Mickey Keeping Dream Alive with NL Champs

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The Ducks are the only professional baseball team to call Long Island home. Every season, they bring exciting baseball to hundreds of thousands of fans in the area. Right now though, it’s their counterparts in Queens that are making quite the splash. The Mets have put themselves just four wins away from a World Series title, winning the National League championship for the first time in 15 years.

Everyone knows that the biggest tie to the Mets from the Ducks is co-owner/first base coach Bud Harrelson. In fact, he was the only person in uniform for both of their World Series titles in 1969 and 1986. In addition, many are also aware that Ducks manager Kevin Baez played with the Mets in 1990, 1992 and 1993 as well as coached in their organization in 2007. However, the Ducks’ newest tie to the club came this past season when pitcher Mickey Jannis was signed by the Mets in July. Although he has yet to crack the big league roster, he is thoroughly enjoying the run that his parent club is on right now.

“It’s pretty unbelievable,” Jannis said by phone after the Mets clinched the NL title. “Everybody got really excited in the organization just waiting to see how it all would play out. Now, you’re seeing it every night on TV with how good they are and how good that pitching staff is. It’s pretty fun to watch. I know a few guys who aren’t with the Mets organization are excited to watch how the Mets are doing.”

Jannis’ journey to the Mets truly became possible in 2014. He had previously been used as primarily a reliever and was released from the Tampa Bay Rays organization following the 2011 campaign. However, he was given the opportunity to start with both Lake Erie in the Frontier League and Southern Maryland in the Atlantic League in 2014 and started to showcase his knuckleball even more. As a result, he combined to go 7-5 with a 3.48 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 22 starts.

The right-hander was then traded to the Ducks during the offseason and received an opportunity to start once again at the beginning of 2015. Under the guidance of Baez and pitching coach Marty Janzen, Jannis began to dominate Atlantic League hitters. He made 16 appearances (11 starts) through the season’s first two-plus months and compiled a 6-2 record with a miniscule 1.18 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 83 and two-thirds innings. He even came within four outs of a no-hitter on June 2 against York before an infield single by Wilson Valdez ended his bid at history. The Nevada native’s dancing knuckler, combined with a lower-90’s fastball, kept hitters off-balance seemingly every start.

“I think that was the first time a coaching staff knew how to use me the right way,” he recalled. “I was able to be a starting pitcher, throw during the week, sometimes by pitching in games out of the bullpen.  I was able to stay sharp that way, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I had a great season there.”

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Fortunately for Jannis, and unfortunately for the Ducks, great pitching often times means a phone call from a Major League organization. On July 1, that call came from the Mets. They signed the knuckleballer and made him the sixth Duck player signed by an outside organization in 2015. Jannis would be assigned to St. Lucie in the Advanced-A Florida State League. Often times, players usually hope to play for a team’s Double-A or Triple-A affiliate upon being signed from the Atlantic League. However, Jannis was just elated to receive that chance to showcase his talent to one of the 30 big league clubs.

“The feeling was like, ‘Finally someone is interested in me and giving me a second chance in affiliated ball,’” he reminisced. “When I heard it was the Mets, I got kind of excited because they had success with R.A. Dickey. He was a knuckleball pitcher, so they might understand me more than any other organization would.”

The 27-year-old went on to make eight appearances (seven starts) with the St. Lucie Mets. He continued to find success, posting a 2-1 record with a 2.98 ERA. In his first start, he allowed just one run over seven innings of work. Jannis was able to impress enough eyes that he earned a call-up to Double-A Binghamton in late-August, marking his highest advancement in professional baseball. He made three starts in the Eastern League. He allowed three runs in five and one-third innings in his debut and fired seven innings of two-run ball while striking out seven in his second outing. However, he suffered hard-luck losses on both. Ultimately, Jannis finished 2-3 with a 3.55 ERA in his 11 games (10 starts) with the Mets organization, an accomplishment that he was definitely happy with.

“I think there are always things that can get better and that you can improve on,” he noted, “but I think it was a very successful start with the Mets organization.  A lot of organizations will sign guys and try to fix you or do something their way where they just let me do my own thing in a way while adding little parts of theirs at times, like their workout programs or throwing programs. At the same time, they let me do what made me successful and get me to that point. I think the combination of both really helped me out.”

That formula to success also earned Jannis the opportunity to pitch in the Arizona Fall League this year. For those who don’t know, this is a league that only certain prospects in an organization get to play in. According to the league’s site, “Each Major League Baseball team sends six top prospects to the Arizona Fall League… Each August, Major League clubs hold a position draft to determine the players who will go to Arizona. Most are Double-A and Triple-A Minor League players. Each club can opt to send one player considered a Class A player.” This chance has provided Jannis with the opportunity to play with some of the best prospects in all of baseball and prove to the Mets why he deserves a spot in their organization.

“I think they feel very highly of me based on them sending me out here,” he opined, “especially because I’m such a different pitcher than everybody else in the organization. I just want to continue to improve throughout the Fall League and then use the offseason to come back to Spring Training strong and get ready for next season.”

Thus far, he has made two starts as a member of the Salt River Rafters. In his debut on October 15, he allowed three hits and three walks in three innings but ultimately surrendered just two runs (one earned). Start number two came on Thursday, and he showed significant improvement. Jannis walked just one over five innings of two-run ball, yielding five hits while striking out three. He left with a 3-2 lead, but ultimately, the bullpen could not protect it to earn him the win. Regardless of the win and loss column, the righty is simply thrilled to be pitching in such a highly-regarded league.

“I’ve just tried to continue what I did this year and continue to get better,” he claimed. “I’ve been working with the Pitching Coordinator and the Pitching Coach here in the Fall League and have a couple of things to work on. I have a big opportunity here to work on those things and start becoming a better overall pitcher.”

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Jannis has experienced a lot with the Mets organization this past season, but one of the highlights was being teammates with Mets veteran David Wright. The third baseman was rehabbing earlier this year down in St. Lucie, providing a unique opportunity to share the clubhouse with the face of the Mets. Although their time together was brief, the memory was one that the former Duck will never forget.

“As soon as he walked in the door,” Jannis recalled, “he had a big smile on his face. He just had a presence about him where you knew he was there but not in an arrogant way. He said to us, ‘I’m happy to be back on the field with you guys and happy to play and help wherever I can.’ I had the privilege of having him play behind me defensively in his first game back in the field. He actually made an error behind me, but he still came up to me and said, ‘Hey, my bad. I’ll get you next time.’ When I was on the mound pitching, every time I threw a pitch he basically was like, ‘Atta boy, atta boy, keep it going.’ I never really felt that before, especially from a Major League veteran like that who could just be going through the motions in rehab. You really felt that he wanted to be out there with the guys and that he was always behind you and supporting you, no matter what level you were at. I thought that was really cool, and you see the impact he had as soon as he got back with the Mets too.”

Ultimately, Jannis has visions of one day taking the mound at Citi Field and showcasing his knuckleball against big league hitters. He wants to be a part of the now famous starting rotation that features the likes of Jacob DeGrom, Matt Harvey Noah Syndergaard and Long Island native Steven Matz. Doing so will be no easy feat, but for the time being, his focus is simply on himself and his results.

“If I’m putting up good numbers, they’ll probably find a spot for me,” Jannis believes. “It also helps that I’m a completely different pitcher than any one of those guys. I’ve pitched in the bullpen, I’ve pitched in the rotation, and I’ve closed, so it’s not necessary that I have to be in the rotation. That might be the spot where they feel I’m most successful, but that spot’s not open because you’re going to have five great starting pitchers with [Zack] Wheeler coming back too. If I’m pitching well, they’ll find a spot for me. If not, then I just have to keep doing what I’m doing wherever I’m at.”

While every player wants to play with one of the 30 Major League organizations, the reality is that many are forced to play independent baseball to keep their career alive. Jannis did it, and now he’s been given another chance. Rich Hill did it and turned that opportunity into a spot back in the Major Leagues where he proved to be successful. It’s an experience that many hope not to face but find that in doing so, one should not judge a book by its cover.

“The Atlantic League, and independent ball overall, is really a good thing,” stated Jannis. “I think it’s underestimated sometimes by players who get released by organizations. They’re like ‘Oh man, I have to go play independent baseball now? Is that even real baseball?’ Then they get there and realize that these guys have played in the big leagues, Triple-A and Double-A ball and are still great baseball players. You get to kind of showcase yourself and do what you know makes you the best baseball player instead of being in an organization where they say they want you to play second base when you know that you’re a third baseman or an outfielder, for example.”

And if that opportunity presented itself again for Jannis, he would have no problem returning to Long Island.

“Yeah, without a doubt,” he exclaimed. “I hope it doesn’t come to that, but without a doubt I would love to go back there. The fans were great, and they were into the game. What I enjoyed most was probably the guys on the team, the coaching staff and everybody in general that works for the Ducks. I think it was just a great experience all the way around. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back.”

It’s safe to say Ducks fans wouldn’t hesitate at welcoming Mickey Jannis back either. But the thought of his knuckleball dancing around opponents’ bats in the World Series at Citi Field is quite the dream! Hopefully, he can make it a reality.

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Posted on October 23, 2015, in Feature Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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