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Kevin Pillar (Scout.com)

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By Scott Barancik/Jewish Baseball News

Kevin Pillar is the best Jewish player you’ve never heard of.

In college he set an NCAA Division II record with a 54-game hitting streak. Drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011, he led his rookie league with a .347 batting average and in one game went 6-for-6 with a 9th-inning grand slam. In 2012 he hit a combined .323 with six HRs, 91 RBIs, and 51 stolen bases for two teams, good enough to be named MVP of the Midwest League. Later that year he starred in the invitation-only Arizona Fall League, where he hit a fifth-best .371 and stole 8 bases in just 62 at-bats.

Baseball America’s 2013 Prospect Handbook rates Pillar the Blue Jays’ No. 21 prospect. It says his “quickness and savvy also serve him well in the outfield, where he can play all three positions.”

Somehow, Pillar flew beneath our radar. That is, until a former high-school teammate wrote to say he was Jewish.

The 24-year-old Pillar confirmed it in a recent interview. Though his father is Christian and their southern California home was not “super religious,” Pillar and older brother Michael both were Bar Mitzvah’d, inspired in large part by love and respect for their maternal grandparents.

Jewish baseball fans may not have known Pillar, but Pillar knows plenty of Jewish ballplayers. He told Jewish Baseball News he played little-league ball with Seattle Mariners prospect Jack Marder, high-school ball with Los Angeles Angels prospect Casey Haerther, minor-league rookie ball with fellow Blue Jays prospect Ian Kadish, and sees San Diego Padres prospect Cody Decker during offseason workouts.

Pillar was careful to avoid burning-out on baseball early on. While some kids focused all their athletic energies on one sport, he and his parents decided it would be healthier to mix things up. Thus Pilllar excelled in football, basketball, and baseball at his Catholic high school, where monthly Mass was mandatory but religious- studies electives included Hebrew and Judaism.

Speed was the common thread. Pillar played point guard on the basketball team, outfield on the baseball team, and running back, receiver, outside linebacker, and kick- and punt-returner on the football team. “I had a good basketball I.Q.,” he said.

Two factors persuaded Pillar to focus on baseball at college. One was his modest size; he finished high school 6-feet-tall and weighing 180 pounds. The other was baseball’s vexing failure rate, where even the finest players rarely hit successfully more than 30 percent of the time. “The fact that you fail more than you succeed was more of a challenge,” he said. Pillar enrolled at Cal State — Dominguez Hills, where he majored in business and set the Division II hitting-streak record.

Click photo to buy Kevin Pillar baseball cards

Major-league scouts were not particularly wowed. By the time the Blue Jays selected Pillar in the 32nd round of the 2011 draft, 978 other amateurs already had been picked. Playing the way he has his first two years in the minors undoubtedly has been the best revenge. Baseball America projects him as “at least a fourth outfielder in the big leagues.”

Not that Pillar is content. Last year he compensated for a frustrating lack of extra-base hits by following his singles with stolen bases (his 51 ranked 2nd among Blue Jays farmhands). During the offseason, he decided that to do better in 2013 — he’ll most likely open with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats (AA) — he’d need not only to “get bigger, faster and stronger” but also change the mechanics of his swing, and learn to swing more freely.

“I’ve always been a contact hitter,”he said. “It’s just about being a little more aggressive, not that passive at the plate.”

The 2013 season already is off to a good start. Though currently participating in Toronto’s minor-league spring training camp in Dunedin, Fla., Pillar has made his way into four big-league games to date. The highlight so far? Coming off the bench to replace Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista in right field and then stroking a 7th-inning single off Baltimore Orioles reliever Daniel McCutchen.

Pillar shared only one regret in his recent interview: that news of Team Israel’s talent search for last year’s World Baseball Classic qualifiers reached him too late. “I wish that I’d known about it,” he said.

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By Scott Barancik/Jewish Baseball News

Jewish Baseball News, the website that brings you “News and stats on Jews with bats,” has selected the top Jewish minor-leaguers of the 2012 season.

Here are the award winners:

Rookie of the year

Jack Marder, 2B/C/LF, High Desert Mavericks (Seattle Mariners)

Most improved

Mauricio Tabachnik, P, Guerreros de Oaxaca (no MLB affiliation)

Comeback player

Jeremy Bleich, P, Tampa Yankees (New York Yankees)

Best starter

No winner

Best reliever

Jeff Urlaub, Stockton Ports (Oakland Athletics)

Power hitter

Nate Freiman, 1B, San Antonio Missions (San Diego Padres); obtained by the Houston Astros on 12/6/2012.

Most valuable player

Robbie Widlansky, DH/OF/1B, Bowie Baysox (Baltimore Orioles); obtained by the Los Angeles Angels on 12/6/2012.

Additional information on the award winners and runners-up is provided below.

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Detailed information

Rookie of the Year

Jack Marder, 22, made his minor-league debut in 2011. Because he had just 71 at-bats that year, Jewish Baseball News considers 2012 his “rookie” season. And what a season it was. The versatile 22-year-old hit .360, including .410 with runners in scoring position, and reached base 42.5 percent of the time. Marder had only 278 at-bats but still drilled 24 doubles, 4 triples, and 10 HRs, drove in 56 runs, and stole 16 bases in 22 attempts.

Honorable mention (in alphabetical order): Sean Bierman (Tampa Bay Rays), Jeremy Schaffer (St. Louis Cardinals), Maxx Tissenbaum (San Diego Padres)

Most improved

Mauricio Tabachnik, 23, spent three years in the San Diego Padres’ farm system before being released in 2011. A native of Mexico, he took his right arm to the Mexican League that year but did not impress. In addition to compiling a 5.36 ERA, he gave up an average of two walks and/or hits per inning and walked more batters (41) than he struck out (24). But Tabachnik was a different player in 2012, finishing 4-2 with a 3.18 ERA, more strikeouts (38) than walks (27), and giving up an average of five fewer hits and/or walks per nine innings.

Honorable mention: Richard Bleier (Texas Rangers), Cameron Selik (Washington Nationals)

Comeback player

Jeremy Bleich, 25, was a starting pitcher with the Trenton Thunder (AA) when he seriously hurt his shoulder in May 2010. It would be another two years before the former 1st-round draft pick would pitch again, this time as a reliever. Bleich’s 2012 comeback was impressive. He went 2-1 with a career-best 3.86 ERA, struck out 24 while walking just eight, and held opposing batters to a .242 average.

Honorable mention: Ryan Kalish (Boston Red Sox)

Best reliever

Jeff Urlaub, 25, finished the 2012 season with a winning record (7-6) and a 3.18 ERA, despite playing for two teams with losing records. He produced some eye-popping stats along the way, striking out a combined 58 batters while walking only 9, holding opposing teams to a .197 batting average, and allowing just 4 HRs in 65 innings.

Honorable mention: Corey Baker (St. Louis Cardinals), David Colvin (Seattle Mariners), Ian Kadish (Toronto Blue Jays)

Power hitter

Nate Freiman, 25, doesn’t just look imposing at the plate. The 6-foot-7-inch terrorized Texas League pitchers in 2012 with a career-high 24 HRs and a league-leading 105 RBIs. He didn’t sacrifice discipline, turning in a tidy .298 batting average and .370 on-base percentage. Later, Freiman brought his big bat to the World Baseball Classic, where he launched 4 HRs in 12 at-bats for Team Israel.

Honorable mention: Cody Decker (San Diego Padres)

Most valuable player

Robbie Widlansky, 28, helped the Bowie Baysox (AA) earn a playoff berth with the best performance of his 6-year professional career. He ranked among Eastern League leaders with a .316 batting average (3rd place), 83 RBIs (3rd), 35 doubles (2nd/tie), and a .404 on-base percentage (2nd). Widlansky also stole 11 bases, and his walk-to-strikeout ratio (64 to 74) was a career high.

Honorable mention: Joc Pederson (Los Angeles Dodgers), Nate Freiman (San Diego Padres)

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By Scott Barancik and Zev Ben Avigdor/Jewish Baseball News

Your weekly source of pride-inducing updates:

  • Ryan Braun hit his 37th HR on Sunday (9/2/2012), tying a career high. Thanks to the 3-run blast, he needs only 5 more RBIs to pierce the 100-RBI mark for the 5th straight season. So far, the only player to reach 100+ RBIs every season from 2008-2012 is Detroit Tigers 3B Miguel Cabrera. Braun also enjoyed a 4-for-6, 5-RBI performance last Monday (8/27/2012).
  • The good news is that San Diego Padres prospect Cody Decker hit his 28th HR of the season last week (8/26/2012), a solo shot in the 7th inning. The bad news is that he did it off of Corpus Christi Hooks (AA) reliever Josh Zeid. Zeid got the last laugh, however, earning a “hold” in the Hooks’ 2-1 win over Decker’s San Antonio Missions (AA).
  • David Colvin, a 6’3″ reliever selected by the Seattle Mariners in the 27th round of the 2011 draft, was named Midwest League (A) pitcher of the week for July 23-30. The 23-year-old righty, who plays for the Clinton LumberKings, is 5-3 this season with a 3.15 ERA, 61 strikeouts in 68-and-one-third innings, and just 16 walks.
  • Jacob Booden is showing increasing mastery in his first pro season. Totally ignored in the 2012 amateur draft, the 6’7″ reliever signed a free-agent contract with the St. Louis Cardinals afterward and was assigned to the Johnson City Cardinals (rookie). Booden ran up a 6.35 ERA in June, a 4.76 ERA in July, and an 0.79 ERA in August. The 22-year-old is averaging a strikeout per inning.
  • It’s good news all around for Nate Freiman. The San Diego Padres assigned him to play in the prestigious Arizona Fall League once the minor-league season ends. Freiman also has been named a Texas League All-Star. As if to celebrate, the San Antonio Missions (AA) first baseman hit a score-tying HR in the 7th inning of Sunday’s (9/2/2012) game against the Corpus Christi Hooks, and a walk-off single in the bottom of the 9th inning. Freiman is hitting a career-high .301, with 24 HRs and 105 RBIs.
  • Other players picked to play in the AFL are Los Angeles Dodgers prospect Joc Pederson and Tampa Bay Rays prospect Lenny Linsky.
  • Tikkun magazine has published an article titled In Praise of Baseball. In it, author Andrew Kimbrell commends the sport for celebrating nonviolence, collegiality, natural time, agrarianism, diversity of place, sacrifice, the common man, transcendence, failure, and coming home. Thanks to The Izzy Project for sharing it.
  • Maxx Tissenbaum reached base in 10 straight plate appearances last week, including his final two chances on Monday (8/27/2012) and all four appearances both on Tuesday and Wednesday. An MLB.com article about the 21-year-old Toronto native called him a “tough out,” observing that Tissenbaum has walked 27 times this season, nearly twice as often as he has struck out (13 times).
  • Forget ‘People of the book’ —  just call us ‘People of the tweet.’ Twitter feeds authored by Toronto Blue Jays prospect Ian Kadish (Twitter) and San Diego Padres prospect Cody Decker (Twitter) are among minor-league baseball’s 20  best, according to Going 9 Baseball. Another top-ranked tweeter, Michael Schlacht, used to identify as Jewish but now is a practicing Christian.
  • Most of you know the story of Adam Greenberg, a Chicago Cub who was struck in the head by the first pitch of his first and only plate appearance in the major leagues. But you may not know about a new campaign, called One At Bat, to let the 31-year-old return to Wrigley Field later this season and get an official at-bat. Yahoo! Sports writer Kevin Kaduk argues that the Cubs have no roster space to accommodate Greenberg, but that the cellar-dwelling Houston Astros — who will play their final series of the season in Chicago — do. Click here to sign the petition.

Have any good news about Jewish athletes? Send it to sbarancik@jewishbaseballnews.com.

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By Scott Barancik/Jewish Baseball News

Mondays blow. So inhale this:

  1. Hungering for more Jewish ballplayers? Jewish Sports Review recently uncovered two: Toronto Blue Jays prospect Ian Kadish, and Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Jared Lakind. Kadish, a 23-year-old reliever, debuted last year with the Bluefield Blue Jays (Rookie), going 2-3 with a 2.67 ERA, 7 saves, and 35 strikeouts in 30-and-one-third innings. Lakind, a 20-year-old first baseman, showed impressive run-production last year, contributing 4 HRs and 20 RBIs in just 108 at-bats for the GCL Pirates (Rookie), although his .148 batting average and 43 strikeouts left plenty of room for improvement.
  2. Kevin Youkilis, out since April 28, took batting practice and fielded ground balls Sunday (5/13/2012) for the first time since straining his lower back. We hope Youk returns to the Boston Red Sox lineup soon.
  3. Chicago White Sox reliever Dylan Axelrod is a practicing Christian. Why mention him? Because Axelrod, who made his Major League debut last month, is one of several current Major Leaguers who have at least one Jewish parent or grandparent — and thus may be eligible to play for Team Israel in the November 2012 qualifying round for the World Baseball Classic. Among others, Axelrod is joined by Cleveland Indians 2B (and Rookie of the Year candidate) Jason Kipnis, and Arizona Diamondbacks 1B Paul Goldschmidt, each of whom has a Jewish parent but identifies as Christian.
  4. Harrisburg Senators (AA) phenom Danny Rosenbaum turned in yet another stellar start on Friday (5/11/2012), pitching 7 scoreless innings in an 8-1 win over the Akron Aeros. A wizard at inducing ground balls, the 24-year-old Washington Nationals caused the Aeros to hit 11 times as many grounders as they did fly balls. So far this season, Rosenbaum is 5-0 with two complete games, a league-leading 0.71 ERA, 33 strikeouts, and just four walks in 50-and-2/3 innings, or less than one per 9 innings.
  5. In Milwaukee, Brewers 1B Ryan Braun is known not only as a star baseball player but an emerging restaurateur. His latest opening, a joint venture with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, will be called 8*twelve MVP Bar & Grill. The name is a nod to the two stars’ jersey numbers — Braun’s is ‘8’ –and the fact that each is his sport’s reigning MVP.
Have any good news about Jewish athletes and teams? E-mail them to sbarancik@jewishbaseballnews.com.

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