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by editor Rick Cabral

Susac Attains PCL—Hoping for Next Big Step

Andrew Susac is this close to his dream.

From Raley Field, he can drive there in an hour-and-a-half. But he realizes what separates him from playing in the major leagues is more than 90 miles of geography. A whole lot more.

He’s in town with the Fresno Grizzlies for a four-game series against the River Cats; possibly the earliest in the season the Grizzlies have ever visited Sacramento since the two teams began battling in the Pacific Coast League in 2000.

Although Susac visited Raley Field many times as a youth—and once played there for the Jesuit Marauders in a high school game—this marks his first time he’s played at the professional level.

 Grizzlies_Susac_Hitter_Cabral

The daily grind of catching in professional ball can sometimes affect the offensive output, says Susac, seen above against the Sacramento River Cats.


His father Nick Susac, who cultivated this baseball prodigy when he saw his son’s destiny, is nervous. “Honestly, I’ve never been more nervous,” he admits laughing, because he felt this way when he coached Andrew in Woodcreek Little League, saw him compete on Division I title teams at Jesuit High School and then at Oregon State.

As one of the top prospects in the Giants organization, Andrew Susac is closely watched. San Francisco selected him in the second round of the amateur draft in 2011, and because he signed at the deadline (literally with less than an hour to go), he didn’t begin playing professionally until he was assigned in 2012 to Single-A San Jose in the California League. There he hit .244 with 16 doubles, nine homers and 52 runs batted in for a .380 slugging percentage.

Last year, at Double-A Richmond in the Eastern League, he improved his average (.256) and home runs (12), but dropped in RBI (46) because he played in less than 100 games.

But Susac is realistic; he knows he has a lot to learn—and prove to the Giants front office. 

 Grizzlies_Susac_pregame

Andrew Susac after pre-game warmup in the bullpen.

“But now that (I’m) getting close, it’s business. You can’t take pitches off. Those guys up there (Giants front office) see everything. They’re tracking you. When you’re playing on that stage (MLB) there’s no room for error. So every game is important,” he says matter of fact. “Getting better has taken more of a back seat to results at this level, I feel like.”

This spring at the Giants camp (Susac’s third spring training as a non-roster invitee), he impressed, hitting .263 in 19 at-bats, two doubles, one home run and five RBI. “I felt like ‘I belong here and I can handle this.’ It was my first spring where I got a pretty good opportunity to showcase my skills and did a pretty good job back there, I think.”

More importantly, he looked the part of a junior Buster Posey, the Giants’ All-Star catcher and 2012 Most Valuable Player.

Watching Susac in the batter’s box, he resembles Posey, with a slightly open stance, the bat wiggling quietly parallel to the ground, and a short lift of his front leg before the ball arrives.

But it’s behind the plate that Susac has always impressed. At Jesuit, he was a two-time All-Metro player for Coach Joe Potulny. But in some respects, Susac was overshadowed by Max Stassi, the Sacramento Bee’s two-time Player of the Year during the same period 2008-2009. Stassi, playing at the Division III level for Yuba City High, made All-Metro all four years of high school.

In the 2009 amateur draft, Stassi was selected by Oakland in the fourth round, but signed for “first-round money” with a $1.5 million bonus. Susac, by contrast, was drafted by the Phillies in the 16th Round, didn’t sign and accepted a scholarship to play at Oregon State.

In March of his sophomore season, Susac broke the hamate bone in his left hand, had surgery to repair the injury at UC Davis Med Center, and returned to action one month later. Later, he admitted it was premature. A catcher’s hand endures a tremendous pounding, which affected his batting. He played 38 games for the Beavers, hit .298, finished second on the team with 32 runs batted in, and had a .525 slugging percentage, despite the injury.

At age 21, Susac was draft eligible, despite just playing two seasons at Oregon State. San Francisco selected him with the 86th pick in the second round. He signed for a $1.1 million bonus, just $16,000 less than the Giants’ first-round pick, Joe Panik, now a teammate at Fresno.

Meantime, Stassi is embarking on his sixth season in professional ball, and like Susac, he is playing his first season in the PCL (Oklahoma City).

But last season, after homering in five consecutive Double-A games and being named Texas League Player of the Month, Stassi got “the call” to join Houston, who needed a catcher. In his debut, Stassi got two hits. One game later, he got hit in the face and the dream was short lived.

The two high school rivals  bonded and have become friends, often being the first to congratulate each other's successes via email or Twitter.

As he settles in to the Pacific Coast League, Susac focuses on the mental aspect of the game, and the catching position is easily the most challenging defensively. “It’s the constant mental grind of giving it 100-percent,” he reflects by the batting cage at Raley Field.

“Sometimes I’ll give away a free at-bat,” he openly admits. “And you really need to focus for nine innings. I think that’s the biggest thing—devoting 3.5 hours a day to your job and doin’ it to the best of your potential.”

He credits his high school mentor with providing an advanced education. “Coach P(otulny) did a great job of establishing what’s ahead in college and in pro ball. Baseball is a game of failure, that can’t be said enough. (The) biggest thing people lack is the mental toughness part of it. That’s what the great major leaguers have; they forget about the past and make strides at getting better every day.”

One notable local baseball authority thinks Susac has what it takes to get to the next level—and do well there. Leon Lee, who played seven seasons in the St. Louis organization (ending at Triple-A) should know.

As a 17-year-old, Susac played on Lee’s collegiate summer team in Lodi. “Really impressed me with his catching ability,” Lee says. “(He) Picked off a guy on second base. It was the fastest pick-off I think I’ve ever seen in my life. That showed me right there he was going to be a top prospect.” 

 Grizzlies_Susac_Catcher_Cabral

Andrew Susac of the Fresno Grizzlies is a natural behind the plate
according to many baseball experts.



Susac developed into a “top prospect” because of his own personal desire to play professionally, but also because his father enrolled him at Sacramento City College baseball camps, and arranged to have former MLB catcher Matt Walbeck tutor him in the off-season.

Plus, the Susac brothers (Nick and John) arranged for Andrew to meet and hear from many of Sacramento’s elite baseball people: Jerry Weinstein and Andy McKay (Sacramento City College); Phil Swimley (UC Davis head coach); Potulny and Chris Fahey (Jesuit High); Jim Stassi (Max’s dad, a former Giant farmhand and Yuba City High’s coach); Leon Lee (former minor leaguer), Fernando Vina (former MLB player and long-time friend of John Susac) and several others who imparted baseball wisdom of all varieties.

Says Nick Susac, “Sacramento’s so loaded with baseball people. The answers were all here.” And on occasion when teen-aged Andrew didn’t heed his father’s advice—relayed from those notables above—and the younger Susac failed at the plate, Nick would hear the clink of an aluminum bat in the garage at midnight—a sign the kid was repentant and would not be denied his dream.

~  ~  ~

Fast-forward a decade, and Susac is batting fifth in the Grizzlies lineup. In his first game back at Raley Field, he comes up in the first inning with a runner on second and Fresno already ahead 1-0. Susac pounds a high fastball that ricochets off the Cache Creek billboard in left center field and drives in a run with a double. The Susac family is ecstatic, as are many friends who have come out to see the Roseville native in a Fresno uniform. That evening he goes 1-for-3 (with a hit-by-pitch), but the River Cats prevail 7-4.

As most everyone in minor league baseball understands, it’s really not about the wins and losses, but about the professional development of the organization’s prized players.

Susac is fulfilling the potential the Giants expect of him. But there’s room for improvement.

And as Andrew Susac has learned so well, there’s always tomorrow. It promises to be a grind, but he’s digging the journey.

It leads to his dream.

 

 Uploaded 4/16/14
All contents © Rick Cabral 2014

 

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