The 2021 Major League Baseball (MLB) season has reached its designated July midway point with the All-Star break — with weeklong festivities like the All-Star Game, Home Run Derby, MLB Draft, Futures Game and Celebrity Softball Game all happening in Denver, Colorado.
The league’s breather offers several days off for ballplayers before returning to the extensive 162-game regular schedule (not including spring training or playoffs) — with most of the 30 teams out of action from July 12 through July 15.
There are several ballplayers, and a manager, that have their roots in The Laker/Lutz News coverage area.
Here’s a closer look at these locals’ performances, halfway through the Major League season:
Austin Adams, San Diego Padres, pitcher
Local tie: Zephyrhills High School
Austin Adams has solidified himself as one of the more important bullpen pieces for the contending San Diego Padres (53-40, third in NL West), posting a 1.71 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 48 strikeouts across 31.2 innings pitched in 30 appearances.
Much of the credit for his success harkens to his high-spin slider, which he throws nearly 89% of the time and averages about 87 mph.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound righty has struggled with command and control at times (issuing 19 walks and MLB-leading 14 hit batters), yet he’s only allowed 14 hits, with batters averaging just .137 against him.
The 30-year-old has had stints in the Majors since 2017, also playing for the Washington Nationals and Seattle Mariners.
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 pedigree led to a baseball scholarship at the University of South Florida, where he was a cog in the program’s first-ever Big East Championship final in 2012, as a junior. Adams went on become an eighth round draft pick by the Los Angeles Angels, signing for $127,500.
John Gant, St. Louis Cardinals, pitcher
Local tie: Wiregrass Ranch High School
John Gant began the season in the St. Louis Cardinals rotation, but was assigned to a bullpen role weeks ago.
It’s a role he’s flourished with strike-throwing and walk prevention.
Across 71.2 innings in 21 appearances — the second-most innings he’s thrown in his six-year Majors career — the 6-foot-4, 200-pound righty has posted a 3.52 ERA, 1.59 WHIP and 60 strikeouts, with a 4-6 record for a Cardinals team that sits fourth in the NL Central at 44-46.
Gant’s arsenal features as many as six different pitches, headlined by a sinker (38.6%) and changeup (21.4%), along with a four-seam fastball, slider, cutter and curveball, according to MLB.com’s Statcast metrics.
Like his diverse pitch selection, the 28-year-old also has gone viral on social media for altering hairstyles and facial hair during the course of a season.
He’s sported everything from a full beard and long hair to corn rows to bushy mustache to some more traditional clean-shaven looks.
Gant made his MLB debut in 2016 with the Atlanta Braves, but has played for St. Louis since 2017.
Locally, Gant starred on the Wiregrass Ranch High varsity baseball team from 2008 to 2011 — striking out over 200 batters and sustaining just three losses in four years.
He also was a member of the Wiregrass Ranch basketball and swimming teams. His father, John Sr., was a science teacher at the school and longtime varsity girls basketball coach.
Gant was selected out of high school by the New York Mets in the 21st round of the 2011 MLB Draft, where he signed for $185,000.
Nate Pearson, Toronto Blue Jays, pitcher
Local tie: Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School (Odessa native)
Labeled one of baseball’s top pitching prospects, many tabbed Nate Pearson to garner American League Rookie of the Year consideration this year for the Toronto Blue Jays.
It’s been anything but that so far.
The 24-year-old right-hander was quickly optioned to the minors in early May after firing just 2.1 innings in one big league appearance — a 7-4 road loss to the Houston Astros on May 9, where he allowed five walks, four hits and three earned runs.
Since then, Pearson exhibited up and down showings for the Triple-A affiliate Buffalo Bisons (4.74 ERA, 1.176 WHIP, 36 strikeouts in 24.2 innings).
Meanwhile, he hasn’t pitched since June 16 as he nurses a right groin strain — a befuddling injury that has him seeking a handful of different medical opinions, according to various media reports.
Measuring 6-foot-6, 250-pounds — aptly nicknamed “Big Nate,” — Peason’s regarded for a high-velocity fastball that can regularly touch 100 mph and above, along with a mid-80s slider and cutter.
He made his MLB debut during the pandemic-shortened season in 2020, so still maintains rookie-level status.
It remains up in the air if Pearson will pitch for Toronto the rest of this season, which is fighting for positioning in the uber-competitive AL East, where they sit in third place with a 45-42 mark.
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 College of Central Florida in Ocala.
Pearson was taken by Toronto late in the first round (28th overall) in the 2017 MLB Draft, signing for a $2.45 million bonus.
Oscar Mercado, Cleveland Indians, outfielder
Local tie: Gaither High School
Oscar Mercado was one of the Cleveland Indians final roster cuts during spring training, but has since worked himself back to the big league club, earning a promotion from Triple-A Columbus on June 28.
The 26-year-old has cobbled together a respectable .281/.343/.500 line with nine hits (including a homer, triple and two doubles), five runs, four RBIs, three walks and nine strikeouts across 32 at-bats in 12 MLB games, along with two stolen bases. Defensively, he’s seen action in left field and center field.
The 6-foot-2, 197-pound right-handed hitter had an impressive debut season in 2019. That season 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 — finishing eighth in the AL Rookie of the Year race.
But what followed was a subpar 2020 campaign — with a paltry .128 with a .348 OPS in 86 at-bats across 36 games.
Mercado’s since worked to revamp his swing after last season’s slump, with help from the coaching staff and front office, according to various media reports.
He now appears on the right track.
A native of Colombia, 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 and ranked among the nation’s top prep middle infielders.
Following high school, Mercado was picked by St. Louis Cardinals in the second round (57th overall) in the 2013 MLB Draft, signing for $1.5 million.
He spent nearly six years working through the Cardinals minor league system until he was traded to the Indians in July 2018.
Kevin Cash, Tampa Bay Rays, manager
Local tie: Gaither High School
Unlike most other MLB managers and coaches, Kevin Cash will have on-field duties during the All-Star break.
That’s because he was named manager for the AL All-Star squad — a reward designated for leading the Tampa Bay Rays to a World Series appearance last season.
The 2021 MLB All-Star Game— otherwise known as the midsummer classic — is scheduled for July 13 at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. The game will air live on FOX at 7:30 p.m.
There, Cash will oversee 34 of the sport’s top players during the contest, including two familiar faces in Rays catcher Mike Zunino and super-utility Joey Wendle, who were both named All-Star reserves.
Cash’s encore from last year’s historic Rays campaign hasn’t been too shabby, guiding the franchise to a 53-37 record — good for second in the AL East (1.5 game back of first-place Boston Red Sox) and tops in the Wild Card race.
The seventh-year skipper has done it navigating tough team injuries (like ace pitcher Tyler Glasnow) and melding an eclectic group of rookies and veterans, with ages ranging from 20 years old (rookie infielder Wander Franco) to 41 years old (lefty veteran pitcher Rich Hill).
Likewise impressive, Cash’s ballclub entered the season with MLB’s fifth cheapest payroll at around $69.1 million — ahead of only the Miami Marlins ($58.5 million), Baltimore Orioles ($58.1 million), Pittsburgh Pirates ($55.9 million) and Cleveland Indians ($52.8 million).
Cash is regarded for his relatability to players, plus his quasi-mad scientist approach to managing, with ever-changing batting orders, substitutions, heavy bullpen usage and substitutions, unique defensive positioning and shifts — all designed to maximize the roster and play to player’s individuals strengths.
Locally, Cash spent his younger days growing up in the Valley Ranch Drive neighborhood, situated across from Lake Park in Lutz.
He 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 later starred at Gaither High School, penning that into a successful college run at Florida State University and eight-year MLB career as a journeyman catcher mostly.
Cash comes from a baseball family, as his father and uncle both played professionally, the latter reaching the big leagues in the 1970s.
Published July 14, 2021