Nieckula's Ports Turning It Around

OAKLAND – It was a rough first half in 2009 for the defending California League champion Stockton Ports. Nothing seemed to go right for manager Aaron Nieckula's team, which slumped to a 25-45 record and a last-place finish. The Ports have turned it around in the second half and currently find themselves six games above .500. We spoke with Nieckula about his team's progress on Monday.

In 2008, it seemed that the Stockton Ports could do no wrong. Stocked with some of the Oakland A's top prospects both on the mound and in the field, Stockton stormed out to a winning first half record and kept that up through the second half and all the way through the playoffs, eventually winning the league title. It has been a different story for the Ports in 2009, at least early in the season. The Ports' pitching was inconsistent, the defense was – at times – downright terrible and the club couldn't seem to string together enough hits to score runs.

Stockton manager Aaron Nieckula spent those dark days of the early season preaching patience for his club and working hard to trying to get his players to improve every day.

"One thing we preached is to persevere. The other thing was to stay as positive as you can. There were times there where things were really bad and there wasn't really a light at the end of the tunnel," Nieckula said on Monday.

"You've still got to come out and work to get better and I think that is what these guys did. They stayed focused on the task at hand and I think the first half labor is paying off here in the second half."

That hard work in the first half has translated into a strong second half for Stockton. The Ports currently sit in second place in the competitive Cal League North Division, six games behind the first-half winners, the San Jose Giants. Stockton's record has improved to 23-17 and the mood of the team has lightened with the increased success on the field.

"I think we've got a good mojo going on. Guys are having fun and looking forward to coming to the park. Not to say that they didn't during the first half, but winning makes things easier," Nieckula said.

"Guys are executing the fundamentals of the game. We are getting solid pitching, making the routine play night after night and putting up solid ABs, and running the bases aggressively. You do those things and we are going to win some ballgames."

Nieckula's squad has continued to play well despite losing two of its top players to promotions recently – second baseman Jemile Weeks and pitcher Tyson Ross, both of whom were sent to Double-A Midland. Weeks didn't join the Ports until late May, but his arrival coincided with improved play from Stockton on the field. In 50 games with Stockton, Weeks hit .299 with seven homers and an 853 OPS. Nieckula came away impressed with the A's first pick in 2008.

"He's got some skills. That young man can play the game. He can run a little bit, he's got a good arm, he can hit from both sides, although I think he's a better hitter from the left-side, and he's a good clubhouse guy. He plays the game hard and that is what you look for in a player. I think he's going to be a good one at the big league level. For me, I think he profiles as a second baseman in the big leagues," Nieckula said.

Ross' season, in many ways, mirrored that of the Ports' season. The A's 2008 second-round pick got off to a slow start, but he hit his stride in mid-May and finished his time with Stockton with a 4.17 ERA and 82 strike-outs in 86.1 innings.

"He figured some things out. When he was struggling at the beginning of the year, he never really got down on himself. He stayed focused and he stayed positive," Nieckula said of Ross.

"One of the key things for him is that he has great preparation and work habits in-between starts. He works hard and he is focused and he wants to get better. Obviously, he figured out some things mechanically and he figured some things out mentally and he really took off and started winning some games for us. Not only that, he pitched deep into games and got outs."

Although losing two top talents like Weeks and Ross will hamper any team, Nieckula views the promotions in a positive light.

"That's the name of the game is to get the guys better and get them up to the higher levels," Nieckula said.

This is Nieckula's first season managing in Stockton. He spent the past two years as the skipper for the Low-A Kane County Cougars and, before that, acted as the team's hitting coach. Nieckula may be new to the California League from a managerial perspective, but he is familiar with the teams and the parks thanks to his time as a player in the farm systems of the A's and the Giants. Nieckula, a 22nd round pick of the A's in 1998 out of the University of Illinois, played five seasons in the minor leagues, getting as high as the Triple-A level and participating in A's major league spring training camp in 2001.

Nieckula was a catcher during his playing days and he has spent considerable time working with the Ports' two catchers – Matt Smith and Yusuf Carter – on their defensive skills. Carter has been a special project for the A's. The 2009 California League All-Star was a minor league Rule 5 selection of Oakland this off-season and in his first season with the A's organization, Oakland has converted him from being an outfielder to being a catcher. Although his defense has been a work in-progress, Carter has made significant strides behind the plate, according to Nieckula.

"He caught in college, was drafted by the A's [and didn't sign], and then was drafted by the Cubs and they made him an outfielder, which is unfortunate because he has some skills behind the plate," Nieckula said.

"It's actually kind of nice to watch him mature behind the plate. You can tell he's got some skills. He's gotten much better over the course of the season. To go from the outfield position to catching at the pro level is tough to do, but he's handled it quite well."

Although Nieckula received a promotion of his own last season, he isn't particularly focused on his own advancement.

"I don't necessarily make it a goal to move up a level every year. I just want to come in every year and be an asset to the organization. That sounds like the old corporate rhetoric, but it's the truth," Nieckula said.

"I just want to do the best that Aaron Nieckula can do and get these players better and hopefully someday help the big league team win. If a promotion comes along, that's fine, and if not, then I am happy doing what I am doing."

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