By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Mac James had a pretty good idea he would be headed to Port Charlotte after hitting .257 in 91 games for Low-A Bowling Green last season.
So to prepare, the catcher reached out to a man he had never met but lived just a few miles away from. A man that would also be spending his 2016 season with High-A Charlotte.
That man was longtime Stone Crabs hitting coach Joe Szekely, who, like James, resides in New Braunfels, Texas. The two didn’t know each other, but James’ wife, Emily, grew up friends with Szekely’s daughter, Shelby.
A phone call and a few swapped text messages later, the coach and catcher were putting in time together at Bowie Baseball Academy in nearby San Marcos.
It’s still early, but the work has paid off so far. After going 3-for-4 with a trio of singles in the Stone Crabs’ 4-1 loss to Palm Beach, James is 7-for-12 with a double and three runs batted in through three games.
“It’s kind of unique,” Joe Szekely said. “You’re from the small town of New Braunfels, and you end up in Port Charlotte together.”
Added James: “It’s such a small world. It’s nice to be here at the complex with him. There’s a comfortability about it.”
That comfort has led to a banner start to the season in all phases of the game for James. The 23-year-old threw out two would-be base-stealers against the Cardinals on Sunday, and would have had a third had second baseman Riley Unroe’s swipe tag at second been just a hair quicker in the ninth.
Of course, that’s nothing new for James. He threw out runners at a 50 percent rate during his time at the University of Oklahoma, and he has a caught-stealing percentage of 42 since the Rays made him a sixth-round draft pick in 2014.
“I think we’re the best catching staff, have the best catching players, in the country,” James said of the Rays organization. “For me to develop, it helps everybody.”
The catcher also earned praise for his work with the Charlotte pitching staff, most notably with 33-year-old catcher-turned-knuckleballer Jeff Howell, who has pitched to James twice already this year and allowed a run on four hits over 2 2⁄3 innings on Sunday.
“I love his pitch-selection,” said starter Greg Harris, who pitched four innings to James and allowed two runs on five hits while striking our four to take the loss. “He’s really good at receiving. He’s got a good arm and can throw guys out.”
Despite James’ efforts, Charlotte couldn’t claw back for the split with Palm Beach. Unroe put the home team ahead 1-0 in the bottom of the first with a leadoff home run to left, but for the second straight game, that would be all the Stone Crabs would put on the board.
The Cardinals scored two in the top of the second off Harris for a 2-1 lead, getting one run on a bases-loaded balk and another on Blake Drake’s sacrifice fly. They scored one more each in the seventh and ninth on RBI base hits from Danny Diekroeger and Andrew Brodbeck, who went 3-for-4 with three singles, a walk and a run scored.
Charlotte had chances to match or exceed its opponent’s total, as two of James’ hits led to bases-loaded situations. One with one out in the fourth after singles from Grant Kay and Bralin Jackson, and another with two outs in the ninth after the same two hitters reached on an error and a walk, respectively.
But both rallies ended with Jace Conrad. In the fourth, he grounded into a 4-6-3 double play. In the ninth, he ripped a hard line drive that appeared destined for the left-center-field gap before Cardinals shortstop Oscar Mercado made a leaping catch for the third out.
“Two inches one way or the other,” manager Michael Johns said of Conrad’s line drive, “you never know.”
Left-hander Jacob Evans befuddled the Charlotte bats over seven innings — six hits, one run, four strikeouts on 80 pitches (53 strikes) — to earn the win. Reliever Kyle Grana worked around the trouble to nail down the save.
“We’re all trying to figure out our game and what we’re doing at the plate. Guys are still not really there from spring training,” James said. “But we’re going to be a good offensive club.”
CARDINALS 4, STONE CRABS 1
HITTER OF THE GAME
Riley Unroe, Stone Crabs: Went 2-for-4 with a leadoff home run to drive in Charlotte’s lone run of the game.
PITCHER OF THE GAME
Jacob Evans, Cardinals: Was stellar over his seven innings, needing just 80 pitches as he allowed a run on six hits while striking out four.
Second: The Cardinals loaded the bases with one out on three singles, then scored one run on a balk and a second on a sacrifice fly to take a lead they would hold the rest of the way.
THEY SAID IT
Right-hander Greg Harris: “I don’t think I threw my cutter enough today. That’s a big pitch for me. I need to throw that more so I can get hitters off-balance and not really come out with first-pitch fastball so they know what’s coming.”