In our last update, we talked about the Asheville Tourists being in a bit of a slump. That was so last week.
The T’s ended April by winning five games in a row, and six of their past nine. That’s pushed Asheville up to a 14-11 record as of May 1, placing them second in the South Atlantic League’s (SAL) Southern Division, two-and-a-half games behind first place Savannah. The Tourists have won close games during the span, but they’ve also crushed the opposition most recently. In their past three games, Asheville has won by a combined score of 32-11.
Someone who’s played a big role in that success has been shortstop Pat Valaika. Valaika, 21, was part of a national championship team in college, winning the 2013 title with UCLA. And as you’ll see, baseball has been the family business among him and his brothers.
Teammates like David Dahl and Ryan McMahon got most of the attention coming into the season, but Valaika has been one of the Tourists’ most consistent hitters during the first month of the season. As of this writing, he has a .380 batting average, second-best in the SAL. He ranks third among the league’s hitters (behind McMahon and Greenville’s Carlos Asuaje) with a 1.008 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).
When I talked to Valaika on Wednesday, he had a 16-game hitting streak going. Later that evening, he extended that streak to 17 games by batting 2-for-3 in the Tourists’ 12-7 win over Rome. We went from baseball talk to some more personal stuff, but the hitting streak seemed like a good place for our conversation to start.
We have to begin by talking about the 16-game hitting streak. Is it the longest you’ve ever had?
I think so. I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter to me.
You haven’t really kept track?
I haven’t really kept track. It doesn’t matter to me. As long as we’re winning.
OK, I was going to ask how much you were thinking about it. But not much, unless people like me bring it up?
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. Or my mom and my girlfriend bring it up. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s a long season. There’s gonna be games when I don’t get hits. Right now, it’s just going good. Things are falling, you know? That’s the way it works out sometimes.
Your brother, Chris, had a 32-game hitting streak once. You haven’t talked to him about that at all?
No. It’s just 16. People can do that anyday.
I was wondering at what point this becomes a thing. Like, after 10 games? I know you said you’re not thinking about it, but…
Yeah, I mean – I’m not trying to think about it all. Because once you start thinking about results, that’s kind of when things start going downhill. So right now, results are happening and I’m having good at-bats. But I’m lucky too. Part of the game is luck.
You’re batting .368 [as of Wed. April 30], third in the South Atlantic League. That would easily be the best average you’ve had over a season, college or pro. What do you think the difference has been? Are there any changes that you’ve made in your game?
It’s just maturity as a hitter. You know, I’m starting to get smarter about my at-bats. I keep watching the game and learning things. We have a great hitting coach in Mike Devereaux. So I think it’s just maturity. That’s been the biggest thing – not giving away at-bats, which I have in the past.
Has there been any advice, any suggestions that have come into play at all?
I don’t think so right now. People are just letting me do my thing. It’s going good, you know. I know there’s going to be a day when it’s not working out, so for now, I’m just enjoying it.
Is there any talk or competition between teammates? Michael Benjamin is right behind you [.358 batting average]. Do you guys keep tabs on each other or just focus on your own game?
Yeah, I think so. Our biggest focus is just winning games. It doesn’t really matter about averages to us. They told us in spring training, the best player you can be is when you’re trying to win a game. That’s when you get the most out of your talent. So I think everyone’s just trying to win games.
You have two older brothers – Chris and Matt – who have played professionally. Have they given you any advice or do you seek out anything from them?
Oh, yeah. We talk a lot about how grueling this game is and how to get through it. Chris has played, I think, nine years now. So he’s a good source of information if I need any help with, you know, moving into a place. Small stuff like that.
That’s something fans and media probably don’t even think about, right?
Yeah. He’s good, because he’s been there and done all that, getting short-term leases. All that blah-blah-blah that goes along with it.
Do you stay with a host family?
No, we got an apartment.
What’s been the best piece of advice, if you can recall, that your brothers have given you?
Just, you know, enjoy the game. Play hard for three hours. Our games are usually three hours, two and change. It’s not that hard just to play hard for three hours.
Earlier in the season, you were batting lower in the lineup. Now your manager has you batting higher, second or third. Is there a spot you prefer to bat in or that you feel suits your skills best?
Anywhere in the lineup. It doesn’t really matter. The order in the lineup only matters in the first inning.
But you were a middle-of-the-order guy in college [at UCLA], right?
Yeah, in college. That’s just where they put me to win the most games.
Do you like to be in more of a run production type of spot?
I mean, I don’t mind doing anything. I can hit leadoff, I can hit two. I can hit nine, eight. It really doesn’t matter, as long as I’m in the lineup.
Let’s talk about your defense. How do you feel about that part of your game right now?
I feel pretty good. I’m just trying to be consistent, make all the routine plays. That’s what they put me out there for.
Is there anything in particular you’ve been working on?
Just staying in the game and being consistent. You know, not taking any pitches off, trying to stay focused on every pitch.
Is that harder than people think? Do you just zone out once in a while, especially if nothing comes your way for a few innings?
Oh, absolutely. It’s really hard to stay focused for however many pitches there are in a game. But we had a good mental coach in college who gave us some tricks about being focused when you need to focus, but when you don’t, how not to space out. That makes it easier.
Do you have a favorite type of play to make? Like when you make a diving stop or charge in on a ball?
I like ’em all. [Laughs]
Is there a shortstop you try to emulate at all, that you’ve admired while growing up?
Well, I think everyone in this generation loves Derek Jeter. He’s the captain of the infield, the captain of the Yankees. So if there’s anyone, he’d be a good guy to look up to.
What do you think has been the difference that you’ve noticed in moving up a level, from rookie league to Single-A? What’s been the biggest differences in the games, pitches that you’re seeing?
I think it’s the same game that we’ve been playing our whole lives. We play more games this year. I think that’s been one of the biggest differences, being prepared to play 140-plus games. So it’s about staying healthy, having good nutrition – stuff like that is really important to stay on the field.
What’s been the biggest surprise since you turned professional? Has there been kind of a “welcome to the pros” moment for you?
Uh… well… what do you mean? What do you mean by that?
Just has there been anything like, “OK, this is different. This is not college anymore.”
In pro ball, they kind of let you play a little bit more. They want to see what you can do, where as in college, they throw the best nine out there and you gotta do what the coach tells you to do. You’re assigned to do this and you have to do this. I think here, it’s more of a – that you’re here for a reason. Show us what you got.
Is it a little more instructional?
Here? I think they try to let you play more. In college, there’s a lot more practices. We don’t practice here, we just play games every day.
Do you have walk-up music?
I don’t right now. I’ve been lazy getting my song up there.
But some of your teammates do, right? Is there anything you’ve been thinking of?
A few of them do, yeah. I’ll probably go with a country song, I’m thinking.
Do you have a favorite, a favorite artist or anything like that?
I like ’em all, all the top guys. Luke Bryan, Brantley Gilbert.
What do you miss the most about home? You’re from California; what do you miss the most?
The beach. I miss Mexican food. Family. I just miss home, in general. But, you know, this is my job. I knew this was what it was gonna be like. So I was prepared to be away for six or seven months out of the year.
Have you gotten around Asheville much since you’ve been here?
Oh, yeah – at some point. I’ve been downtown, I went to the mall. It’s been fun.
Has there been anything in particular you’ve really enjoyed or anything you’re hoping to do?
I wanna go see the Biltmore Estate. That’s pretty cool; I haven’t been there yet. Next off-day, we might try to go see that.
You’re on Twitter (@PValaika), but I noticed you don’t tweet much.
[Laughs] I look at tweets.
Is that what it is? It’s more that you look, but you don’t need to participate?
Yeah, it’s just not my personality. I’m more of just a keep my emotions and thoughts to myself guy. Our guys are pretty smart about it. We had a meeting in spring training about what you can write, what you can’t.
Do you have any favorite hobbies? You into any movies or TV shows?
I love playing baseball. [Laughs] Relaxing, hanging out. I do a lot of that in the offseason. I watch a lot of TV shows. Suits. Game of Thrones. Prison Break was a good one.
Is there one thing you’d like readers and fans to know about you, that they wouldn’t know just from watching you play?
I play hard every game. That’s how I was raised, how I was taught to play. That’s what they can expect out of me every day.
*** The Asheville Tourists continue their homestand through Monday, May 5. They close out a three-game set against the Rome Braves with a Thirsty Thursday on May 1. On May 2, the team will wear special Spider-Man themed jerseys that will be auctioned off for charity. And on May 3, Mr. Belding (Dennis Haskins) from Saved by the Bell will meet and greet fans at the ballpark. Single game tickets are currently available at the McCormick Field box office. For more information, contact the Tourists’ front office at (828) 258-0428.
Ian Casselberry covers Major League Baseball at The Outside Corner and provides analysis for The WISE Guys on ESPN Asheville (1310 and 970 AM) every Tuesday at 4:20 p.m. Follow Ian on Twitter.