This rapid-fire 2020 Major League Baseball (MLB) season has been anything but ordinary — from the condensed 60-game slate to the implementation of novel rules, such as expanded rosters, universal designated hitter, seven-inning doubleheaders, and runner-on-second rule in extra innings.
That’s not even mentioning the myriad health and safety protocols pro baseball organizations have been forced to navigate amid the COVID-19 pandemic — which included all games being played in stadiums without fans.
Maybe one of the positive benefits of the new 16-team expanded playoffs format is more opportunity for several locals with ties to The Laker/Lutz News coverage area to showcase their skills and abilities in front of a national audience, with hopes of winning a World Series title this fall.
Here’s a closer look at the hometown products who may be seen this week and beyond throughout the postseason, which runs Sept. 29 through mid-October:
Austin Adams, San Diego Padres, pitcher
Local tie: Zephyrhills High School
Twenty-nine-year-old Austin Adams earned the benefit of being traded from the losing Seattle Mariners to the playoff-bound Padres (No. 4 seed National League) at the Aug. 31 trade deadline.
As it turned out, Adams’ first action in 2020 actually didn’t come until he put on a Padres uniform, as he was still nursing offseason knee surgery.
The righty looked reliable in his three late-season appearances with San Diego, posting a 4.50 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and seven strikeouts in 4 innings pitched, exhibiting top-level four-seam fastball velocity and spin rates, to go along with a signature slider.
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.
Other MLB players hailing from the Zephyrhills area are Dave Eiland (1988-2000) and Domonic Brown (2010-2015).
John Gant, St. Louis Cardinals, pitcher
Local tie: Wiregrass Ranch High School
Twenty-eight-year-old John Gant presently is on the team’s 10-day injured list (right groin tightness) and likely won’t make an appearance unless the Cardinals make a deep postseason run.
However, he played an integral bullpen role as a late-inning reliever and setup man for a Cardinals (No. 5 seed, National League) organization forced to play 11 doubleheaders after a rash of COVID-19 cases forced them to miss 19 days of competition in July and August.
In 17 appearances, the fifth-year MLB vet went 0-3, but compiled a career-best 2.40 ERA and 1.07 WHIP, striking out 18 batters in 15 innings pitched.
Gant starred 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. He also 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 and spent five years in the minors before making his big league debut in 2016 (then for the Atlanta Braves).
Matt Joyce, Miami Marlins, outfielder
Local tie: New Tampa resident/business owner
Thirty-six-year-old Matt Joyce has played a key leadership and mostly everyday role for a Marlins (No. 6 seed, National League) organization that not only clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2003, but also had to overcome an early season COVID-19 outbreak that had 18 players test positive — forcing the team to find reinforcements in its minor league system and free agent market.
The corner outfielder began the season on the injured list, but went on to post a .252/.351/.331 line with two homers and 14 RBIs in 46 games.
In the playoffs, expect Joyce to continue to get consistent playing time, particularly against right-handed pitching — which he’s made his lengthy career on.
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.
Oscar Mercado, Cleveland Indians, outfielder
Local tie: Gaither High School
Twenty-five-year-old Oscar Mercado has struggled mightily, offensively in his sophomore MLB season —posting a .128/.174/.174 line and just two extra-base hits in 86 at-bats across 36 games, as he dealt with swing mechanic issues all year long.
It’s a far cry from a showy rookie season in 2018 when 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.
Even with his struggles at the plate, Mercado has provided defensive value in the outfield and with his speed on the base paths — skills that could be put on display in the playoffs for the Indians (No. 4 seed, American League)
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. Following a storied prep career, he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals after being a second round draft pick in 2013.
Nate Pearson, Toronto Blue Jays, pitcher
Local tie: Odessa native, Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School
Twenty-four-year-old Nate Pearson entered the season as one of the most prized prospects in baseball, thanks to a fastball that regularly touches triple digits combined with multiple refined breaking balls.
The 6-foot-6 right-hander missed over a month of the season because of elbow tightness, but seems ready for the postseason after picking up his first career win on Sept. 25 — firing 1.2 scoreless innings against the Baltimore Orioles and hitting 101.5 miles per hour on the radar gun. He finished the year with a 6.00 ERA, 1.50 WHIP and 16 strikeouts in 18 innings.
The Odessa native 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. He later became a first round draft pick in 2017 out of Central College of Florida in Ocala.
Kevin Cash, Tampa Bay Rays, manager
Local tie: Gaither High School
Kevin Cash, the 42-year-old skipper, seemingly has pulled all the right strings for a Rays (No. 1 seed, American League) club that went 40-20 despite a rash of injuries to its pitching staff (they had as many as 12 pitchers on the injured list at one point).
With that, Cash appears to be a front-runner for the AL Manager of the Year award, navigating a young, unheralded roster and putting players in position to succeed via unorthodox lineups, bullpens, platoons, defensive positioning and shifts, and more. The sixth-year manager also receives high marks for his leadership in galvanizing a clubhouse that features so many players from different countries, cultures and backgrounds.
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.
Visit MLB.com for updated playoff schedules, and how and when to see these locals in action.
Published September 30, 2020