Missions look for winning Triple-A debut

By Pat Turner

Excitement for the baseball season is showing for Missions manager Rick Sweet.

Although enthusiasm has surfaced every spring during his 45 years as a player and minor league manager, 2019 might be triggering more energy.

Helping San Antonio launch its first season in Triple-A is a big reason to be pumped. At the same time, the former major league catcher is eager to see what happens on the field with one of the youngest teams he has managed during his 20 years in Triple-A.

“I’ve been excited about this for a year,” Sweet said. “Now, that I have had my hands on it a little bit I am even more excited. This is probably the youngest club I have ever had and maybe one of the most talented clubs.

“Their future is ahead of them. Usually you have one or two young players at this level. We have seven or eight. I think 10 of these guys made the Double-A All-Star team last year. When you start looking at that you start saying ‘wow, there’s some good people here.”

The reason for Sweet’s enthusiasm is Milwaukee’s Triple-A affiliate boasts some of the top prospects in the Brewers’ organization, including top prospect Keston Hiura (second base), the Brewers’ Minor League Player of the Year in 2018, No. 2 prospect Corey Ray (outfielder) and pitcher Zack Brown, the Brewers’ 2018 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, who was also named the Southern League (Double-A) Most Valuable Pitcher  during his stint with Biloxi.

Still, Triple-A is a new ballgame for the trio and several other players on the Missions’ roster. As the one in charge, Sweet knows it will be a challenge, but he sees good results happening.

“When you have an older team, you can be more focused on the game,” Sweet said. “The older players know when they make mistakes. With a younger club I have to make sure I stay on top of them and keep my focus. I have to make sure I see everything that goes on out there on the field.

“For me, I’ll be a little louder. I’ll have a lot more conversations, because the younger guys are going to need this.”

The first test comes Thursday when San Antonio opens its season at Oklahoma City (Los Angeles Dodgers affiliate). During that Triple-A debut, Missions batters will be facing Major League standout Clayton Kershaw, who is getting the start on a rehab assignment.

It’s a case of being thrown into the fire quickly, but the Missions welcome the opportunity.

 “I’m excited,” Ray said. “Anytime you get a chance to face guys like that you should be excited as a competitor. He’s a big league pitcher and you hope to be in the big leagues. To get a little taste of the big leagues the first game of the season is exciting for me.”

However, the tests don’t end with the Kershaw experience. Others will follow and those involved plan to stay the course by producing positive results.

Hiura, Ray and Brown go into Triple-A with momentum from a solid showing at Biloxi. Though that success instilled confidence, they look to build on that with bigger results.

“Last year helped me,” Ray said. “I think I started moving in the right direction. I think I can improve on that and become a complete player.”

Hiura is taking a similar approach.

“I have to make sure I am playing with the level of confidence I need,” Hiura said. “I want to eliminate all the mental and physical mistakes. I got a taste of what it’s like to play at that level in spring training. I am going to try to build off that.”

Whatever the case, the players are also reminded it is still baseball.

“You have to remember it is definitely still baseball,” Ray said. “The game moves faster. It’s a lot cleaner. But is still baseball. You go out and fun. The rest will take care of itself.”

While grooming players for the big step forward, Sweet must deal with constant roster changes. After all, player movement is a regular happening in Triple-A. That can make managing difficult, but the Missions’ skipper has been there and done that many times.

 “I’ve been doing this a long time,’ Sweet said. “What you learn is not to panic. I don’t worry about it. It always works out.”

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