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#STINGDAILY: Minor Adjustments

July 13, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Caught up with Matt Skole by phone the other day and although he has plenty be happy about, the young man sounded a bit like he was ready to go over the edge.

The former Georgia Tech third baseman is leading the South Atlantic League in home runs and RBI, yet you might sound like he did if you were on a bus – yet again – motoring from somewhere to somewhere else with uncertainty as a backdrop.

In the background, there was the hum of an engine and the riff-raff of teammates as the Class A Hagerstown (Md.) Suns churned asphalt and killed time. It was easy to wonder what was going on upon that bus.

Skole ponders as well; that’s an unavoidable reality in the minor leagues.

Drafted in the fifth round last year by the Washington Nationals, he had a solid first season in 2011 playing for Auburn in the New York-Penn League. Then, he went to fall Instructional League. That apparently helped, as you’ll learn momentarily.

First, though, a reminder that life in the minors – presently in the South Atlantic League – is not always nostalgic.

You’d better find a way to get your rest and eat fairly well, or you’re not likely to give yourself a fair chance to show your wares.

“That’s definitely the two biggest things. It’s hard for us to get on the right sleep pattern traveling so much on buses,” Skole said. “You’ve got to make sure you take care of your body, work out two or three times a week. You’ve got to keep your legs healthy and strong.

“It’s hard to eat healthy every day. You’re traveling overnight and sometimes it’s a Wendy’s or something. You’ve got to pick and choose. You’re making your own choices; they don’t have people there to babysit you.”

A fast-food meal now and then is one thing. A steady diet like that’ll lead to a dead end, and even more fatigue.

Skole’s already played in 83 games for Hagerstown, and he’s got nearly another two solid months. As he said, “We’ll play 28 games without a day off. Just learning how to handle your business is so important.”

There are signs that Skole is learning.

He was something of a prodigy straight out of Blessed Trinity Catholic High School in Alpharetta. With 17 home runs as a Tech freshman and another 20 as a sophomore, he was well located on scouting radars around the majors.

Skole, though, was no lock. He had an off-the-field misstep midway through his junior year, and then his power numbers slipped. Part of that was attributable to rules changes regarding the bats allowed in college. Plus, scouts make something out of everything.

Consider this passage – after he was drafted by Washington – on a site known as “Matt Skole entered his junior season poised to be drafted in the top few rounds after two impressive seasons at Georgia Tech . . . scouts question if he would have enough power with a wood bat to be a starting corner infielder, allowing him to slip to the Nationals in Round 5.”

In 72 games with Auburn, Skole hit .290 with five home runs and 48 RBI. Not shabby. Not electric.

He was then sent to a fall tutorial league, and before returning to Atlanta – where he found time to attend a few Tech football games last season – he picked up a few things.

The instructors in those places know what they’re doing. They’re not going to turn a bum into the Babe, but chances are that if a young player has serious potential that is somehow partially blocked, they may help unlock it.

“I’ve been working to increase my power; I went to instructional league last fall to work with a bunch of the coordinators in the Nationals organization to incorporate my legs a little more in my swing,” Skole said. “It’s a relief that it’s paying off.

“These guys were real interested in what I was doing. They just saw some minor adjustments I could make to increase my power. That’s why they’re ML coordinators. It’s very encouraging.”

Why, yes it is.

At last glance, Skole was hitting .280 but much more importantly leading the South Atlantic with 21 home runs (five more than any other player), 73 RBI, 79 walks (10 more than anyone else), and a .434 on-base percentage. He’s second with a .987 OPS and sixth with 61 runs scored.

That’s serious work.

There apparently remain questions within the Washington organization as to whether Skole’s future will be at third base, first base or even left field.

But he’s doing enough with his bat to make his future a conversation topic withing the organization.

He could’ve gone over the edge a few weeks ago. Instead, he launched a few baseballs.

Skole went to the South Atlantic League All-Star game in Charleston, S.C., and while there he participated in the home run derby – on the U.S.S. Yorktown, a retired aircraft carrier.

“I got second place. On the flight deck, they had a hitting turtle and an L-screen,” he said. “The Coast Guard was measuring the distance of balls when they landed in the water. It was really cool. They had a bunch of buoys out there and there were fans on the Yorktown as well.”

So, there’s that.

Life in the minors offers such a peculiar existence, and plenty of time to think.

Former Tech teammate Cole Leonida is a teammate with Hagerstown, where Lenny Dykstra’s son Cutter is also on the squad. Rick Ankiel spent three games with the team on a rehab assignment earlier this summer to create a small buzz, but the organization and its fan base are not exactly consumed with its low minor leagues right now.

A couple years ago, that was different. Now, the Nationals are in first place in the National League East, four games ahead of the Atlanta Braves, and they’re there on the backs of other young players like pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper.

Washington’s starting third baseman, former Virginia Cavalier Ryan Zimmerman, may not be entrenched as if Brooks Robinson, but he’s not truly wavering, either.

The backup, Stephen Lombardozzi, usually starts in left field, and is just 11 months older than Skole. He’ll turn 23 on July 30. Mark DeRosa can also play third, and then there are the players in the minors higher than Skole. Washington has at least two minor league third basemen on its 40-man roster; they’re 22 and 24 years old.

Washington officials have not said whether he’ll go to Instructional League again.

Skole tries not to over-think. He misses his family, whom since the third week of February he has seen only on trips to Augusta and Rome, Ga. There are lines of communication with other former Tech teammates, but they’re irregular.

“You don’t really get to see your family as much as you’d like,” Skole said. “It’s a job, it really is. We’re out there working hard from 2 or 3 until almost midnight every day. I talk to those guys a lot. A lot of my friends back home . . . communication varies.

“I’m playing with Cole and I played against [former Tech teammates] Jacob Esch and Kevin Jacobs in the short season last year. I stay in touch with coach [Danny] Hall and [Bryan] Prince. They’ve been a huge help, a huge influence in not only making me a better player but a better person.”

There’s optimism in there, and more than a little.

Overall, Skole’s doing a fine job concentrating on the here and now. That’s huge.

Yet he’s looking forward to the future in a couple ways as well.

“Normally, Instructional League is finished a week or so before Halloween,” he said. “Last year, I got to catch a few football games at Tech. Either way, I’ll be back there working out, watching football, hanging out.”

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