in Amarillo after playing 20 games here to end last season.
Lawlar had mixed results in his short tenure as a Sod Poodle, hitting .212 with four home runs and 11 RBIs.
“One of the big lessons last year was just be yourself and play your game,” said Lawlar, who played both low and high Class A ball last season. “Just because the wall’s a little closer and the wind’s blowing out, you don’t have to try to hit the ball over there. Stay within yourself and don’t fall in love with the long ball.”
Joining Lawlar in the infield are returners from last season Deyvison De Los Santos (Arizona’s No. 5 prospect) and A.J. Vukovich, both of whom were also late-season call ups. In the outfield, four of the five listed players were here at least part of last year in Nick Dalesandro, Roby Enriquez, Caleb Roberts and Tim Tawa.
What won’t be familiar at Hodgetown for fans this season is the method of payment in the concession stands. Hodgetown will be a cashless venue starting next Tuesday, with tap-to-pay from mobile devices, traditional debit or credit cards and Hodgetown Bucks accepted for all transactions.
To those who find this a shock, only one of the 30 major league stadiums isn’t cashless.