Jupiter, Fla. — Anyone following the Tigers has heard about the strong collection of pitching talent leading Double-A Erie to the cusp of the Eastern League playoffs.
But the hard-charging Lakeland Flying Tigers could join the SeaWolves as Detroit affiliates playing playoff baseball next month in the minors.
Lakeland’s late surge in the High-A Florida State League has been in large part because of its leadoff hitter Brock Deatherage, who has always been potent on the bases — if he could just consistently get there.
Lately, the center fielder has been fighting his aggressive football player mentality and making that happen, cutting down the strikeouts some and reaching base more.
“I’ve kind of gotten myself in a hole a few times from being so aggressive,” Deatherage, 23, said last week. “I’m just definitely trying to slow things down. Just working on repeating the swing and trying to feel comfortable in the box, doing the same thing every time, so that way you’re always on time.”
For the Flying Tigers, his better timing has come right on time. Entering Sunday Deatherage had hit safely in eight of the last 10 games, though his batting average still sat at .230.
Getting on base is truly where Deatherage makes his offensive impact, leading the FSL with 43 stolen bases — 17 clear of the league’s next-best total.
“This is honestly the first season that I’ve actually took initiative to want to get better and want to steal a base every time I got on,” Deatherage said. “That’s the one thing that I think about when I get on base is try to get to the next base any way possible.”
Meanwhile, Lakeland is in overdrive, sweeping a doubleheader Friday for its seventh straight win and 11th victory in the last 14. Lakeland fell to Tampa 6-5 on Saturday.
With nine games remaining, there are two avenues to advancing to the playoffs: Edging out Dunedin for the North Division second half title or finishing in second place in the full season standings. Entering league play Sunday, Lakeland was a game back of Dunedin in the second half standings and is tied for the second place in the full season standings.
Erie, however, leads the Eastern League’s Western Division by three games overall, but is in danger of missing the playoffs anyways because it may not win either half. Erie leads Bowie by one game for the second half title, but if the SeaWolves get passed there, they won’t be going to the playoffs — overall division championship or not.
For Lakeland’s surge, Deatherage’s aggressiveness has been key, manager Andrew Graham said.
“He’s special on the bases — he’s exciting,” Graham said. “He’s naturally aggressive, which is great. I’m just trying to teach him times to run.”
A former Division I defensive back football recruit, Deatherage is also bringing his manager along to his side at times.
In a June game against Jupiter, Deatherage was on third base after reaching against Marlins prospect Humberto Mejia.
With two outs, Deatherage noticed the catcher was being lax with his throws back to Mejia and sensed an opening.
“I saw that catcher dropping down to a knee and lobbing that pitch back, and for some reason, something clicked into my brain, and I looked back at Graham and said ‘Graham, I got it,’” Deatherage said. “He said not for this pitcher, he’s too quick, and I said, ‘No, not on the pitcher, the catcher.’ “He started watching it on the next pitch, and he said, 'Well it’s on you. If you got it, you got it.’”
Deatherage dashed home, Lakeland’s only run until Kody Clemens hit a walk-off three-run homer in the ninth, scoring Deatherage for a second time and giving the Flying Tigers a 4-2 win.
Clemens, a third-rounder, and Deatherage, a 10th rounder out of North Carolina State, were drafted together last summer and blew through the Midwest League, helping West Michigan to the playoffs.
After a brief taste of the FSL last year in Lakeland, they returned there this season.
While Clemens has earned a late-season promotion to Erie, his friend Deatherage is staying behind.
They have plans to hunt together this offseason, and Deatherage wants to one day prove to Clemens the virtue of North Carolina barbecue over Texas fare, but that will have to wait.
For now, Deatherage is still working on the offensive improvements needed to put his raw talents and baserunning instincts to work.
“It’s obviously been tough,” Deatherage said. “My first full season, it’s something that’s new to me, something different for me. Obviously, based on numbers, I haven’t had the year I wanted to have.
“It’s a learning process. Hopefully, I have a long career, so you learn as you go.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.