When Jake Mauer climbed out of bed on June 9, following an all-night road trip to Montgomery, the morning paper told him that his Chattanooga Lookouts team was in third place in the Southern League East, albeit by the narrowest of margins.
A team that had gradually built up its resume to that of contender, the Lookouts on April 29 were foundering around the bottom of the division with a 10-13 record and were last in the league in home runs.
But from that point forward, Mauer’s club simply quit losing. An 18-10 record in May put them in the thick of the first-half divisional race, and a 13-3 finish to the first half nailed the thing down with surprising ease.
But the Lookouts did not rest on their laurels, beginning the second half with a 7-1 sprint out of the gate.
But it will be the final 10 games of the first half that people will remember, will write about and might well make this Lookouts one of the legendary nines in the history of the franchise that dates back to 1885.
Mauer, in his first year managing a Class AA team, isn’t sure about the historical ramifications of this team, but his pride in what was accomplished – nine wins in its final 10 games, all on the road against the two teams with whom they were battling for first, Montgomery and Tennessee (the Knoxville team).
History will record that the Lookouts won the first half by five whole games. Legend, and those who tell the tales, will record how it was done.
“It’s been a nice run,” says Mauer, knowing full well how big an understatement it was. “It’s not realistic to expect it to continue. It just doesn’t happen that way.”
How it happened this time wasn’t some fluky happenstance, nor was it the trade for a superstar slugger – although first baseman Andy Wilkins, who logged MLB time with the Brewers in 2016, made an immediate impact when he arrived on June 12.
“What I saw is that we had guys competing with one another, trying to outdo each other,” explains Mauer, who took his Cedar Rapids team to the playoffs each of the last four years in the Class A Midwest League.
“We found different ways to win. Some nights, we would only give up a couple of runs, but there were other nights where we were able to come back, and we mixed in a couple of extra-inning wins.”
One constant from Day One this season was a remarkable amount of talent at the top of the batting order, especially in the leadoff role. Only 21, Nick Gordon was known from spring training to be this team’s best player, and this week further enhanced his reputation by being selected to the United States roster of the upcoming Futures Game. Notably, he leads the team in RBIs despite hitting almost exclusively in the leadoff role.
Gordon, the Twins’ top prospect, as rated by MLB.com, has presented Mauer and the Twins with a unique challenge in that he arrived in the organization with a million expectations due to his being the son of major league pitcher Tom Gordon and the brother of a former Lookout – Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon.
But this honor, like those that have gone before, are being taken in stride.
“It’s definitely an honor, and recognition for the first half he’s had,” Mauer agrees. “He came to us right out of high school, and he’s working hard, making progress in making all the plays a shortstop has to make.
“The nice part about it is that he is still just a young man and there’s time for him to decide where he’s going to fit in.”
The confounding part of Gordon’s game is his recurring nonchalance on defense. Most notably, there was a dropped pop fly when he failed to position himself under the ball in favor of “snatching it” as it fell. Oops. Early in the season, he also would be guilty of faulty footwork, leaving him unable to put enough mustard on a throw; that has been much less apparent lately.
Gordon has also been a big part of the Lookouts’ penchant for snatching away victories in their final at-bat. During their defining 9-1 road trip, two of the wins came in their final at-bat.
But on a team that also includes the Twins’ No. 2 prospect, pitcher Stephen Gonsalves; No. 4, pitcher Fernando Romero; No. 5, Tyler Jay (injured); and No. 6, just-activated pitcher, Kohl Stewart; the player who emerged from the pack that memorable road trip was third baseman T.J. White.
On no one’s prospect list, White began the year left behind in Florida with a quad injury suffered in the final week of training camp. The third baseman, a 25-yeard-old product of UNLV, did not crack the lineup until May 15 and did not find his stride until June. Using a unique timing drill remindful of a “shake weight,” he was dialed in to the tune of a .429 average in the final 13 games of the first half, and actually hit over .500 on the final road trip.
But the all-star break was cruel to the third baseman, who has hit only .120 (3 for 25) to start the second half.
“It was quite a stretch he had,” Mauer recalls. “And he still homered for us last night. What he did was a big lift for us.”
Perhaps Mauer’s most spectacular player is right fielder Edgar Corcino (inexplicably not a ranked prospect), who was first a Lookout midway through last year when he was called up to replace then-league leading homer hitter Brian Palka. Corcino could not keep up Palka’s power output, but every other aspect of his game left little doubt he was on the short list of players who’d likely one day be big leaguers.
In one momentous week, Puerto Rico native Corcino became an American citizen, was named a midseason all-star and celebrated a first-half pennant with his teammates. The senior switch-hitter continues to hit over .300 and has yet to make an error in right field.
Mauer entrusts his pitching staff to old friend Ivan Arteaga, whom he has had with three different teams over the last decade.
Despite losing two key late-inning relievers (former No. 1 pick Tyler Jay and hard-throwing Nick Burdi), he has crafted a staff that leads the Southern League in shutouts (nine), has the second-best ERA (a sterling 3.08) and a second-best 26 saves spread out among eight different pitchers.
What catches your eye immediately about virtually every pitcher in a Chattanooga uniform is that they work quickly. Many pitchers at this level approach each pitch like there are trying to split the atom or thread a needle, where the most successful Lookouts pitchers are already on the pitching rubber, ready to go. At times, it almost seems as if the Chattanooga pitchers are attempting to “quick pitch” a hitter – until you realize that is the speed that they are comfortable working.
“Credit the coaches at the lower levels,” Mauer explains. “Not only working with the time between pitches, but also with timing issues. Up and down the system, even up to here, the organization is kind of expanding on this process.
“It also makes a difference defensively,” he points out. “Guys are sharp, ready for play as opposed to having your starter walking around the mound, taking forever. Ivan has always worked fast, and this group has really caught on.”
Among the biggest beneficiaries is right-hander Felix Jorge. Barely considered among the Twins’ top 30 prospects before the season, he posted an 8-1 record in the first half of the seasons and was ranked No. 8 by MLB.com this week when he earned a call-up to the majors directly from the Lookouts.
And on July 1, he earned the victory in his major league debut.
Mauer is enjoying his first taste of managing in the Southern League – a level he never achieved as a player.
“Cedar Rapids was a great place for me, only four hours away from home, so I was able to get away and see my family,” he admits. “The opportunity came up to come to Chattanooga, and as I looked at the roster, I had already managed most of these guys. Levi Michael and I go back all the way to Fort Myers (in 2013), so I had some familiarity with the roster. Plus, I’d known Arteaga for 10 years, and (hitting coach) Javier Valentin almost as long.
People who frequent the Lookouts’ clubhouse marvel at how low-key the Lookouts are, day-to-day, despite the frantic pennant race. That credit goes directly to Mauer, who prefers conversation to confrontation in a league that does not have replay review as a final arbiter. And even with the playoffs already in hand, the talk in Chattanooga is for considerably more.
This team seeks a ring.
“This team does not take itself too seriously,” Mauer admits. “But we have an understanding as to when to get locked in and focus. We’ve got guys here who have been in the big leagues, and they can be a big help in that area.
“Look, anybody who plays, does want a ring. Sometimes, once you get into playoff baseball, it can take a little bit of luck,” he adds, perhaps mindful of his 2015 Cedar Rapids team that swept its first two rounds and got within one win of the championship, only to fall in the best-of-five final on a pair of one-run losses, 2-1 and 3-2. It was a team very similar in make-up to this Lookouts roster – with good reason.
“That 2015 team – a lot of them are playing big parts on this team,” Mauer says. “You can draw back on past experience … we had chances to win and can argue that we should have. But our roster in September will be a lot different than it is now, and you can’t know what your strengths will be.
Mauer took Cedar Rapids to the postseason in each of his four seasons. Is his own appetite for a ring growing to the insatiable point?
“It’s not about myself, it’s about the players,” he replies. “But any time you put yourself in a position to win, you’ve got to go get it. We just try to get the players ready and they’ll take us where we need to go.”
Mauer, the oldest of three ballplaying brothers, is arguably part of the first family of Minnesota baseball these days. His brother, Bill, 37, pitched briefly in the Twins system, but baby brother Joe, 34, is the future Twins Hall of Famer. The first overall player drafted in 2001 and is rolling along in his 14th big league season in 2017.
Jake (given first name: Donald), has three kids of his own, his daughter Lauren, 8, is already a terror on the softball field while Jake is 6 and Andy is 4. His son Jake is the first a four “Jake Mauers” to be given the name at birth.
“I’m the third Jake who was born Donald,” the Lookouts manager explains.
While the skipper’s father did not pursue baseball as a career – he was only 21 when Jake was born – the previous generation featured four Mauer boys who played baseball professionally or semipro. Kenneth and John Mauer Sr. both enjoyed brief professional careers, while Jake’s grandfather (Jake) had his career co-opted by the Marine Corps and played for the Marines when he wasn’t involved in the Korean War.
And the Lookouts’ Jake Mauer credits his grandfather, his mom Teresa and his dad Jake, as all overseeing his baseball career at various stages of his life. In fact, his mom coached him the longest.
“They didn’t turn me over to an outside coach until I was 15,” says the proud son/grandson.