At the center of the Quinnipiac University athletic fields sits a baseball diamond where Bryan Sabatella used to slug his way through NEC foes while Ari Kafka kept batters off balance on the mound.
Sabatella and Kafka, both standouts that led the Bobcats to an NEC championship and a berth in the NCAA Division I regional last season, have taken their games to the next level and are pursuing bigger opportunities for their baseball careers.
The duo inked minor-league deals to play for the Seattle Mariners in June and have been on the clock with games and training camps ever since.
Sabatella, a first baseman, played alongside a number of top prospects this summer for the Class-A Everett (Wash.) AquaSox (a short-season associate team of the Mariners). The AquaSox finished with a record of 42-34 in the Northwest League.
Kafka, a right-handed hurler, played with the AZL Mariners of Peoria, Ariz., a rookie affiliate in the Arizona League. The club finished with a record of 17-11, good for third place in the first half division.
The pair is currently playing together in the Mariners’ instructional league camp in Peoria, Ariz.
Kafka, a 6-foot-6-inch, 230-pound ace, was bitten by the injury bug early in the summer. But he came back strong as a relief pitcher and finished a solid rookie season.
“Half the season I was out, as my shoulder was bothering me,” said Kafka, who twirled a two-hitter in the NEC regular season finale against Monmouth last season on May 14. “But I got stronger towards the end of the season, and it was a pretty successful first year in my mind. We got a lot better as a team as the season progressed.”
When asked about the transition from college to the minors, Kafka said that the biggest task was adjusting to the better hitters.
“I just need to pitch more strikes, get good command of my off-speed, and work on mixing the fastball a little more,” Kafka said. “That’s the key to moving up.”
Sabatella’s major bright spot of the summer was the progression of his swing.
“My swing is completely different now than how it was when I started here,” said the NEC triple-crown winner/league player of the year, who has received a great deal of positive feedback from a number of the camp’s coaches.
While Sabatella wasn’t exactly where he wanted to be statistics-wise (.250 BA, .332 OBP, .373 SLG, 42 hits, 24 RBI, 4 HR, 28 runs), he was happy to have pleased the coaches, who informed him that the development of his swing was most important and that the stat sheet wouldn’t dictate where he ends up.
Sabatella also reflected on the jump from the collegiate level to the minor leagues. “It’s a completely different game,” he said.
“The hardest part was getting used to the pitching. Everything’s consistently 93, 94, 95 (MPH). You’re used to seeing around 88 in college and now all of a sudden the average pitch is 93, 94 an hour,” Sabatella said.
” And there’s no break to it, there’s no stop. There’s three days off in 76 games so there’s really no break for anything. If you get into a bad slump or something, you have to break out of it. You just have to keep your wits about you, and be strong and hold your own everyday.”
Sabatella, who batted a robust .406 (.578 throughout the month of April) last spring and finished his storied career as a Bobcat in just three seasons, didn’t fail to mention that playing for the AquaSox was essentially like living his dream.
“It was great. I mean you grow up thinking all you want to do is become a professional baseball player, and now all of a sudden it comes true. I’m thinking I could have ended up sitting in an office all day with a desk job, but I’m out here playing baseball, doing what I love to do,” Sabatella said.
“I got to go to Vancouver, Idaho, and pretty much everywhere in the northwest. I got to play with a couple of major leaguers who were down here rehabbing with us. I got to travel the country for free, to play in front of six to ten thousand fans every night, you can’t beat that. So it really was a great experience.”