“To be honest, I was going to go to Daytona,” the former Milwaukee Brewer and Houston Astro said. “Jeff Huson decided to leave the organization as Infield Coordinator right around Christmas, so Bobby Dickerson got Jeff’s job. They told me I was going to go from Daytona to Double-A and that they’d get somebody else to manage Daytona. That’s how that came about.”
Thus far, it’s been a fun ride for the 1992 American League Rookie of the Year. The Jaxx closed out the first half of Southern League play with a 43-27 record, one game behind Northern Division champion Chattanooga. Since starting the second half, they are 12-11, again one game back of Chattanooga, and the Tennessee Smokies.
As a former infielder-outfielder, Listach hit .290 and played in 149 games for the Brewers his rookie season. Ten years later, he was managing in Triple-A after the Cubs fired lame-duck manager Don Baylor and promoted Bruce Kimm from Iowa as interim skipper.
“It’s fun. I enjoy it,” Listach says of managing a Double-A team.
So, who individually has impressed the Jaxx first-year manager the most?
For starters, there is third baseman and All-Star Game MVP Scott Moore. The 22-year-old first-round pick by the Tigers in 2002 finished Monday’s event 3-for-4 with a pair of home runs and drove in four runs. He entered the break batting .278 and is currently second in the league with 14 home runs. That leads the Diamond Jaxx, as do his 21 doubles and 50 RBIs.
Early on, one cause for concern with Moore was his strikeout totals. The left-handed batter whiffed 60 times in the first two months of the season. He has cut those totals in half during the past month and a half, and Listach was quick to point out Moore’s improved plate discipline in recent weeks.
“We’ve got stats from month to month and his strikeouts have continually gone down,” the skipper bragged. “He’s been putting the ball in play a lot more and his strikeouts have gradually gone down. He’s starting to get more hits and his average is starting to creep back up. He does have a lot of strikeouts, but not lately.”
The next area Listach touched on was his team’s catching situation. Defensive stud Jose Reyes had been handling the bulk of the catching duties at West Tenn, but was promoted to Triple-A last month and is currently on the disabled list at Iowa. Reyes had thrown out 43 percent of base runners, which was among the top five catchers in the league.
Since then, Jake Fox has carried most of the weight after being promoted from Daytona what with Tony Richie struggling at the plate. Listach said he likes Fox’s handling of the pitching staff for the most part.
“He drops some balls he should catch and he obviously needs to get some more consistency,” Listach said of Fox, who turns 24 next week. “I’ve only talked to him once about his pitch selection and why I would choose to do something differently here or there. He’s called a pretty good game for the most part, though.”
What about Fox’s bat? After leading the Florida State League in home runs and RBIs, the Michigan alum has hit .232 through his first 16 games in the Southern League.
“He’s just trying to adapt to Double-A pitching,” Listach said. “They’re pitching to him right now. He’s not getting the 3-1 fastballs anymore. They’ve thrown him changeups and breaking balls 2-0 and 3-1. He’s swung through a few of them and they have him guessing right now. But he’s always hit wherever he’s been. We’re not too concerned about him.”
One hitter who has been a concern this year is Brandon Sing. The first baseman/outfielder was hitting only .177 in 33 games at Iowa before being sent back to Double-A for his third different stint in the Southern League.
Little did many know that the power-hitting Sing had been plagued by vision problems that were causing him to hack at pitches out of the strike zone as far back as Spring Training. Now, the 25-year-old is seeing the ball better thanks to the help of a new contact lens and various eye drops.
“His last week has been outstanding,” Listach said. “He’s hitting balls harder than I’ve ever seen him hit. I haven’t been around him a lot, but he’s done a really good job and is putting the ball in play more. He’s an interesting guy. He’s got a lot of power. I’ve put him out in right field, left and first base, just bouncing him around trying to find him as many at-bats as I can.”
And that’s about the only complaint Listach has about managing in a league that features only two clubs affiliated with American League teams: having to allocate some valuable players to the bench on certain nights.
“It’s fun for myself and for my career to be in this league,” he says. “The only thing that takes away from it is that I don’t get to play a Richard Lewis or a Sing as much as I would like.”
Next, there’s the pitching staff. All throughout the year, the Jaxx have maintained the league’s best. They have amassed a combined 2.77 ERA and have 11 shutout victories, one behind Jacksonville for the league lead.
It’s been hard to pinpoint a Jaxx pitcher having an overly bad season.
“These guys have all come in and done a really good job,” Listach said of his staff, which saw five starters named to the All-Star Game, two of which were promoted and unable to serve. “(Pitching Coach) Mike Anderson has done a really good job working with all of them.”
Listach began by touching on All-Star left-hander J.R. Mathes. The southpaw recently threw a complete game, four-hit shutout on the road against Tennessee and has dropped only one of his last nine starts, going 3-1 with a 2.92 ERA since June began.
Mathes was drafted after four years in college at Western Michigan and received special consideration when he was allowed to bypass the Midwest League and go right to work in Advanced A with Daytona a year ago. He won a team-high 11 games in 2005 and is tied as the current wins leader in the Cubs’ farm system.
“He throws three pitches for strikes, and any time you can command three pitches for strikes, you usually have success,” Listach said of Mathes, who features a two- and four-seam fastball, curveball and changeup. “He’s not an overpowering guy, but he’s a command guy that keeps hitters off balance and turns his fastball over. He cuts it in a little on righties and has a pretty good curveball. He keeps himself in the game.”
One starter that has been solid all year and has only gotten stronger throughout the season is left-hander Chris Shaver. He began the year at Daytona and did not allow a run or walk in 8 2/3 innings, all the while notching 10 strikeouts. Shaver has given up just seven earned runs in his last eight starts and his 5-5 record does not do his 2.27 ERA justice.
“He’s been outstanding,” Listach said of Shaver. “He’s got a good fastball, 90 and up, mixes it in with a slider that he throws into righties. He gets a lot of groundballs. He’s got really good endurance and can keep you in the game for seven or eight innings.”
One pitcher who consistently draws more interest than many starters is right-hander Sean Gallagher. The 20-year-old exploded onto the scene last year at Peoria, when he won 14 games en route to being named the Cubs’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year by the organization.
Gallagher began 2006 in Daytona and was 4-0 with a 2.30 ERA in 13 starts. That earned him the promotion to Double-A, where walks began to wash ashore. Gallagher allowed 10 free passes in his first two starts before settling down over his next three outings. The walks resurfaced on Thursday in the team’s loss at Mobile, when he walked six in five innings.
Overall, Gallagher has won four of his six starts at Double-A and has a 2.60 ERA and .236 average against in spite of the periodic increase in walks.
“He’s thrown strikes,” Listach said point blank when asked of Gallagher’s turnaround from his first two Double-A starts. “He’s thrown his breaking ball for strikes. He was outstanding recently. He had 12 strikeouts and really overpowered them (Chattanooga).
“He hit his spots, located his fastball and threw his changeup more than I’d seen him throw in his last five starts. He mixed up all three of his pitches and really did a good job. I was really impressed with him.”
Listach knows that his success as a manager only goes as far as his players and his coaching staff. “I haven’t done anything yet,” he says modestly.
He believes that being a former major league player such as himself, he can find some form of balance between playing major league baseball and telling his players how to get to the big leagues, and stay there.
“I think there’s something to be said for that,” said the Natchitoches, La., native, who played college ball at Arizona State. “I’m not saying every manager should have played in the big leagues because it’s not particularly necessary. There are a lot of guys who didn’t play there that are really good managers and do a good job here, and could do a good job up there.
“But, I think you gain an instant respect from playing there. Hopefully, these guys can learn from how I do things and how I run the ship. We’re going to play the game the right way. We’re going to be professional. We’re going to hustle, and we’re going to run every ball out.”
Amen to that.