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From Auburn to Arizona: Coaches, teammates celebrate Tim Locastro's rise to MLB

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From Auburn to Arizona: Coaches, teammates celebrate Tim Locastro's rise to MLB
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This week, Tim Locastro returns to where his baseball career began — sort of. 

For the first time in seven professional seasons, the Auburn native will play in his home state. An outfielder with the Arizona Diamondbacks, he will be with the team for a two-game series against the New York Yankees Tuesday and Wednesday. 

While the games will be played at Yankee Stadium, more than 250 miles away from his hometown, many of Locastro's family and friends plan to attend. It's a rare opportunity to see Auburn's third major leaguer, whose team's main rivals play in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities in the western U.S., on the East Coast. 

Days before Locastro and the Diamondbacks travel to New York, The Citizen spoke with former coaches and teammates from the high school, college and professional ranks about the Auburnian's development and how, despite long odds, he was able to reach the highest level of baseball. 

'He's a winner'

Steve Komanecky played with and against Locastro from youth baseball to college. They were members of the Auburn Little League All-Stars that, 15 years ago this month, won the district title. Six years after their Little League triumph, they led the Auburn varsity baseball team to a Section III title. 

"Timmy was always one of the more talented players," Komanecky recalled in an interview. "But not only one of the most talented players, he was the one that won the most. He was the most competitive."

One of Komanecky's memories of Locastro came from Little League games when they were on opposing teams. If Komanecky was on the mound and Locastro reached base, he would try to steal second — a fact other pitchers have learned throughout Locastro's playing career. 

"He was always looking for a way to get to the next base," Komanecky said. 

After graduating from Auburn High School in 2010, both played college baseball — Komanecky at SUNY Cortland and Locastro at Ithaca College. Their paths crossed in an April 9, 2013 game. 

Komanecky entered as a relief pitcher in the fourth inning and remained in the game until the sixth inning. One of the final batters he faced was Locastro, his longtime friend. 

As Locastro walked to the plate, Komanecky recalled, they made eye contact and each laughed at what was about to unfold — two Auburnians and teammates since youth baseball going head-to-head on the field. 

Locastro won the duel. He walked and eventually scored after Komanecky exited the game. Ithaca defeated Cortland 9-5. 

Komanecky, a physical education teacher, varsity hockey coach and JV baseball coach in the Peru Central School District, isn't surprised that Locastro ascended to the majors. Some Division III players might get drafted, but they won't make it far in the minor leagues. 

"He's always found a way," Komanecky said of Locastro. "He's a winner." 

'A kid playing a kid's game' 

One of the key figures in Locastro's development is TJ Gamba. If you talk to enough people in Auburn, they will tell you that no one locally knows more about baseball than Gamba, who now coaches at Cayuga Community College.

Gamba, a lifelong Auburnian, starred with the Maroons and was an All-American at Ithaca College. He was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 1986 and played three seasons of minor league baseball. He was an assistant coach at Ithaca before returning to coach in his hometown. 

During Locastro's high school years, Gamba was the varsity baseball coach. In 2008, Locastro joined the varsity team in his sophomore season. 

Locastro was the Maroons' shortstop for three years. He was a key member of teams that advanced to three consecutive sectional finals. After back-to-back losses in 2008 and 2009, Auburn won the Section III crown in 2010 — Locastro's senior year. 

"He always had good instincts as a baseball player," Gamba recalled. "That's what makes him him. That's why he's where he's at. Not only being blessed with some skills, he has fun. He's a kid playing a kid's game." 

Gamba praised Locastro's work ethic and his team-first mindset. 

"He's always talking about how he's going to help the team win, how his teammates are helping him achieve some things," he added. "That's a heck of a trait and quality to have and he's always had that innately. He was born with it. He went through our system with it." 

Tom Napoli, Gamba's assistant coach, agreed. He said that not only is Locastro a great baseball player but he's a better person. 

Like Gamba, Napoli highlighted Locastro's effort. As a youngster, he would show up to practices early and would put in additional work to improve his play. 

"He made everyone else around him better," Napoli said. "He made us look pretty good coaching with his talent." 

Ithaca College

Gamba recalls there were a couple of college coaches who weren't interested in Locastro. Fortunately for the Auburn product, he didn't have to go far to get a shot at playing collegiate baseball. 

Locastro went to Ithaca College and played three seasons for the Bombers, from 2011 through 2013. His coach was George Valesente, an American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee who led the Ithaca baseball program for 41 seasons. 

Valesente remembers Locastro's arrival at Ithaca. 

"He wasn't at full size at the time. He was still underweight," he said in an interview. "But one thing that he had was great enthusiasm and just a great love for being on the baseball field and playing baseball all the time." 

In his freshman season, Locastro started all 32 games the Bombers played. He hit .250 with one home run, 14 runs batted in, 21 runs scored and five stolen bases. 

Locastro improved on those numbers in his sophomore campaign. He batted .444 for Ithaca, hit 3 home runs, scored 40 runs and had 17 RBI in 33 games. In his junior year, he hit .436 with four home runs, 71 runs scored and 36 RBI in 48 games. 

Several of Locastro's former coaches and teammates mentioned his hustle and willingness to do whatever it takes to help the team, and Valesente was no exception. Locastro was hit by a pitch 50 times in three seasons at Ithaca. He stole 52 bases during his college career, including 40 in his junior season. 

"We didn't have a steal sign. We had a stop steal sign for him," Valesente recalled. "He could steal whenever he wanted unless I said 'no, you can't steal this particular time.' He was so instinctive. His ability to evaluate a pitcher and his move. He was so comfortable on the bases. He wasn't tensed up. He had a nice comfort level of his leads and a great burst of speed. He was at full speed in about a step and a half, if not less than that. We just sort of let him go.

"Everybody thought I was a genius. I was far from that. I just had a young man who exemplified how you compete at a sport. You play it to win and you do what you have to do to help the team win." 

Locastro's junior season was good enough to earn him second-team All-American honors. He also received attention from major league scouts. More than a week after he played his final game for Ithaca, the Toronto Blue Jays selected him in the 13th round of the 2013 draft. 

The minors

After being drafted by the Blue Jays, Locastro was assigned to Bluefield — a rookie-level club that plays in the Appalachian League. Dennis Holmberg, who managed the Auburn Doubledays from 2002 to 2010, was Bluefield's skipper. 

"Timmy was a guy who was blessed with some baseball skills and especially the fact that he could run," Holmberg, who now manages the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays, recalled in a phone interview. "Everything wasn't as smooth, but he played hard and he got the job done." 

Locastro, who moved from shortstop to second base, had a successful first year in professional baseball. He hit .283, had a .367 on-base percentage and stole 12 bases in 43 games. 

In 2014, he played for the Blue Jays' short-season Single-A affiliate in Vancouver. He produced at the plate — he had a .313 batting average and .407 on-base percentage in 67 games — and was selected to play in the Northwest League All-Star Game. 

Locastro changed teams in 2015. In July of that year, the Blue Jays traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The transaction, Holmberg noted, was significant for the Blue Jays. Toronto received international signing slots — one of which was used to sign Vladimir Guerrero Jr., a top prospect who is now the Blue Jays' starting third baseman. 

After the trade, Locastro made an immediate impact in the Dodgers' organization. He helped lead Rancho Cucamonga, which plays in Class A-Advanced, to a California League championship. He batted .333 in the playoffs for the Quakes. 

The following season, Locastro started in Rancho Cucamonga before being promoted to Double-A Tulsa. He began the 2017 campaign with the Drillers and was a Texas League all-star. He batted .285, hit eight home runs and stole 22 bases in 96 games. 

Locastro was called up to Triple-A Oklahoma City for the latter part of the 2017 season. He hit .388 and stole 12 bases in 31 games. In the final week of the major league season, the Dodgers promoted him. He became the third Auburnian — Alan Storke and Kevin Polcovich were the others — to reach the majors. 

The big leagues

Locastro didn't get a lot of opportunities with the Dodgers. When he was called up in 2017, he appeared in three games at the end of the season and had one at-bat. He was used mostly as a pinch-runner. 

That role didn't change in 2018. Locastro went 2-for-11 at the plate in 18 games with the Dodgers. Despite his limited appearances, his on-base percentage was .357. He had four stolen bases. 

Following the 2018 season, the Dodgers designated Locastro for assignment — a move that meant he would either be traded or released by the organization. On Thanksgiving eve, he was traded to the Yankees

Locastro told The Citizen at the time that his family, many of whom are Yankee fans, were excited. 

"Now they don't have to root for two teams anymore," he said after the trade. 

However, Locastro never suited up for the Yankees. In January, New York designated him for assignment before trading the Auburn native to the Arizona Diamondbacks. 

While the trade meant that Locastro would be playing on the West Coast again, it gave him more opportunities to showcase his talent. He batted over .300 for most of spring training and played well defensively, including a highlight-reel diving catch. Before the start of the MLB regular season, the Diamondbacks optioned him to Triple-A Reno in the Pacific Coast League. 

It didn't take long for the Diamondbacks to call Locastro up to the big leagues. He had his first major league multi-hit game April 14 against the San Diego Padres. When he returned to the minors again in late April, he had a three-homer game for Reno. 

On May 24, the Diamondbacks recalled Locastro and he has remained with the major league club. In his first game back, he was hit by a pitch three times to tie an MLB record. A week later, he made two diving catches in a game. 

One of Locastro's biggest moments this season occurred June 1. In a game against the New York Mets, he entered as a pinch-hitter and helped ignite the Diamondbacks' comeback. With the game tied in the 11th inning, he registered his first major league walk-off hit — an RBI single to deep center field. 

He had another walk-off hit in late June. 

As of Saturday, Locastro is hitting .256 and has a .367 on-base percentage in 55 games with the Diamondbacks. He has scored 21 runs, stolen nine bases and has been hit by a pitch 14 times, which is tied for fourth in the majors. 

In the age of power, whether it's at the plate or on the mound, Locastro's college coach thinks he's "re-revolutionizing" the game with his ability to get on base, his speed and defense. 

"It was just a matter of finding somebody like (Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo) that saw the value of a young man that could do those kinds of things," Valesente said. 

Locastro's former coaches and teammates say they follow his progress daily. Gamba and Valesente have MLB.tv subscriptions, which allow them to watch the Diamondbacks games. 

When the Diamondbacks play in New York this week, a large group from Auburn plans to make the trip. Locastro's family will be there. Other friends, including Gamba, plan to be in attendance for the two-game series. 

"He's a wonderful kid. It's great watching somebody like that achieve success," Gamba said. "That's a heck of an achievement. It's great to see it happen." 

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Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.

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