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ZACH JAMES COLUMN: Robert Neustrom builds power toward climb in Baltimore farm system

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Robert Neustrom can’t ignore the fact that he is just one step away from Major League Baseball.

Neustrom, a North High School graduate, has been playing with the Baltimore Orioles’ Triple-A club, the Norfolk Tides for a little bit over a month now, and he’s tried to soak up the experience.

“I’d say it does cross my mind, but not often,” Neustrom said. “The work has gotten me to the point where I am one call away. I’m seeing my teammates getting called up, and it’s something special. That gives me chills, and makes you realize what situation you’ve put yourself in.”

Neustrom the second Sioux City prospect playing at the Triple-A level, joining Damek Tomscha. Tomscha is playing for the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate in St. Paul.

Those two guys are among a group of five from Sioux City playing in the MiLB ranks. The other three are Daniel Tillo, Dom Thompson-Williams and Tyler Cropley.

“It’s crazy,” Neustrom said. “When me and Dan were at North, and Dom was always that guy at East. If I was on the mound and I struck out Dom, I considered that a good day. He can hit. Then, you had Cropley, but it still feels like yesterday I was getting ready to play against all those guys.”

Neustrom could have asked his Orioles teammates who have been up by that level what the highest level of Minor League Baseball is like, or he could have just given Tomscha a call.

Instead, Neustrom wanted to make it a point to take in the experience for the first time without any intentions coming in.

“The biggest thing I’m learning is that the experience is much higher than anything I’ve ever experienced,” Neustrom said. “These pitchers have a clear-cut approach, and so do the hitters. I left a lot for surprise. It’s been a lot of fun. It truly is a game of cat-and-mouse.”

Neustrom was in Erie, Pa., playing in a series against the Erie Seawolves, the Double-A affiliate of the Tigers.

He was in the middle of a doubleheader when he was called in to the locker room, and Neustrom was told he was going to Norfolk.

The first memory that jumped to mind for the Stars and Iowa Hawkeyes standout was when Neustrom’s family took him to Iowa Cubs’ games.

The I-Cubs are on the same level as the Tides. Neustrom didn’t understand as a kid how the affiliated system worked, but Neustrom kept asking his dad what it took to play at a place like Principal Park.

Neustrom also frequently went to Sioux City Explorers games and wondered what it would be like to be a pro baseball player.

“He just told me it takes a lot of work, and I told him that story, and we reminisced on those memories,” Neustrom said. “To have that one call away put into perspective is an amazing feeling.”

Neustrom was called up to the Tides on July 21. At the plate, Neustrom is hitting .265 with four home runs and 19 RBIs.

In the whole season that includes 62 games at Double-A Bowie, Neustrom has a .278 average with 11 homers and 69 RBIs.

That’s coming off a year where Neustrom didn’t play professional ball last summer due to the pandemic. He was one of many minor leaguers who had to find ways to stay fresh and ready, despite there being no games played.

Even though there was no season last year, Neustrom isn’t shocked that he is having a good season.

“I’ve trusted all the hard work I’ve put in,” he said. “I truly believe I took advantage of COVID. I bounced around doing things, and never really took a step off. I handled that adversity and put it to my benefit. This year has been a year of adjustments, a year of learning.”

One of the skills that Neustrom focused on during that time off was hitting for more power. Neustrom always assumed he had the power, and he showed that while playing at North, Iowa, and around the Orioles’ farm system.

Neustrom made some adjustments to help him get the ball in the air, and that made him realize that he has more power than he thought.

“I’ve gone through some swing changes throughout the season,” Neustrom said. “The biggest thing is waiting for that pitch. These pitchers can hit a mosquito from 60 feet away, so if you help them out, you might as well go sit down.”

Neustrom doesn’t know his offseason plans. He wants to play some winter baseball somewhere, such as the Dominican League.

If that doesn’t work, he’ll probably go back to workout in Iowa City. He likes working out in the Iowa baseball facilities.

He could also work with a trainer in Florida.

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