Young Suns begin defense of division title tonight

April 06, 2006|by BOB PARASILITI

With the 2006 season all but a virtual reality, Jonathan Niese used some virtual reality to prepare.

"I went on the Internet last night and looked at the Greensboro page," said the Hagerstown Suns starting pitcher. "I wanted to see what the ballpark looked like. I'm getting myself ready mentally."

That's because it's time. The Suns will hand Niese the ball and send him out to the mound as the opening day starter when they begin their defense of the South Atlantic League's Northern Division title tonight at 6:35 against the Greensboro (N.C.) Grasshoppers.

It is a big night around the board for the Suns, who will be featuring one of their youngest teams ever in their second season as a New York Mets affiliate. It will be a coming-out party for most of the team, which has 11 players that are age 20 or younger.


And, it is a traditional big night for Hagerstown's new manager, Frank Cacciatore.

"It's always exciting," Cacciatore said Wednesday during the team's annual media day. "If you aren't sitting on pins and needles before the opener, it's time to quit. I've done this for 19 years now and I still look at the opener as the start of things to come. You don't want to look back ... you just want to do the job and keep going."

Ahead for the Suns is a season of growing while playing what Cacciatore projects to be exciting baseball at Municipal Stadium.

"This is going to be a fun team to watch," Cacciatore said. "They are going to come after it. We got some good arms and pitchers who like to throw inside. It will be an exciting team to watch. If they can go out and take care of things they have to along the way, come August and September, we'll look up and might see ourselves in first place."

The youth of the Suns might be the X-factor. Hagerstown's defense up the middle features shortstop Jose Castro (19 years old), second baseman Hector Pellot (19) and center fielder Fernando Martinez (17), who will be playing his first professional game tonight.

"I like their savvy and I like the way they play," Cacciatore said. "They understand it. Once they learn tendencies, I expect I will be seeing them move into the right positions on their own."

Martinez will be a major focal point of the Mets organization. He was signed as a free agent for $1.4 million at age 16.

The youthful trio helps make up a Hagerstown offense that would be considered diversified and team oriented.

"Ozzie (Guillen) ball (Chicago White Sox style) is the way to play baseball," Cacciatore said. "Go out and give yourself up to help you win games. This is a team game. Our batting order is blended, but it is speed oriented. We have some power and some speed, which allows us to play different kinds of games. We don't want to be where we have to go out and steal bases and run ourselves out of innings or waiting for a three-run home run to win games."

The left-handed Niese is another one of the Suns' young guns, getting the first start at age 19.

"It is awesome," said the Mets' seventh-round pick from the 2005 draft. "It will be different because I have never played in front of a huge crowd like I'll see (tonight). It is a huge honor, but I'll just go out and do what I do."

And that is pitch aggressively.

"He has good command and pitches aggressively," Cacciatore said. "He's not afraid to throw the ball inside. A big key is to get the starters to go as deep into games as possible. If we can get them doing that, we have a lot of guys in the bullpen who can close it out."

That is only the beginning plan in a season of high anticipation for the Hagerstown Suns.

"At times, this team will make mistakes, but they will always be aggressive," Cacciatore said. "We are going to let them play and learn. ... This isn't the big leagues. This is to get to the big leagues."

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