WINTER GARDEN Anyone who had followed the Winter Garden Squeeze entering last season had expected big things after a successful 2014 Florida Collegiate Summer League campaign.
But the team's head coach, Ruben Felix, needed to relinquish his position shortly before the season. Retired MLB catcher Eddie Taubensee coached the team in the interim, but the roster was not his, and it showed when the team lost 14 straight games after winning its opener.
While the Squeeze finished last at 8-28, new Squeeze head coach Jay Welsh was leading the Winter Garden Tangelos – the Squeeze's Futures Wood-bat League affiliate – to a record-setting 18-6-1 first-place finish and an FWL championship.
And Welsh believes he has the solution to turn the Squeeze around.
“I told Adam (Bates), our general manager, when he asked me what's wrong with the Squeeze, 'I don't have anything against kids from Texas or from different parts of the country, but we've got a lot of the greatest ballplayers that go to colleges right here in Central Florida,'” Welsh said. “What really helps on (the Tangelos) is that these kids have been here and they just love being here. They see guys they played against in high school on their team now, and we just had such a great camaraderie in the dugout.”
Welsh and Bates have been planning to promote players from the Tangelos roster to the Squeeze roster and add more players from Central Florida to recapture that camaraderie. Of 28 athletes Welsh has sought for his roster, 24 of them went to Central Florida high schools, including Dr. Phillips, Olympia, West Orange and Windermere Prep, he said.
“This league was founded on a local kid coming back,” Bates said. “With us and our goals, hoping to build a field in downtown Winter Garden and expand, we have a goal of kids making this their stop, their home for the summer, and get more involved in the community … It starts with local kids.”
Bates said he and Welsh have witnessed these players behave responsibly as representatives they would want for their team in the community. Welsh said he has coached as many as 16 of the players earmarked for the roster -- some starting at 9 years old – and his son, Ryan, a sophomore pitcher at Florida Southern who had a 0.58 ERA in 31 innings for the 2015 Tangelos.
“It's really special for me, because obviously I have the bond with the kid, but also with the family … and really care for them,” Jay Welsh said. “I think that makes a big difference, too, to see them succeed at all levels.”
Another key adaptation will be Welsh's playing strategy, which differs from most managers', he said. He believes in rotating players in five-inning and four-inning shifts to keep them fresh while staying sharp on the field to progress in development.
“We've been working on this since we got eliminated last year, because we struggled and we didn't learn,” Bates said. “Our goal is ... Tropicana Field or bust.”
Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].