Amsterdam boasts top talent

Photo courtesy Amsterdam Mohawks
Published by Perfect Game on June 29

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The Amsterdam Mohawks took the field on August 11, 2011 one win away from the inaugural Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League Championship. They would have two chances to take the title: The first a late-afternoon matchup, the next a nightcap—if necessary. They lost both games. The Newark Pilots—not Amsterdam—were crowned 2011 PGCBL champs.

Fast-forward 10 months. After games played Thursday night, Amsterdam is 16-3, five games ahead of second place Oneonta and Newark. The Mohawks’ impressive play has earned them the No. 11 spot on PG’s latest Summer Collegiate Team Rankings.

“We’re excited about this year’s team,” Amsterdam President and GM, Brian Spagnola said. “We have really, really good starting pitching and we’re very balanced. I think right now we’re leading the league in defense, hitting and ERA.”

Amsterdam ranks second in team batting average (.275), first in fielding percentage (.970) and team ERA (2.60).

Chandler Shepherd (Kentucky) has been one of the biggest contributors to Amsterdam’s league-leading ERA. In fact, his two starts last week earned him co-pitcher of the week honors. Through his first three starts (20 innings), Shepherd has allowed just one earned run on eight hits and three walks. His 0.45 ERA and .121 opponent’s batting average rank first and second in the league, respectively.

“He’s a guy we’re excited about,” Spagnola said of Shepherd. “He had a really good freshman year at Kentucky. He throws in the low-90s and has multiple pitches that he can throw for strikes. Everything is effortless, he’s very composed. He’s done a good job so far.”

Shepherd is one of four Kentucky freshmen on the Amsterdam roster. Taylor Martin, Jeff Boehm and Thomas Bernal are also playing for the Mohawks after their first season at Kentucky. Martin only pitched four innings for the Wildcats last season, but has a 3.86 ERA in three starts with the Mohawks. Jeff Boehm hit .357 in limited playing time with Kentucky, and has carried that success to Amsterdam: Through 43 at-bats, he’s hitting .349/.417/.488. Thomas Bernal posted a .469 on-base percentage as a freshman, but has struggled at the plate as a Mohawk.

“We have a great relationship with (Kentucky Head Coach) Gary Henderson,” Spagnola said. “We’ve had guys from Kentucky for a bunch of years now.”

One of those guys was Logan Darnell. In 2008, PG Crosschecker named Darnell the best prospect in the New York Collegiate Baseball League. Two years later, he was drafted in the sixth round by the Minnesota Twins.

Braden Kapteyn is another former Wildcat and Mohawk. He was drafted in the 39th round out of high school. After three years at Kentucky and one decorated summer with Amsterdam in 2010 (he was named MVP of the Championship Series and was voted NYCBL Player of the Year), Kapteyn was drafted in the 15th round by the Boston Red Sox.

Last season, Luke Maile—also a Kentucky Wildcat—dominated the PGCBL to the tune of .378/.509/.722 with seven doubles and eight home runs. His performance with the Mohawks earned him the No. 3 overall prospect ranking in the league.

Maile returned to Kentucky in the spring as one of the top collegiate players in the nation; he was drafted in the eighth round by the Tampa Bay Rays earlier this month. Maile attributes this improvement to his summer with Amsterdam and Head Coach Keith Griffin.

“That’s some fun baseball up there,” Maile told PG’s Jeff Dahn in April.  “I was lucky enough to play for the same manager (Griffin) two years in a row, which always helps—it gives you a little bit of consistency. When you first come in as a freshman you don’t know what to expect when you go play summer ball, and Keith Griffin is a guy I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of his coaching style and the way he operates.”

Like many current and former Mohawks, Griffin also came from Kentucky. Kind of.

“I got “Griffin’s name from Gary Henderson,” Spagnola said. “Back after the 2008 season I was looking for a coach. I was talking to Gary and he suggested Keith. Pretty much everybody knows Griffin; he’s been around for a while.”

While the connection between Kentucky and Amsterdam has been vital to the Mohawks’ ascent, there are others who’ve contributed to their early season success.

Rocky McCord (Auburn) has been nearly as good as Shepherd. Through four starts (22.1 innings), McCord ranks fifth among PGCBL pitchers with 28 strikeouts. His 1.61 ERA and .147 batting average against rank fifth and third in the league, respectively.

“Rocky McCord is a good player and a guy we’re really excited to have,” Spagnola said. “He didn’t throw a whole lot of innings at Auburn but Monday night he was 90-92 mph with an 85 mph slider, throwing everything for strikes, just dominant.”

Teammate Matt Gage (Siena) has been very good on the mound as well. In six appearances (one start), Gage boasts a league-leading 32-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a miniscule 1.81 ERA.

And if their pitching wasn’t already strong enough, Mark Leiter Jr. (New Jersey Tech) recently re-joined the team after posting a 2.67 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 54 innings with the Mohawks last season. Leiter Jr. is the son of Mark Leiter, who pitched 11 seasons in the majors, and nephew of Al Leiter, a 19-year major league vet.

While Amsterdam’s strength is their pitching, Spagnola emphasizes the importance of being balanced as a team.

“We’re pretty balanced, we’ve got great defense up the middle,” Spagnola said. “We have Giuseppe Papaccio, he’s having a good year. We also have Chase Green from Southern Illinois Edwardsville who defensively is phenomenal.

“And then there’s Nathan Gomez from Marshall. He’s a big first baseman who is one of the best, if not the best pure hitter in the league.”

Evan Stephens (Wake Forest), Ed Charlton (New Jersey Institute of Technology) and Chase Green lead the team in batting with averages of .447, .358 and .362, respectively.

With a roster as good as Amsterdam’s, Spagnola has established himself as one of the top talent evaluators in the league. And the fans are noticing.

“Amsterdam just loves the Mohawks; it’s really just the community’s team,” Spagnola said. “There’s not a whole lot of stuff to do (in Amsterdam), so we try to make it attractive. We have a kids zone and we get kids on the field all night doing things with the players between innings. And if the kids enjoy it, the parents are going to bring them out. We just try to entertain, there’s always something going on. There’s never a second that goes unoccupied at our park.”

“It’s a small, cozy place,” Spagnola said of Shuttleworth Park. “If we bring in 1,000-1,200 the place is really rocking and when we have 1,500 or more, it’s a zoo—in a good way.”

The park will be a zoo on July 24 when Amsterdam hosts the league’s 2012 All-Star Game. Shuttleworth Park has undergone more than $500,000 in renovations in recent years, and Spagnola is eager to show it off.

“We’re building the stadium up little by little,” Spagnola said. “There were six metal bleachers when we took over. We’ve since added party decks and box seats in and we’ve built a big grandstand and this year we put a kids zone in. Every year there’s something new, so every year the fans have to come out and see it. We can fit about 1,500 but we have a lot of standing room so when we put 1,700 in there, we have a high school football atmosphere in there.”

While Spagnola admits the Mohawks are Amsterdam’s team, the players are the league’s greatest beneficiaries.

“Take Rocky McCord,” Spagnola said. “He threw 20 innings at Auburn and has the ability to play in the Cape (Cod League). But he might be a reliever there, an inning or two here or there. But here, he gets six or seven innings every fifth day. So he’s getting back into his routine, because when he goes back to Auburn that’s what he’s going to have to do. We take pride in that.

“Same thing happened with Logan Darnell a few years ago. I saw him the spring of his freshman year pitching at Kentucky. He was a 6-foot-3 lefty and throwing 93 mph. But he was all over the place. He only threw 11 innings as a freshman. And then he came here and by the end of the summer, he was the man. And then he went back to school and he ended up being Kentucky’s Friday night guy. So the growth with some of the younger guys is very satisfying.”

McCord, Darnell and Maile are just a few names on a long list of Mohawks to be drafted. And then there’s a much smaller list, one that includes Hunter Pence and Brendan Harris—former Mohawks turned major leaguers.

“The kids that go onto play pro ball, they always remember the summer that put them over the top and got them where they are,” Spagnola said. “That’s the satisfying part for us.”

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