On Wednesday, top prospect Casey Kelly and the Boston Red Sox beat Northeastern University 15-0. Even in the face of such a drubbing, it's a thrill for college baseball players to play against professional players the students have long idolized.
Brendan Stokes, a Tewksbury, Mass., native, was one such player. Stokes is a senior first baseman at Northeastern and just completed his fifth and final tour of duty for the Huskies against the Red Sox. (Northeastern is typically a five-year co-op school, so many athletes redshirt their first year. Stokes got one at-bat in his redshirt year against the Red Sox.)
Stokes faced Manny Delcarmen in the second inning of this year's game. Delcarmen struggled through a rough 2009, posting a 4.53 overall ERA, most of the damage coming in a 7.27 ERA second half.
"Because it's [Boston's] first game, I feel like he was working more on hitting his spots and getting a feel for his pitches," said Stokes, who flew out to right field on one pitch. "He mostly went fastball and changeup, trying to use both sides of the plate."
Stokes, who batted .299 with an on-base percentage of .340 for the Huskies last year, did not get to face Kelly but did come away with a positive impression.
"Kelly looked like he's going to be really good," Stokes began. "Smooth, fluid delivery. … it looked effortless for him to throw the ball. He fell behind some hitters, but his fastball was good enough to get him out of it."
Speaking of personal experience, Stokes compares Kelly most favorably to Bradley Holt, a pitcher from the University of North Carolina Wilimgton who was taken in the first-round supplemental draft by the New York Mets (33rd overall) in 2008.
Holt, who recently turned 23, split the year between Single-A advanced St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton. For St. Lucie, he had a 3.12 ERA in nine starts. He struggled when elevated to the tougher competition — considered by many in the know the toughest transition at the minor league level — posting a 6.21 ERA in 11 starts.
Stokes is reminded of Holt's repertoire when thinking of Kelly, which is quite a compliment since Kelly figures to open the season at Single-A advanced Salem, a full two years earlier than Holt reached that level.
There was one other Red Sox pitcher Stokes got to face in the game, Robert Manuel, claimed off waivers from the Seattle Mariners in the offseason. Manuel, who figures to be ticketed for Triple-A Pawtucket, threw Stokes three straight fastballs "and spotted them well." (A straight fastball, with no movement, is difficult to succeed with in the majors unless thrown with enough velocity and good control.)
"He's got a live arm," Stokes said. "It all depends how he does commanding his off-speed pitches."
While Delcarmen and Manuel turned in strong efforts, Stokes believes the best pitcher he's ever faced in these annual games is Josh Beckett circa 2008. "[Beckett] let up a flare single to our leadoff hitter," Stokes said. "He immediately bumped his fastball up to 96 mph and struck out five of the next six batters."
"Junichi Tazawa was close last year, though," Stokes added. "He had command of all of his pitches and was sitting in the low 90s [with his fastball]."
Tazawa split time between Double-A Portland, Pawtucket and Boston last year after spurning Japanese professional baseball to play stateside. He is expected to open the year in Pawtucket and play a major role at the big league level if and when injuries strike.
Stokes also relayed a story his teammate told him of talking to new center fielder Mike Cameron during Cameron's batting practice. Cameron told the Northeastern player that he was a big proponent of hand-grip strengthening exercises, because "the most important things in baseball were your hands and eyes."
There's always something to learn from the pros.