Many leagues and teams saw their 2020 seasons become casualties of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Prospect League was amongst them.
But now after two years the league will resume play tonight. That includes Beckley’s own West Virginia Miners.
There will be some mostly new, but a a few familiar faces in the dugout tonight.
Chief amongst them is Tim Epling.
Managing the team since its inception in 2010, Epling stepped down following the 2018 season, handing the reins to former Miners pitcher Mike Syrett. What happened afterwards was a disaster by the franchises’ standards. The Miners won just 18 games in 2019, their lowest win total in franchise history.
Epling decided to come back for the 2020 season, but the pandemic put his plans on hold. Now after two years away he feels as though he sees the game through a different perspective.
“I feel like a kid in a candy store,” Epling said. “It feels like my first year and in some retrospect I feel like I’ve never done it before. I’m just right now looking at the kids and we’re enjoying each other, seeing what kind of chemistry we have together. The more you’re in it, the more you know that you don’t know. So the last two or three years that I haven’t been in the dugout it’s given me a different perspective. It’s more on a pro level now.
“I’ve got a lot of players that really have aspirations of signing a pro contract. That’s one of the things I have taken away. I can’t do any more than what I’ve already done as far as championship and the personal accolades I’ve been able to receive because of the people around me. So when you take a look at it, it’s all about the players and what they desire. They’re taking time out, so my goal is to get them ready and get them to possibly be able to sign a pro contract if that’s something they want to do.”
Of course winning is still important.
From 2011-2016 the Miners reached the Prospect League Championship five times, winning three of them.
Since then they’ve made the playoffs just once.
“I look at it this way,” Epling said. “We all have a competitive nature about us and every year you have a different type of kid. I can’t go on what the teams have done because I haven’t been around. The only time we didn’t make the playoffs was 2018 and 2014. We made it five out of seven years to the championship. It’s just like every other team where you’re only as good as the players you have.
“Sometimes the more I get out of the way the better we are. You have to let the kids play and fight through adversity. You have to be able to learn how to win and the expectation here is always strong. I see it often where when the kids walk through these doors they feel like they have to live up to the expectations of 2012, 2013, 2016 and every other team. They can’t live in that world. So I try to keep that away. I don’t want that to be a focal point because they compare themselves to other teams and think they’re not good enough to win. And when that happens it becomes a mental thing. When I was a younger manager I didn’t think that way, but now I see it differently. We as coaches have to adapt with the players we have.”
Many of the Miners’ issues over the last two seasons have stemmed from pitching. In 2018 they posted a team ERA of 5.01 and it ballooned to 7.03 in 2019. For reference the franchise was routinely posting a team ERA below four during its title runs. That’s not lost on Epling who’s liked what he’s seen leading up to the opener.
“I think it’s getting stronger,” Epling said of his pitching staff. “We just signed a couple of players – we don’t have all of our kids here yet. But the few arms I have looked at, they’re pretty good. Most of them have a lot of movement. When you get into their bullpen sets that’s a lot different than game time. A lot of time you look good in your bullpens, but you’ve got to see how they look in live games.
“But as far as watching the life in the ball, I am very pleasantly surprised with not just the velocity, because we’ve got some guys that can run it up to 93 or 94 right now, but I’m interested to see how they do on their breaking stuff and the movement of those pitches. Right now we’re not throwing that much, but I can see how the ball is coming out of their hand. Once we get the season going I can see that a little more effectively, but I like what I’ve seen.”
From year to year the team usually has a lot of turnover with a few players coming back.
With the two-year gap the familiarity is almost completely gone with the exception of Wyoming East graduate Josh Zeboskey. Zeboskey, a senior at Marshall, played on East’s 2012 Class AA title team and was a Class AA first-team all-stater in 2014.
“Nobody is really familiar except Zebo,” Epling said. “I got Zeboskey, who’s from Marshall and played for me in 2018. He’s a senior this year and I’ve been watching him. What a mentally strong kid he is. He is nothing but 100 percent competitive and he throws the ball all over the place as far as his arm angle. I really look for him to be successful, but he’s really the only guy I have that I know.”
While the worst of the pandemic is likely in the past, it still hung over the 2021 collegiate baseball season. For Epling his lax COVID policies were a selling point. The team will still be careful but doesn’t have the same limitations as many of the players’ schools did.
“Everybody is excited to get going,” Epling said. “For majority of players who played this spring it was a nightmare. They would play then they would be shutdown, they would play then they would be shutdown and then they had to go through COVID testing. There were so many hoops they had to go through and when they got here the first question they asked me is what the COVID policy was and I told them we didn’t have one.
“We’re going to do what the government says. They can wear masks if they want, but don’t have to. We’re going to hope we have great crowds, but we’re not worrying about that right now. And they were refreshed hearing that. It’s refreshing because we’re outdoors and it’s a positive environment.”
Of course Epling expects that to be a draw for many of the other Prospect League teams as well.
Although those franchises face the same lack of familiarity the Miners do, he expects the league to be more talented and competitive than before.
With Major League Baseball reforming its minor league system and slashing many teams in the process, it has left a lot of players looking for a place to showcase their talents in hopes of earning a contract.
“It’s going to be tough,” Epling said. “I believe you’re going to see such an increase in talent in this league this year because of the backlog of players because of what Major League Baseball did. And COVID has backed everything up with the recruiting process. There’s a backlog of older talent, so a lot of these teams have 21 or 22-year old men instead of 18 or 19-year old kids.”
The Miners will open their season tonight at Johnstown before returning to Beckley on Friday for their home opener. First pitch for tonight’s game is slated for 7 p.m. with the home opener starting at 6:35 p.m. on Friday at Linda K. Epling Stadium.
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