PORTLAND, Maine — It’s April, once again.
Snowdrops and crocuses have muscled their way skyward in mud-soaked flower beds. Canadian waterfowl are goose stepping across brown grass fields at Deering Oaks Park. Winter’s dirty snow banks have melted, revealing broken shovel handles, crushed aluminum cans and forgotten dog poop.
Ahh, springtime in Portland.
It also means the city’s hometown baseball club, the Portland Sea Dogs, are back for their 30th season and the first under non-local, corporate ownership. Here’s what to expect.
The Sea Dogs, the Eastern League Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, are opening their season at home this year. They’ll play New York Mets farm team, the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, at 6 p.m. on Thursday in Portland.
Red Sox right-handed pitcher Garrett Whitlock is scheduled to make a rehab start for the Dogs. Whitlock, 28, had season-ending hip surgery in September. On Friday, Whitlock struck out six while making a rehab start for Triple-A Worcester.
Sea Dogs will also play at home on Friday and Saturday before decamping for a six-game road trip to New Hampshire.
Players to watch
Baseball America ranks Sea Dogs outfielder Ceddanne Rafaela as the third best prospect in the Red Sox farm system. The 22-year-old native of Curacao played 71 games for Portland last year, hitting .272 and tallying a .324 on-base percentage.
Infielder Niko Kavadas is Baseball America’s top pick for the Sea Dogs’ best power hitter. In 135 minor league games over the past two seasons, the hard-hitting infielder swatted 28 home runs with a .528 slugging percentage.
Left-handed pitcher Rio Gomez, the oldest Sea Dogs player at 28, is looking to get back on track after racking up a 6.55 ERA in 24 games for Portland last year.
“I think the way spring training has gone, I’m dialed in,” Gomez said. “I think I’ve completely wiped what last year was for me. This season, mentally, I’m ready. I’m locked in.”
What the skipper said
Returning Sea Dogs manager Chad Epperson led the team to a winning 75-63 season in his first year at the helm in 2022. Epperson also shepherded the Sea Dogs into their first postseason berth since 2014.
This season, he said he hope to continue the team’s winning ways but, as always, helping his young players reach their goals is priority number one.
“They all have individual goals. It’s all mapped out to them.” Epperson said. “We’re here to assist them and, so whatever goals they have set, we’re looking to meet that challenge every day.”
Keeping them healthy is also important, he said, especially when making the transition from spring training in sunny Florida, to drizzly, cold Portland.
“Everybody wants to hit 300. Everybody wants to have a sub-three ERA,” Epperson said.”I get it — it’s an emotional sport, competitive but there’s 140 games up ahead of us and keeping them healthy is the big thing.”
On field rule changes
This year, Major League Baseball has implemented a series of new rules designed to speed up the game, including a clock limiting the legal time between pitches. But Eastern League teams such as the Sea Dogs have been working with the pitch clock for eight seasons already.
Between pitches, with the bases empty, Double-A pitch clocks will be set to 14 seconds this season. That’s a one-second shorter than the big leagues. Between pitches, with runners on, Double-A clocks will be set to 18 seconds. In the big leagues, that figure is 20 seconds.
However, on opening day in Portland, with major leaguer Garrett Whitlock of the Red Sox on the mound, Major League pitch clock rules will be in effect.
Also, as in the majors, the infield shift is banned. There must be two infielders on either side of second base at the start of each pitch, and they cannot be standing on the outfield grass.
No change in ticket prices
Sea Dogs General Manager Geoff Iacuessa said ticket prices are staying the same this year and most fans won’t notice the team is no longer owned by the Burke Family.
In December, the Sea Dogs announced they were being bought by Diamond Baseball Holdings, which now owns 15 minor league clubs. Portland’s team has an agreement to remain a Red Sox affiliate at least through the 2030 season.
Iacuessa said some of the concession prices would be different this year.
“Some prices are changing but that’s just normal cost of living stuff, “he said. “We always set our concession prices every year based on what our suppliers give us a place — so some items have gone up.”
Iacuessa added there’d be a new food offering on the concourse for the 2023 season — boozy ice cream. The frosty treat contains 10 percent alcohol.
“It’s popular in a lot of ballparks and obviously for adults,” he said.
Speaking of ice cream
A February fire at a Gifford’s Ice Cream production facility in Skowhegan will not affect the availability of Sea Dogs Biscuits this season.That’s because they’re actually made by another manufacturer, under Gifford’s specifications.
“We’ve already got them here, in the freezers and ready to go,” said Iacuessa.