Pro Baseball: Almond gets second wind in Montana

Published 12:09 am Wednesday, July 4, 2018

By Mike London

MISSOULA, Mont. — Zac Almond is getting back in the swing of things in Montana, launching home runs, and the 22-year-old catcher couldn’t be more excited.

Almond, who slugged 30 homers in just two seasons at Catawba College after transferring from UNC Greensboro, was afraid for a while that he’d lost his swing. He hadn’t.

It was just that his timing gets out of whack occasionally. But he’s figured it out.

He swatted his first three professional homers over the weekend for the Missoula Osprey of the Pioneer League. A 6-foot-3, 210-pounder with a history of punishing baseballs, Almond smashed homers to right, left and left-center. When he’s feeling confident, he can hit it out of any park and at any place in that park.

“It does feel good to finally have a few stats on the back of my baseball card,” Almond said with a laugh.

There were plenty of stats for Almond at Catawba. He made an impact as a sophomore, swatting 13 homers and producing eight RBIs in one memorable outing against Mars Hill. He was one of the strongest hitters in Division II as a junior, batting .364 with 17 homers and 61 RBIs in 53 games. Behind the plate, he handled pitchers, he eliminated the running game with a howitzer arm, and he was athletic enough to play an outfield corner when he didn’t catch.

The Arizona Diamondbacks drafted Almond in the 35th round in June 2017, and he elected to get his pro career started rather than return to Catawba for his senior season.

The bad news was he’d broken a hand late in Catawba’s season. The Diamondbacks sent him to their team in the Arizona Rookie League as soon as he signed, and he had to wait for the hand to heal.

Almond was only able to play the second half of what was already a short season. He got into 19 games and had 50 official at-bats. He did a nice job of getting on base, drawing walks and hitting for a decent average, but the power that he’d displayed at Catawba wasn’t visible. He produced three doubles and no homers.

When April 2018 arrived, Almond wasn’t assigned to one of the Diamondbacks’ farm clubs. Along with about 50 other prospects, he was retained in extended spring training. He wasn’t deemed ready to compete for the Kane County Cougars in the Class A Midwest League, the equivalent of the Kannapolis Intimidators, and the lowest full-season team the Diamondbacks operate. That meant he had to sweat in steamy Arizona, waiting for the short-season leagues to commence in June, following another MLB draft.

Extended spring training is a program of workouts, practices and simulated games. It was sort of like staying after school, and it wasn’t a lot of fun.

“You try to make it fun, but extended spring training is a grind,” Almond said. “You’re getting up at 6 a.m. and working until 1, 2 or even 3 in the afternoon, and by May, it’s getting hot in Arizona. I did that for two and half months, and it was tough. You don’t have anything tangible to show for your work. There are no games. No one’s keeping any stats.”

While there were no stats to examine, Almond knew he wasn’t doing as well as he wanted to or needed to. He was struggling until he got advice from Jonny Gomes, the former MLB outfielder. Against long odds. Gomes, an 18th-round draft pick, hit 162 home runs in a long career in the big leagues. Gomes got Almond to try a small leg kick. He started smoking line drives.

When the short-season leagues got under way in June, Almond was assigned to the Pioneer League’s Missoula Osprey. He and teammate Joe Robbins, a shortstop from Louisiana, made the scenic drive from Arizona to Montana in Robbins’ truck.

“It was a beautiful trip for guys who love the outdoors as much as we do,” said Almond, who was raised in the small Stanly County town of Richfield. “We saw antelope, deer, elk and bighorn sheep. It was great to see a totally different part of the country.”

There are eight teams in the Pioneer League, including four in Montana. Missoula, is the westernmost outpost in the league. The city derives its name from the Clark Fork River, which spirals through the city. The Native American word for that river was “Missoula.” The Pioneer League is historic for baseball as well. George Brett, Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg played in the league as they started their climb toward the majors, and Pedro Martinez once pitched in the circuit.

Montana is a vast state in a spacious landscape. A road trip from Missoula to Billings, in the eastern part of the state, required five hours. The ride back to Missoula from Grand Junction, Colorado, when Missoula travels south, is going to take 14 hours and will cover 800 miles.

Montana is known as the “Treasure State” for a reason. It boasts some of the best fishing rivers, streams and lakes in the country. Almond spends some mornings fishing before he heads to the park. He tried his hand at fly-fishing for trout on Tuesday.

“With no luck,” Almond said. “But my buddies had some.”

Almond competes  in a ballpark with mountains for a backdrop. The weather, when it’s not raining, is much friendlier than Arizona. He lives in an apartment five minutes from the park and grabs a ride with Robbins to the field every day. He’s lucky in that respect. Some of his teammates have to bike — or hike — to the field.

“They put us up in a hotel the first three days we were in Missoula, but after that we were on our own to find a place to stay,” Almond said. “We got lucky, a nice apartment that’s affordable. It’s the only place in town that leases month-to-month.”

Month-to-month is important for Almond because if he keeps hitting, he’s likely to move up from Missoula before this summer is over. The next step up the ladder in the Diamondbacks organization is Hillsboro, Oregon. That’s another short-season club, but it’s A ball, while Missoula is still classified as rookie ball. After Hillsboro, the next stop would be Kane County. That’s in Illinois, not far from Chicago.

Almond got off to a pretty good start this season. He had two hits opening night. Then he suffered a minor groin injury that cost him a few days.

On Saturday, June 30, he finally got that first professional home run.

“The funny thing was I wasn’t having a good night,” Almond said. “I was 0-for-3 and I’d missed pitches I should’ve hit. Then we had a rain delay, and I went and talked to our hitting coach. He told me I was swinging OK, but my timing had gotten off. When the game started back, I used just an itty-bitty stride, basically just picked up my foot and put it back down and tried to be explosive with my hands. Sometimes, even a small adjustment can change how you’re seeing the ball. I fouled off a few pitches and then I got a fastball, up and in. I hit it really good. It had been a long time since I’d hit a home run, but I knew immediately that one was gone. That was a cool moment.”

Almond didn’t have a long wait for homers No.2 and No. 3. He walloped both on Sunday during a doubleheader. One in each game. Then he doubled and singled on Monday, raising his batting average to .326, with 12 RBIs in 11 games.

So he’s got his timing now. He should get plenty of at-bats. He’s being used as a DH or first baseman when his legs need a break from catching. Missoula needs him in the lineup somewhere every night.

“Getting up here to cooler weather, being able to see some numbers, and playing in front of people again, it’s all been pretty sweet,” Almond said. ” Montana has given me my second wind.”