While shortstop Jeremy Pena continues to impress in his Major League debut with the defending American League champion Houston Astros, his former University of Maine teammates are trying to make their way up the minor league ladder to reach the Major Leagues.
Among those players are Bangor’s Justin Courtney, a reliever for the New York Mets’ High Class A Brooklyn Cyclones; Moscow’s Cody Laweryson, a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins’ High-A Cedar Rapids Kernels; Hampden’s Alex McKenney, a pitcher who is in the Philadelphia Phillies’ extended spring training facility in Clearwater, Florida; Chris Bec, a catcher with Toronto’s AA affiliate the New Hampshire Fisher Cats; and Nick Sinacola, who is pitching for San Francisco’s Class A California League team in San Jose.
The 24-year-old Pena, meanwhile, already has recorded three three-hit games through his first 11 Major League games and is currently hitting .308 with three doubles, a triple, two homers and four runs batted in. The third round draft pick has also scored seven runs and has made just one error in 47 chances while being involved in six double plays.
The 25-year-old Courtney is off to a good start in the South Atlantic League with two saves and a win in his three outings to date for Brooklyn.
He has allowed four hits over 5 ⅓ innings with eight strikeouts and four walks. Opponents are hitting .190 off him.
“I haven’t given up any hard-hit balls so far this season,” Courtney said.
“I have been getting a lot of ground balls. I’ve had good pitch extension on my four-seam fastball, releasing it closer to the plate, and it has had great carry through the [strike] zone.”
He has also been throwing a curve and said his change-up has been effective against both righties and lefties. “It’s 10 mph slower than my fastball,” Courtney said.
His fastball has been averaging 93 mph and has topped out at 96, he said.
“I’ve been trying to throw all three pitches for strikes,” he said.
He said the Cyclones’ stadium, Maimonides Park, is “one of the coolest places I’ve ever played. The Coney Island Amusement Park is in the background. And the fans really get into it. It’s a great place to play.”
He enjoys the coaching staff and his teammates and said they have the league’s best bullpen even though it is primarily made up of pitchers who were either Division III pitchers in college, signed by the Mets off independent league teams, or pitchers who were released, as Courtney was by the Los Angeles Angels.
“We’re an unconventional group which is cool. We can all relate to getting passed over,” he said.
They will play a 140-game schedule and he gets to visit New York City on days off.
“I’m having a blast,” he said.
The 23-year-old Laweryson, a 14th round selection, has made three appearances for Cedar Rapids and is 0-0 with two holds. He has allowed three hits and three earned runs in 5 ⅓ innings with six strikeouts and three walks. Opposing hitters are batting .188 off him.
The 22-year-old Sinacola, a seventh round pick of the Giants, is 0-1 with a 3.00 ERA but has struck out 13 in just nine innings spanning three appearances. He has allowed only four hits and batters are hitting just .129 against him.
The 26-year-old Bec, a fifth round pick of Toronto, has one hit in 10 at-bats for New Hampshire and has a stolen base.
McKenney is recovering from shoulder inflammation but said Thursday that the shoulder feels “really good now” and that he is scheduled to see his first game action of the spring in an intrasquad contest on Friday.
The 22-year-old was 2-1 with a 1.56 ERA for the Clearwater Threshers in the Class A Florida State League last season with 17 strikeouts and 10 walks in 17 ⅓ innings. Opponents hit .172 against him.