The 2020 MLB (Major League Baseball) season will be unlike any other it has experienced, thanks to COVID-19.
The condensed 60-game schedule is believed to be the league’s shortest season since 1878. Fans will have to watch the games on TV, online, or listen to the radio — as stadiums will be off-limits to them, at least initially.
There also will be myriad other social distancing and health and safety protocols, and some new rules — such as the universal DH (designated hitter) and extra innings beginning with a runner on second base.
The season kicked off on July 23, four months later than expected, after MLB elected to postpone play in early March because of the pandemic.
Though later than anticipated, and with far fewer games than expected, baseball fans will get a chance to watch their favorite teams and players battle for a postseason spot and World Series crown.
Meanwhile, a handful of players (and a manager) with ties to The Laker/Lutz News coverage area look to take on prominent, even starring, roles with their respective MLB franchise this season.
Here’s a closer look at some of the locals to watch.
Austin Adams, Seattle Mariners, pitcher
Local tie: Zephyrhills High School
Fully recovered from offseason knee surgery, the 29-year-old right-hander is expected to make a sizable impact for the Mariners bullpen, sliding into the team’s late-inning pitching or even as a closer.
Since being traded to Seattle from the Washington Nationals last May, Adams registered a 3.77 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 51 strikeouts in 31 innings pitched across 29 games. The breakout 2019 campaign was cut short after a stomach-churning moment where he suffered a torn ACL and meniscus. It happened while trying to avoid a near-collision fielding a play at first base in a late September game against the Baltimore Orioles.
Adams grew up in Zephyrhills, playing little league at Sam Pasco Park. He went on to earn four letters in baseball (and one in basketball) at Zephyrhills High School from 2006 to 2009. He posted a 2.43 ERA and 80 strikeouts in his Bulldog career.
Adams’ high school success led to a baseball scholarship at the University of South Florida, a program that had its first Big East Championship final in 2012, during his junior year.
Adams signed with the Los Angeles Angels later that year after being selected in the eighth round of the 2012 MLB Draft.
His road to the big leagues was a lengthy one, having thrown more than 250 innings across five minor league seasons before making his MLB debut in 2017 with the Nationals (from where he was traded to by Los Angeles in late 2016).
Also, Adams joins a respective list of former MLB players from the Zephyrhills area, joining Dave Eiland (1988-2000) and Domonic Brown (2010-2015).
John Gant, St. Louis Cardinals, pitcher
Local tie: Wiregrass Ranch High School
Entering his fifth big-league season, the 28-year-old right-handed pitcher is projected to slot in as the Cardinals’ setup man or late-inning option, after a strong 2019 campaign where he won 11 games and posted a 3.66 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 60 strikeouts in 66.1 innings pitched.
Gant is known for having one of the most unique windups in baseball, whereby he takes a couple left-footed toe taps, then pauses before firing off a pitch. He’s also regarded for sporting a five-pitch repertoire, including a changeup nicknamed “The Vulcan” — gripping the ball between the middle and ring fingers, garnering its name from the Vulcan salute used by Spock in the Star Trek series.
Gant moved to Wesley Chapel when he was 11, from Savannah, Georgia. He wound up starring on the Wiregrass Ranch High varsity baseball team from 2008 to 2011 — striking out over 200 batters and suffering just three losses in four years.
Gant wasn’t only involved with baseball, though.
He was a member of the Wiregrass Ranch basketball and swimming teams, and also served as scorekeeper for the girls basketball program, which was coached by his father, John Sr., then a science teacher at the school.
Gant signed with the New York Mets out of high school after being selected in the 21st round of the 2011 MLB Draft. After four years in their minor league system, Gant was traded to the Atlanta Braves, where he made his MLB debut in 2016. He was traded offseason to the Cardinals, where he has been since.
Gant has customarily spent parts of his baseball offseason training in and around Wesley Chapel.
Oscar Mercado, Cleveland Indians, outfielder
Local tie: Gaither High School
The 25-year-old Mercado is penciled in as the Indians starting centerfielder. That follows a showy 2019 rookie season where he batted .269 with 15 home runs and 54 RBIs in 119 games, adding 70 runs scored, 25 doubles, three triples and 15 stolen bases.
A native of Columbia, Mercado and his family emigrated to the United States and settled in the Tampa area when he was 7 years old.
He became a four-year starter at shortstop at Gaither High School from 2010 to 2013, leading the program to back-to-back district crowns.
As a Cowboy, Mercado was something of a prep prodigy. He was named ESPN’s No. 1 middle infielder in the nation and dotted multiple high school All-American lists — Under Armour All-American, MaxPreps Underclass All-American and Perfect Game All-American Classic and Underclass All-American.
In addition to his skills on the diamond, Mercado had a 5.0 weighted GPA at Gaither and originally planned to attend Florida State University on a baseball scholarship. That all changed when he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the second round of the 2013 MLB, electing to sign with the club for a $1.5 million signing bonus.
Mercado spent nearly six years working through the Cardinals minor league system until he was traded to the Indians in July 2018. He made his MLB debut on May 14, 2019, against the Chicago White Sox.
Also noteworthy, Mercado became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2018.
Nate Pearson, Toronto Blue Jays, pitcher
Local tie: Odessa native, Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School
Widely considered one of the game’s top prospects, the 6-foot-6 flame-throwing righty is expected to make his MLB sooner rather than later this season with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Reports out of Summer Camp indicate the 23-year-old Pearson is indeed ready for The Show, having refined breaking pitches to complement a fastball that regularly touches triple digits.
Born and raised in Odessa, Pearson starred at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School, helping the program to the Class 3A state semifinals as a senior in 2015. He wrapped up his prep career with a career 1.24 earned run average and 144 strikeouts in 101.2 innings pitched, with a 12-1 record.
Pearson went on to play college baseball at Miami’s Florida International University, then transferred to the College of Central Florida in Ocala. There, he was named the Rawlings/Perfect Game JUCO Pitcher of the Year, and subsequently selected by the Blue Jays in the first round (28th overall) of the 2017 MLB Draft, signing with the team for a $2.45 million bonus.
Pearson has proceeded to shine at each level of the minors, boasting a combined 2.19 ERA,
0.87 WHIP and 119 strikeouts in 123.1 innings from rookie ball through Triple-A.
The budding major leaguer spent a portion of the leaguewide shutdown in Tampa, training with other professional athletes at Yo Murphy Performance.
Matt Joyce, Miami Marlins, outfielder
Local tie: New Tampa resident/business owner
Through born and raised in Brandon, the 12-year MLB veteran has since made New Tampa home, living in the Hunter’s Green area and recently opening an F45 Training fitness center chain at The Walk at Highwoods Preserve neighborhood shopping center.
The left-handed hitting corner outfielder is the quintessential journeyman, having played for seven different MLB franchises, his longest tenure coming with the Tampa Bay Rays from 2009-2014.
He’s mainly played a platoon role throughout his career, almost exclusively getting action against right-handed pitchers. In recent years, he’s taken on a lesser role, as a spot starter and pinch-hitter.
The 35-year-old Joyce begins the 2020 season on the 10-day injured list, due to an undisclosed condition and having not participated in the team’s July Summer Camp activities. In more than 1,300 MLB games played, Joyce has accumulated 145 career home runs and 482 RBIs, along with a .243/.343/.432 slash line.
Kevin Cash, Tampa Bay Rays, manager
Local tie: Gaither High School
Before enjoying eight years as an MLB catcher and now manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, the 42-year-old Cash fine-tuned his baseball skills and acumen in Lutz, playing at Northside Little League and Gaither High School.
He spent his younger days growing up in the Valley Ranch Drive neighborhood, situated across from Lake Park.
Cash first hit the national scene in 1989 — then a 12-year-old second baseman for a Northside Little League team that reached the 43rd Little League World Series.
Cash would go on to later play college baseball at Florida State University and earn spots with six different MLB franchises from 2002-2010 — including earning two World Series rings with the 2007 Red Sox and 2009 Yankees, respectively.
Once his playing career concluded, Cash ventured into coaching and has been the Rays manager since 2015. He’s widely regarded as one of the game’s best for leading a Rays rebuilding effort that embraces outside-the-box strategies, such as platoons, shifts, and openers, combined with strong leadership skills in dealing with players.
Baseball is undoubtedly in his blood, as his father and uncle both played professionally, the latter reaching the big leagues in the 1970s.
Published July 29, 2020