Tampa, FL- Nick Ciuffo got the news that he’d been selected to the Florida State League All-Star Game. 24 Hours later he was placed on the DL. The injury, to his left pinky finger, means he misses the opportunity to play in the All-Star contest in Fort Myers.
"I've been better," he said. But later he added humorously, "I never knew how important the pinky finger was!"
Keeping his spirits high is just one part of the process for the catcher. Ciuffo has a plan that he's committed to in order to return in top form.
"The biggest thing is, once it heals properly, get the range of motion back," Ciuffo said the day he went on the DL. "My plan, and I haven't talked to our training staff yet, but I'm just not going to get out of shape. Or, I'm just going to try and stay in playing shape the entire time. I can still run. I can still lift weights. I can still do lower body. Really, just staying in good playing shape, and keeping my legs under me."
Until that moment, he'd gotten into the comfort zone at the plate. Something that hadn't come easily in adjusting to a more advanced league. Florida State League tends to favor pitchers, and hitters swing pretty freely. In High-A, pitchers, if they're getting the hang of things, are starting to use their off-speed stuff more and doing so effectively. Ciuffo, 21 benefited from the challenge.
"Early in the season, I was struggling to get a lot of off-speed, mostly change-ups in advantage counts, which I didn't get in the Midwest League. It's a lot of fastballs because guys are younger. I struggled with getting changeups in those counts in the beginning, but I settled in and started waiting for more pitches. I'm still not walking a ton, but I'm walking more than I did last year," he said.
He'd hit .289/.306/.325 with 8 RBI and 6 doubles, and tacked on 5 walks in those 41 games. The Rays 2013 first round pick, drafted out of high school, had been commited to attend the University of South Carolina, but decided to go pro. He made his minor league debut with the Princeton Rays, a Rookie-level league, following that up with a season in the Midwest League, with Bowling Green.
With the success he's been enjoying, it's easy to see it as a major interruption to a season of strong development. But there's the alternate view.
"You could look at it a lot of ways," said Stone Crabs manager Michael Johns. "It stinks he's going to miss the All-Star Game. He deserved to be there. Any kid who's had a year like that should be able to go and represent us. However, he did play in Australia half a season. He played almost everyday in the heat. So, if you want to try and look at it in a positive way, at least it'll give him a little bit of a breather. When he comes back, his legs and arm will be fresh."
When he began the season, he was already prepared for more difficult terrain. "It gave me a good idea of what I needed to do to keep my body in shape for a full season."
He'd played in the highly competitive Australian Baseball League, which allows players to face more experienced competition. And gives the added advantage of more playing time outside of the regular playing season in the United States. He played there for two months before fracturing his right index finger. He returned home for a short time, then headed to the Spring Training complex in Port Charlotte in January. It was there that he locked in to one specific area of focus.
"I just ran. I ran a ton. I gained just a little bit of weight being home for 2-3 weeks not doing anything, so I tried to drop a couple pounds and wanted to be in shape for what's one of the toughest leagues to play in in the minor leagues," he said.
And up to this disappointing moment, he'd been rising to the challenge of the very tough league. Yes, he was clear, this is some bad timing. But in the midst of talking about that genuine frustration, he made a lighthearted point.
"I'm kind of upset, because I had some really nice cleats."
Keeping that sense of humor, and playing form, in tact.
You can follow him on Twitter @nciuffo14