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Interview with Mark Maloney of the Lexington Herald

The Crawfish Boxes was glad over this last week to conduct an interview by email with Mark Maloney, the beat reporter for the Lexington Herald and Kentucky.com covering the Astros' entry in the South Atlantic League, the Lexington Legends.

Check out the standings in the sidebar below, and you'll see that Lexington is having a fine season, and Maloney tells us there are some exciting players down there. . .

Maloney

CFB: Not so much a question as a statement in hope of a response, but I've been wearing my hair long since my mother was telling me not to, and I'm not so sure I'd want to work for Alan Stein. . . .

MM: Alan is a great salesman of the game. If you love baseball and are willing to put in the work to prove it, you would love working for Alan. He always has an idea to get fans talking. Kevin Kulp, general manager of the Legends, covered Alan?s annual opening-day ?guaranteed win? bet by shaving his head. The Legends have NEVER won a season opener, and Alan paid up himself the first four years ? eating cat food (after losing to the Charleston Alley Cats), shaving his head, serving as team bat boy and staying put in his ball park seat until the team won.

CFB: Wow, Hagerstown is really good, huh? Round Rock is 1 up in their division, but it appears the best pennant race in the Astros minor league system--in the organization--may well be in the South Atlantic Northern Division between Hagerstown and Lexington.

MM: Hagerstown is very good. But with the Legends and Suns meeting head-to-head 12 times from May 21 through June 14, I?m sure Greensboro, Lake County and the rest of the division is hoping the top two dogs take turns beating up one another. If the Legends can survive the Hagerstown test, the first-half series finale at Lake County could have a lot on the line.

CFB: Ben Zobrist led the Tri-City club in hitting, walks and therefore on base percentage last year, and this year he's leading the Legends in walks and stolen bases. Given the kind of Moneyball environment the sport seems to live in these days, his is a pretty impressive resume, so far, even if the average is a little low this year to date. Can you comment on Zobrist and the skills he brings in his climb up the minor league ladder?

MM: Zobrist reminds me somewhat of a previous Legend shortstop, Tommy Whiteman, but doesn?t have quite the same pop in his bat yet. At 6-foot-3, 200, he figures to have some big-hit potential. Meanwhile, he offers plenty with his ability to get on base and hit from both sides of the plate. His eye is so sharp that, even when he does make an out, he usually works well into the count. That not only takes a toll on the pitcher, it gives his teammates time to get an idea of what they can expect at the plate. He?s shown decent range and a strong arm at shortstop. How far he?ll go, I don?t know, but I think he can definitely move up in the system if he continues to progress this season.

CFB: The 2004 draft for the Astros was seen as the best in years for the franchise, and perhaps the draft's flag-bearer was Mitch Einertson, who dominated the Appalachian League as it hadn't been dominated in several seasons, and led the Greeneville club to the Appy League championship. The hype got so big that one of the first things Tim Bogar mentioned upon getting the job in Lexington was Einertson's name. Yet, a decent portion of the season in he sits at .233 with a single home run. I have to imagine this has gotten some press. . .beyond simply the level jump, any idea of what has caused Einertson's game to suffer so much?

MM: One home run is a big surprise, but his hitting is starting to come along after a very slow start. This is a two-level jump, and he?s only 19, so some struggles were anticipated. Tim Bogar (manager) says that he and Rodney Linares (hitting coach) have worked on several mechanical adjustments and that Mitch is making progress. For sure, he?ll continue to get regular playing time, so maybe he?ll come into form for the first-half stretch drive.

CFB: Zobrist's teammate from last year, Hunter Pence--also a member of the 2004 draft-- has had no such problems, and seems as good a bet for league MVP so far as anyone. Obviously, his homers and slugging are up, but his walks and strikeouts are about the same as last year. What do you think has enabled Pence to crank his game up to this level?

MM: First, he has talent. He?s hitting for average and power. He has above-average speed and a decent arm, although he?s probably best suited for left rather than center (he plays both for Lexington). What sets him apart from most of his draft class at this point is his baseball intelligence ? his ability to make adjustments, and to do so quickly. That?s why he has not gone more than two consecutive games without a hit ? even though word is out on him and pitchers are trying anything and everything to mix things up against him.

CFB: Another guy who appears to have ratcheted it up is Jimmy Barthmaier. His hits per inning--basically one to one in the first two years of his career--has improved quite a bit so far. Can we attribute this to Lexington Hall of Famer--and pitching coach-- Charley Taylor? Or is there something else going on here?

MM: You can attribute plenty to Charley Taylor. It?s one thing to have a talented staff, it?s another to have a talented staff and not mess it up! This is Charley?s fifth year in Lexington and I?ve yet to see a pitcher regress under his watch. A big-league team in need of a pitching coach could do a lot worse than going after Charley. As for Barthmaier, he is a go-getter. He throws strikes and challenges hitters ? slightly better than a two-to-one strikeout-walk ratio. He has confidence in his curveball and changeup, which combine to transform a decent fastball into a great fastball.

CFB: Coming into the season, it was set forth that Enyelbert Soto would probably be the team's closer, but I'm seeing that Jeff Wigdahl has the six saves to Soto's two, even while Soto has the better ERA. What's up with that? And has it gotten to the point where they play any particular song when Wigdahl comes out?

MM: I haven?t noticed if Wigdahl has a regular song, but his last outing in Lexington was met with Wild Thing. Funny thing is, he doesn?t rely on a ?Wild Thing? heater ? he hits mostly in the mid- and upper 80?s. But he mixes his pitches well and, like Barthmaier (and most of the staff) is aggressive in going after hitters. He has a nasty curveball. The staff has better than a two-to-one strikeout-walk ratio, and Wigdahl is about three-to-one. To put pressure on him, you?ll have to get some hits, because he?s not prone to giving many free passes. Soto?s ERA has bumped higher over the last week and he simply has not been as effective as Wigdahl. But if he comes around, he?ll get plenty of chances.

CFB: With Scott Robinson having already hit two grand slams this season, has anyone looked to see whether any Astro minor leaguer has hit three in a season? I do know that the Houston record is two . . .

MM: I don?t know of any three-slam Astro minor-leaguer. Maybe someone reading this knows of someone, though?

CFB: What's with all these 10:30 AM starts in the SAL? No other league does anything so ridiculous, I don't think.

MM:The 10:30 a.m. starts are marketed to schools, who bring the kids in by the busload.
Last year, the Legends didn?t draw very well in the morning. But they did a great job of ?selling? the idea this year; I even saw a school bus from West Virginia (about a 2 ?-hour drive). Wednesday?s game was a sellout ? 8,183 at a park that holds just over 6,000, plus lawn seating and standing room.

CFB: I?ll use this one as a catchall for anything I might have missed; is there anyone or anything that fans of the Astros should know about what's going on at Applebee's Park?

MM: As for anything, the park is pretty amazing in several aspects. It seats more than 6,000, and more than 8,000 can squeeze in with lawn seating and standing room. What?s more, the stadium was built with private funds ? no government dollars. Alan Stein (see above) takes pride in keeping things fresh. Every year there has been something eye-catching added. Last winter, $750,000 in improvements were made ? everything from fresh paint and adjusting the light standards to adding a hand-operated out-of-town scoreboard. And in regards to anyone, the best-kept secret on this team may be Jonny Ash. He usually leads off and plays second base, although he has seen action at third, too. He?s hitting about .350, slugging nearly .500 and on-base at better than .400. Good speed, great fielder and surprising power, including one of the team?s four grand slams.

CFB: Thanks again.

MM: Thanks for the invitation.