The Texas Collegiate League (TCL) season came to an end on Saturday night in Bryan. The one-game championship proved to be an anti-climactic 13-2 affair, and was not typical of most of the month-long season which saw plenty of low scoring and quality baseball.
The Houston Cougars were represented on two of the ten TCL teams throughout the season. And one of them was on the winning side of that championship win.
The TCL is a wooden bat league, common for college play during the summer in the various leagues across the country that offer athletes the opportunity to play baseball when school is not in session. Five active Cougars and one incoming junior college transfer made up part of the roster for the Round Rock Hairy Men, which played their home games at Dell Diamond, the home of the AAA Round Rock Express. One other incoming junior college transfer found a spot of the Brazos Valley Bombers which played their home games at Travis Park in Bryan, just north of College Station.
Round Rock saw their season come to end with two regular season games remaining, and with a playoff spot almost certainly assured. Their final weekend series was a three game set with San Antonio, two of the games were to be played in Round Rock, with the middle game to be played in San Antonio. Rain forced the cancellation of Friday night’s game.
Then on Saturday came the announcement out of Round Rock that the Hairy Men would not be traveling to San Antonio and that in fact, the season was being put on ice amid Covid-19 concerns in the organization. In a statement released just six hours before the scheduled first pitch in San Antonio, Round Rock General Manager, Tim Jackson stated, “With just two games remaining in the season, out of an abundance of caution, we felt it was in the best interest of our players and staff to end the season now.”
Teams across the TCL had taken numerous player, personnel, and facility precautions in this shortened 2020 season, but the Round Rock team found itself erring on the side of caution and deciding to end the season with a couple of games left to go. As a result, the Hairy Men forfeited their final two games and declared they would not be taking part in a playoff series set to begin the following Tuesday, should their team have made it.
For the Houston Cougars on the Round Rock team, the cancellation of the season came at a time when they were playing some of their best baseball, including having just completed a three-game sweep of the eventual TCL champions, the Brazos Valley Bombers, at Dell Diamond.
From day one of the formation of the team, the Round Rock players and organization talked about the importance of baseball during the summer after the abrupt end of the college baseball season back in March.
The day before the season opened, the Cougars players voiced their thoughts about playing again, and to a man, they talked about improving their individual games and how much they really wanted to play again. They also noted the importance of having so many teammates with them in Round Rock.
Ryan Hernandez had one of the great seasons in the entire league. Just prior to the season, Ryan appeared dialed-in as he spoke about working each day with purpose and vision. He only lost the batting title on the last day of the season when the eventual leader went 4-for-4 lifting his average to .367 over Ryan’s .364. Hernandez also had multiple-hits in ten of his twenty-three games played, along with six home runs.
Reflecting on the season upon its conclusion, Hernandez echoed those pre-season sentiments again, “I saw this summer as an opportunity to work on stuff that I felt needed some fixing. My approach was the most important part of my game this summer and it’s going to continue to be that way. After refining my approach and honestly hunting pitches that I like, it got much easier to hit.”
Cougars freshmen Rey Mendoza and Luke Almendarez each found full-time roles with the Hairy Men, Mendoza in the outfield and Almendarez at second and shortstop.
On the challenge that the league presented to him, Mendoza offered this, “What surprised me about the TCL season is the amount of talent and competitiveness there was throughout the league. The pitching was definitely challenging in this league, and it was fun being able to face some great arms this summer.”
Rey was no newcomer to the use of a wooden bat, but he explained that it had been a few years since the last time he played with one, “I hadn’t really used a wooden bat in a game since my junior year summer with my travel ball team. I tried to just stick with the same approach I have with a metal bat which is to hit a fastball up the middle or opposite field.” Rey hit in sixteen of his twenty-seven games played, a stat that is slightly misleading in that Rey had four games where he only had one at-bat as a late-inning defensive replacement or as a pinch hitter. Rey also was a perfect 7-for-7 in stolen base attempts.
Almendarez also took positives from the TCL experience, “I loved hitting with the wood bat this summer. Finding that one perfect wood bat is a great feeling. I learned a lot about my approach that will definitely transition to college.” Luke raised his batting average by forty-one points in his last nine games played. Luke’s summer play has him ready to return to campus to get back to the grind, “What I’m focused on most is staying healthy and working on my game as much as I can. I’m excited to get back to Houston and to get to work. I’m pumped to see all the guys again, hopefully very soon.“
Kyle Lovelace was a late season addition to the Round Rock team, and then platooned with the other catchers, including Cougars teammate Dylan Post. Kyle joined the team after the season got underway as the Round Rock organization went in search of a catcher after an injury sidelined their game one catcher in his first at-bat of the season.
Kyle enjoyed his time in the league and offered his thoughts as a catcher, “The quality of pitching this summer was phenomenal. The diversity of arms we had was incredible. Guys were able to command the zone well and throw multiple pitches for strikes. We had guys that were power arms and guys that could come in and mix-and-match. I really enjoyed being able to get back there and catch these guys.”
Kyle Lovelace takes the game seriously when he is behind the plate, whether in a college season or as a part-time player in a college summer league. Kyle’s defensive style only shocks those who have never seen him play. Opposing radio announcers seemed shocked at the number of times Kyle went hunting for base runners, with throws behind them or throws when the runners looked disinterested. Anyone who has watched Houston Cougars baseball in recent years is not surprised to see Kyle constantly checking on runners, and often clearing them off the base paths.
Most, if not all, catchers in the TCL called their own pitches, rather than looking to the dugout for each pitch. Asked how a veteran catcher prepares for calling a game in a wood bat league, Lovelace says, “The only thing that changed really was that we were a little more aggressive in because guys are holding sticks in their hands, maybe more aggressive with the fastball.“
“I know all of these guys well and have phenomenal relationships with them already,” Lovelace said of teaming-up with so many of his Cougars teammates this summer. As a team leader, Kyle is setting the standard, “All of the Coogs had a great summer, but it’s expected.”
Freshman Dylan Post was one of several platoon catchers for the Hairy Men and he had a great all-around season, both defensively and offensively. Runners attempting to steal did not find much success against Dylan. With the wooden bat, he hit .306 and hit two home runs in nineteen games. In those nineteen games, Dylan had base hits in thirteen of them.
Incoming transfer Cole Turney, who last played college baseball this year at San Jacinto College, hit six doubles and three home runs in twenty-two games played while playing the outfield. Cole had at least one RBI in eight different games for Round Rock.
Jaycob Deese is another junior college transfer like Turney, though Deese is coming from Galveston College. Deese managed a 3.86 ERA with nine strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings pitched over four starts. Jaycob’s final outing was abbreviated after just one inning pitched by the right-hander.
Deese had a different journey into the TCL than the other Cougars. Jaycob was pitching in Bryan, at Travis Park, while playing in the Collegiate Summer Baseball Invitational (CSBI) in June. He was hitting 96mph during a bullpen session when a Brazos Valley coach approached him about playing for the Bombers in the TCL. Deese was on the team Saturday night when they picked up the championship over the Tulsa Drillers.
Once there, Deese enjoyed his time in the TCL, “It was a great experience. I had never played in front of that many fans. Galveston College was a really small school and playing in front of that many fans was cool,” he explained. Talking specifically about pitching, and pitching hard, in a wood bat league, Deese noted, “You can miss a spot and still miss a barrel and they can break a bat. Going inside is better too with the velo I had, it was easier.”
Ryan Hernandez was proud of his Cougars teammates when the season concluded, “It almost seems like everyday another Cougar was highlighted for their good work. I am really looking forward to this upcoming season since the Coogs are hot.”
Having so many Cougars on one summer league team was beneficial beyond measure in at least one respect. As Luke Almendarez put it, “Having Ryan Hernandez and Kyle Lovelace there was awesome. Those guys are leaders for us younger guys. You watch them play and they play the game the right way and they play hard.”
Talking with Ryan Hernandez, it is easy to see that he liked the discipline of the league, and perhaps that mentality paid dividends for the other Cougars, “We had some practices before every game to work on different skills everyday. I found it to be super beneficial to me and my teammates that we weren’t only just playing for fun but also still having some order and skill development too.” That is the type of “summer camp” that Almendarez and the “younger guys” got to be a part of this year.
As for the immediate future, these players have seen two baseball seasons ended early in the last five months because of Covid-19 concerns. There are no guarantees about the next season, or even the next academic year, but these ball players are hungry and they are ready to get back to work just over a week after their last season ended.
“I’m just eager to get back on campus and work out with my teammates,” said Rey Mendoza. Kyle Lovelace voiced similar sentiments about his fellow Cougars, “I’m really proud of them and looking forward to rolling that into a great season this spring.”
And Ryan Hernandez, ever the focused worker, is ready for what is next, “Now that the season is over I am going to start working on getting stronger and getting as fit as possible. Since we do have strength and conditioning workouts I look forward to getting my body right for the upcoming season. I am also planning on consistently talking with the other Coogs about approach and finding their moneymaker pitch so that we can be ready to roll once again.”
When it was over, the player excitement and optimism expressed prior to the season was still there. Rather than being disappointed the season ended earlier than planned and a playoff spot was forfeited, the Cougars looked back on the games they did get to play; at how they grew, not only as players, but as teammates.
The fall of 2020 awaits with no answers and no guarantees, and hope springs eternal that these young men take the field as a team in scarlet and white in February 2021. –