Notebook: Vermont roundup

I meant to post this before tonight’s game, but some World Cup-related distractions got in the way, so it’s now a little dated.

Well, the last two games went a little differently than the first six. The biggest difference was that the ‘Cats actually hit the ball. The stats:

-Tri-City had 10 hits in each game, 20 total – as many as the four games before that combined.
-The ValleyCats were batting .197 after six games, but raised that average to .222.
-5 runs on Thursday tied the season high to that point, which was then broken by Friday’s seven-run output.

Adam Bailey and Nick Stanley each broke out of slumps in big ways, getting three hits apiece. Stanley picked up all three in the first six innings – the last of which drove in Mike Kvasnicka to pull Tri-City within three – and walked in his fourth plate appearance. Stanley, meanwhile, drove in the game’s first run with a sacrifice fly in the second and doubled with two out in the tenth, but most will remember his game-tying two-run homer in the eighth.

Bailey’s homer was gone from the moment it hit the bat, easily clearing the second fence in right field. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts cup of coffee with a giveaway if anyone hits it, and the sign has been mocked for its distance (at least 450 feet away in right field, maybe more). But if Bailey’s shot had been hit another degree or two to the left, it would have landed within 5-10 feet of the sign. I’d be shocked if anyone else comes closer to hitting it all year.

The ValleyCats are now hitting .222 and are no longer last in the league. Even that understates their offense to some degree – their team OPS of .662 ranks 10th of 16 teams in the NYPL. Offensive numbers in this league are always going to be lower than they are in MLB, because many players are in their first year learning to use wooden bats. For example, while the MLB league batting average is generally in the .260-.270 range, the NYPL average is .243 so far this year.

So…I don’t want to say I told you so, but I kinda did. But seriously, the last two games don’t mean the ValleyCats’ offense will be good any more than the previous two meant it was terrible, and so it’s important to keep an eye on the bats moving forward. But now I think we can all relax a bit after their cold start.

Yes, the bullpen was bad last night, giving up six runs and 11 hits in five innings. But it had a 0.70 ERA coming into the game. That was never going to last. The regression came at a bad time, but I still like it to be a strength going forward; a couple bad pitches ended up in bad places against a good-hitting team, but I loved how Belliard and Champion got out of the two-on, one-out jam in the 8th to keep the ‘Cats in the game, and I’m confident the relievers will continue to be strong.

I’m going to keep writing a lot about Mike Kvasnicka, because there’s a lot of interest in how he develops, particularly among Astros fans. Kvasnicka broke out of an 0-for-16 slump with a line-drive single in the first inning of Thursday’s game, also his first base hit right-handed this year. He still hasn’t been lighting things up offensively, but his swing has looked better from both sides, and he is pretty much where you expect him to be in his development. The first-pitch home run on Opening Day was nice, but he still has work to do. One encouraging sign is his plate discipline – he walked four times in 11 plate appearances against Vermont.

Defensively, things were mixed for Kvasnicka at third base against Vermont. He made a nice play in the second inning Thursday, picking up a slow roller and throwing across the diamond. But in the seventh inning of that game, he overran a foul popup, getting to the dugout only to see it fall five feet away, back towards the field. That play really just showed his unfamiliarity with the position – anyone who has ever tried to field a popup from third or catcher knows how difficult it is to judge a ball spinning back towards the field. Later that inning, Connor Rowe hit a hard worm-burner to his right; Kvasnicka got in front of it and gloved it, but couldn’t pick it off the ground, committting his first error of the season at third base. He got another chance with two outs and runners on the corners, redeeming himself on a hard two-hopper right at him. Last night, Marcus Jones hit a ground-ball double down the third-base line that Kvasnicka might have been able to knock down, but he reacted too slowly. Kvas is back in right field tonight.

Another player with positional questions is catcher Ben Heath. He’s still a backstop and will be for the forseeable future, but people have wondered if he has what it takes to stay behind the plate in the big leagues. He really hasn’t made strides towards answering that question yet this season. Heath was behind the plate for two wild pitches by Robert Doran two days ago and a third by Gouvea yesterday, all of which looked blockable. (On the final one, he reached out to scoop a backhand off the bounce instead of getting his body in front of it). He was also slow getting out from behind the plate in the first inning on Friday, allowing Blake Kelso to reach base on a bunt single. I’m not a scout and don’t know if he’ll end up catching in the big leagues, but he’ll have to work hard defensively to get there.

Renzo Tello made a couple of beautiful throws from left field to kill baserunners in Wednesday’s game, but came up short in a critical spot on Friday. Connor Rowe’s tenth-inning single was a soft grounder through the 5-6 hole, and Tello was playing relatively shallow in left. He came up throwing and would have had plenty of time to get Hendry Jimenez at the plate, but it was too far up the first-base line for Heath to make a play. Tello almost made a sensational play in the ninth, leaping to catch Stephen King’s line-drive homer, but missed it by inches (and was shaken up on the play).

But overall, the defense has been very strong recently. Kvasnicka’s fielding error was the only miscue of those two games for Tri-City. As well as he hit on Friday, I was just as impressed with Nick Stanley in the field. I have been critical of Stanley’s defense before, after two subpar games to open the season, but yesterday’s performance makes me think those might have been an aberration. He made a great play in the fourth inning, sliding to backhand a ball in the hole and completing the 3-1 play. A couple batters later, he started a 3-6-1 double play to get out of the inning.

Of course, the two best defensive plays were made by Lake Monsters. In the eighth inning of Thursday’s game, Frank Almonte hit a line drive to left field that looked like a sure double, but speedy outfielder Chad Mozingo raced back and made a terrific diving catch on the warning track. Renzo Tello was already past second base, expecting the ball to drop; Mozingo was able to get the ball back to the infield in time for the relay throw to double Tello off at first. And yesterday, Enrique Hernandez drove a one-hopper off the mound, but second baseman Blake Kelso dove to his right and snared the ball off the bounce, recovering to throw Hernandez out at first.

We had a scary moment in the third inning of Thursday’s game when shortstop Oscar Figueroa and center fielder Wilton Infante collided going after a popup in the middle of the field. Infante made the catch and was fine, but Figgy went down hard and stayed there for a couple minutes. He remained in the game and it didn’t seem to affect his play much, but he was still feeling the collision in his shoulder the following day.

Some other assorted notes on Tri-City pitchers:

Robert Doran had a very good outing Thursday night. His final line is okay – 4 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 3 SO, 1 BB – but it really could have been a lot better than that. Only one of those was really well-struck, though – a line-drive double to center by Wilfri Pena that scored a run. Pena only batted that inning because Doran slipped going after a nubber towards third, and while the other hits weren’t as lucky as that one, they could have easily been outs. A pair of ground balls found holes, and Justin Miller hit a ball in the gap that looked like an easy out off the bat but carried forever, going with the wind for a double. It’s a shame Doran was pulled after four due to his pitch count (57); he deserved the win in that game.

Doran was sitting 89-91 for the game, showing an 80 changeup fairly often. More impressively, he threw first-pitch strikes to the first 16 hitters he faced. Astros County picked up on this as well, and it’s by no means unusual within this staff. The day before, Carlos Quevedo went FPS on 15 of the first 16; on Opening Day Quevedo started out 12/12.

The guy who did get the win Thursday, lefty reliever Chris Blazek, did pitch even better. Blazek pitched in Troy way back in 2005 and was last seen in Corpus Christi in 2008, but sat out last season with a labrum tear in his pitching shoulder. The 25-year-old is working his way back up the ranks, and probably won’t be with the ValleyCats much longer if he continues to throw like he did against Vermont. Blazek struck out the side in order in the fifth inning, throwing a dirty changeup to fool Jimenez for the second out. He was just as perfect in his second inning of work, getting two strikeouts and a harmless grounder to first. The southpaw only sits around 85-87 (touched 88), but he hides the ball very well in his delivery, making it hard to pick up out of his hand. Opponents also have to respect his offspeed stuff – the change that got Jimenez clocked at 80, while he throws a breaking ball in the mid-70s – so even though his fastball doesn’t have great velocity, it gets on hitters quickly. As much as I’d love to see Blazek here as long as possible, I would imagine he’ll get promoted sometime in the next couple weeks.

Possibly the most interesting Tri-City pitcher this year is Jorge De Leon, a converted shortstop with an incredibly live arm. The closer was stretched out for a two-inning save on Thursday and got five-sixths of the way there, but walked the final two hitters and had to be replaced by Michael Ness. De Leon didn’t have great command that night, walking two and hitting a third. But he still showed flashes of dominance, freezing King on a curveball to open the eighth and then sawing off Jason Martinson with a 91-mph fastball on the hands. He never hit the 97 that he’s capable of on Thursday, but was in the low-90s and ramped it up as high as 95.

Murillo Gouvea did not command the ball well in his first start, losing a lot of pitches at the batters’ eyes. He had some more bad at-bats on Friday, but overall his control was much better, and he walked only one in five innings of work. Gouvea was again hurt by the longball, though; he gave up his second homer of the season, a two-run shot to Rowe in the fifth. That was about all the damage Gouvea allowed, however – he gave up a run in the fifth on a walk, bunt single, sacrifice bunt and sacrifice fly, and didn’t allow anyone else past second base.

I’ll have more analysis from tonight’s crazy game, hopefully tomorrow afternoon before the 5 pm start.

Kevin Whitaker

Other links: Fan blogger Jim Davey talks about Heath’s game-tying homer and some fans he encountered at “The Joe”

VCN’s Elliot Travis has video from Thursday’s game:

And from Friday:


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