Photo: Bees reliever Greg Veliz hasn’t allowed a run in three appearances since joining the team in mid-July. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)
By John Bohnenkamp
Greg Veliz is 22 years old.
“I’m not a young 22-year-old,” the Burlington Bees reliever said, laughing.
Chad Sykes is 23.
They were two members of the Los Angeles Angels’ 2019 draft class in June, and they’ve made it to the Midwest League.
Veliz and Sykes are showing that experience matters, as college pitchers who have already played a full season and are transitioning to professional baseball.
Veliz has pitched in three games with the Bees, not allowing a run in 4 ⅔ innings while striking out three. Sykes has made two appearances, allowing one hit and three walks while striking out six in four innings.
“It’s definitely a transition from college,” said Sykes, who was picked in the 10th round out of UNC-Greensboro, where he led NCAA Division I with an 0.96 earned run average this season. “Just knowing your role on the team.”
“I was excited when I was sent here,” said Veliz, a 15th-round choice out of Miami (Fla.).
They’ve shown so far just what Bees manager Jack Howell has come to expect out of college pitchers.
“Those guys come in pretty salty,” Howell said. “It doesn’t always mean that they’re going to dominate and be effective. It is pro ball, they’re trying to show what they can do. But what you notice is, they’re not as (nervous). They’re used to being in pressure situations.
“These guys have all come to us with two or three pitches that they can throw in most counts, and throw strikes.”
Veliz proved Howell’s point in last Thursday’s 5-3 win over Beloit at Community Field. In the ninth inning, he fell behind 3-1 to Anthony Churlin leading off the inning, and got Churlin to foul out. Veliz got a 3-0 count on Skyler Weber, worked the count back to 3-2, then got Weber on a comebacker. He fell behind Nick Ward 3-0, worked the count back to 3-2, then got an infield grounder to end the game.
“He probably wasn’t his 100 percent self,” Howell said. “But he’s got good stuff and he seems like a guy who has been in those kind of situations.
“These guys that come from experience, they kind of know how to get back on track.”
Both pitchers were closers at their schools — Sykes was 6-3 with 11 saves, and Veliz was 2-1 with eight saves.
“Being able to get out of jams, crazy situations, and get out of them, that experience is huge,” Sykes said. “I would say college, in general, has definitely helped me as far as being here. If I had to do it again, I would do it the same way.”
“Out of high school, I wanted to sign (to play professionally), but I’m glad I turned it down,” Veliz said. “Just from the maturing process. If I’m 19 or 20, getting to 3-0 out here, I’m probably freaking out — 3-0 counts, I’m probably walking them all. But now with experience, going to college, getting the discipline, being around older guys, being part of a team, it definitely helps. It matures you a lot.
“It makes you relax. You’ve been there a lot. You’ve been there 100 times, so you know what it’s like.”
Photo: Chad Sykes was a 10th-round pick of the Angels in the June MLB draft. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)
As college pitchers, their seasons started in late February. Sykes pitched 56 innings in 27 games at UNCG, and Veliz pitched 42 ⅓ innings in 30 games at Miami.
Their schedules in college included pitching in two games, and maybe all three, in weekend series.
Now, there is more time between appearances. Veliz had five days of rest between his three games with the Bees, and Sykes has pitched just three times since July 12.
“It’s like a blessing and a curse,” Veliz said. “Your arm feels great, but you’re not on the mound every day or every other day. You’ve got to get in side sessions more than I did in college. Sometimes in college we would throw two, maybe three times. Now we’re getting more breaks.”
“It’s almost weird having four or five days off here,” Sykes said. “In college, you’re used to throwing back-to-back days. Or throwing Friday, resting Saturday, throwing Sunday. It’s nice, but it’s also cool to throw every other day, just because you’re into it. As far as arm health, it’s definitely better, since we’ve already thrown upwards of 70 innings.”
Both pitchers were sent to the Angels’ Rookie League team in Orem to start the season. Veliz struck out 15 in 10 ⅔ innings, while Sykes struck out 15 in 9 ⅔ innings.
Veliz was added to the Bees’ roster on July 14. Sykes was promoted on July 23.
Veliz went on the road with the team for a six-game trip to play at Lansing and Great Lakes, and found that life in the Midwest League was going to be better.
“In Orem, you’ve got 35, 40 guys, so you’re crunched up on a coach bus,” Veliz said, laughing. “You would have to hit the deck. Lay on the floor.”
Then he got on the bus with the Bees.
“Leather seats, more room, Gatorade for everyone,” Veliz said. “Yeah, travel, a hundred times better.”
Both pitchers were added to a clubhouse environment with players who had been here since the beginning of the season.
“It’s exciting to move up,” Sykes said. “Coming in, you’re ready to do it, but you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know how guys are going to be. But they welcomed me, like we were here the whole year.”
“Everyone welcomed me with open arms,” Veliz said. “They were really cool about it.”
It’s been a quick introduction to the professional game, but both pitchers appreciate the moment.
“It’s a dream come true,” Sykes said. “When I was a kid, I dreamed of playing professional baseball. I never really had the expectation of playing professional baseball until a couple of years ago, when I thought this could actually happen. It’s really cool seeing it play out and happen.”
“Yeah, dream come true,” Veliz said. “For sure.”
BASEBALL AMERICA RANKINGS
Baseball America released its Best Tools rankings in the August issue.
Bees pitcher Jose Soriano was selected as having the best breaking ball in the Midwest League, according to a poll of the league’s managers.
Outfielder Jo Adell, who played for the Bees in 2018, was voted the Double-A Southern League’s Most Exciting Player.
NEW MLB.COM RANKINGS
MLB.com has updated its prospect rankings at midseason.
Adell was ranked the No. 1 prospect in the Angels’ organization, and No. 4 overall. He was ranked the top outfield prospect overall.
Six current Bees were on the Angels’ top 30 prospects list. Outfielder Jordyn Adams was No. 3. Soriano was No. 12. Infielder Livan Soto was 18th. Pitcher Hector Yan was 19th. Infielder Kevin Maitan was 25th. Pitcher Robinson Pina was 29th.
Bees alumni on the list were outfielder Brandon Marsh (No. 2), infielder Matt Thaiss (No. 6), infielder Jahmai Jones (No. 7), pitcher Jose Suarez (No. 8), pitcher Luis Madero (No. 14), pitcher Chris Rodriguez (No. 17), pitcher Oliver Ortega (No. 20), pitcher Jeremy Beasley (No. 21), two-way player Jared Walsh (24th), infielder Leonardo Rivas (No. 27) and outfielder Michael Hermosillo (No. 28).
OPERATION GRAND SLAM
Maitan and Justin Jones each had grand slams in the Bees’ 15-5 win over Peoria on Sunday.
Maitan now leads the Bees with nine home runs, and is tied for the RBI lead with 39. Jones is fourth on the team with seven home runs.
THE WEEK THAT WAS
Batting average: .245
Opponents’ average: .209
Opponents’ ERA: 5.26
Notes: Outfielder Francisco Del Valle batted .458 for the week and drove in five runs. … Maitan batted .333 for the week. … Infielder Adrian Rondon batted .308 for the week.
THE WEEK AHEAD
• Quad Cities (6:35 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday) — Another four-game home-and-home with the River Bandits, the first two games in Davenport and the second two at Community Field. The Bees are 5-6 against Quad Cities this season.
• At Cedar Rapids (6:35 p.m. Saturday and next Monday and Tuesday, 2:05 p.m. Sunday) — The final time the Bees will see the Kernels this season. Cedar Rapids has won 10 of the 14 games against Burlington.
Outfielder Nonie Williams is sixth in the league with 50 walks. Outfielder Spencer Griffin is tied for seventh with 49. … Griffin is tied for eighth in runs with 55. He tied for sixth in triples with six. … Pitcher Kyle Tyler is second in ERA at 2.75 and in batting average against at .188. He is third in WHIP at 1.00. … Pitcher Hector Yan leads the league with 117 strikeouts, while Robinson Pina is tied for third at 107. … Batters are hitting .214 against Pina, which ranks him seventh in the league.