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ZEBULON — In the never-ending quest to address fan attention spans and pace of play issues, the Carolina Mudcats and the rest of Minor League Baseball have been thrust into the role of guinea pigs this season.
Entering their seventh season as a member of the Single-A Advanced Carolina League and the first under full ownership of their parent club, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Mudcats will be playing under a different set of rules in 2018 at Five County Stadium.
Extra-inning contests will now be contested similar to the international tiebreaker rule in softball, with a runner stationed on second base at the start of each half inning. Mound visits, by players and coaches alike, have also been curtailed. A team gets 10 visits in Single-A play, with that number reducing to eight in Double-A games and six in Triple-A ballparks.
Infielders will have no choice but to be aware of the intricacies of the new rules. That quick trip to calm down a pitcher in the middle of a count is now logged as a visit.
“We talked about it in spring training,” second-year Mudcats manager Joe Ayrault said of the new rules. “It’s going to add some excitement to it. They’re ready to go. We’ll make some adjustments. Little stuff like an infielder coming into the mound and touching the rosin bag, that stuff will count as a visit. So those are things that we’ve talked about with the infielders — stay away from the mound. We’ll deal with it with our catcher when we need him to go out and talk to the pitcher.”
The Mudcats posted a winning record in their first season under the Brewers flag last season, going 73-65. To start 2018, fans who enter Five County’s gates will be greeted by the presence of one of the top-rated prospects in the Milwaukee organization with infielder Keston Hiura.
Hiura, who led NCAA Division I in batting average (.442) and on-base percentage (.562) during his junior season at UC Irvine, was the No. 9 overall pick of the Brewers in the 2017 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. After a stint in the Arizona Fall League and the Single-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Hiruna arrives in Zebulon the No. 2 prospect in the Milwaukee pipeline and No. 47 overall in the minors by Baseball America after hitting .371 over his first two professional stops.
Indeed, Hiruna’s calling card is his bat. But at the same time, Ayrault lauded Hiruna for his professionalism at the young age of 21.
“Growing up, I’ve always been a mature kind of guy,” Hiruna said. “At the same time, I go with the flow, so whatever comes my way, I’m able to handle it pretty well with an even mind. That’s part of it, not taking anything for granted and enjoying the moment.”
Carolina also welcomes another former first-round pick to town in left-hander Nathan Kirby, a University of Virginia product. The No. 40 selection of the Brewers in 2015, Kirby has spent the last two years out of baseball after undergoing Tommy John surgery and another procedure on his elbow last year. Kirby was the ace of the UVA staff in 2015, helping the Cavaliers to their first College World Series championship.
“I think the biggest thing I learned over the past two years, and I’ve said it a bunch in past interviews is not worrying about what’s happened and not worrying about what could happen, but honestly just what’s going on right in front of me.”
As such, pace of play enforcement has no bearing on Kirby’s approach right now.
“It all feels fast to me right now, and it will probably be that way for a while,” Kirby said. “So I wouldn’t mind them slowing it down for me a bit.”
Ten players who spent time with the Mudcats make their return to the roster, including N.C. State right-hander Jon Olczak, a 22nd-round pick of Milwaukee in 2016. Fans of Mudcats nostalgia will likely be enamored with the story of Ronnie Gideon, who comes to the club after his dad, Ron Gideon, served as Carolina manager from 2000-01. During that time, the younger Gideon was a bat boy for the Mudcats and recalled sliding on the tap during rain delays. Now, he arrives as a member of the Brewers organization after being picked in the 23rd round in 2016 out of Texas A&M and spending the ‘17 season with the Timber Rattlers.
“Joe Ayrault probably wouldn’t let me do it!” Gideon said of rekindling his tarp-sliding days. “As a kid growing up, I always said, ‘I want to go there, I want to play there.’ because this is where I was. It was home, and my dad managed here. Once the Rockies got away from here, it was kind of a thing of, ‘Oh, I may never come back here.’ But, you know what? I’ve got a great opportunity to come here with the Brewers and make it last.”
As for Ayrault, he knows all too well the balancing act between grooming players to progress in the Milwaukee system and making it a winning experience along the way.
“I’m the type of manager — I don’t like to lose in cards to my daughter,” Ayrault said. “But there are times where I might have to make a decision and it might cost our team a loss. But if it helps develop a player, it’s worth it to me to get that guy to the next level.”