With the crack of the bats and the snap of the leather gloves, it can only mean one thing for Rome’s Joe Melioris and Garrett Baker: It’s baseball season once again.
Both players were again assigned to attend the Los Angeles Angels’ spring training down in Tempe, Ariz. After a few weeks of working out with several hundred players, scouts, and coaches, the two former Rome high school standouts have been shuffled to their next destinations.
Melioris was called up to the Cedar Rapids Kernels Class A minor league baseball team in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. With the Kernels, the 6-foot-11, 270-pound 21-year-old Melioris will compete in the Midwest League.
Baker, meanwhile, is attending extended spring training in Tempe.
Even though the two are now 1,605 miles from each other, they’re still both rooting for one another after they spent last season as roommates for the Utah-based Orem Owlz minor league baseball team affiliate in the Angels’ organization in the Pioneer League advanced-rookie league.
"Everything has been going good, I’m excited to be back here for spring training," said Baker. "Joe had a good spring training and he threw the ball well and I wish him well, and hopefully I’ll see him again real soon. It’s a big honor for him, and I’m happy to see he’s doing so well," he added.
Baker said he worked out during the offseason at Liberty University, Va., where he played in college and earned Big South All-Conference second-team honors as a relief pitcher while he helped guide the Flames to a 35-24 overall record. He went 6-5 on the mound with three saves and posted a 2.73 ERA during a team-leading 25 appearances.
Melioris, meanwhile, was invited to stay in Tempe for invitational instructional sessions with a select group of his Owlz teammates.
Both had different paths during their offseasons, but when March rolled back around, they reported to Tempe once again for Angels’ camp and a shot to advance to the next level.
Melioris said that he received a text message from a teammate saying that they were both called up to Cedar Rapids when the team rosters were distributed. The news said it surprised him as he was expecting possibly spending another season in Orem with the Owlz.
"I wasn’t really expecting to be moved up with all the organizational moves that the Angels had in the offseason," said Melioris. "We got a new GM, we got a new farm director, and new coaches. It was almost like starting over and everyone had to prove themselves all over again. I got a text message from one of my teammates saying, ‘Congrats man we’re going to CR!,’ and I was really excited.".
Melioris said that the team met in Iowa for a few days before heading to Wisconsin to open up the season last Thursday. He has quickly made himself at home.
"The town is great. It’s a pretty big city, but it’s a lot like Rome because the fans are passionate about their sports, and the community seems to be really friendly and everybody knows everyone," said Melioris. "It’s really nice, I like it a lot."
The former Rome Catholic star said he has not made any big adjustments to his approach to the game. "No, not really. I had a good spring training, but it’s all about getting your reps in and getting your work in," said Melioris. "I was just doing what I had to do to get ready for the season, and that’s all I was worried about."
He said that the offseason instructional session was a vital tool to help elevate his game.
"It was really rewarding for me coming in as a free agent the year before, and then to have them take you in with an elite group of players, it really meant a lot to me. They really showed me that they had a serious interest in me and my career. It was really more fun than anything, I learned a lot," Melioris said.
The Kernels are off to a 5-1 start this spring.
Melioris pitched Wednedsay night and struck out three batters, walked one, and allowed one hit in two innings of work for his first hold of the season. He also pitched on Saturday and allowed three hits and one run in 1 2/3 innings of work. In two games, he sports a 2.45 ERA with one earned run allowed in 3 2/3 innings.
Melioris said he would like to see Baker make the Cedar Rapids team so that they can once again be the Rome connection trying to make it to the big leagues together.
"Baker works harder than anybody. I have no doubts that he will be up here one day. His lefty-on-lefty matchup is incredible, and I have full faith in him that he will be right here one day," Melioris said.
The two friends did not play on the same baseball teams in high school. It wasn’t until they met to form a dangerous 1-2 pitching tandem for the Smith Post American Legion baseball squad in 2008 for Smith Post that they first became teammates. That Smith Post team won the Oneida County and District V championships and reached the title game of the state tournament.
The hard-throwing right-hander Melioris excelled at Rome Catholic under the tutelage of his father, head coach and current RCS athletic director Joe Melioris Sr. He had a 26-10 overall record with a 1.27 ERA in five varsity seasons and helped lead the Redwings to a Class D state finals berth in his senior campaign. The younger Melioris later went on to pitch at Division I SUNY Stony Brook and at NJCAA Division I Polk State college in Florida on a baseball scholarship before signing with the Angels.
In his first season with the Angels, Melioris went 3-3 with a 4.45 ERA with 51 strikeouts in 54.2 innings pitched in both the Arizona Rookie League and with the Orem Owlz.
Last season he started with the Owlz and went 5-3 on the mound with an 8.67 ERA and struck out 40 batters in 54 innings while walking 15 batters in 18 appearances and nine games started.
Baker, too, was assigned to the Owlz last year and went 3-0 with an 8.33 ERA in 18 appearances. In 31.1 innings pitched, he walked 14 and struck out 26.
The Rome hurlers both played instrumental roles in helping the Owlz to a 46-30 overall record — best in the Pioneer League — before the club lost to the Ogden Raptors, 12-9, in the playoffs to close out their season.
The 22-year-old Baker, a 6-5, 215-pound southpaw, is among the all-time strikeout leaders at RFA with 200.
Last season with the Owlz, Baker said that the club wanted him to throw from a different angle to see if he could generate more heat on his fastball. Baker was never comfortable with the change and said he didn’t have the success that the team was hoping for. This year, Baker said that the organization is letting him do what is comfortable for him. He is using movement on his pitches to get hitters out, and is hoping that both he and the team will reap the rewards.
"I’m back to the way that I was throwing in college. I think I’ve proved myself pretty well with it. They like where my arm slot is at now, and I’m getting some good life on my fastball now. It’s just more comfortable for me. I’m not a guy that is going to blow anybody away with a 95 mile-per-hour fastball, but I’m a guy that relies on sink and deception to get guys out," he said.