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Yankees Magazine: Rumble in the distance

Representing the red-hot Trenton Thunder, three Eastern League All-Stars set out to prove they're ready for The Show
Yankees Magazine

Standing on the field at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium in Manchester, N.H., dripping from head to toe after a celebratory water-dousing from his teammates, Zack Zehner was a soaking wet emblem of just how quickly things can change in the Minor Leagues.

The Trenton Thunder outfielder had been added to the Eastern League All-Star roster less than a week earlier, and now, on July 12, the 24-year-old Californian was holding the game's MVP Award in his hands. His two-run single opened the floodgates in a seven-run sixth inning as the Eastern Division notched a 7-1 victory over the Western Division in front of 6,120 fans.

Standing on the field at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium in Manchester, N.H., dripping from head to toe after a celebratory water-dousing from his teammates, Zack Zehner was a soaking wet emblem of just how quickly things can change in the Minor Leagues.

The Trenton Thunder outfielder had been added to the Eastern League All-Star roster less than a week earlier, and now, on July 12, the 24-year-old Californian was holding the game's MVP Award in his hands. His two-run single opened the floodgates in a seven-run sixth inning as the Eastern Division notched a 7-1 victory over the Western Division in front of 6,120 fans.

Afterward, before posing for photos and signing autographs, Zehner took a moment to reflect on the All-Star experience. "It's been an awesome couple of days here, and all the guys are great," he said. "You play against these guys all year long, but we get in the dugout and it feels like we're already a team, just having fun out here. It kind of brings you back to the old days when all you're worried about is having fun."

But, as much fun as it was to be an All-Star and take home a nice MVP memento, Zehner couldn't deny that he was actually looking forward to getting back to work. Since the start of 2016, the Trenton Thunder has been the winningest team in full-season Minor League Baseball, and, as an everyday starter for a team that was 32 games over .500 at the break, Zehner was pumped to get back to his normal routine in New Jersey.

"I've never played with a team with so much talent," he said. "We have so many guys who are perfectionists and who want to get better, and I think that's what really drives the team to succeed.

"We're all working together really well and want to finish the year strong, and I don't think we're going to miss a step."

***

Most would agree that it's an exciting time to be a Yankees fan. Between the young players contributing in the Bronx and the prospects stocking the rosters in the Minors, the franchise appears to be in good shape for years to come.

But how does it feel to be a part of this organization in 2017? What's it like for a player in the Minors to see someone they sat next to on the bus just a few months ago in the starting lineup at Yankee Stadium?

Knowing they can control only their own actions, Yankees Minor Leaguers adhere to the belief that good things come to those who work. And the effort that guys have been putting in at the Double-A level has been off the charts.

Trenton entered the All-Star break on an 11-game winning streak, 60-28 overall and leading the Eastern Division by eight games over Reading. Initially, four Thunder players were named to the All-Star Game: right-handed starter Yefry Ramirez, who led the Eastern League with nine victories; left-handed starter Justus Sheffield, who earned Eastern League Pitcher of the Week honors twice in the first half and tossed his first career shutout; slugging first baseman Mike Ford, whose .404 on-base percentage was tops in the league; and infielder Thairo Estrada, who was among the league leaders in hits and batting average. Zehner replaced Ford, who was promoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre; Sheffield suffered a strained oblique and was replaced by Nestor Cortes, who was also promoted before he could get to New Hampshire.

Ramirez and Estrada flew up to Manchester together and spent the day prior to the All-Star Game at the ballpark. It was a chance to get to know their All-Star teammates, discuss what gear other guys use and swap rumors about player transactions. The relaxed atmosphere also gave the players time to reflect on where they stood, and where their careers were headed.

Ramirez, 23, is in his sixth professional season -- his second in the Yankees organization. He was acquired in the 2015 Rule 5 Draft from Arizona, for whom his father, Gregorio, is a scout in the Dominican Republic. The converted infielder was thrilled to join the Yankees, who added him to the 40-man roster last November.

"I am very happy with my progress and development," Ramirez said through an interpreter. "However, this process continues. I am in Double-A and need to keep working hard. I think I have a good chance to get to the big leagues faster than I thought."

Estrada has similar hopes. The 21-year-old from Bejuma, Venezuela, has a muscular physique similar to that of his favorite player growing up: 11-time Gold Glove Award winner Omar Vizquel. Regarded as a Top 30 prospect in the Yankees organization, Estrada has watched as recent teammates such as Miguel Andujar, Ronald Herrera and Domingo German all made their Major League debuts in 2017.

"My goal is the big leagues, but those are things that I can't control," Estrada said through an interpreter. "However, I can control what I do every day by giving 100 percent to help the team."

That approach has rubbed off on the Thunder. Estrada's work ethic has allowed him to achieve greater success as he has advanced through the Minor League levels. He batted .267 at Staten Island in 2015, and in 2016, he hit .286 at Charleston before a call-up to Tampa, where he hit .292. This season, he was batting well over .300 for Trenton. Teammates -- even older ones -- have taken notice.

"He's a very hard-working guy; every day he gives his all out on the field," Ramirez said. "And if he makes a mistake, he always tries hard to correct it. He puts in the extra time after the game to fix it, and that inspires everybody else on the team. We say, 'Wow, look at what this guy is doing,' and we follow that model."

"He is one of the most exciting hitters I have ever seen," said Zehner, who has played parts of three seasons with Estrada. "You know he'll put two hits out every single night, and all he does is hit the ball hard. It's a lot of fun to watch him play. He's a fantastic middle infielder, and he deserves to be here."

***

Being named an Eastern League All-Star doesn't guarantee a call-up to the bigs, but it is a sign that a player is on the right track. Estrada, wearing No. 2 and starting at shortstop, batted second for the Eastern Division All-Stars. In 2016, that role was occupied by Tyler Wade, while Akron RubberDucks right fielder Clint Frazier batted second for the Western Division. Both Wade and Frazier have worn the pinstripes in 2017, with Frazier having come over in a trade from Cleveland (along with Sheffield, Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen for Andrew Miller) just weeks after the 2016 Eastern League All-Star Game.

"It was the first All-Star Game I played in during the time I was in the Minors, and getting picked helped validate some of the good things that were being said about how I was progressing," Frazier said. "It let me know that all the things I was doing were paying off."

Video: Must C Clint: Frazier dazzles in Major League debut

"It was a confidence booster for me," Wade said. "Just knowing that you can compete against those guys means that you are close to moving up to the next level. Not that I need any added motivation, but it makes you want to work even harder every day because you know that you're close."

On the mound for the Eastern Division that night at Canal Park in downtown Akron, Ohio, was another rising star who has been a major contributor for the Yankees in 2017. Jordan Montgomery seemingly came out of nowhere to win a coveted slot in the starting rotation out of spring training. But earning the start in the 2016 Eastern League All-Star Game was an important building block that helped prepare the tall left-hander for the Majors.

"It gave me a chance to pitch in a big game, and so no matter what happened out there, getting to pitch in those type of situations can only help prepare you and make you stronger mentally," said Montgomery, who went 7-6 with a 3.94 ERA in 22 starts for New York through mid-August. "Every game in the big leagues, especially for the Yankees, is a big game, and you don't have that type of atmosphere very often in the Minors. So, it was helpful in that respect. I enjoyed competing against the best hitters at that level, knowing that if things went well for me and I got to the Majors, I would see them again. It was a great experience for me."

And just as it was this year for the Thunder players involved, the Eastern League All-Star Game served as a significant marker for players en route to realizing their childhood dreams.

"I definitely thought about guys who had gone down that same road, and a year or two later were in the Majors," Frazier said. "When you get to that point in your career in the Minors, you know that if you keep doing things the right way, you can move up really quickly.

"For me, it ended up being a really important stepping-stone because I got to face some good pitchers in that game. I used that experience to my advantage, and facing those pitchers helped get me ready for what I'm facing now in the big leagues. It's cool that, like some of the players who were in the Double-A All-Star Game a year or two before me, I got called up to the big leagues less than a year later."

After a brief downpour that delayed the start of the game by 23 minutes, Mets farmhand Corey Oswalt delivered a first-pitch strike to the only player in the game with Major League experience, former Yankees outfielder Slade Heathcott. The youngest player in the game, 20-year-old Rafael Devers, was tabbed by one scout in attendance as "the Red Sox's third baseman of the future," and he started at third alongside Estrada, who had an all-around solid performance in the 7-1 win.

Estrada was the game's first baserunner, singling up the middle in his first at-bat, and drew the game's first walk to lead off the sixth. He walked again that same inning, reached base in three of his four plate appearances, scored the game-tying run and played flawless defense at short.

"Typical Thairo Estrada stuff," said Zehner, who in his own right delivered the go-ahead knock in the sixth and followed that with another single in the seventh; both hits came on the first pitch of the at-bat. "Coming off the bench, I really wanted to be aggressive; just go out there and hit the ball hard," he said.

From a late addition to the roster to, in the span of two pitches, claiming the contest's MVP Award, Zehner showed how things can change in a hurry in the Minor Leagues. And when you play for an organization that prioritizes winning and is willing to give young players a chance -- as of mid-July, an MLB-high 12 Yankees had made their Major League debut in 2017 -- those changes can be life-altering.

"A lot of those guys that have made their debut this year were [in Double-A] last year, and I think that gives you a little hope," Zehner said. "You see that these guys made the adjustments, they developed and they were rewarded by being given the opportunity to help the Yankees win a ballgame. And I think that is another driving force behind [the Thunder's success]. You're going to get that opportunity to play at the big league level if you can continue to get better and continue to help the team win games."

Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

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