If you see Ermindo Escobar, you’ll more than likely see a smile on his face. And why not? At 28, the San Rafael Pacifics catcher has had the best season of his life doing the thing he likes most in life – playing baseball.

“I could play all the time and be happy,” Escobar says. “It’s much more than just a job. I love playing baseball – just for fun.” And finishing the regular season with a .332 batting average – fifth-best in the Pacific Association – and .927 OPS certainly adds to the fun . . . as does helping lead defending
champion San Rafael to a spot in the playoffs that begin Thursday with a semifinal matchup against the winner of Wednesday’s Vallejo-Napa quarterfinal.

This is the Cuban native’s ninth professional season, including five in the Cuban National Series with his native Camaguey, two in the independent American Association and last year in the independent Atlantic League. His career batting average and OPS are .228 and .580, respectively. Why the radical difference now?

“I went back to Cuba after last season and was determined to get better,” he said. “I practiced three times a day for three months and did a lot of work off the tee. I’d set up my phone and take video of every swing. “The biggest thing I worked on was keeping my weight and hands back,” he added.

“Curve balls were my biggest problem, and you have to stay back to see them well and make good contact. Now, I’m seeing all the pitches really well. I also worked to strengthen my forearms to help increase my bat speed.”

Pacifics manager Oscar Suarez, who first worked with Escobar when they were at Joplin in the American Association in 2016, agrees, but also sees something else.

“He’s definitely better at staying back on the ball. He’s making good contact and can go to the opposite field better than he used to,” Suarez said. “But another big difference is that he’s finally getting a chance to play regularly. He knows he’s going to be there every day, and that’s a confidence factor.”

While mostly catching but sometimes spotting at first base or designated hitter, the 6-2, 225-pounder made 265 plate appearances, far surpassing his previous personal high of 154 with Cleburne in 2017. He has eight home runs and 34 RBI just this season, while his previous career totals were six and 55, respectively.

Not only is Escobar’s slash line much better, but he walked more often and cut down on his strikeouts. Before 2019, he’d managed just 41 walks in 801 plate appearances – an average of about 1 for every 20 times he came to the plate. This season, he got a free pass every 8.3 plate appearances. As for strikeouts, he had averaged one per 7.15 plate appearances previously, but reduced that to 1/5.7 this season.

And, for added measure, he stole six bases after stealing just two in his previous eight seasons.

“I really wanted to do better as far as walks and strikeouts go,” he said. Perhaps, too, there was an adjustment period from the Cuban game to the U.S.-style game. In Cuba, at the moment, there are fewer hard-throwing pitchers since many of the best have left for the U.S., so the game is more one of contact than power. “It’s more of a disciplined, Asian-style, game there,” Suarez said. “A lot of the immediate talent
has come north to the U.S.”

It’s a different game in Cuba. For example, teams use a maximum of six balls in a game,
compared to the several dozen common in a major league contest. “By the ninth inning, the ball is really soft,” Escobar said with a grin. Fans can keep home run balls, but they must throw foul balls back –

“If they don’t, the police will come for them.” Players tape cracked bats and, sometimes, balls and play with them – “One season, I used a broken bat for more than 40 at bats . . . I had to just keep repairing it.”

As for the future, Escobar isn’t certain. He has a brother and sister in Miami, while his wife and mother are in Cuba. He’d like to play until he’s 34 and stay in the game in some capacity afterward. He serves as catching coach for the Pacifics, so coaching might be a long-term option. But those mostly are thoughts for later. Right now, he’s focused on the upcoming
playoffs.

“I love to play here,” he said. “The fans and my teammates are great. It’s the best job.”

Catch Ermindo and the rest of the Pacifics this Thursday at 6:30 for a semifinal matchup vs Napa or Vallejo! Tickets are on sale now at the Pacifics office, by viviting https://www.eventsprout.com/e…/pacifics-baseball-august-tix… or by calling (415) 485-6755