Short season, no summer ball make staying sharp a challenge

Published 3:48 pm Tuesday, June 23, 2020

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If all had gone as he hoped, Elijah Cabell and his Florida State teammates would have been playing for the College World Series championship this week.

Instead, Cabell treks to a ballfield in his neighborhood in Winter Park, Florida, most days to work on his game in solitude.

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He hits baseballs off a tee into a net. He plays long toss by himself, throwing balls out to a fence until his bucket is empty, picking them up and doing it again.

Sometimes his grandpa throws batting practice and they play catch. Other times, guys he grew up with stop by and hit him flyballs and grounders.

“You have to improvise,” the Seminoles’ outfielder said. “That’s what I’ve been doing, staying socially distanced, and having fun doing my own thing.”

College players across the country have been mostly idle since their seasons abruptly ended in mid-March as the nation began feeling the full impact of COVID-19.

They went home, took their classes online, and were left to their own devices for strength and conditioning and baseball training.

Though coaches stay in contact and give them programs to follow, players might not get the full benefit because gyms in their hometowns have been closed. Opportunities to get live at-bats or to face live batters are limited because most summer leagues are shut down.

Clemson coach Monte Lee said his staff’s primary concern has been figuring out how to reintroduce the rhythm of baseball life to players when they return to campus, hopefully in August.

Players have said they expect fall practices to be more intense and competitive because everyone will be eager to go after the layoff.

Not so fast, Lee said.

Lee has studied how NFL and Major League Baseball teams have prepared their players to return after seasons have been paused because of labor disputes, the closest comparison he can find to the pandemic.

Ramping up should not be a quick process, Lee said, because dormant players are estimated to expend less than half the energy they normally would each day because of pandemic restrictions keeping them at home.

Lee said Clemson probably will spend eight weeks this fall simply reintroducing the fundamentals of practicing and proceed slowly in weight training.

“We’re basically going to start from ground zero,” he said. “We’ll make sure they’re ready to play baseball before we start playing baseball.

Everybody is going to be gung-ho about getting right back in and playing baseball again, but if we do that, I’m afraid we’re going to have a spike in injuries.”

Meanwhile, some of the nation’s top players do their best to stay sharp.

Oregon State second baseman Jake Dukart and his brother, Thomas, who will join the Beavers as an outfielder in the fall, lift and do baseball drills together and their dad throws batting practice at a field near their house.

Minnesota second baseman Zack Raabe works out at a family friend’s home gym in Forest Lake, Minnesota, and has his dad throw BP in a cage set up in another friend’s pole barn.

Florida outfielder Jud Fabian takes BP in a cage in his family’s attic and catches fly balls in a vacant lot behind his house in Ocala, Florida, prompting neighbors to call the Fabians “the sandlot family.”

Ohio State pitcher Seth Lonsway splits his time between Columbus and his hometown of Celina, Ohio, and drives to a Cincinnati-area training facility twice a week.

He also goes back to his high school to do additional work. Lonsway said the downtime is not entirely a negative thing.

“A lot of guys, myself included, save a year of wear and tear on the body,” he said. “Pro teams and college teams are looking at it like, ‘OK, we missed the whole season, but players can use this time to get their bodies back to 100% and not tear up their bodies like they would in a regular season.’ You can attack things you want to work on.”

Raabe, Fabian, and Cabell said they are lucky because they found teams to join for a short summer season.

Raabe will be with Green Bay in the Northwoods League. Fabian accepted a spot with Orlando in the Florida Collegiate Summer League. Florida State’s Cabell is on a team formed on the fly by the TNXL Baseball Academy in Ocoee, Florida.

Dukart and Lonsway had planned to be in the Cape Cod League before it canceled its season for the first time in 75 years.

Cabell was having a breakout year and Florida State was 12-5 and winner of three straight when the college season ended.

One of those wins was against top-ranked Florida, the Gators’ only loss and the Seminoles expected to contend for a second straight trip to the CWS in Omaha, Nebraska.

Cabell led the team with seven home runs and 28 RBIs. He was draft-eligible, but when he wasn’t selected he began pointing toward 2021 with the Seminoles.

In addition to playing with the TNXL team, Cabell will keep doing his rudimentary drills at his neighborhood field, occasionally drive the 30 minutes to Ocoee to take BP, and do yoga or bodyweight workouts.

The rest of the time he spends enjoying his family, doing jigsaw puzzles, fishing, swimming, or reading Christian books.

“I don’t play video games and I don’t like staring at the TV,” Cabell said. “I try to be productive. If I do watch TV, I’m watching a film about baseball because I miss it so much.”