A distinct popping noise resonated throughout an empty Greater Nevada Field during the Reno Aces’ batting practice session on Saturday.
The noise rifled off the bat of newly acquired utility player Josh Rojas, who with an effortless left-handed swing, blasted three-straight baseballs over the Family Berm in right field.
His power display in the cage caught the attention of switch-hitting infielders Ildemaro Vargas and Domingo Leyba, who stopped a brief conversation to watch the show. Soon after, Aces hitting coach Jason Camilli creeped up closer to the netting to get a closer look.
Rojas, 25, has acclimated well to Triple-A Reno. He he was involved in the MLB trade deadline acquisition that sent Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Zack Greinke to the Houston Astros for four of Houston’s top prospects. Rojas was the No. 22 rated prospect in the Astros’ farm system according to MLB Pipeline.
The sounds from batting practice came to fruition in the Aces’ 12-11 extra innings loss to the Omaha Storm Chasers on Sunday. Rojas went 4-for-6 with his first home run to right-center. He knocked in the game-tying RBI single in the ninth.
Rojas is 11-for-16 with seven RBIs and six runs in three games played with Reno.
If Saturday’s pre-game showing was anything, it helped paint a picture of Rojas’ bright future to Camilli.
“The sounds he made (during batting practice) were loud and the results followed,” Camilli said. “We’ve heard great things about him being a top prospect for Houston and he’s been fun to watch.”
A Glendale, Arizona native, Rojas is one step away from making his big-league debut with his hometown team. Several family members are awaiting his call-up to the desert.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” he said. “I have lots of family who contacted me and they’re really excited for me coming back home. I’m excited to try to get to the big leagues for my hometown team. You want to make it no matter what team you’re on, but it’s extra special knowing it can be from a team I’ve watched growing up.”
Rojas found a second home with the Round Rock Express and Corpus Christi Hooks, Triple-A and Double-A affiliates of the Astros. He hit .310 with a career-high 12 home runs, 39 RBIs and 16 doubles in 53 games with Round Rock this season.
A 26th round pick by the Astros in 2017, Rojas’ departure from Houston’s minor league clubs was a tough pill to swallow when he received news of the trade.
“I was kind of sad when I first found out,” he said. “The last two and a half years I’ve been playing with the same group of guys and I was just getting to know them real well. I had some really good friends throughout the organization.”
The Dbacks swung for the fences, trading their ace in the starting rotation and taking a chance on the young utility player. Rojas is determined to make the most of Arizona’s return of investment.
“It was bittersweet to get traded and having to leave (my teammates) the next morning,” he said. “But it’s great to know that I’m coming back home. I’m getting traded for a pretty important guy in the organization, so they believe in me and I’ll make sure to prove myself.”
Rojas sticks to the basics in the box. He has quick hands to complement a low sweeping leg kick to generate power and contact to all areas of the field. Rojas has power to clear the fences, but he alters his approach on the fly and settles for walks and soft hits that bounce to the gaps.
“I just love his simple approach,” Camilli said. “I love the way he handles himself at the plate, his swing is powerful and he puts himself in a good position to hit. It’s rare when he misses a pitch he likes, so I’m excited to see how he develops with us here.”
As long as the outcome ends with an Aces’ win, Rojas adjusts accordingly.
“I try to make good contact and get on base each time each time,” he said. “I see as many pitches as I can and put together a solid appearance each time up. If those things help a team win, that’s what I’m here for.”
Rojas started his first game in left field with the Aces on Sunday. The versatile infielder/outfielder bounced all over Dell Diamond stadium with Round Rock. He had 12 starts in left field, 13 at second base, 13 at shortstop and nine more at third base.
Defensive flexibility is a highly touted trait with minor league prospects, and Rojas fits the bill to a tee. He’s garnered quite the glove collection for so many positions he plays around the diamond.
“As long as I’m on the field I’ll play anywhere,” he said. “It helps me be versatile and stay on my toes no matter where I am. … I have a lot of outfield and infield gloves over the last couple years.”
Rojas kept his hometown roots for most of his life. He graduated from Millennium High School in Goodyear, Arizona and played two seasons at Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix, Arizona.
He ditched the desert during his junior year and transferred to the University of Hawaii for his final two collegiate seasons. Rojas was named to the All-Big West Second Team with the Rainbow Warriors in 2017. His six triples that same season was the most in school history since 1997.
Along with a two productive seasons on the field, Hawaii offered a change of scenery for Rojas as he had his eyes set on the majors.
“It was a great way for me to break out,” he said. “It helped me develop into the player I wanted to become.”
Rojas made a steady climb through the Astros’ farm system, but he’s picked up where he left off in Reno. The Aces won 23-8 in his debut on Aug. 2.
With his quick bat in the leadoff spot, the runs may keep coming.
“You get kind of used to it when you come to Reno,” he said. “High scoring games are kind of a theme here. Hopefully I can add some more by staying locked in on every at-bat.”
A trip back to Arizona may be in the near future, but Rojas is taking his tenure with the Aces like his at-bats, slow and steady.
“I just need to stay consistent and take it easy,” he said. “I can only control my own performance and I approach every day like that. I’m not trying to do anything more to get to the big leagues, I just do the best I can.”
Omaha tops Reno in extra innings
The Reno Aces are familiar with the international extra-innings tie breaker.
MiLB instituted a new extra innings rule in 2018 in efforts to reduce the time of games and increase pace-of-play. The new rule states that both teams begin extra innings with a runner on second base. The runner at second base will be the player in the batting order position previous to the leadoff batter of the inning.
Reno and El Paso’s contest on April 27 was suspended after 10 innings with the score tied at 5.
The reason being it was a Getaway Day, which in the Pacific Coast League comes with a curfew. The Aces needed to get on a plane to play in Albuquerque on Tuesday, and the Chihuahuas have a game slated back home in Texas. Both teams didn’t resume the game until July 15 when El Paso won 6-5.
The extra innings rule was used again on Sunday against Omaha. The Storm Chasers capitalized with one run in the 10th to go up 12-11. Reno couldn’t answer in the bottom half as their two-run comeback in the ninth fell short.
Reno had 17 hits. Kevin Cron went 2-for-4 with a homer and two RBIs. His 31 homers lead the Pacific Coast League and is one shy of tying Christian Walker’s single-season record set in 2017.
The slugging first baseman is third in franchise history with 53 homers in 164 career games with the Aces. Brandon Allen and Mike Jacobs are tied for first with 55.
Ildemaro Vargas, the Aces’ all-time hits leader, was 3-for-6 with one RBI. Ben DeLuzio was 3-for-5 with three RBIs. The speedy center fielder is riding a seven-game hit streak and has six-straight multi-hit games. Andy Young added a double.
Aces starting pitcher Jon Duplantier struggled on the mound against the Storm Chasers. The right-hander surrendered seven earned runs on seven hits and two walks in 2.2 innings. Matt Koch coughed up two earned runs in 4.1 innings.
Benches cleared at the end of the seventh inning when Rojas and Omaha second baseman Jecksson Flores exchanged some words after Flores took his time throwing to first for a groundout.
Notes: The Aces are one home run shy of 200 on the season. … Reno has scored 67 runs in six games this home stand. The last time the Aces went down 1-2-3 in an inning was on Thursday, Aug. 1 against the Iowa Cubs. … Reno is 4-14 on Sundays.
On Deck: Reno, 52-61, faces Omaha for the final game of the four-game series Monday at 7:05 p.m. at Greater Nevada Field. Taylor Widener is expected to take the hill for the Aces. Arnaldo Hernandez is the probable starting pitcher for the Storm Chasers.