It was nice to kind of just see it pay off a little bit better,” Wi13

Author : nakjleblepota
Publish Date : 2021-03-21 02:19:36
It was nice to kind of just see it pay off a little bit better,” Wi13

The first time Ford Proctor and Grant Witherspoon took the field in Australia, there wasn’t much on the line. They were sent to play winter ball primarily for their own developmental purposes, and the game itself was a scrimmage. But there were fans in the stands, and it had been a while since either Rays prospect had played in that kind of environment.

“It was like the second or third inning,” Proctor said, “and I was like, ‘Dude, I’m really nervous right now for this.’ It was kind of surprising.”

While few Minor League players got a chance to play anything beyond intrasquad scrimmages at their alternate training site or instructional league games last year, Proctor, Witherspoon and several of their teammates went around the world to find that sense of normalcy. They spent time in the Australian Baseball League, playing games in front of fans, taking strides in their development and enjoying a unique experience off the field.

“I felt grateful to be there the first game, because I had just been sitting at home,” Witherspoon said. “That was cool.”

For both Proctor and Witherspoon, the decision was spurred in part by the opportunity to practice a new position. Proctor, a 24-year-old infielder who cracked MLB Pipeline’s just-released list of the Rays’ Top 30 Prospects at No. 29, began working as a catcher. And the 24-year-old Witherspoon, an outfielder during his two seasons in Tampa Bay’s system, spent some time at first base.

Proctor was somewhat of a rarity last season: a prospect who didn’t lack for organized playing time. He had 106 plate appearances in the Constellation Energy League, went to the Rays’ alternate training site in early September, played in instructional league camp then went to join the Perth Heat in Australia.

“A couple of the [Rays'] coordinators ran by me that it'd be great to get some more work in, because that's the biggest thing is getting game experience,” Proctor said during a Zoom call with MLB.com. “So, for me, it was pretty much a no-brainer because, learning a new position, I needed that game experience.”

Witherspoon’s situation was less ideal. After Spring Training was shut down, he tried to stay in game shape by working out on a baseball field at his high school, D’Evelyn, in Denver. A police officer advised him that wasn’t an option. He spent the rest of the summer doing what he could in the batting cage and weight room, taking tips on hitting and the mental side of the game from Rays coach Jamie Nelson. The Rays wanted him to get at-bats and time at first base, so they asked if he’d like to play in Australia.

“It's always been kind of a thing I wanted to do, go to Australia,” Witherspoon said over Zoom. “It kind of lined up perfectly with the pandemic and everything -- needed some at-bats -- so it worked out.”

The Rays sent a total of seven Minor League players to the Perth squad: Proctor, Witherspoon, infielder Abiezel Ramirez, outfielder Shane Sasaki and pitchers Jacob Lopez, Alan Strong and Nathan Wiles. They left the day before Thanksgiving, spent two weeks quarantining in their hotel rooms and wound up waiting even longer to play their first official games, as COVID-19 cases led to a few canceled series.

Beyond that, though, it was as close to normal as they could have hoped for in 2020. Australia managed the pandemic well, so mask-wearing was only mandatory in some instances. They golfed plenty, playing one memorable round when a kangaroo approached their cart. (“First time I'd ever seen a kangaroo in person,” Proctor said.) They rode bikes around Rottnest Island off the coast of Perth. They celebrated Christmas together, albeit with McDonald’s for dinner because everything else was closed. (“A little different than what we were used to,” Witherspoon said.)

“That’s the furthest I think all of us have been away from home, and for that length of time, it's nice to have people to talk to and guys that are obviously in the same organization as you just hanging out with on and off the field,” Proctor said. “So yeah, that was great.”

They were able to play competitive games with fans in the ballpark. And they played quite well, taking full advantage of the opportunity on the field.

Proctor made significant strides behind the plate with the guidance of Rays Minor League coaches RC Lichtenstein and Sean Smedley, who joined the Perth staff. He spent nine official games behind the plate and the rest in the infield while hitting .324/.452/.544 with more walks (16) than strikeouts (14).

“Just that game experience is crucial,” Proctor said. “So that was good, just working drills and having a good set of eyes just watching my work and critiquing me and helping me along the way.”

With his parents staying up to stream nearly every game online from their home in Colorado, Witherspoon hit .333/.402/.653 with four homers, nine doubles and 20 RBIs in 82 plate appearances. It was not only a chance for him to play first base, but to test out some changes he made at the plate. Witherspoon ditched his big leg kick, adopted an upright stance and a simplified, up-the-middle approach designed to remove some of the streakiness from his game.

“It was nice to kind of just see it pay off a little bit better,” Witherspoon said. “It kind of felt like the game kind of slowed down a little bit, like I was getting myself out a little bit less, and I felt more in control up there.”
Both Proctor and Witherspoon returned from their time down under raving about what Proctor called the “first-class” experience, feeling better prepared for Minor League Spring Training and, hopefully, ready to be nervous playing in front of fans again soon enough.

Both Proctor and Witherspoon returned from their time down under raving about what Proctor called the “first-class” experience, feeling better prepared for Minor League Spring Training and, hopefully, ready to be nervous playing in front of fans again soon enough.

Both Proctor and Witherspoon returned from their time down under raving about what Proctor called the “first-class” experience, feeling better prepared for Minor League Spring Training and, hopefully, ready to be nervous playing in front of fans again soon enough.

Both Proctor and Witherspoon returned from their time down under raving about what Proctor called the “first-class” experience, feeling better prepared for Minor League Spring Training and, hopefully, ready to be nervous playing in front of fans again soon enough.

Both Proctor and Witherspoon returned from their time down under raving about what Proctor called the “first-class” experience, feeling better prepared for Minor League Spring Training and, hopefully, ready to be nervous playing in front of fans again soon enough.

“I feel like I’m in a really good spot right now, just trying to get back there and see all the guys that I haven't seen and start playing games that matter,” Witherspoon said.

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