The Staten Island Yankees are getting used to their winning ways. Five games up on the second-place rival Brooklyn Cyclones, the Yankees are all but assured a playoff spot come September. A combination of great pitching and timely hitting has carried the Yanks to a great season record, wining evenly, both home and on the road.
Names fall in between the cracks in Staten Island as highly touted draft picks swamp the headlines. But the key players, the invaluable cogs of the Staten Island machine are the guys who grind their way to great seasons.
Ben Gamel, Staten Island's right fielder has been making a quantifiable impact since his return from the DL in July. Mere days after the season started, Gamel went down with a broken finger but since re-joining the team, has been hitting lights out.
It all began in Spring Training, as it does for so many young players and Gamel was no different; prepared for the workload, changes that may come, and some time with the veterans.
"Spring Training is different from what you hear. Everyone says it's chaotic and hectic but you're just with your team and you get to know some of the guys you're playing with and learn from some of the older guys," Gamel said.
Asked what he learned from the veteran Yankees, Gamel was eager to keep his ears open to any advice they would be willing to give.
"In this game you take anything you can so you listen to what the older guys have to say. You want to take it all in," he added.
Far from a star struck vacation, Spring Training is a time to work, a time to alter and change a lifetime of lessons in a relatively short period.
"Mainly I was working on my swing and my timing and I started getting it in the end of spring training and started putting it together," he said. "It was more my hands and some part of my lower half. I didn't use my lower half much before so it was incorporating my lower half into my swing in a way."
A career centerfielder, Gamel was working on another adjustment, moving into the corner outfield. With a bevy of centerfielders on the Staten Island team, Gamel was bound for a new position.
"I've gotten really comfortable in right field with the reads and the ball flight so it's something I've gotten really used to," he said. "It's not as bad as I thought it would be, just a different point of view, but something I feel I've picked up really quickly."
Staten Island Manager Tommy Slater is quick to point out that he didn't think the move would be tough for Gamel, and the luxury of having several natural centerfielders is a blessing.
"He's a really good outfielder and we have almost four guys who can play centerfield," Slater said. "Ben can get a really good jump on the ball so it's a luxury to have all those guys who can naturally play centerfield but you can have them in the corner."
An assignment to Extended Spring Training can be a tough task for a young player who has already played a year of baseball, but Gamel was prepared, having an older brother [Matt Gamel in the Milwaukee system] who had been through the ringer.
"It's been great. I kind of knew what to expect with a brother who went through it all, so it's been really helpful for preparation and is a good way to test the waters," Gamel said. "It's not easy by any means and it's a grind, but it's something that prepares you for the season."
The 19 year-old would adjust well to the changes he made in the Spring and was confident he'd be able to carry it into the season but several games in, Gamel injured his finger and had a quick stint on the DL. To his surprise, the injury actually became a benefit.
"The finger injury actually kind of helped me out," he opined. "I wasn't comfortable with where my hands were before the injury. Being forced to move my hands around really helped. It took me a couple games to get my timing back but that's really the only negative to the whole thing."
Asked what was happening before the injury, Gamel says his hands just weren't where he needed them to be when hitting. Uneasy with what he was doing, the injury forced the issue.
"I wasn't comfortable where my hands were before the injury, they kept getting lower and lower and even though it's hard to explain, I brought them back up to where I used to hit and kept them moving and it's really helped," he added.
Slater was surprised at Gamel's recovery and quick return to hitting form, something that usually plagues injured players at this level.
"Ben swung the bat really well all through Extended and to get that broken finger early sets you back a bit at a bad time, but you can see that it hasn't slowed him down at all," Slater said. "He's gotten back in the flow of things really quickly when it might slow down other guys."
With a vengeance, the Florida native returned from the DL and started hitting. It hasn't stopped since. A .315 average in July and [.361] in the [first plus week of August] has kept Gamel on a steady surge.
"I've been taking it really easy, not getting ahead of myself, not trying to do too much at the plate and be overeager for pitches," Gamel said. "More than anything, I'm waiting for my pitch and seeing more pitches so I can find a good one to hit."
Gamel has also been crushing lefties as a left-handed batter, hitting .394 against them so far. When asked what the secret is, Gamel had a simple reply:
"Lefties don't throw changeups," he said while laughing.
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