When Hart baseball coach Jim Ozella flips on his television to watch the Major League Baseball postseason, he’s given an experience likely no other high school coach in America can relate too.
Maybe he’ll see one of his former pitchers, Trevor Bauer, gearing up for a Game 1 start for the Cleveland Indians in the American League Division Series.
Maybe he’ll catch another one of his former hurlers, Mike Montgomery, filling his dynamic role within the Chicago Cubs’ rotation.
Or maybe he’ll catch his former shortstop, Pat Valaika, crushing a double into the right-center gap in his only at-bat for the Colorado Rockies in their National League Wild Card game loss.
“I couldn’t be more proud of these guys because each one of them has had to battle adversity to get where they’re at,” said Ozella, who’s coached the Indians since 2000. “Yeah, you can say Trevor and Mike were first-round picks, but they haven’t taken an easy route to get to where they are.”
Bauer garnered the Game 1 start against the New York Yankees, which was met with skepticism as some wondered why ace Corey Kluber wasn’t chosen.
Ozella knows that kind of doubt only stood to help Bauer.
“That’s right up Trevor’s alley, man,” Ozella said. “Trevor loves the challenge. He loves to prove people wrong and loves to rise to the occasion.”
All Bauer did was hold the Yankees hitless for 5 1/3 innings, a Cleveland postseason record. He allowed just two hits and struck out eight over 6 2/3 innings en route to his first postseason win.
“That takes a special guy right there,” Ozella said. “Anybody who watched his second half (of the season) shouldn’t have been surprised with that kind of performance.”
Bauer struggled in his Game 4 start, though, surrendering four runs in 1 2/3 innings of work. Montgomery had similar struggles, allowing a three-run, game-winning homer to Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals in Game 2 of the NLDS.
Just like in Montgomery’s days at Hart, he had a voice of support ready at his disposal.
“I texted him after he let up the home run and said, ‘Hey, just rally, tomorrow is another day,’” Ozella said. “He texted back and said, ‘Only worrying about today, just got to turn the page.’”
“I get such pleasure when I see the progression of maturity like that. It’s one of the main reasons I do what I do.”
Valaika was a key bat off the bench for the Rockies his rookie year, setting the club’s rookie record with three pinch-hit homers. He ended the year with 13 homers to go with a .258 average.
“It’s not an easy job to come off the bench and hit, period,” Ozella said. “But it’s especially hard for a younger guy, and he thrived in that role.”
Having former players in the postseason hasn’t just been for Ozella’s viewing pleasure. It’s had a major effect on his current program.
“It’s inspiring to the players,” Ozella said. “I always tell them, ‘These guys were 14 and 15-year-olds playing on this field, just like you.’”
“It shows them the dream isn’t unreachable. With a lot of luck, a lot of time and a lot of devotion, it can happen.”