MIAMI — When Lawson Crouse sent a ball two rows over the right-field fence just to the right of the home bullpen at Marlins Park, his five fellow NHL Draft prospects erupted into cheers.
As part of a week-long schedule of events, they took batting practice on Wednesday afternoon leading up to this Friday’s first round in Sunrise, Florida.
As fate would have it, the Miami Marlins selected Josh Naylor, a 17-year-old Canadian, with the 12th pick of this year’s Major League Baseball Draft.
“You never know,” Crouse joked about baseball as an option. “Hopefully someone’s watching up here.”
A left winger from Mt. Brydges, Ontario, Crouse played competitive baseball as a kid. He manned both first and third base. Crouse often visited Rogers Centre to catch Toronto Blue Jays games.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder led the Kingston Frontenacs with 29 goals and 51 points in 56 games during the 2014-15 season. He was a member of the gold medal-winning Canada team at the 2015 World Junior Championship.
“I think when I was probably 14 that’s when hockey became a lot more serious,” Crouse said. “I knew I could maybe reach the field where I hit, but I wasn’t sure. Looking back at the 418 (sign in straightaway center) it’s a long way’s out there.”
His power surprised Marlins third-base coach Lenny Harris, who threw BP to the future hockey stars. Crouse was the first to swing the wooden Louisville Slugger bats.
“He has some pop because he didn’t want to get out of there,” Harris said. “‘I want to keep hitting them out of here.’ That goes to show you what kind of athlete these guys are. They’re swinging like they’ve been here before and things like that. Guys like us playing professional baseball, we’d like to go out there and try to hit a puck into a net. It would be pretty difficult for some of us because some of us can’t skate. It would be really hard.”
“Definitely surprised me, especially the power he got. I know he can hit the crap out of a hockey puck (with) the strength that he got. Trying to get in front of those pucks when he’s swinging. Very difficult to stop.”
Connor McDavid, the projected top pick, has never played baseball — and it showed. He barely got the ball out of the infield on his cuts.
No worries for the 18-year-old center, who was named the Ontario Hockey League’s Player of the Year by finishing third in scoring with 120 points with 44 goals and 76 assists over 47 games for the Erie Otters. He also earned accolades as the Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year, Top Prospect of the Year as well as Scholastic Player of the Year.
“It’s all in fun,” McDavid said. “It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day whether you can hit it out of the infield or off the ground. It doesn’t matter in terms of hockey stuff.”
When a reporter asked how it compared, the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder from Newmarket, Ontario, called baseball “a lot harder.”
“When you’re playing with guys like Dylan (Strome) and guys on the Otters, they make it pretty easy to take a one-timer,” McDavid said. “They’re always setting you up. I’d say this is a lot harder.”
Jake Eichel, the likely second pick, hasn’t played baseball in 4-5 years but did pitch in Little League. The 6-foot-2, 196-pounder from North Chelmsford, Massachusetts, has yet to decide whether he will turn pro.
As a freshman this past season at Boston University, he won the Hobey Baker Award by leading all Division I skaters with 71 points (26 goals, 45 assists) in 40 games. He became just the second first-year player to receive the honor.
“It’s really fun,” Eichel said. “It’s nice to come out here. It’s always fun coming out to a big-league stadium like this. It’s a great event. I don’t even know if there’s any pressure on Friday. I think all of us are more than anything excited. It’s a great time for everyone to enjoy. We’re in a beautiful area of Florida, NHL Draft. It’s really a great event.”
Joining Crouse, McDavid and Eichel were Strome, London Knights center Mitchell Marner and Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin. All six were given Marlins caps, jerseys with their hockey numbers and names as well as Marlins workout shorts. Right-handed reliever Steve Cishek, a Boston Bruins fan, came out to talk with them. They toured the home dugout and clubhouse.
McDavid and Eichel both threw out first pitches to Billy the Marlin prior to the game between the Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals.
“It was very nice of them to open the facility to us and experience this,” McDavid said. “It’s been a tradition for a couple of years. To be a part of it now is very special.”