HARLINGEN — It was a good opportunity to sweat as the Roadrunners began their push toward the ULB season opener May 31, traveling to face the WhiteWings for an 11:05 start on a sweltering day.
Fans of the ballclub will recognize many of the faces out there in red and blue, but Monday one totally trusty mug was to be seen in a WhiteWing uniform instead of his customary Edinburg one.
Eric “Gonzo” Gonzalez, the last remaining original Roadrunner, ended up with Harlingen over the winter after nine seasons in town, and he and manager/friend Vince Moore joked about the jolt before the scrimmage game.
“Yeah, it took some getting used to, really,” said Gonzalez, who hit just .228 last season. “But after a few days, it’s just baseball, I guess. It was a better deal for me and I am closer to La Feria, so that’s cool.”
Moore, who played with Gonzalez on the league champ teams way back when and then became his manager with the Coyotes and then ‘Runners, was reflective about the situation, although he managed to get in a few good barbs. Gonzalez was a long-time fan favorite and perennial winner of the club’s “Mr. Roadrunner” award.
“He meant a lot to the team but that’s the way it works out,” Moore said. “Now we know we will have a fight on our hands every time we play this team. Maybe literally!”
This year’s Roadrunner group welcomes back several starters, including infielders Carlos Hereaud and Wilmer Pino, first baseman/outfielder Robert Matlock, catcher Osiel Flores, and outfielder Vincent Blue.
But there are also newcomers galore, including Monday’s starting pitcher Wardell Starling, who spent six years in the Pittsburgh Pirates chain. The strapping 220-pound righty had a good workout although he did allow a three-run homer.
“Right now, it’s more important for me to make my pitches and get the feel of my new team and league,” said Houston native Starling, who underwent arm surgery last year but figures to be in the rotation for the ‘Runners. “My velocity is improving and I threw a lot of strikes today, so that’s good.”
Along with Starling, Moore will trot out veterans Tim Haines, Aaron Guerra and Eric Montoya in 2010. Montoya is ready to work after a particularly busy offseason regimen.
“I came in here in better shape than last year and that will help me stay healthy, I think,” said the vet, who won five times in 2009 for a playoff team. “I am at about 170 right now, down from 185, and I feel like I can have a really good season.”
Hereaud and Pino will start somewhere in the infield, with the group of Felix Molina, Wilson Batista, and Jeff Brewer competing for time. Blue and Matlock started in the outfield against Harlingen with lanky new face Ambiorix Concepcion in right field.
Eight new pitchers are in camp right now, including Mike Reeves, who has been in independent ball for six seasons. The Kansas native hurled for Oklahoma University and last year played pro ball in Canada.
“I can start or relieve, doesn’t matter to me,” said Reeves, who was a closer in 2009. “It looks like we have a lot of good guys on this team and though this is my first time down here to South Texas, so far I really like it…especially the food!”
The Roadrunners begin the regular season Monday at The Stadium, and will play their first 14 games at home before striking out on the road in mid-June. Moore said that though the offseason was hectic, he is set to take the team to the playoffs again.
“It’s so early, we can’t really tell much because we are all trying to get back into playing shape,” said the sixth-year manager. “But my initial thought is that we have enough talent to be very good.”
NOTES: The squad started the season off with a 10-inning win at Robstown Thursday over the Coastal Bend Thunder. Julio Castro saved the 8-6 victory with good work in the 10th as the ‘Runners began the year with a nice triumph.