LEXINGTON — An increasingly comfortable and confident J.T. Riddle met up with a big moment and conquered it Tuesday night, helping the Greensboro Grasshoppers hold off the Lexington Legends, 16-12, in Class A baseball action at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
This was the first chance for Riddle’s fans to see him play in this area since his glory days at Western Hills High School and the University of Kentucky.
The 22-year-old Riddle, a 13th-round draft choice of the Miami Marlins 13 months ago, went 2-for-4 at the plate in Tuesday’s win, with a triple and single, along with two walks, two runs batted in and two runs scored.
He also played errorless baseball at third base.
The performance brought smiles both to Riddle and some 200 of his closest friends and family, who came out on what the Legends declared Frankfort Community Night.
There were nearly 2,000 people at the ballpark, though the Frankfort contingent dominated on the noise meter, making Riddle feel like a Kentucky Wildcat at a Rupp Arena home game.
“I’ve been looking forward to coming home and playing in front of the home crowd,” said Riddle, who was coming off a sizzling 5-for-7 night at the plate in a 20-2 win at Asheville on Monday. “This was just fun, being here and having everybody behind you. It’s a great feeling.”
Riddle estimated he had some 40 family members at the game, including his father Shane, his stepdad Buddy Ritchie and mother LaKeta, with many of them in a couple of boxes provided by the Legends.
“I saw people before the game and after the game,” Riddle said. “There were two boxes full, one for my dad’s side and one for my mom and stepdad’s side. People were scattered everywhere. It was a lot of the same people who always supported me through high school and college.”
Several Frankfort groups shared sponsorship of the game, including Frankfort’s Chamber of Commerce (Chamber president Rene True threw out a first pitch), Capital Cellars, Capital Living, Capital City Communications and Western Hills High School.
“I just can’t thank everybody in the community enough for coming up here tonight,” Buddy Ritchie said after the game. “I know he enjoyed seeing so many of his friends and ex-coaches. It was a great night for him and the family.”
Despite all of this, Riddle said he did not feel a lot of pressure to perform. His first two at-bats — a first-inning, leadoff walk, and a hard-hit, second inning single — helped ease the nerves.
“I had some nerves, more than usual, for sure, but it’s just a game,” Riddle said. “I came here to have fun. I got that first walk out of the way, and the nerves kind of left me a little bit. I’m able to zone everything out at the plate.”
Riddle has been on a tear recently, lifting his batting average some 50 points just in the past month. It’s arguably his best run offensively in his young pro career.
“I think you go through lulls at times where you can’t really see the ball, and you’re pressing and struggling, and there are times when you feel like you can hit anything that comes in there,” Riddle said. “That’s kind of how I feel right now.
“I’ve been working with our hitting coach, Frank Moore, and he’s helped me a lot, trying to change my swing to help me through the whole process,” he added. “I have more behind my swing than I did early in the season when I was standing more up in my stance.”
It also helps that Riddle’s Grasshoppers are, arguably, the best team in the South Atlantic League. Greensboro moves into the second game of the series vs. the Legends tonight at 53-30.
First pitch tonight is at 7:05, with the third and final game of the series Thursday night, also at 7:05.
Wrapped around all of this will be plenty of time with family and friends for Riddle.
“I kind of wish it was a week-long homestand,” Riddle said. “But it’s three games, and then we get back on the road and go home. But it’s definitely fun being here.
“The first innings of the next two games are going to be about the same feeling as tonight,” he added. “Especially that last game Thursday when it’s our last game here, and we have to hit the road for a game Friday night in front of about 9,000 fans in Greensboro.
“That’s the life of a minor league player.”