Hans Gutknecht/Daily News staff photographer
The Lancaster JetHawks, despite sitting last in the California League, had at one point a chance to make the post-season, but too many one-run losses and blown leads in the late innings came back to haunt them.
Only once did this 2009 group put together a three-game winning streak. Recently, they snapped a nine-game losing streak.
A roller coaster existence is often expected in minor-league production, but first-year manager Wes Clements doesn’t feel as he was taken for a ride.
“What is it your mom says, it’s never going to be easy,” said the 51-year-old Hawthorne High grad and former College World Series standout at the University of Arizona (a teammate of Terry Francona) who never played a day of baseball while in high school but spent 11 years in the minor leagues and Mexican Leagues during the 1980s and early ’90s, amassing more than 170 homers and driving in more than 650 runs.
“If I was selfish about it, maybe I wish we could have won 100 games — but this kind of season was fruitful for many reasons. It’s probably the youngest team in the league, and this being high A-ball, there’s a lot of teaching. But if there was one characteristic from the start, it was that they played hard, as hard as they could, until the ump said to stop playing.
“To me, there’s no sense in playing unless you play all out. That’s our jobs.”
Clements, a former assistant coach at Calabasas High, calls this “the best baseball year of my life.” Not just because he’s been able to play some golf with Roger Clemens — the former major-leaguer’s son, Koby, has been one of the stars on this year’s JetHawks, leading the league in RBI and game-winning walk-off homers with an OPS above 1.000.
Clemens, a catcher, had to play behind one of the Houston Astros’ top prospects, Stanford grad Jason Castro, whom Clements says will likely be in the big leagues very soon. As a result, Clemens did a lot of DHing and some play in the outfield. The 22-year-old expects to be playing Double-A ball next season, along with outfielder Jon Gaston, who led the league with 33 homers (setting a JetHawks’ single-season mark) and several other players from Clements’ roster.
Some of these guys, you’ll be hearing more about in the years to come. A move from Lancaster to the big leagues doesn’t always have to be a long one. Current Arizona Diamondbacks slugging third baseman Mark Reynolds, second in the NL with 40 homers, was in Lancaster just three seasons ago.
The satisfaction Clements has found in his rookie season reflects on the performance of his young players, and that’s what we’ll get into with Sunday’s column.
One of the latest things Clements has done with his team — take them on a trip to visit the ailing children at Antelope Valley Hospital Pediatrics Ward. That was on Saturday before their 7 p.m. game. (press release linked here)
“This is the most important thing we can do,” said Clements. “It’s something I did as a player and I never forgot it. We can sometimes get caught up in the competition we face every day, but to step back and spend time with these children puts everything in perspective. We want them to know that we are always thinking about them, and hope it will be a day the kids will always remember.”
== Clements’ bio on the JetHawks’ website (linked here)
== More about Clements in the Astros’ organization (linked here)