MInor league baseball: Sands mashing for Dodgers
By Mike London
Former Catawba slugger Jerry Sands has rediscovered his swing in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains.
Playing his home games 10 miles from the Great Salt Lake for the Ogden Raptors, Sands has dominated the Pioneer League since it cranked up June 23.
The reigning Pioneer Player of the Week, Sands entered Thursday night’s game batting .460 with six homers and 19 RBIs in 15 games.
“This is a league where guys come right at you,” Sands said. “They can get breaking balls over, but they prefer to use their fastballs. I’ve been lucky enough to get a few fastballs up and over the plate. When I did, I didn’t miss ’em.”
His latest heroics came Wednesday when his second-inning grand slam to left-center got the Raptors headed in the right direction in a 19-2 romp against Great Falls.
Sands put up one of the finest careers in the history of Catawba baseball.
He capped his three years at Newman Park with an All-America junior season that included 24 homers, 85 RBIs, 56 walks, a .390 batting average and 15 steals.
He lasted until the 25th round of the 2008 draft, but the Los Angeles Dodgers were able to sign him with an offer that included a provision that they’d pay for his final year of school. A year at Catawba is worth at least $30,000.
His debut in Vero Beach last season as a member of the Gulf Coast League Dodgers, the lowest rung in the L.A. farm system, produced a stat line in the Adam Dunn/Jay Bruce mold. The team MVP, Sands was among the league leaders with 10 homers, 29 walks and 33 RBIs in 46 games, but he also struck out 43 times and batted only .205.
“It was a great experience playing in an historic place like Vero,” Sands said. “I’ve got some power and a decent eye, and I showed that, but I wasn’t consistent enough with my swing.”
When the current baseball season began, Sands wasn’t deemed ready for full-season Class A ball and remained in extended spring training.
He was pounding the ball there, and when an outfielder with the Great Lakes Loons was injured, Sands got the call as a replacement. He reported to Midland, Mich., to play for the Midwest League’s Loons on April 27. That’s where he ran into his first serious adversity as a pro.
The sample size was way too small to say if Sands could or couldn’t get it done at that level, but he wasn’t good in a cameo ó two singles and seven strikeouts in 17 scattered at-bats for a .118 batting average.
“It wasn’t a great showing,” Sands said. “Bigger stadiums, more fans, and I believe I was a little shellshocked and star-struck. I was trying to hit a home run every at-bat, and my swing got too big. I started slow and got in a hole. Then I dug the hole a little deeper every time I went out there.”
The Loons got a player back off the DL and put Sands on reserve. It was a tedious time. Being on “reserve” meant he could work out with the team and take BP, but he wasn’t eligible to play in games. That lasted several weeks.
“My whole life in baseball I’ve been able to work through slumps until I had success, but 17 at-bats wasn’t a lot of chances,” Sands said. “The hitting coach wasn’t familiar with me or me with him, and I struggled.”
Ogden is advanced rookie ball ó a level between the Gulf Coast League and the Midwest League. When the Raptors began play in what is known as a “short-season” league shortly after the MLB draft, Sands had a new home and a place to play. He went 3-for-4 with a homer opening night and hasn’t looked back or let up.
He credits Raptors hitting coach Johnny Washington with restoring his swing mechanics. Mentally, he’s got his approach back to where it was at Catawba. He’s hitting to all fields. He’s no longer trying to hit homers, and that’s when the homers usually come.
Despite his size, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Sands sometimes plays center field for the Raptors. His strong arm also works fine in right.
“I’m sure I don’t have the range of a major league center fielder,” Sands said. “But at this level, I can hold my own in center.”
The elevation can’t hurt Sands’ power numbers, and the weather is ideal for this time of year. A lot of things are going his way.
“It’s beautiful out here,” Sands said. “Warm days but cool nights with a little breeze coming in. Really friendly fans. I’m enjoying every minute.”
He may not be in Utah all season. If he stays this hot, Sands will get another shot at the Midwest League soon.
The second time around the results should be better.
“If it happens,” Sands said, “I’ll be ready for it.”
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