Still unknown to most baseball fans, Jason Kanzler became a hero to the Fort Myers Miracle and their followers Monday night. It was the fourth game of the Florida State League best-of-five championship series, and Fort Myers held a 2-1 series lead over the defending champion Daytona Cubs. With the score tied in the top of eleventh, one out and Adam Brett Walker on second, Kanzler lofted a fly ball out of the reach of Daytona Cubs’ center-fielder Jacob Hannemann , out of the reach of anyone – a home run to give the Miracle a 4-2 lead and deliver them the FSL crown, their first in 29 years.
“I wanted to put a good swing on a pitch I could hit and make hard contact.” Kanzler said when I caught up with him the next day “I fouled a ball off first pitch of that at bat and felt like I was right on it so I was confident I was going to hit it hard”
Kanzler, hitting from the nine hole, entered the pivotal at-bat 0-4 with 2 strikeouts, adding an element unexpected to the drama of the shot. To hear the young center-fielder describe it, the moment had the air of Hollywood slo-mo theatrics, a-la Roy Hobbs’ final at bat in The Natural.
“I didn’t expect or try to hit a home run.” He explained. “The game was sped up on me the whole night but that last at bat everything felt a little slower and more manageable.”
The long ball was the culmination of a Kanzler’s highly successful rookie campaign. In his first full professional season, the 24 year old hit .282 with a .782 OPS and eight home runs for Class-A Cedar Rapids before earning a promotion to Fort Myers. Once there, he posted a slash line .276/.376/.430 over 27 games and 101 plate appearance.
2014 may have been Kanzler’s first fully year as a professional, but Monday wasn’t the 24 year old’s first taste of playoff theatrics. In the first game of a best-of-three series with Bradenton that began on September 2, Kanzler doubled and hit a grand slam, driving in six of his team’s eight runs. Fort Myers eked out an 8-7 victory. As statistically superior as that performance was, Kanzler says Monday night’s championship stakes made his 11th inning shot more memorable.
“This was way better just because of the situation and the way us and Daytona were battling each other. Runs were hard to come by. And everyone on the team knew that once we took the lead we would win. The back end of our bullpen is lights out.”
That back end is headlined by closer Zach Jones, who set the Daytona’s 5-6-7 hitters down 1-2-3 in the bottom of 11th to cement the Miracle’s title, and right-hander Nick Burdi, who added two perfect innings earlier in the contest. Jones spent most of this season on the disabled list, but armed with a 100 MPH fastball, entered the year ranked by Baseball America as the Twins’ 20th best prospect. Burdi was taken in the second round of this year’s draft, but he was considered by some to be a late first round talent, and MLB.com has him ranked as Minnesota’s #12 prospect.
Kanzler, by contrast, has never sniffed a prospect list. Undrafted out of high school and as a junior at the University of Buffalo, the center-fielder wasn’t taken until after his senior year in 2013, and then not until the 20th round. Playing in the Twins’ talent-rich system, Kanzler has played along such highly touted prospects as Jones, Burdi, Byron Buxton, Kohl Stewart, Jorge Polanco, and Adam Brett Walker. He reflected on some of the dynamics between coaches, prospects, and the “normal players”
“Obviously any organization is going to protect an investment, especially one that substantial. So yes [Buxton], and other top prospects, are treated differently by the front office. But on the field, everyone is teammates and brothers first. We don’t treat each other differently no matter how high or low someone is on the prospect lists.”
“The coaching staff has to abide by front office policies on certain players, be it pitch limits etc. Other than that, I haven’t seen any difference, at least not on the teams I have played on. And that makes for great team chemistry. There are no divisions based on signing bonuses and whatnot. The first rounder is going to get worn out by us just as much as the fortieth”
“There are a lot of high profile guys on this team but the chemistry is like we are a bunch of kids in the sandlot.”
This July, Kanzler briefly shared an outfield with Buxton, the game’s #1 overall prospect per Baseball America. Joining a host of scouts, executives and writers, even fans, he came away impressed, not just by his ability, but by his attitude as well.
“He’s an impressive athlete. The hype is definitely not unfounded. That kid is something special. He’s also incredibly humble. I look forward to seeing him play when he is healthy again”
Kanzler also sang the praises of one particular coach: his manager, former World Series winner and Gold Medal honoree, Doug Mientkiewicz.
“He sets his expectations very high and I love that kind of coaching. We could all tell he was in this just as much as we were. He understands the game and also understands how to motivate and teach. It’s a great combination.”
This was Mientkiewicz’s second year managing the Miracle. Last season, he led his team to the 79-56 record, tops in the Florida State League, though they made an early exit, falling to Charlotte in the first round of the playoffs. This season, his club lost only one playoff game.
“Winning is a mindset and a culture,” Kanzler said “so having a former World Series champion managing us works in our favor.”
Kanzler also shared one piece of inside information on the first baseman turned manager. “Doug is growing [a mustache] for spring training next year.”
The first thing that strikes you when looking at Kanzler is his own mustache: a scruffy german shepherd’s tail bending itself in mock imitation to Rollie Fingers. The New York Native, a fan of the famously mustachioed Met and Cardinal first baseman Keith Hernandez, indicated his own ‘stache was an extension of himself as a person and a baseball player.
“The Twins have a no facial hair policy other than mustaches, so I grew one out of rebellion and because it works with my eccentric personality.”
“I give it lots of sun and water and it seems to respond well to daily comb-throughs.” He said jokingly.
“Mustaches in baseball are epic. They were worn by hard-nosed guys who played the game the right way”
So where does you go after capping a successful rookie campaign with an extra-inning, championship-winning home run in Apparently back to work.
“I have instructional league in five days then from there I go to houston for my offseason….. I’m happy with how my first full season went. There are lots of things for me to work on, most notably cutting down my strikeouts.I’m excited about working hard to become a better player.”
“[I… have] a specific training program but it’s too complicated to explain.” he chuckled “One thing it’s not is Crossfit.”