Two Bourne Braves Go From 'Temps' To All-Stars
By: KERRY CROWLEY, July 22, 2014
In the Cape Cod Baseball League, there are plenty of opportunities for college baseball’s best players to learn how to deal with pressure. In July, major league baseball scouts pack the stands to watch players help their teams jockey for playoff berths. In August, every day could spell the end of the summer as the knockout rounds begin.
But for a select handful, the temporary players, the most stressful moments of the season come in June, as the players labor to outlast one another and earn a coveted roster spot.
In the CCBL, there are two types of players: those with guaranteed roster spots and those on temporary contacts. The “temps” are akin to members of an NFL practice squad; they are given opportunities sparingly and used only when necessary.
For Bourne Braves field manager Harvey Shapiro, the first week of Cape League action provided the chance to feed the wolves to the lions and evaluate his temps.
One of the first players Shapiro opted to see was Joey Strain, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound right-handed pitcher who made his first appearance for the Braves on Opening Day.
“The first game, I’m not going to lie, that was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in my entire life,” Strain said. “But once you get out there and you throw the first pitch, you realize that you can actually hang with these guys at this caliber.”
To just “hang” around the Braves’ roster until the end of June was a goal for Strain, but he knew it was an uphill battle from the start.
Despite posting a 4.38 ERA with Winthrop University, Strain was granted a shot in the Cape League at the recommendation of a scout who saw him pitch against the eventual national champion Vanderbilt in early March.
“I got a call saying you can come and join our team as a temp and we’re not sure how long you’re going to be here, but we’ll use you as a seventh- or eighth-inning guy,” Strain said.
While Strain knew he would get a chance on the mound, his Braves teammate, Billy Fleming, was unsure of the opportunities he would get at the plate.
Fleming concluded his junior campaign at West Virginia with a .353 batting average, but went undrafted in the 2014 MLB amateur player draft. A Colorado Rockies scout put Fleming, who was scrambling to find a summer home, in touch with the Braves and helped him secure a temporary contract.
“I was just very thankful for the temp contract and I knew I had to come up here and improve myself,” Fleming said.
During the first week of the season, the Braves carried eight infielders on the roster and Fleming started with just two hits in his first 15 at-bats. Still, his mature approach impressed Shapiro.
“I think you grow every at-bat,” Fleming said. “You learn from certain things, so after this year, I had a pretty good approach at the plate and I just wanted to take that up here.”
As temporary players dropped off the roster, Fleming grinded out lengthy at-bats while Strain morphed into the team’s closer, using a low-90s fastball and a devastating slider to open his season with six consecutive scoreless outings and help push the Braves into first place in the West Division.
“We had eight or nine temps on the pitching staff and all of them left except (Dylan) Nelson and me,” Strain said. “Going to a smaller school like Winthrop, it’s a mid-major school, compared to all these SEC schools and ACC schools, it kind of makes you put it into perspective how you can actually compete.”
At the end of June, Strain had solidified his role in the bullpen while Fleming was just beginning to come into his own at the plate.
The sure-handed second baseman bumped his average up to .286, earning a reputation as a clutch performer at the plate after notching a team-high eight RBI and a walk-off single against Orleans.
“I wanted to get that full contract here just so I’m not on that temporary contract anymore and I just tried to play hard just so I could get a legitimate spot,” Fleming said.
In the first week of July, Strain and Fleming were rewarded with an honor they only dreamed about less than a month prior. Each player signed a guaranteed contract with the Braves.
While both surpassed expectations as temporary players, the contributions they made to the club only increased.
Fleming began the month of July 18 for 37 at the plate, while Strain worked his way out of jams with runners in scoring position against Harwich and Brewster to earn heart-stopping saves.
Less than three weeks after earning guaranteed contracts, the pair learned of a new accolade :they would represent the Bourne Braves in the CCBL All-Star Game.
Fleming and Strain are two of six Bourne Braves who received calls to join the West Division’s 25-man roster. The duo will compete on their home field at Doran Park on Sunday, July 27, in front of scouts, league officials, and best of all, their peers.
“It’s unbelievable,” Fleming said. “That’s what my goal was coming here. I wanted to make the team and I wanted to play as well as possible to give myself a shot.”
For temporary players like Fleming and Strain, the chance to make a Cape League team is all they asked for. Now, they’re playing with the best of the best, and they had to buck the odds to do it.
“Showing everyone that you didn’t have faith in me coming in, but I’m here now and I’ve done the job, it’s just something that I can put on my résumé as something that I’ve achieved,” Strain said.
For a pair that has achieved so much during their time in Bourne, it’s going to be hard to find room left on those résumés when the season comes to a close.