Chasing his dream Shank reflects on first season in Seattle Mariners’ system
BRUCE MORGAN Record Express Sports Editor
, Staff Writer
If any infielder got promoted from the Pulaski Mariners Rookie ball team this summer, it was going to be shortstop Tyler Smith.
Or, at least that’s what his teammate, 2009 Warwick grad Zach Shank, thought.
There was no denying that Smith, an Oregon State product, put up impressive numbers for Pulaski, batting .320 with a team-high 64 hits in 52 games.
But when the Clinton Lumberkings, the Midwest Single-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, came calling in late August, it was actually Shank who was summoned.
"I had no idea anything like that was coming," Shank said of his promotion on Aug. 22. "The way Tyler Smith was playing, I figured if any of the infielders got a promotion, it would be him. I think a lot of it was for defense because I can play anywhere in the infield and I think that was probably the main reason they chose me."
Whatever the reason, Shank certainly made a contribution, hitting .286 with a home run and four RBI’s while playing in eight of the Lumberkings’ final 11 games down the stretch. Playing at both second base and third base, he went to the League playoffs with Clinton, where they lost to the Beloit (Wisc.) Snappers two games to none in a best-of-three first-round series.
With that, Shank’s first season of professional baseball, after being drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 28th round in June, was in the books.
"It was a lot of fun," he said. "I would say it was a lot like summer ball, that kind of atmosphere, and every two weeks, you’d have a little bit of money because you were getting paid. I really enjoyed it. I couldn’t really ask for much more – I got to play a lot and fight my way through a slump here and there. So it was a good time."
Although he batted .370 as a senior at Marist College this spring, there were still adjustments to be made at the professional level. Shank, though, worked hard to get himself acclimated to the next level. He played at shortstop for a couple of weeks when he first arrived in Pulaski, but then played mostly at second base after Smith joined the team following Oregon State’s run to the NCAA World Series.
"It’s a little bit faster. Guys get down the line a little faster, balls are hit a little bit harder," Shank said. "I would say the biggest difference, though, is just velocity from the starting pitchers and the guys out of the ‘pen. That’s the hardest thing to get used to, I would say."
That velocity might have had something to do with Shank starting the season 0-for-12 at the plate with Pulaski. Finally in the Mariners’ fourth game of the season, he collected his first professional base hit. With Pulaski holding a 7-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth against the Bluefield Blue Jays, Shank worked the count full against relief pitcher Mark Biggs.
"I was already 0-for-3 in that game, I was in the two-hole and I think I got a 3-2 fastball that I was kinda out in front of," Shank recalled. "I just got it off the end of the bat and flared it into left field over the shortstop’s head for a single."
His average climbed as high as .294 following a 1-for-3 game in a 3-0 shutout win over the Bristol White Sox on June 29, and then about a week later, Shank’s first home run snapped a 1-1 tie in the top of the ninth inning against the Princeton Rays and was the difference in a 2-1 win for the Mariners.
Overall in 52 games with Pulaski, he hit .230 and tied for the team lead with five triples. Shank also hit 11 doubles and tied for second on the team with 30 runs scored.
"I’m not discouraged by how I hit, but I expect more from myself, I would say," Shank said. "I feel like I didn’t hit as well as I could have, but I also feel like I didn’t get some breaks. There were a few times where I was hitting balls well and they just weren’t finding holes. But I still think if they had, I would still wish I had hit better. I just try to use it as a learning experience, kinda, and move on from there."
Over the course of the season, Shank and his teammates hit well enough to punch their ticket to the Appalachian League playoffs. Although Shank would miss Pulaski’s playoff run, due to being called up to Clinton, the Mariners went on to snap a 22-year championship drought, sweeping the Greeneville Astros in the finals to earn their first crown since 1991, when they were an affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.
"I would say probably clinching the playoffs with Pulaski (was the biggest highlight)," Shank said. "Unfortunately, I didn’t get to finish the season there with them, but that was exciting. We had a whole bunch of guys who were just great teammates and it was a great accomplishment and they went on to win it … I wanted to be there with those guys, but it was nice to get my feet wet in A-ball."
Shank found out that he was headed to A-ball following Pulaski’s 6-3 loss to the Elizabethton Twins on Aug. 22. With his aunt and grandfather in town to watch him play, the three of them got about 10 minutes away from the ballpark on their way to a restaurant for a dinner when Shank received a phone call telling him to report to manager Chris Prieto’s office at Calfee Park.
The Mariners’ trainer and a teammate had both called earlier and offered their congratulations, so Shank had an inkling that it might be good news.
"I kinda figured I was getting moved up, but I had no idea where to," he said. "I kinda thought it would be the other Rookie team, up to Everett. But then (Prieto) told me I was going up to Clinton and I was nervous and surprised and happy all at the same time."
Somehow, he had to find a way to get some sleep that night, knowing that he had to leave the hotel at 4:30 a.m. the next morning. Shank caught a connecting flight to Atlanta, Ga., then flew to Moline, Ill., where he met the Lumberkings’ trainer and drove to Clinton. Just a few hours later, Shank was in the lineup playing second base and batting ninth, going 1-for-3 in his first Single-A appearance.
"It was a long night," he said.
In Clinton, Shank was a teammate of right fielder Gabriel Guerrero, a relative of former big-league star Vladimir Guerrero. The younger Guerrero mashed a long home run on Sept. 1, and then the following night he and Shank went back-to-back in a 15-6 loss to the Cedar Rapids Kernels.
"The game before, (Guerrero) just hit a monster home run. So I’m coming up thinking, like, ‘How am I supposed to hit after you just did that?’" Shank laughed. "I told him, ‘Hey man, if I’m hitting behind you, keep it to singles because I can hit singles.’ Then the next night, he hits a home run and then I hit a home run right after him. So it was kinda funny."
Following the Lumberkings’ playoff ouster at the hands of the Snappers, the players had exit meetings before heading home for the off-season. Unfortunately, Clinton manager Eddie Menchaca had seen Shank play only a few games by that point, so there was a small sampling of time to form evaluations.
"He didn’t really have much to say," Shank said, "but overall I think they like the way I play defense and they said I take good at-bats, I battle when I’m hitting. So I don’t know … They just said, ‘Keep grinding it out.’ Hopefully next year, I hit a little bit better and we’ll see where that goes."
Where he ends up in 2014 in the Mariners’ system could depend on how he performs in spring training.
"Hopefully, I have a decent spring training and make a full-season team," Shank said. "That would be ideal. But I have no idea what they’re thinking … I think (Clinton or High-A affiliate High Desert) would kinda be the most realistic, and then hopefully halfway through the season, I’m playing well and maybe get moved up to either High-A if I’m in Clinton, or Double-A if I’m in High-A. That would be my hope."
More SHANK, page B-8