LEFTIES: West Coast offers diamond gems

St. Mary’s sophomore infielder Javy Espinoza is set to join the Port Angeles Lefties next summer. (St. Mary’s College Athletics)

St. Mary’s sophomore infielder Javy Espinoza is set to join the Port Angeles Lefties next summer. (St. Mary’s College Athletics)

PORT ANGELES — The Port Angeles Lefties continued their roster rollout for the 2021 season by adding four West Coast Conference athletes from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif.

Three Gaels freshmen and a St. Mary’s sophomore are set to join the West Coast League collegiate wood bat league this summer.

Port Angeles owner and head coach Matt Acker put a premium on adding pitchers who will compete for playing time at the NCAA level, but still have innings left to give for their summer-ball team.

Acker’s also excited about the level of leadership he expects from middle infielder Javy Espinoza and the hitting abilities of catcher Nathan Chong.

He’s known St. Mary’s coach Greg Moore, a leader in the social and emotional development of players and teams away from the diamond for decades.

“Greg’s a motivating figure, a guy who developed Sevwins, a social-emotional learning program for mainly college athletes and who is at the forefront of athletes’ development on and off the field,” Acker said.

Moore’s also coached at schools such as San Francisco and Cal-State Northridge and served as an assistant on the Team USA Collegiate Baseball squad.

Here are the four St. Mary’s players heading to Port Angeles:

Javy Espinoza: The 5-foot-8, 175-pounder comes with a sterling reputation, Acker said.

“Every coach that’s ever coached him has said he’s their favorite player to coach,” Acker said. “He’s a winner, that’s why they love him. He does the little things that help a team win, drags and pushes, hits the timely bunt. He got some playing time as a freshman when their second baseman who got drafted went down with an injury and he’s a winner, that’s why coaches love him.

“I’d take a whole team of kids like that, guys who go hard even in scrimmages and play like every game is their last.”

Preston Howey: At 6 feet, 175 pounds, the right-handed Howey is expected to pitch as a freshman for the Gaels.

“Greg has told me this kid is ready to go, really mature, has control of a two-seamer [fastball] and 86-to-90 [mph] is kind of his range. He has good secondary pitches, knows how to throw multiple pitches for strikes, throws in the zone and will throw right away as a freshman, but won’t carry a huge load.

“They gave us the one pitcher that’s the most refined [Howey] and the one with the most upside [Diego Moran].”

• Diego Moran: Moran is a 6-3, 205-pound righthanded pitcher who also packs plenty of pop at the plate. He could see time in the outfield for Port Angeles as well.

“He throws 88-to-90 [mph] consistently and touches 93. He has tons of movement on his fastball, it’s moving about 70 percent of the time. He’s a heck of a hitter and is fast, he runs a 6.5 second 60-yard dash.

• Nathan Chong: An academic achiever who turned down some baseball powerhouses to attend St. Mary’s, Chong is a 6-1, 195-pound catcher.

“He’s their best pure incoming hitter, definitely more of an offensive catcher,” Acker said. “His secondary position is first base. We are excited to get him, he should hit in the middle of the order and provide power. We know he’s going to be something special.”

Expansion discussed

Acker also discussed the West Coast League’s recent expansion to far-flung locales Kamloops, British Columbia, and Edmonton, Alberta. The league’s third expansion team for 2021 is located relatively close geographically on Vancouver Island in Nanaimo, British Columbia.

“A shocker, eh?,” Acker joked about Edmonton’s arrival.

“They have an excellent stadium, a former Triple-A ballpark that is being renovated, and an excellent ownership group headed up by a five-time Stanley Cup winner with the Edmonton Oilers [Dr. Randy Gregg, now a family physican].”

Edmonton is nine hours away from Kamloops, it’s closest WCL competitor.

“They’ll be helping out with travel [costs] for their first two years in the league,” Acker said.

Adding Edmonton pits the WCL against another summer-bat league, the Western Canadian Baseball League, albeit a league that historically doesn’t field teams with NCAA Division I players and potential MLB draft picks.

“A bit of a tip of the spear strategy and we will see how it goes,” Acker said of the eastward expansion. “It’s such a good ownership group, their vision was clear, and even if nothing more comes down the pipeline in terms of expansion, I still think it will work out.”

With Major League Baseball set to trim the number of Minor League Baseball teams competing, including contracting the eight-team Pioneer League which has teams in Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado, the West Coast League could grow even larger.

Northwest League teams, Salem-Keizer in Oregon and Tri-Cities, also could be contracted, leaving those markets open for continued expansion.

“MLB’s minor league contraction is to our benefit as a league,” Acker said. “There’s more potential for the West Coast League to expand in 2021 and definitely in the next two or three years.”

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Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-417-3525 or [email protected].

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