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ALBUQUERQUE – A big portion of the nucleus of the Albuquerque Isotopes minor league baseball team from 2013 will be hanging around for the 2014 opener.
Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.
Albuquerque hosted its annual media day Tuesday at Isotopes Park, one of the first chances the team has been collected all in one place at the same time. Several players were just getting back to Albuquerque after a stint on the 40-man roster in the majors, including its top returning position player, outfielder Nick ‘Chili’ Buss.
Buss and the rest of the Isotopes will open the season Thursday night in Tacoma, Wash., taking on the Tacoma Rainiers. After a four-game set with Tacoma and another four-game set at Reno, the Isotopes will make their first home appearance April 11 when they face Tacoma again.
“I’m just really excited to get going,” Buss said. “It was a long spring training this year. I think everyone’s really psyched to get out of spring training and ready to go. Everyone’s really excited to be here and can’t wait to open it up in Tacoma.”
While several returners are back this year, there is one key new face on the bench. Damon Berryhill will take over the managerial duties for Albuquerque, taking over for Lorenzo Bundy, who will be an assistant this season with the Isotopes’ parent club, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
This will be the top position in the career of Berryhill, who coached rookie-level ball in Ogden, Utah, and at the Single-A level in Bakersfield, Calif.
Before embarking on a career in the dugout, Berryhill played 10 seasons in the majors, catching for arguably the best pitching rotation in the 1990s with the Atlanta Braves.
Will his major league experience move to inspire his team?
“I think these guys are all too young,” he said. “The difference now, you can just get on the phone and Google it, and they know everything about you. I’m not going to try to be something I wasn’t. I’m just going to try, through my experience, all the knowledge I gained from other people, and pass it on to these guys.”
Berryhill’s top coaches, pitching coach Glenn Dishman and hitting coach Franklin Stubbs, are also former major leaguers.
Last season, Albuquerque finished 76-68, which placed it second in the Pacific Coast League American Southern division. Albuquerque finished 6 games behind the Oklahoma City RedHawks.
Heading into the final month of the 2013 season, the Isotopes seemed poised to make a real run at the division title and a spot in the PCL playoffs, but went into a huge mid-August swoon. The Isotopes lost eight straight games, including dropping all five games of a critical series against Oklahoma City that ultimately cost them a shot at the title.
Buss, an outfielder, was named as a PCL postseason All-Star. He led the team in several statistical categories last season, including batting average (.303), games played (131), hits (139) and RBI (100).
Buss, who was on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster, played just 8 games with the big club last season despite his numbers — the only 8 games he’s been in the Bigs since being drafted in 2008.
His main goal during spring training was a simple one.
“Just trying to be more consistent overall,” Buss said. “As a baseball player, you’re always working on something. Nothing in particular, just trying to become a better player.”
The Isotopes are among the top-drawing minor league clubs in the country. Last year, more than 567,000 fans went through the turnstiles at Isotopes Park, third-best total in the PCL.
Returning to the Isotopes this season after being traded following the 2011 season is outfielder Trayvon Robinson. Robinson, who is originally from the Los Angeles area and was on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster this year, went to the Mariners organization for a year before returning to the Dodgers’ farm system.
“Just being in the Dodgers’ organization is awesome,” he said. “I didn’t care where I was going after spring training. I was just happy to be somewhere where I’m comfortable. I had a really good spring training. My confidence level was back to where it was when I was in this organization.”
The pitching staff will have a fair amount of familiar faces, as well, including Stephen Fife (2-4, 6.03 ERA), Thursday’s likely starting pitcher, along with Matt Magill and Red Patterson in the rotation.
“Body’s in good shape, arm’s in good shape,” said Patterson, who had roles as both a starter and reliever in 2013.
“This year, in spring, I maxed out about 3.1 innings, probably around the 45-pitch mark, so I’m a little bit behind starting-wise, but (Wednesday) we’ll simulate a game, get my pitch count up a little.”
Following the initial home series with Tacoma, Albuquerque will face the El Paso Chihuahuas, a new addition to the PCL this season, for four games starting April 15.
The Isotopes have 14 dates with post-game fireworks scheduled this season, the first of which will be May 2.