Benefield: Baseball's stars of tomorrow could be on a field near you today

If You Go

Who: Healdsburg Prune Packers host the Walnut Creek Crawdads and Humboldt B52s

When: Crawdads at 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday; B52s at 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday.

Where: Recreation Park in Healdsburg

Summer league college baseball - it’s something akin to hosting another person’s kid at your house - may seem like just a play date, but in fact, it’s a crucial responsibility.

The analogy - an apt, if a bit unusual, one - is straight from Joey Gomes.

“You’d kind of like to know what’s going on there, but once you know they do things the way you like things done, they just go over,” the manager of the Healdsburg Prune Packers said.

“It’s trust,” he said. “It’s 100 percent trust.”

Gomes, now in his fourth year at the helm of the Prune Packers, is the caretaker entrusted with a slew of college talent this summer. And Gomes and the squad are making the most of it. Heading into Wednesday night’s road game against the Humboldt Crabs, the Prune Packers were 12-5 in the California Collegiate League, behind only the Neptune Pearl. They are ranked No. 27 out of approximately 300 teams nationwide by the Collegiate Summer Baseball staff.

And while the wins are great, Gomes said his main focus is always on player growth. These guys come to him out of some big-name college programs and it’s his job to steer the Prune Packers to wins but also to make the guys better players by the end of the summer.

“This is a development team. This has to be,” he said. “These guys are not in the big leagues yet.”

And the “yet” can come sooner rather than later.

Prune Packer alum Jake Scheiner, a guy who graduated from Maria Carrillo High and Santa Rosa Junior College before having a tremendous junior season at the University of Houston this spring, was taken in the fourth round of this year’s Major League Baseball draft by the Philadelphia Phillies. In total, five 2017 Prune Packers were taken in this draft.

The takeaway?

There is good baseball being played in Recreation Park in Healdsburg.

“People get interested in who is winning a bunch of baseball games and why they are winning a bunch of baseball games,” Gomes said.

Of the 33 players on the roster, eight are from the Redwood Empire (or close). And loads are from big-name college programs like Texas Tech, Stanford, Santa Clara and the University of Houston.

The CCL, along with the likes of the Cape Cod Baseball League and the Northwoods League based in Minnesota, is sponsored by Major League Baseball. Which means Gomes and other managers are keeping scouts and contacts apprised of what he’s seeing.

Gomes calls them “progress reports.”

It also means the players are using wooden bats. And, to Gomes, that’s key.

Coming from college, where players swing aluminum bats, the transition can be a tricky one. Gomes said plate appearances with the Prune Packers can help.

“If you are looking at a hitter with a wood bat in their hand, you are kind of erasing any doubt,” he said. “Is what this kid is doing, does it work at the next level? The guessing game is gone.”

While Gomes has a roster heavy with Division I guys, he again has a strong contingent of guys who either played at area high schools or suited up for SRJC or Sonoma State.

Bryce Nagata, an All-Big 8 Conference pick for the Bear Cubs in 2016 who is now a Sonoma State Seawolf, is hitting .365 with 18 RBIs. But more crucially, perhaps, Nagata is wreaking havoc on the basepaths this summer.

“He’s basically found his way into the lineup and stayed the whole time,” Gomes said. “He’s stolen a whole bunch of bases. He’s been our firestarter. He’s always on base, finding his way into scoring position, playing a really good center field.”

Case in point: Nagata stole two bases in the Prune Packers’ 10-4 win against the Crabs Tuesday night.

Another Bear Cub, rising sophomore Cole Brodnansky, a two-time Press Democrat All-Empire Small School Player of the Year out of Clear Lake High and a first-team All-Big 8 pick at designated hitter this spring, is hitting .400 with 20 RBIs and two homers. He had two hits and scored once Tuesday in the win.

“That is where my hat is off to programs like Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State,” Gomes said.

“Those guys can flat-out play. They play hard. They do the little things; they care about the little things.”

And winning is no little thing - especially when balanced with the very real demands of helping college players get better, work on weak spots in their game or make a push for the big leagues.

“Absolutely, there is a conversation with the coach and it leads to what they would like (the player) to be better at,” Gomes said. “There is a point of emphasis.”

And as long as Gomes keeps the kids in his care safe, coaches will keep sending them over to his house at Rec Park.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

If You Go

Who: Healdsburg Prune Packers host the Walnut Creek Crawdads and Humboldt B52s

When: Crawdads at 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday; B52s at 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday.

Where: Recreation Park in Healdsburg

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