HPU Alumni now Pitching for the Grasshoppers
The largest player on the Greensboro Grasshoppers this year – both in height and weight – has been at NewBridge Bank Park before 2014 – as a spectator. Granted, 6-foot-7, 240-pound Sean Townsley was not your average spectator. He was pitching for the Panthers of High Point University and had hopes of landing a professional baseball contract.
“When I was at High Point, my friends and I would come out here to watch weekday games,” the pitcher remembered during an interview at NewBridge Bank Park. “At the time, I had no idea that the Grasshoppers were a Miami Marlins farm team.”
Townsley found out who the Grasshoppers were affiliated with shortly after being drafted by the Marlins slightly more than a year ago.
Growing up in Fleetwood, Pa., a suburb of Reading, Sean was a Baltimore Orioles fan.
“I have extended family in Baltimore and I spent a lot of time there, so it was Baltimore Orioles all the way,” he remembered. “Baltimore is only an hour and a half drive from Fleetwood.”
Not only did the young Sean enjoy watching the Orioles, he also enjoyed playing the game himself.
“I don’t know what my dad’s strategy was – whether he just forced me to grab a bat and a glove – or what, but I’ve played baseball for as long as I can remember,” Sean said.
He also played golf, basketball and soccer and was good enough in all these sports to play them at Oley Valley High School.
“Early on, I realized that basketball just wasn’t my thing,” Townsley recalled. “I did soccer basically just to stay in shape. I was a goalkeeper, but I figure that baseball offered me the brightest future.”
Golf, he still plays, recreationally.
Townsley has played at Oak Hollow and Bryan Park, among other courses in the area.
When he entered Oley Valley as a freshman, Townsley was 6-foot-1. He grew five inches the next two years and reached his current height as a senior.
“With all that growing and baseball being a very athletic sport, it takes a long time to adjust to it,” he said.
This adjustment has been a challenge, but hopefully Townsley is over the hump.
While helping his big sister move into her dormitory at Francis Marion University, in Florence, S.C., the Pennsylvanian, appreciating South Carolina weather, threw in the bullpen at nearby Florence Darlington Technical College. Preston McDonald, Florence Darlington Tech’s baseball coach observed the high school left-hander and told him he was welcome to pitch for Stingers upon graduation if nothing else came up.
“After high school I didn’t really have any great opportunities up north,” said Townsley, who had been named Berk County (Pennsylvania) Baseball Player of the Year. “I knew if I wanted to make a future and a name for myself, I’d have to go down south. Being from a small town in Pennsylvania, getting your name out there was basically impossible.”
After starting for two seasons at Florence Darlington Tech, the tall lefthander, who won six games, lost three and had an earned run average of 3.51, as a sophomore, was recruited by HPU baseball coach Craig Cozart and accepted his invitation for a visit.
“I absolutely fell in love with the area, and the campus is absolutely gorgeous,” Townsley said of High Point.
“The coaching staff there is one of a kind.”
On June 4, 2011, while playing college summer league baseball, Townsley pitching for the Florence RedWolves of the Coastal Plain League, was facing the Thomasville HiToms in Florence. That was his first and last start in the CPL. The Millis Scholar athlete tore his ACL in the fourth inning, was lost the rest of his CPL season and was redshirted his first Southern Conference season for the Panthers.
When he returned in February 2013, finally ready to pitch for High Point, Cozart started Townsley in his first nine Panthers’ games before switching him to relief. The big left-hander went 5-2, with two saves to go with a 4.08 ERA, which was considerably lowered by his move to the bullpen.
“The biggest obstacle I faced was the mentality of going to the pen,” Townsley remembered. “As a starter, you have a routine. You’re able to plan out mentally what you need to do before a game. When you’re in the pen, you’re six pitches away from going into the game. Once I adjusted to that, I fell in love with relief pitching.”
And it showed. “Sean Townsley is one of the most talented left-handed pitchers I have ever worked with,” Cozart said. “He is an intelligent, hard-working player and is a tremendous teammate.”
That June, Townsley was eligible for the first-year player draft and went to the Marlins in the 25 th round. Although an Orioles fan, he wasn’t disappointed, especially when he found out that Greensboro was the organization’s Low Class A affiliate, meaning that if he survived his first season and was good enough for full- season ball the following spring, he would most likely be assigned to the big city alongside his last college town. Although he had a year of eligibility left with High Point, the young pitcher signed with the Marlins, who sent him to their Rookie League team in the Gulf Coast League. There he had a stingy ERA of 0.98 with three saves before his promotion, after 13 appearances, to the Batavia Muckdogs of the Short-Season-A New York- Penn League, where he had an ERA of 2.08 in 13 innings. Townsend struck out 21 Gulf Coast League batters in just over 18 innings and in New York-Penn action he fanned 20 in 13.
“I just hit the ground running when I got into the Rookie-ball squad in Florida and kept going in Batavia,” Townsley said. “I don’t really try to let the ball get into play. I like striking guys out. Who doesn’t like that feeling? But I get a lot of ground balls, and I’m happy with that.”
Townsley’s pitching coach in the GCL was Jeremy Powell, a former pitcher for the Montreal Expos, a major league franchise until the team moved to Washington in 2005. Powell has worked hard with Townsley to help him adjust to the growth spurt he had in high school, something that has continued to bother him.
This spring training, the left-hander continued to impress – to the point that he not only made the Greensboro team, he made it as a starter.
“We see something in Sean that we like,” said Grasshoppers manager David Berg, a former big-league utility infielder with the Marlins and the Toronto Blue Jays. “Anytime you get a guy who hasn’t started before (in pro ball) and make him a starter in the minor leagues, you do it to get him innings – get him that experience you don’t get in the bullpen.”
Meanwhile Powell was also promoted to be the Grasshoppers pitching coach, meaning, among other things, he’ll be able to continue to work with Townsley.
“Sean’s a great kid,” said Greensboro pitching coach Jeremy Powell. “He’s pitched himself into a role that we can extend him innings and get him more looks.”
Townsley’s height helps, as well as the fact that he is left-handed.
“Sean pitches; he’s not just a thrower,” Berg added. “He locates his fastball, and his ball moves; it’s never really stays straight. I’d rather have a guy out there that can actually pitch than have a guy who throws 95 and doesn’t know where the ball is going.”
One person happy to see Townsley in Greensboro is High Point’s Craig Cozart.
“Sean is going to be a tremendous asset for the Greensboro Grasshoppers and the entire Marlins organization,” Cozart said.
With the Grasshopppers
Townsley throws a two-seam fastball, a curve, which he describes as “being more like a knuckle slider,” and this year plans to use a change-up. He is still adjusting to the major growth spurt in height he went through at Oley Valley High.
“Baseball is a very athletic sport and it takes a long time to adjust to growing six inches in height during high school,” he said. “In the last year or so I feel like I’ve taken a few strides and I actually feel somewhat athletic for my frame.”
At the beginning of the season Townsley had some rough spots, but is actually doing quite well against the toughest competition he has ever faced – so far.
“I started off a little rocky,” he admitted. “I thought the adjustment was going to be a little easier than it was.”
Moving back to being a starter and pitching regularly in professional baseball was something Townsley had never done before. Professional baseball is a seven-day-a-week job. Last year as a pro, Townsley pitched in relief. Furthermore, he was still trying to get over his growth-spurt.
“Sean went through a period early this season where he had some fatigue,” Powell said. “He’s kind of over that hump now and he’s starting to adjust to that role. In his college career, he didn’t have that kind of work put on him, so we’ve kind of purposely limited his innings.”
That, and the fact that the Grasshoppers have several pitchers they want to look at extensively, has Townsley in a “piggy-back” situation. Sometimes he’ll start and be relieved about halfway through the game. The next game, he’ll come in mid-game and finish it.
“We’ve tried to let him use his height to his advantage,” Powell said. “When he first came in, he would drop down, lower himself and pitch like he was 5’10″ instead of 6’7″. So we got him to stay tall on his back leg and drive the ball down. His fastball has a serious angle now.”
Townsley’s stats also look good at this writing. The southpaw has pitched 12 games, six of them starts. He is 1-1, 2.31, with 45 strikeouts in less than 51 innings.
The southpaw loves the city he currently pitches for.
“When I was at High Point, I’d come to Greensboro all the time for night life and other occasions,” he said. “Driving down West Market Street with all the trees kind of reminds me of home.” !