Sports change quickly and unpredictably during a health crisis, but so far the summer is allowing some baseball players like Jakob Runnels to resume their career.
The Florida Collegiate Summer League – the highly competitive and popular wood-bat baseball league – kicked off its 2020 season on June 29 and has been navigating the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
It has also allowed players with local ties to get back on the diamond.
For Runnels – a right-handed hitting catcher on the Sanford Mavericks roster – the Florida League provided him one of the first opportunities to play a complete baseball game since his 2019 senior season at Auburndale High School.
In fact, Runnels was one of two players to appear in each of the Mavericks’ opening nine contests which included a 4-2 victory over the Orlando Scorpions on the second day of the season.
“The first game felt kind of awkward. You practice and you go through all the motions and everything about the game, but there’s just things that you can’t teach that you do in games,” Runnels said. “Live [at-bats] against guys with three different or four different pitches and catching guys that throw 93 [miles per hour] with sink. These are things you can practice, but until you get in a game and actually do them it’s different.
“Games are way more fast-paced. You watch baseball and it seems like such a slow-paced game, but, really, when you are actually playing, it’s a lot more fast-paced,” he continued.
Auburndale’s 2019 varsity season ended with a 4-3 loss to Sebring in the Class 6A District 10 semifinals, as Runnels and close friend (and Sanford Mavericks teammate) Keegan Houser played their game for the Bloodhounds. Runnels homered and drove in all three runs, while Houser started on the mound and pitched six innings.
As a freshman at UCF later that same year, Runnels got some plate appearances during the Knights’ fall schedule which featured the annual Black & Gold World Series.
But Runnels, a four-year baseball letter winner at Auburndale who graduated with high honors, did not record any official stats during UCF’s 2020 season before it was interrupted by the pandemic. The Knights were off to a 15-3 start when the NCAA canceled the remaining Division I spring championships on March 12.
Enter the Florida League and its goal to help dozens of college baseball players continue their development this summer.
On June 2, the FCSL announced that its Board of Directors had officially voted to proceed with the 2020 summer season, noting that a restructuring of league operations and a jump to 10 teams was weighed alongside the health metrics of several Central Florida counties. A decision to start the season without fans subsequently followed and live games have been broadcast from DeLand, Leesburg and Sanford on the FloSports video streaming service.
Runnels is striving for large numbers of reps this season – even during a considerably hot July, when the heat index has consistently reached triple digits. He believes the current work on his receiving techniques behind the plate — in addition to regaining his timing and comfort level in the batter’s box — will be beneficial in advance of his transfer to St. Johns River State College for the 2020-21 school year.
He is also fortunate to have reconnected on the field with Houser, who during his 2020 freshman season at Campbell (N.C) University posted a 2.13 earned-run average with 14 strikeouts and one save in 12 2/3 innings. Incidentally, Runnels and Houser share the same July birthday.
“We had our senior year of high school together – and I don’t want to be corny about it – but it was kind of emotional,” Runnels said. “You played baseball with this particular friend your whole life and you played on pretty much the same teams your whole life. You get to that last game for your senior year in high school and you think that you’re never going to catch him [Houser] again. We might not ever be on the same baseball field again.”
The Sanford Mavericks stopped a six-game skid with consecutive wins last week over the Seminole County Loggerheads and Orlando Scorpions. The team entered this week with a 4-9 overall record and, as of this writing, had 12 games remaining between July 20 and Aug. 4.
Wins and losses may be one of the more customary parts of a Florida League season that is far from normal. The state continues to experience significant growth in new coronavirus cases as players take the field amid several safety measures.
Other live games are continuing across Central Florida as well, including the MLS is Back soccer tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and the AAU Junior National Volleyball Championships at the Orange County Convention Center.