It is always a special moment when former teammates from college or high school meet in pro ball for the first time as opponents. Knowing the foxholes that they shared together, there’s an extra level of respect that exists that is a notch above any other opponent. It’s an even deeper respect for former battery mates.
Kannapolis Intimidators pitcher Taylor Varnell experienced such a moment April 11 when the Hickory Crawdads’ Matt Whatley, his catcher from their days at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., strolled to the plate to hit in the first inning. It didn’t seem fated to happen when the Crawdads posted their lineup earlier that afternoon.
“I came into the clubhouse and I didn’t see my name in the lineup,” Whatley recalled. “So, I go, ‘OK I’ve got a day off.’ Then I see that Taylor’s pitching and I go, ‘Man, it’d be kind of fun to face him.’”
When a couple of Hickory players came down with minor ailments and were late scratches, however, Whatley was pressed into duty as the team’s designated hitter. Having already seen the lineup, Varnell, like Whatley, had thought his former ORU teammate was getting the day off.
“When he came walking up there, I was kind of surprised,” Varnell said. “It was hard not to smile a little bit at him.”
Seeing the moment at hand, Whatley tipped his helmet to the pitcher he caught for two seasons in college.
“It was fun getting to face Taylor,” Whatley said with a smile. “The last time I got an at-bat off of him was my sophomore fall (season).”
During their time together at Oral Roberts, the two held a genuine respect for each other. In fact, Varnell, who pitched at Western Oklahoma State as a freshman before transferring to ORU, already knew about Whatley when he joined the team.
“From the first time I got on campus, I knew that he was going to be a high draft pick,” Varnell remembered. “I had heard all about him. He’s great behind the dish and a good hitter. I hadn’t seen him behind the plate yet, but he was crazy good back there.”
Varnell credited Whatley, who eventually was the Texas Rangers’ third-round pick in 2017, for his strike-zone framing abilities, to which, as he said, “got me so many strikes that I wouldn’t have got otherwise.”
After his senior season, Varnell went on to become the 29th-round pick of the Chicago White Sox. Despite some ups and downs in his teammate’s career, Whatley thought the left-hander had the ability and would get a chance to go pro.
“It’s fun to see where he’s at from college until now,” said the Crawdads’ backstop. “He had the stuff, but he was a little inconsistent in college. Now, he’s way more consistent.”
Having thrown to Whatley for two seasons, Varnell knew as they faced each other that he would have to go about his approach to this hitter differently.
“It was kind of hard to attack him in the usual way,” Varnell said. “Because he knows how I like to pitch. So I tried to kind of mix it up a little bit.”
The mix of pitches got the better of Whatley in the first when Varnell struck him out. But in the fourth, Whatley found a pitch he could handle. Unfortunately, the line drive to the left side of the infield found the glove of third baseman Bryce Bush.
“It’s baseball,” Whatley said in reaction to the hard out. “Sometimes you’re going to barrel some stuff up and not get some hits.”
Varnell agreed that Whatley got the better of him the second time.
“That’s a good play by my third baseman,” Varnell admitted. “That one was on me, he should’ve had the hit, honestly.”
In getting to the pros, both players gave credit to another Crawdads alum: Sean Snedeker, the pitching coach for Hickory in 1998 during the White Sox affiliation era who later went on to Duke and then ORU.
“Sned is one of the best humans I know,” Whatley said. “He’s always wanting the best for both of us, but for everyone he’s ever coached. I couldn’t be more happy to have had Sean Snedeker as a pitching coach.”
Varnell said Snedeker, now the pitching coach at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, was instrumental in getting his potential pro career on track.
“Going into college, I was a bit of a head case,” Varnell said. “I’d speed it up too fast in my head. He would help me out with the mental part, which is what I needed.”
The two former college teammates will likely get the chance to face each other again soon. Hickory travels to Kannapolis for a four-game series May 3-6 and again May 30-June 2.
The Hickory Crawdads start a seven-game homestand Monday evening against Augusta. Below is a preview of that homestand with daily promotions, top prospects and additional notes.
Monday: Augusta (Ga.) at Hickory, 6:30 p.m. (Make-A Difference Monday, Salute to Scrubs Week - free ticket for healthcare professionals with ID Badge)
Tuesday: Augusta (Ga.) at Hickory, 6:30 p.m. (Dollar Dog Tuesday, Salute to Scrubs Week)
Wednesday: Augusta (Ga.) at Hickory, 6:30 p.m. (Kids Win Wednesday, Salute to Scrubs Week, Wine Wednesday)
Thursday: Lakewood (N.J.) at Hickory, 7 p.m. (Thirsty Thursday, Salute to Scrubs Week, NFL Draft Party)
Friday: Lakewood (N.J.) at Hickory, 7 p.m. (Salute to Scrubs Week)
Saturday: Lakewood (N.J.) at Hickory, 5 p.m. (Sanctus Real post-game concert)
Sunday: Lakewood (N.J.) at Hickory, 3 p.m. (Church Bulletin Sunday, Bark in the Park, Red Out Night)
Hickory Crawdads (MLB.com rankings) (Texas Rangers affiliate): RHP Hans Crouse (1), SS Chris Seise (12), IF Jonathan Ornelas (18), C Sam Huff (21), 3B Sherten Apostel (22), RHP Ronny Henriquez (30)
Augusta GreenJackets (San Francisco Giants affiliate): RHP Sean Hjelle (6), RHP Jake Wong (7), RHP Gregory Santos (8), RHP Blake Rivera (18), 3B Jacob Gonzalez (19), LHP Seth Corry (25).
Area connections: RHP Matt Frisbee (Enka HS/UNC Greensboro)
Lakewood BlueClaws (Philadelphia Phillies affiliate): 3B Alec Bohm (1), SS Luis Garcia (4), RHP Francisco Morales (8), C Rafael Marchan (14), RHP Dominic Pipkin (23), LHP Jhordany Mezquita (26)
NOTES OF INTEREST
RHP Ronny Henriquez was added to the Crawdads roster and made his stateside debut for Hickory last Thursday in a start at Columbia, S.C. Henriquez struck out 79 and walked eight last year in the Dominican Summer League. The Rangers had the Dominican native skip two minor league levels in his promotion to Hickory. He is also the first pitcher born in the 2000s to do so for Hickory…
RHP Cole Uvila and OF Julio Pablo Martinez were both promoted to High-A Down East last week. Along with Henriquez, OF Chad Smith joined the club…
According to MLB.com, should he get to the major leagues, Augusta’s Sean Hjelle would be equal to Jon Rauch as the tallest pitcher in major league history…
Augusta’s Jacob Gonzalez is the son of Arizona Diamondbacks World Series hero Luis Gonzalez…
Hickory’s Sean Chandler and Augusta’s Keaton Winn both pitched at Iowa Western CC and were drafted one round apart (Winn fifth, Chandler sixth) last summer…
Lakewood manager Mike Micucci was a former field coordinator for the Rangers…
BlueClaws SS Alec Bohm was the first-round pick of the Phillies last June.