Professional baseball is back in the Queen City.
The Helena Brewers kick off their season against the Great Falls Voyagers at 7:05 p.m. Monday. Brewers manager Nestor Corredor is back at the helm for this second season in charge of the club and seventh season total working with the organization. Corredor is intimately familiar with Kindrick Legion Field, having been there for two seasons as a player -- once as a catcher in 2004 and another time as a pitcher in 2008.
“Last year we try to know the league and how it works,” Corredor said. “This year it’s a place to play hard and try to hit. We have really young guys. We want to see if we can put it together and bring a competitive team. Let’s see. We have a lot of young guys.”
“It is what it is. I have a good feeling about these guys.”
The youngest Brewer is 19-year-old pitcher Juan Diaz, and the oldest player currently on the roster is 25-year-old pitcher Braulio Ortiz. There are seven returning Brewers from last season’s team, including pitchers Rodrigo Benoit, Juan Diaz and Karsen Lindell, Michael Peterson and catcher Yoel Vasquez, infielder Franly Mallen and outfielder Yerald Martinez. The continuity from last season could pay dividends for the Brewers, who are looking for their first Pioneer League championship since 2010.
“It’s a big help, for example (Franly Mallen) knows how the ball goes,” Corredor said. “He can help (Anthonio) Pinero, the really young guy. (Yerald) Martinez has some idea how they pitch in this league, so that can help some of the new guys.”
Those familiar faces at Kindrick will certainly have defensively, and perhaps nowhere more so than on the mound.
“The main thing is going to be the pitching side, with Benoit coming back, Lindell, Petersen, all those guys need to set the tone for the new guys and try to tell them how the hitters are in this league,” Corredor said.
Lindell, of West Linn, Oregon, is hoping to use this season as one to show his capability. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound right hander spent a portion of last season dealing with nagging injuries. He feels healthy now after taking some time off to rest and recover.
“Working on small things here and there,” Lindell said. “Making sure I repeat everything the same, not have any increased injury.”
The 20-year-old Lindell is excited to play under Corredor for a second consecutive year.
“It’s awesome,” Lindell said. “He’s a very good manager. He has a lot of fun with it. He knows when to get serious and when to help. It’s very good. I’m very excited for it.”
The Brewers expect to have another third baseman and a few pitchers ready for action by Monday night via the MLB Draft. In total, the Brewers made 41 selections in the 2017 first-year player draft. Some of those faces could shift in and out of Helena as the season unwinds.
While it’s impossible to tell early on, fans may never know when they are going to see the next future Hall of Famer coming through Helena. Names like Ryne Sandberg and Gary Sheffield decorate the paneling around Kindrick, serving as a reminder. It wasn’t too long ago current big leaguer Ryan Braun donned a Helena Brewers jersey.
The Brewers organization is the advanced rookie ball league, where young prospects play during the summer. Foreign players may move down to the Dominican Summer League, where the Brewers operate a team. The Arizona League Brewers are a step below the rookie ball players in Helena. The Brewers organization has an A affiliate in Wisconsin, A-advanced in North Carolina, a Double-A team in Biloxi and Triple-A in Colorado.
The ladder to climb to the big leagues is tall, but it starts in earnest for some players here in Helena.
The Brewers were in Arizona after spring training, around mid-April, playing about five games per week. The stats-less league gave Corredor and his crew a chance to see some of the same talent they’ll be facing in the Pioneer League. He estimates he’ll see about 60 to 70 percent of the same players they competed against in Arizona. The skipper figures his club’s biggest competition will be Great Falls, Billings and Missoula.
“We got to have a good read and we competed against the Diamondbacks, played three games beat them all three,” Corredor said. “We play against Great Falls and we actually played really well. That’s why I say we got a good feeling. We have a good idea of what we’re facing on Monday.”
The Brewers will be looking to play above .500 ball and advance to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Last season, the first under Corredor, the club finished 18 games under .500 at 28-46. The club’s last winning season came in 2013 under Tony Diggs who was in his first season.
Corredor said the familiarity with Kindrick will play into his team’s favor.
“I know it’s a hitter park,” Corredor said. “The ball flies in the air. Sometimes, it flies too much. Actually last year we played decent and we know the field looks a lot better. We feel like the ball doesn’t move that much. It’s not going to be a field where we can use our speed very well. When you go 2nd you run up hill, but it plays perfect for our ability. We have guys that hit the ball in the gaps. We have a couple guys with some power. When they pull it, they might hit some home runs. Actually, the field plays for us especially in this stadium.”
That stadium will be the host to the Great Falls Voyagers on Monday, the start of rookie ball.
The Voyagers will have a new manager in control in Tim Esmay. Prior to the Voyagers, he coached at the White Soxes’ Triple-A affiliate in Charlotte and managed a high-A team in Winston-Salem in 2015. He has a wealth of experience at the college ranks, too. The Voyagers lost 2-0 to Billings in the Pioneer League semifinals last season.