By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Before his first at-bat of every game he plays, Jace Conrad offers a little acknowledgment to the umpire behind the plate. A quick nod. A polite “how’s it going?”
The third baseman did just that in the first inning of the Charlotte Stone Crabs’ home opener Saturday, but it was a little different than usual. He already knew how the he was doing. They had talked just hours before the game.
That’s because Saturday’s home plate umpire was Jace’s older brother, Grant Conrad.
“It was pretty cool. Not many people get that opportunity, so I don’t take those for granted,” Jace said after Charlotte’s 5-1 loss to Palm Beach. “I get to be on the same field as my older brother, which is always special.”
It was the first time the two shared the same field since their days at Lafayette High School in Louisiana, when Jace, 23, was a freshman and Grant, 26, was a senior for the Lions.
After graduating from Lafayette, Grant played two years of college ball at a junior college in Kansas ans two more at Division-II Missouri Southern before committing full-time to umpiring, something he had done since he was 14 years old.
“It was always a dream of his,” Jace said.
Jace played three more years for the Lions, then three more at Lousiana-Lafayette before the Rays selected him in the 13th round of the 2014 draft.
Jace spent last year between Low-A Bowling Green of the Midwest League and Charlotte of the Florida State League. Grant umpired in the South Atlantic League.
Saturday, though, they spent parts of the night separated by just a few feet, rather than a few hundred miles.
And while it might be easy to see an older brother umpiring in a game the younger brother is playing in as a conflict of interest, Jace doesn’t see it that way. There was no controversy on Saturday: Jace went 0-for-4 with three groundouts and a pop-out.
No called strike threes. No close ball fours.
“We’ve talked about it before. He’s going to call the game fair, just like he would any other day,” Jace said. “It’s a little different, but you get used to it.”
ON THE MEND… AGAIN
Andrew Velazquez can’t seem to catch a break.
After missing all but 51 games last year between surgeries to repair a fractured right hamate bone and torn left shoulder labrum,Velazquez, the Rays’ No. 29 prospect, got through spring training healthy and was expected to serve as the Stone Crabs’ everyday shortstop.
But on the team’s final workout before the start of the season on Wednesday, Velazquez tweaked a hamstring doing sprints and was placed on the seven-day disabled list on opening day.
“It stinks, because it seems like he can’t stay healthy right now,” manager Michael Johns said. “We’re going to be careful from here on out. It might be a longer process than we anticipated.”
Pat Blair was added to the roster in Velazquez’s place and has gone 2-for-7 with a walk and three runs scored in two games. Alec Sole, who went 2-for-3 with an RBI on Saturday, will likely see the bulk of the playing time at shortstop.
Last year, the Stone Crabs won seven straight home games to start the season and didn’t lose their first until April 26. This year, they lost their first on April 9. … The announced crowd of 4,549 on Saturday was larger than four of the 13 crowds the Rays drew during spring training. … Saturday’s loss was Charlotte’s second all-time in home openers and first since the team’s inaugural season in 2009.