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Lake Monsters Off To A Good Start In 2019 Season

A view of baseball being played at Centennial Field in Burlington, Vermont.
Paul Stanfield
Vermont Lake Monsters

Vermont's professional baseball team is off to a good start in 2019. But when it comes to single-A pro-baseball the measure of success is less about wins and losses than it is about developing the individual players in the squad to find out which of them are potential candidates to go to the show with the club's parent team, the Oakland A's. 

The Vermont Lake Monsters won their first three games of the season before coming up short against the Connecticut Tigers recently.

From Aaron Nieckula’s perspective in the Vermont Lake Monsters' dugout, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Nieckula is in his fifth season as the manager of the Oakland A’s affiliate in the Class A short season New York-Penn League. Each of those years has brought a new crop of players taking their first steps as professional baseball players.

But while the faces are constantly in motion, Nieckula’s responsibilities have remained constant. His job is to take these wet-behind-the-ears rookies and help them move at least one step closer to reaching the major leagues some day.

“It’s Baseball 101,” he said on the eve of the season-opener last week. “You are introducing them to professional baseball. The trips, the practices, the routines, establishing a good solid footing — that’s where you start and that’s what makes it interesting at this level.”

Nieckula has worn many hats for Oakland — hitting instructor, minor league field coordinator and manager at levels up to Double A. All those experiences play a part in his managing style.

“I think I’m more seasoned, more polished [than he was five years ago in his first season in Burlington],” he said. “I know more about the game, about handling players and staff. I’ve always tried to adapt, particularly today with the analytics that are involved. But in terms of my managerial style, I think I’ve stayed pretty consistent.”

That means the Lake Monsters won’t do much bunting, or rely on the hit-and-run very often. They will be aggressive on the bases and call on the bullpen perhaps more than other organizations.

“Let’s make the routine play, let’s be consistent on defense,” Nieckula said. “Have quality, professional at-bats and put pressure on the defense by taking the extra base.

“But at the end of the day, it’s not so much about the win as it is the development of the player, improving each individual’s skill set. I have to introduce them not only to baseball, but how the organization wants them to play and be ready for the next level.”

This year’s roster is still in flux. At this point, none of the 40 players (34 of whom have signed contracts) that Oakland selected earlier this month in the free agent draft is with the Lake Monsters. But that will change in the coming days — 22 members of the 2018 class eventually passed through Burlington.

The opening-day Lake Monster roster included 13 players who had spent time in Vermont, including 10 from 2018. Among that latter group is outfielder Noah Vaughn.

“Nobody wants to repeat a season with an affiliate but I’m glad to be back in this great town,” Vaughn said. “These are great fans and a great environment.

“I’m sure the new guys are excited and a little nervous. A lot of times in minor league baseball it can be all about yourself but that’s not how we do it here. We’re looking to win games but we play for each other. That’s the environment and the tone we want to set for the new guys coming in.”

The early returns have been promising. Vermont swept two games from Tri-City at Centennial Field to start the season. In the opener, four Lake Monsters pitchers combined for a record setting 19 strikeouts (led by seven from Jhenderson Hurtado) in a 4-0 two-hit victory.

Through four games (3-1) the pitching staff had an earned run average of 1.80. Newcomers Kevin Richards began 7-for-16 with a home run while Jordan Diaz had two doubles and a homer while hitting .400.

Vermont is coming off back-to-back winning seasons, although last year’s 39-37 mark fell just short of qualifying for the playoffs. The time the Lake Monsters recorded consecutive records over .500 was 1995-96.

“The winning seasons were pretty cool but the players have to realize this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Nieckula said. “A lot of our guys have been in extended spring training [in Arizona] for the last two or three months and days down there can get a little long and a little monotonous.

“We’ve got about 10 or 11 weeks of baseball. You have to maintain a nice even pace and have a sense of delayed gratification. [Developing your skill set] is a process and it’s going to take time.

“As long as we play hard, give a good effort and maintain a good learning environment, I’d be very satisfied. Go out and play hard and have fun.”

Andy Gardiner is a former sports writer for USA Today and the Burlington Free Press, who lives in Burlington.
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