Wes Fewell wasn’t having much fun playing for the Mid-Missouri Mavericks early last season.
The problem wasn’t so much that the Mavericks were struggling on their way to a last-place, 33-57 finish.
The problem was that Fewell, once a top player at Hickman and MU, wasn’t playing. He had started slowly, hitting .165 as late as July 19, and manager Tony Torchia decided Fewell would best serve the team as a reserve.
“That was tough to deal with because I need to be in the lineup every day,” Fewell said. “Some people can do that, but I’ve got to be in there every day to get a rhythm going.”
The Mavericks (0-3), who open their home season at 7:05 tonight against the Gateway Grizzlies (3-0), fired Torchia on July 6. On July 15, with Papo Davila at the helm, Fewell went home for the All-Star break vowing an end to his frustrations.
“After the All-Star break, I just decided, ‘It’s a whole new ballgame,”’ Fewell said.
On July 20, Fewell went 3-for-5 with three RBIs, which almost doubled his season total to that point, four. He started earning regular playing time and his game never slowed down. He finished the year hitting .252 and better than .300 after the break.
“Wes Fewell is a beautiful example of a guy who got the chance to play last season at the end of the season and made the most of it,” said Bill Clark, the Mavericks’ director of player procurement. “In August, when he got in the lineup every game and every at bat, he started to hit and he continued to hit.”
Of Fewell’s 25 runs scored, 16 came after the break. Nine of his 13 RBIs came after the break, and that number was held down because Fewell usually hit low in the lineup for a team that was worst in the Frontier League in batting average.
“Wes Fewell, I think, started to come into his own a little bit toward the end of last year,” Springfield/Ozark manager Greg Tagert said. “He’s a guy who we thought was a much better offensive player than his numbers showed last year.”
Fewell, 24, has an excuse for starting the season slowly. After graduating from Missouri in 2002, he received a few tryouts from major league clubs but was not signed. He started playing in a slow-pitch softball league but didn’t envision another shot at baseball.
“I thought I was pretty much done,” Fewell said.
In April 2003, Fewell went to Florida for a Frontier League tryout. The Gateway Grizzlies signed him but cut him four days later. Mid-Missouri called to offer a contract shortly before the season started.
Nearly a year worth of rust had built up since the close of Fewell’s college career. Nearly two years had passed since Fewell had played regularly. He hit .291 in 182 at-bats as a junior with the Tigers, but .133 in 30 at bats as a senior.
“That’s the reason I struggled at the beginning,” Fewell said. “Baseball is not an easy sport. You take that much time off it gets that much harder.”
Blake Blase, Fewell’s teammate at Hickman and last season with the Mavericks, can understand why his friend struggled early.
“You can take as much batting practice as you want, but it’s not the same as going up there and having someone throw live pitching in a game situation,” Blase said.
Encouraged by his strong close to the season, Fewell decided quickly he wanted to play again this season. He and Blase took regular trips to the batting cages and weight room to prepare.
The preparation paid off in a preseason game against Springfield/Ozark, when Fewell went 3-for-6 with two runs and one RBI, which came on a long home run over the right-field fence.
“Wes came in here since Day One of spring training and has been hitting the ball real well,” Blase said. “It’s night and day between the beginning of last season and today.”
In addition to the preparation, Fewell is buoyed by the knowledge that he is likely to be a regular this season in new manager Jack Clark’s lineup. Clark, who hit 340 home runs in his 18 seasons as a major leaguer, is looking for big players who can drive the ball as well as run.
Fewell, at 6 feet 2, 205 pounds, has the build of a potential power hitter. Although not a speedster, he is a reliable runner, having stolen five of six bases last season.
Clark said those attributes will prevent another slow start this season.
“I’m going to try to make this a fun season for him,” Clark said. “He’s a guy I’m counting on for a nice season. I think he’ll have a nice year. I’d like to see him make the All-Star team.”