Looking back, the 2021 Major League Baseball (MLB) season brought some normalcy to the sports world, with a full spring training slate, the traditional 162-game regular season and fans once again allowed to return to the stadium stands.
There were lingering signs of the COVID-19 pandemic, however.
For instance, the Toronto Blue Jays began the season playing “home” games in Dunedin — and then Buffalo, New York — amid Canadian-U.S. border restrictions. They eventually returned to Toronto in late July.
Meanwhile, a coronavirus outbreak hampered the Boston Red Sox between parts of August and September, where a dozen players and two members of the team’s support staff tested positive.
Even so, there were just nine games postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks across the league the entire season.
As the big league season went into full swing, several pro ballplayers with roots in The Laker/Lutz Newspaper coverage area made notable impacts in one way or another.
Here’s a rundown on those with local connections.
Austin Adams, San Diego Padres, pitcher
Local tie: Zephyrhills High School
It was a tale of two seasons for Austin Adams.
Before the mid-July All-Star break, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound righty posted an impressive 1.71 ERA in 31.2 innings, but slumbered in the second half of the year, with a 7.71 ERA in 21 innings.
Adams, 30, completed the campaign with a collective 3-2 win-loss record, 4.10 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 76 strikeouts in 52.2 innings pitched, and pitching shutouts in 52 of his 65 appearances.
His late-season struggles represented a microcosm of the San Diego Padres, who went 79-83 after going 53-40 in the first half of the season and 26-43 in the second half.
Adams also made some interesting baseball history this season.
He set a new MLB record for the Live Ball Era (since 1920) for most hit-batsman in a season — with 24.
The reason for the plunks isn’t intentional, but rather due to his heavy-moving slider, which he throws about 87% of the time.
Besides his struggles of late, Adams earns praise for strong advanced metrics against opposing hitters, with elite marks in average exit velocity, barrel percentage, whiff percentage, hard hit percentage, strikeout percentage and fastball spin rate.
Adams grew up in Zephyrhills and played Little League at Sam Pasco Park.
He went on to earn four letters in baseball, as well as one in basketball, at Zephyrhills High School from 2006 to 2009.
Adams’ high school pedigree led to a baseball scholarship at the University of South Florida, before entering pro ball as an eighth-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Angels in 2012 MLB Draft.
John Gant, Minnesota Twins, pitcher
Local tie: Wiregrass Ranch High School
John Gant experienced a respectable 2021 campaign serving a variety of pitching roles between the St. Louis Cardinals and then the Minnesota Twins, who acquired him in a July 30 trade.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound righty had a 5-11 record, 4.09 ERA, 1.51 WHIP and 92 strikeouts in 110 innings.
The season didn’t end as hoped for the 29-year-old Gant, however.
He went 1-5 with a 5.40 ERA over his last seven appearances, and ended the year on the 10-day injured list with a mild right groin strain — this, after he missed time with a left abdominal strain.
Although he ended the year on the injured list, he’s expected to be ready for the start of spring training in 2022.
Gant’s arsenal features as many as six different pitches, headlined by a sinker (37%) and changeup (21.4%), along with a cutter (19.6%), four-seam fastball (11.8%), curveball (5.6%) and slider (3.1%), according MLB.com’s Statcast metrics.
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.
In the past, Gant has spent the baseball offseason training in and around the Wesley Chapel area.
Oscar Mercado, Cleveland Indians, outfielder
Local tie: Gaither High School
Oscar Mercado is still trying to live up to his strong rookie campaign in 2019.
After a substandard 2020 season — .138 batting average in 36 games — Mercado bounced back to a more respectable showing this time around after earning a promotion from Triple-A Columbus in late June.
In 214 at-bats across 72 games, the 26-year-old Mercado posted a .224/.300/.369 slash line, with 18 extra-base hits (including six home runs), seven stolen bases, 19 RBIs, and 27 runs scored.
In earning regular playing time, the 6-foot-2, 197-pound Mercado also exhibited versatility, making starts in all three outfield spots — the majority in centerfield.
Some other positive signs of improvements included notably cutting his strikeout rate (17.6% in 2021, down from 29% in 2020) while upping his walk rate (8.8% in 2021, 5.4% in 2020).
A lingering question remains if Mercado will be on the Indians roster in 2022, as he’s out of minor league options, which would allow him to be sent to the minors without first being subjected to waivers.
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 the St. Louis Cardinals in the second round (57th overall) in the 2013 MLB Draft.
Nate Pearson, Toronto Blue Jays, pitcher
Local tie: Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School (Odessa native)
Nate Pearson spent the bulk of the season in the minor leagues, but became an integral member of the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen as a September call-up, as the team fell just short of a playoff berth in going 91-71.
He posted a 4.20 ERA, 1.73 WHIP and 20 strikeouts in 15 innings. (This included a stellar 3.09 ERA in 11.2 innings across 10 appearances in September.)
The 6-foot-6, 250-pound righty is known for one of baseball’s highest-velocity fastballs, averaging 97.8 mph on his four-seamer, to go along with an 87-mph slider and seldom-used curveball and changeup.
Going forward, Pearson is expected to take on a larger multi-inning role with the team, contingent upon his status with a groin injury that set him back over the course of the 2021 campaign.
Expectations remain lofty on the 25-year-old flamethrower, as he entered the 2021 season as the Blue Jays top-ranked prospect and the sport’s No. 10 prospect overall, according to MLB.com.
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.
Pearson went on to play college baseball at Florida International University, then transferred to the College of Central Florida.
Pearson was taken by Toronto late in the first round (28th overall) in the 2017 MLB Draft.
Kevin Quackenbush, Los Angeles Dodgers, pitcher
Local tie: Land O’ Lakes native
Kevin Quackenbush’s showing in the majors this season was very brief — appearing in one game and firing just a third of an inning in a Los Angeles Dodgers 8-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels on Aug. 8.
It represented the 32-year-old’s first MLB action since 2018.
Quackenbush since elected for free agency in early October, after being outrighted off the Dodgers 40-man roster.
Quackenbush was a staple of the San Diego Padres bullpen from 2014 to 2017, then bounced around to a few other clubs including the Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals.
Across a six-year major league career, he’s posted a 4.41 ERA, 1.341 WHIP and 187 strikeouts across 209 innings in 204 appearances.
Quackenbush brings the presence of a hard-nosed reliever, as a bearded, 6-foot-4, 235-pound athlete. His arsenal features three pitches — a four-seam fastball, curveball and slider.
A Land O’ Lakes native, Quackenbush attended Tampa Jesuit High School and the University of South Florida, where he was the team’s closer and a second team All-American. He was an eighth-round draft pick of the San Diego Padres in 2011.
Published October 27, 2021