This article appears in the final 2015 issue of the Play Ball magazine, which can be picked up for free at any of the remaining eight regular season home games scheduled for Monday, August 31st through Monday, September 7th. For details on the promotions scheduled for the homestand, click here.
April 9, 2015 marked a monumental shift in Fresno Grizzlies history. The colors didn’t change and Chukchansi Park was relatively the same, but for the first time in 18 years the home team was affiliated with someone different. Seventeen years with the San Francisco Giants was done and gone as the Bay Area boys chose to move their Triple-A home in the fall up Highway 99 to Sacramento. With the Fresno Grizzlies as a Triple-A free agent, the Houston Astros evaluated their options and singled out Fresno after having their 3A team in Oklahoma City for the previous four seasons.
Despite the unfamiliar player names and Houston being a 25-hour drive from the Central Valley, the energy inside Chukchansi Park on Opening Day April 9th was unlike anything the city of Fresno had witnessed for a professional sporting event. Media was shooting live from inside the park as early as 5 AM, two street festivals welcomed fans heading towards the park, while all ballpark seats were adorned with a white Growlifornia Republic poster card, aerial performers from NOCO Dance Company were twirling into the night sky, and mascot Parker T. Bear made an impressive entrance via Valley Children’s Hospital Air George Helicopter.
The game began at 7:09 PM to 12,090 fans hoisting their white poster cards in the air as the first pitch from right-hander Brad Peacock breezed by Las Vegas shortstop Matt Reynolds. After working a clean top of the first, Fresno shortstop Nolan Fontana became the first Houston Astros’ farmhand to bat for the Fresno Grizzlies. With all eyes on him, he did something that the previous 17 Grizzlies’ clubs didn’t do much of. He worked the count and drew a leadoff walk.
Leave it to a self-proclaimed picky hitter to set a new tone for the new affiliation. Fontana, who currently leads all Pacific Coast League batters in walks, has helped the 2015 club destroy the previous franchise record for team walks in a season and is a microcosm for what the 2015 Pacific Northern Division Champions are all about. Work the count. Get on base. Force the opponent into mistakes. Play solid defense.
“[Teammate] Andrew Aplin and I talk about that all the time,” mentions Fontana leaning against the visiting clubhouse hallway during a recent road trip in Des Moines, Iowa. “When we make an out on offense, the last thing we want to do is give up a hit to someone else. All of the guys on this team challenge each other defensively and I think that’s why we’re so good overall.”
Armed with a slew of fly ball pitchers, the defense has had to make up for the least amount of double plays turned in the league with some SportsCenter Top 10 plays. A lot of fans can recall Tony Kemp making a handful of ‘hair raising’ type catches, while outfielder Andrew Aplin has piled up an array of wall crashing and backward summer salt catches. Fontana has been one of the more versatile Grizzlies throughout the season, beginning the year at shortstop, sliding to second base with the arrival of No. 1 Prospect Carlos Correa, and then also picking up time at third base. It was at third base during a game against the Isotopes where he raced straight back along the left-field foul line and made a running over-the-shoulder catch to take away a hit from Roger Bernadina.
“I’m definitely most comfortable at shortstop, but being able to play third and second the last two years has been a welcome addition,” states Nolan. “I’ve learned to simplify the differences in playing other positions. You catch the ball and throw the guy out before he touches the base.”
Breaking defense down to a Barney and Friends type level surely helps, but at the plate it’s been adjustment after adjustment that has aided the 24 year old to handle all that’s been thrown at him in his first year at the Triple-A level.
He started off well, batting .263 with five doubles, a triple, homer, and 14 walks over his first 18 games, but then saw the floor drop when he turned in a .159 mark and struck out 21 times in 69 at bats over 22 games in May.
“Early on this year I was picked apart and it took a lot of adjustments. You have to continue to refine your approach and learn the tendencies of not only pitchers, but the catchers.”
In conversations with hitting coach Leon Roberts, the left-handed hitting infielder was urged to take the “Governor” out of his approach at the plate. Become less choosy and less dependent on seeing that one special pitch, adjust for the situation, and drive the baseball.
That’s how the Texas born, but Florida raised Astros’ farmhand was able to become more than a player who could work a count. He went from one homer and eight RBI from April-May to collecting two homers and 31 RBI over the past three months.
“Ever since I can remember I haven’t had trouble getting on base, but the power element is where I thought I could improve. I know it’s in there, but you have to pick your times depending on the situation. Is nobody on base? Are guys in scoring position? The different scenarios make up the approach I take to the plate.”
That can surely be seen in the numbers. Fontana has a .207 average with four extra-base hits and 40 walks when the bases are empty, but hits .272 with 12 extra-base hits and 31 walks when runners are on base. He’s been even more dynamite with the bases loaded, going 5-9 with a homer, 13 RBI and seven runs scored.
Currently listed as the No. 24 Prospect in the Astros system, Fontana will be a key ingredient to the Grizzlies postseason success, a setting they haven’t been in since their inaugural season of 1998.
With the club lacking the power hitters that darted the lineup earlier in the year, it’ll be guys like Fontana, Andrew Aplin, Tony Kemp, Tyler Heineman, Joe Sclafani, Alex Presley, and L.J. Hoes to lead the offense in the postseason. None of those six players have more than three home runs on the season, but all but one owns an on-base percentage of at least .337 and have all contributed to help the Grizzlies lead the Pacific Coast League in runs scored all season long.
The names of these guys aren’t household in Fresno, but they’ve altered the expectations of an organization and fan base that would be able to routinely make vacation plans the day after the regular season ended. That changes this season. The Grizzlies were the first Triple-A club to clinch their division and a postseason berth, and will host the first ever playoff games at Chukchansi Park on Wednesday, September 9th and Thursday, September 10th.