By: Mason Nesbitt, Sports Information Director
The storyline was gift-wrapped like a two-hopper to short. The headline wrote itself: The Master’s University baseball alums Conner Menez and Brandon Van Horn make the most of time on same Minor League Baseball team.
Yeah, that lasted all of six games.
The San Francisco Giants promoted Menez to Triple-A Sacramento on Wednesday with the lefty scheduled to pitch in the capital on Thursday.
Menez left his High-A San Jose Giant teammates, including a reportedly ecstatic Van Horn, in Lancaster shortly after receiving the news and flew from LAX to Sacramento. But not before Van Horn and Menez visited with a guest Monday about the benefit of playing together, adjusting to life on the road and whether Master’s prepared them for the pros.
“That has to be a God thing,” Menez said of opening 2018 on the same roster as Van Horn, who he played with at TMU in 2016, when the Mustangs made the first of two straight NAIA World Series appearances.
The Giants drafted Menez in the 14th round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft later that summer and snagged Van Horn, a slick-fielding shortstop, five rounds later.
After spending a season-plus with different teams, the duo’s paths crossed this spring in San Jose, where both were set to start the year in High-A ball.
Menez says his teammates asked about TMU.
“I’m like, ‘It’s a small NAIA school,'” Menez said. “And they’re like, ‘What? You and Brandon are from there?’ It’s a cool way, honestly, to open up to players and share (about Christ) that way.”
Said Van Horn, “You can’t really describe it other than it’s a blessing and it’s really fun. We’re both really familiar with each other. We’ve been doing this for a while. We have better communication than most pitchers and infielders would have.
“Hopefully, we can do it all the way up to the big leagues.”
Menez took a giant, and maybe earlier-than-unexpected, step in that direction Wednesday when he left for Sacramento, where he joined the River Cats for their series finale against the Reno Aces on Thursday.
He will start opposite Reno’s Kris Medlen, who has already seen measured big league success.
“Very surprised,” Menez said of his reaction via text message. “Especially this early in the season.”
Menez made his first start of 2018 on Saturday in San Bernardino. With a handful of former TMU teammates in attendance, he shut out the Inland Empire 66ers for five innings, striking out seven and walking none.
He allowed three hits.
Monday, wearing flip-flops and compression leggings, he climbed atop the bench in the visitor’s dugout at The Hanger before a game against the Lancaster JetHawks, a morning of weights and long toss behind him.
“Definitely coming back for my second year in San Jose I have a little more confidence,” said Menez, who went 7-7 with a 4.41 ERA in 22 starts at High-A last season, “and I feel like my pitches are a little sharper now.”
Menez said he has focused on “tunneling” his pitches, making sure his fastball, change-up and slider start on the same plane out of his hand before going their separate ways .
For Van Horn, the night had just begun. He would later bang a single through the left side – one night after hitting his first home run of the season – and make an over-the-shoulder running catch in shallow left field.
Van Horn’s glove has never come into question. Baseball America recently named him the Giants’ top defensive infielder in the minor leagues. However, his batting is still a work in progress.
Over the offseason, he overhauled his swing with an eye toward producing more power.
“I feel like I was able to work with some guys who are a part of the game changing into launch angles and getting the ball into the air and being a little bit looser,” Van Horn said. “… This offseason I was able to understand my body better, understand the strike zone better. That was one of the things I struggled with was swinging at pitches out of the strike zone.”
Van Horn, a career .251 hitter in the minors, was six for his first 26 as of Tuesday. But Menez said he’s seen a difference.
“His bat speed has gotten way quicker since Master’s,” Menez said. “He has some pop now.”
Adjusting to life off the field has been a bigger challenge, Van Horn said.
“With sleep, food, the schedule and travel,” he said, “you can’t really get prepared for that unless you actually do it.”
What had Van Horn eaten by 5 p.m. Monday?
“We went to a place called Crazy Otto’s, which is the most mom-and-pop diner with some greasy eggs and some buttered bacon,” he said. “… Then I had a PB and J, and I’ll probably have PB and J and applesauce before the game. ”
Menez said he does his best to eat well on the road, even if that means taking an occasional Uber from the team’s hotel.
Back in San Jose, the task is easier, as the players live with host families. Menez stays with a “sweet old lady.”
“She’s super nice to us,” Menez said. “She buys us food.”
As for whether Master’s prepared him for the pros, Menez pointed to the work ethic instilled by coach Monte Brooks. He said he learned a lot about pitching at TMU, too.
Menez arrived at Master’s throwing in the low 80s. Over the next three years, he trained in the weight room and on the field, developing command and depth on his change-up and slider and velocity on his fastball.
As a junior, Menez hit 90 to 92 mph on the radar gun and finished 11-3 with a 2.47 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 102 innings.
Van Horn also benefited from his time at Master’s. He said he gained confidence in who he was.
“I can have that unashamed faith,” Van Horn said. “Before, you’re kind of iffy in your different crowds and all that and maybe the clubhouse. But I’m very free to be who I am and share my faith.”