Second-year IronBirds manager Matt Merullo set the bar plenty high in his first season at the helm of the Aberdeen squad, guiding the team in 2013 to its first playoff appearance. But now he's focused on the 2014 edition of the IronBirds.
The early season roster includes top Orioles pitching prospect Dylan Bundy, who's scheduled to make at least two starts for the IronBirds, including Aberdeen's second home game, on Saturday, June 21.
Merullo, who had a six-year major league career as a catcher with the White Sox, Indians and Twins, and who took over the IronBirds last year without any previous managerial experience, spoke from the club section of Ripken Stadium with members of the media as IronBirds players shuffled about.
"I'm just thrilled to be back here in Aberdeen," Merullo said. "There's a lot of new faces on the team, but that's usually the case in minor league [baseball]. We're just going with the same approach we used last year, which is to play game by game, pitch by pitch. When we got playing like that last season, I don't even think we realized we were in the playoff hunt. But, we looked up some time in August and realized we hadn't lost three games in a row since the second week of the season. That's how we want to go about it again this year."
Aberdeen starts its 2014 season Friday with a road game against Hudson Valley, then plays six more away games before returning for the home opener against the Brooklyn Cyclones on Friday, June 20 at 7:35 p.m.
By clinching the top spot in the New York-Penn League's McNamara Division last season, the IronBirds ended an 11-season playoff drought. In the best-of-three league semifinals, Aberdeen lost, 3-0 and 1-0, to the Tri-City ValleyCats, ending the IronBirds first playoff run in short order.
"Of course this is a lower level of professional baseball, but this is really a good league," Merullo said. "Joe Oliver, who I played against in the majors, is the manager over on the Lowell [Spinners] this year, and I talked to him a little bit ago. I told him how the crowds, the fans, in this league are just great."
Also chatting with the press at Tuesday's event were the two highest picks on the IronBirds roster – local talent Alex Murphy, a Calvert Hall graduate who was picked up in the sixth round of last year's June draft, and Stephen Tarpley, a left-handed pitcher selected in the third round of the same draft.
Murphy, who played 31 games in the Gulf Coast League last season after being drafted, talked about his last visit to Ripken Stadium, and the aspects of his game he is focusing on.
"The last time I was here, with Calvert Hall, we were in a dog pile on the pitchers mound after we won the [MIAA 'A' Conference] title last year," he said. "I've been working on some blocking techniques, some quick release throws, and just some little defensive things here and there. I'm trying to be more consistent with everything so I can help the team on both ends. I think I can contribute defensively, generate some RBIs."
Tarpley, who was selected in the eighth round of the 2011 draft by Cleveland, but opted to attend Scottsdale Community College, where he was picked up by the Orioles last year, pitched in seven games with the Gulf Coast League affiliate in 2013.
"I had seen pictures of Ripken Stadium before, but I didn't' know it was this nice," he said. "When I got here I said, 'are you serious?' I had to stop and take it in. This is a beautiful stadium, and I'm really excited to play here. I want to get out and start pitching on front of some people, some crowds."
Merullo said Dylan Bundy, the Orioles' first-round pick of the 2011 draft who is recovering from an injury, will make the first of two rehab starts with the IronBirds on Sunday in Aberdeen's road game with Hudson Valley.
"Bundy is going to make the start for us Sunday, then, most likely, start again when we get back on Saturday," Merullo said. "I watched him throw in extended spring training, and he looked very confident. He gave up a few home runs early on, when he was having trouble keeping the ball down in the strike zone, but after he got comfortable, he was making his pitches, and just dominating the younger hitters."