Staten Island Progress Report III

Colin Curtis has been better in the clutch

Keeping our subscribers up to speed on the prospects, one of our Staten Island beat writers gives his progress report to date on Jonathan Hovis, Rolando Japa, Colin Curtis, and Edgar Soto through Monday's contest in part three of the Staten Island Progress Report.

Jonathan Hovis

A former closer, he slid into the role of setup man to accommodate Nick Peterson, who was one of the Yankees named to the All-Star team. But Hovis, who now exits the bullpen with Jay-Z's "Public Service Announcement" blaring since his teammates have nicknamed him "Hov," has been as impressive as Peterson and could be considered the eighth inning closer.

Holding a 5-1 record, pitching to a 1.73 earned run average and holding opponents to a .210 batting average, he has dominated thus far.

When he spoke to PinstripesPlus in July, after having made just seven appearances, Hovis said he hoped that his repertoire would make him an ideal setup man and allow him to induce a lot of ground balls to escape potential jams.

"I look for early contact and I want to get them out with as few pitches as I can," he said. "Hopefully I can get a lot of ground outs and induce some double plays when we need them."

With his sidearm delivery and heavy sinker, the 22-year-old has done just that. He has yet to surrender a home run, 75 percent of his outs have come via the ground ball and just eleven batters have been able to elevate the ball against him.

In the team's September 3rd win over the Oneonta Tigers, Hovis replaced Tim Norton in the sixth inning (of a seven-inning game) and was asked to protect a 2-0 lead, inheriting a mini-crisis with two runners on base. The right-hander quickly induced two ground balls to third base and both he and Norton's ERA escaped unscathed.

"It's definitely been a lot of luck," said Hovis of his success. "I've been fortunate to have a lot of good defensive players behind me. When I can get the ground balls, these guys in the field have made the plays."

He feels that in his time spent working with Pitching Coach Carlos Chantres, he has gained more command of the sinker and improved both of his complimentary pitches.

"The changeup is getting better," he said. "I'm throwing it a lot more than I did in school. And the slider has gotten a little sharper. I want to get it to where I have absolute confidence in throwing all of them."

He wants to work on keeping the ball down, working both sides of the plate more effectively and getting better against left-handers, although he's held them to a .234 average.

Rolando Japa

Japa, who got off to a strong start this season then fizzled, has not pitched in over a month and doesn't expect to return until next week.

The right-hander, who has made it as far as Tampa in the organization, was sent down from Charleston after struggling to a 2-7 record with a 5.01 ERA. After pitching well in June, holding opponents to a .091 on-base percentage, he fell apart in July, giving up 28 hits and 15 walks in 23 innings before he was shut down after being diagnosed with elbow tendonitis.

Japa, however, says that his struggles had nothing to do with the injury as he was pulled from the rotation immediately when the injury was discovered.

"My problem was my control," he said through Edgar Soto, who served as a translator. "My delivery, sometimes it isn't good and I can't locate the pitches where I want to. I had it going good for a while at the start, then I just went back to what I was doing wrong."

He does, however, see the silver lining and feels as though the injury could have been a blessing in disguise. He said that sitting out and observing his teammates pitch - as he did from the stands on Sunday, taking pictures and charting pitches - he was able to learn from them and with that, he claims to now know what changes need to be made to his game.

He is confident that when he returns, he will be able to utilize his full arsenal (curveball, changeup and a fastball that has reached 94 MPH this season) and pitch effectively.

"My arm is feeling good right now," he said. "There is no problem. When I get back, I'll be fine and I'll be ready to do what I can to help the team."

Japa, the locker room jokester whom his teammates consider a laugh-riot when he tries to speak English, said that for the rest of the season, he'll look to apply what he's learned and hopes to continue to hone his skills throughout the off-season and winter.

"I'm happy right now," said the ever-jovial hurler while bearing a mirthful smile. "The team is doing good and I think things will go well for me too, personally."

Colin Curtis

Curtis, the first position player selected by the Yankees in the 2006 draft, has made a seemingly seamless transition to professional baseball.

After batting .335 for the Arizona State Sun Devils, the centerfielder and Washington native who grew up idolizing Ken Griffey Jr. is hitting .309 and has been one of the stalwarts of the league's most potent offense.

"Not a whole lot," he said, when asked the difference between the Pac-10 conference and the New York-Penn League. "Except for playing every day, both of them, you're just playing baseball. I've been doing that my whole life and I've had a lot of great coaches so that makes the transition a little easier."

Possessing good speed (50 steals in college) and the ability to make contact consistently, Curtis was utilized as the leadoff man when he first arrived in Staten Island but quickly proved himself to be a run-producer. Though he batted .333 at the top of the order, his offensive prowess was maximized when he moved down in the lineup. When batting fifth, behind Mitch Hilligoss and Kyle Larsen, Curtis is hitting .336 and has a .414 average with runners in scoring position. He bats .250 when the bases are empty, but .356 when there are runners on.

Asked about the disparity, he said, "When there's people on, I kind of focus in more and get zeroed in. I think sometimes when there's nobody on, I just go up there hacking and probably try to do too much."

Another positive oddity has been his ability to thrive against left-handed pitching, something he says that he has always done. The lefty is hitting .325 against southpaws but says that he doesn't alter his approach in any way and claims to have no explanation for the success.

His production did slow somewhat in August however, when he hit .290 after a torrid stretch in July during which he batted .372 and posted a 1.066 OPS.

Curtis, who doesn't consider himself to be very superstitious, blamed the offensive drought on his at-bat music. He said that when he first arrived from the Gulf Coast League, he didn't have the opportunity to chose a song and was assigned Rick Derringer's "Real American" - an anthem made famous in the 80's when Hulk Hogan used it as his entrance theme. Coincidentally and conspicuously, after switching to a tune of his preference, he fell into the mild slump.

"I didn't pick it, I didn't even know what it was, but it did a lot of good for me," he said. "I was doing well with it and when I changed, I kind of got cold so I went back to it."

Of his style, he said that he likes to mimic Griffey, both in the field and at the plate.

"I like the way he plays an aggressive outfield and I love that swing, it's just so smooth," he said of the Reds outfielder's game. "That's something I try to emulate. I used to be the spitting image of him at the plate when I was growing up, but I don't work the hips or wiggle the bat anymore. But I still try to copy his swing."

Curtis hasn't identified a specific area of his game in which he'd like to ameliorate for the remainder of the season, but he believes that he will improve gradually the more games he plays.

"I just want to get better at everything," he said. "I want to play more and being in the playoffs is going to be a good experience."

Edgar Soto

After being demoted from Charleston and struggling early in the season, Soto has improved gradually and worked his ERA down to 4.44.

The 21-year-old Venezuelan, who, in addition to a slow curveball, features a 78 MPH changeup which compliments a fastball that tops out at 93 MPH, was sent down after posting a 4.95 ERA with the Riverdogs. More disturbing than the raw numbers was the fact that he allowed 57 runners to reach base in just 36 innings pitched while appearing as a starter and reliever (six starts in eleven games).

Since returning to Staten Island, however, he has worked with the coaches on refining his control and the results have been evident in the numbers. In June, batters hit .306 against him and he walked eight men in 11 innings. In July, he held opponents to a .258 average and cut the walks down to five in 17 innings. From August to the present, he's held batters to a .193 average and has walked just seven in the five weeks.

"I'm working hard," said the lefty, now two years removed from Tommy John surgery. "I'm working on all my stuff, every day in bullpen sessions and keeping myself right mentally."

"And that's important, the mental part. Sometimes, when things aren't going well, I kind of lose focus and get negative about things. And you can't do that on the mound. You have to stay positive and remember what you're supposed to be doing."

In addition, he spends extensive hours working on fundamentals with Carlos Chantres.

Soto credits the pitching coach for helping to improve his balance, develop a more comfortable and natural motion to the plate, and find an ideal release point.

"My mechanics are a lot better [now] than at the start of the season," he said.

"Before, I was letting my arm drop too much and my release point was all wrong. I‘ve been more consistent with that lately and it‘s helped me a lot. What I have to work on is fixing my control and making sure that I throw it at the same release point every time."

Soto said that he still needs to reinforce what he's learned and plans to spend his off-season playing winter ball in Venezuela.

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