READING, Pa. – Scouts have always been impressed with two facets of Thunder outfielder Ray Kruml’s game.

         One is his speed.

         “The way he runs, he reminds you of (Brett) Gardner,’’ said an American League scout.

         The other is his arm.

         “He can make a play with it,’’ said the talent evaluator.

         With Austin Krum earning a promotion to Triple-A Scranton, Kruml has moved into the Thunder leadoff spot, where he has been one of the catalysts for a team, entering today’s morning game in Reading, which has won 8-of-10 and soared to 26-18 in the Eastern League’s Eastern Division.

        Given there are 98 games left, the Thunder isn’t in a bad place 2.5 games behind New Hampshire, which visits Waterfront Park June 3-5.

         “It’s still early, but we are in a good spot,’’ said Kruml.  “We have a great team. There are a lot of us who are in Double-A for the first time and, during your first 150 at-bats, if you’re not hitting the way you want to, it’s easy to press.

         “Over the last two weeks, I really feel we all have settled into our roles and, as a group, we’re much more relaxed. We have speed on this team, a couple guys who can hit it out. Different guys are stepping up.’’

          Like fellow outfielder Damon Sublett, whose first Thunder hit of 2011 was a solo homer with two out in the bottom of the ninth Wednesday night, knotting matters at 3-3 with the R-Phils in a game the Thunder won, 4-3.

          “Guys are doing that each night, right now,’’ said Kruml.

          While he is certainly willing to give credit to his teammates, Kruml has taken off since Krum was promoted, hitting .295 (41-for-139) and .343 (12-for-35) over his last 10 games. He was 3-for-4 with a walk in Wednesday’s games.

         “I’ve been doing a lot of work in the cage with Jules (hitting coach Matos) and it is paying off,’’ said Kruml, 25, an Illinois native who had a stellar collegiate career at South Alabama. “Hitting in professional  
baseball is different than in college.

         “For me, on-base-percentage (OBP) is big. I concentrate on hitting the ball on the ground and using my speed.  It’s an honor being compared to a big-leaguer like Gardner, and I know he played in Trenton. I’m trying to mirror here what he does up there.’’

          As far as hitting leadoff for an improving team, there’s nothing better right now.

          “I batted there last year (at Charleston and Tampa),’’ said Kruml.  “The key is patience at the plate and working the counts. As a team, we’re starting to really see how the pitchers in the Eastern League are handling us, and beginning to become familiar with it.’’

           It all seemed to come together for Kruml since he was given the leadoff job permanently. He’s responded with a trio of multi-hit games in four starts. His OBP has risen to .345.

           “This takes a lot of work,’’ he said. “I feel all that is beginning to pay off. ‘’

           Thunder manager Tony Franklin is not surprised Kruml is blossoming as his leadoff hitter.

           “Ray certainly has the tools to handle that spot,’’ Franklin said. “I hope he continues to do what he’s doing now all season.’’

            Chances are Kruml, an 11th-round pick by the Yankees in 2008, will. He’s gotten into a groove and settled in. The comparisons to Gardner are valid. Overall, he is the same type of player.

            “I know my role,’’ he said. “I know how I can contribute.”

            The Thunder and Yankees are asking no more.


            DUFF BACK IN TRENTON: Grant Duff’s 6-foot-6 frame and friendly manner returned to the Thunder clubhouse last week.

            Duff, the 29-year-old native of Milton, Fla., was an effective pitcher for Trenton in 2010, going 1-4, 2.84 with eight saves before earning a promotion to Triple-A Scranton. At the end of the season, however, he had elbow pain.

            “I rested it, and I still had pain in my right (pitching) elbow,’’ he said. “After I was examined again, it was determined I needed surgery.’’

             Doctors inserted a screw into Duff’s elbow area to help a tear heal. For awhile, this caused irritation, but he is regaining form, tossing a scoreless inning Tuesday night in Reading.

             “I feel no irritation now, and I just want to get back to where I was,’’ said Duff.  “It’s nice to be back in this clubhouse. Trenton is a great place to play.

             “I definitely feel I’m on the way back.’’


           AN UPDATED CLASSIC:  Reading’s FirstEnergy Stadium has always been a favorite of visiting Thunder fans, as the R-Phils always put on a good show.

           An off-season, $10 million renovation has made the 61-year-old park even more enjoyable.

           For the fans, there is a new entrance way, a new, full-service team store, an upgraded right-field food court with a new stage that features performances by local school groups and local artists, and photos of past R-Phils greats all along the stadium’s concourse.

           Newspaper clips of performances by R-Phils greats such as Robin Roberts and Mike Schmidt have been reproduced and are on a wall in the food court.

           Outside, the Reading Hall of Fame features the names of players and community luminaries who have contributed to baseball in the city on attractive bricks. Team officials were quick to point out the brick honoring Vic Wertz, who played in Reading in the 1950s when the club was a Cleveland affiliate.

          In addition, both the R-Phils and visiting teams now have spacious clubhouses.

          “Both the fans and players benefitted,’’ said Reading Director of Media Relations Tommy Viola. “The renovation brought our stadium up-to-date in many areas – we really needed the team store and better entrance access – and didn’t touch the classic parts of the ballpark.’’

           The Thunder are back in Reading quickly, visiting the R-Phils again June 6-9. The just-under two-hour trip is definitely worth it for fans.

           BaseLines appears weekly on Comments are welcomed and suggested below, or at jed, Follow on Twitter @jedleyq.

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