July 2010

Notebook: Going Green

Last night was our annual “Going Green” celebration here at Joe Bruno Stadium, where the park was environment-themed. Elliot Travis has more:

We also had a special seventh-inning stretch, featuring “Take Me Out to the Green Game,” written by our e-friend Mike Tauser. Mike is the man behind Farmstros and the creator of the incredibly creative “Quest for 3,000 Syllables”. He is tweeting 3,000 syllables about the Houston farm system in 2010, in haiku form – which works out to 177 haikus for the summer. Previous haikus about the ValleyCats include:

Talk about control
Just two walks by Quevedo
He has started six

And from last night:

Valley Cats go green
Do their part for the planet
Win the game as well

You can read all 2,278 and counting of Mike’s syllables here.

The ValleyCats won their third consecutive game, the first time this season they have had a three-game win streak. Lowell has not exactly been the toughest opponent this season and four of the ‘Cats’ five runs were unearned, but make no mistake, they deserved to win this game.

Tri-City committed a pair of its own errors but also had some great defensive plays. Kik&eacute Hernandez had the play of the night, when he made a sliding forehand deep in the outfield grass and threw to first to get Bryce Brentz by a step. Hernandez started the play near his regular position, but by the time he reached the ball he was about where the second baseman plays on an overshift, 15-20 feet beyond the infield dirt.

Shortstop Oscar Figueroa made a great snag of a ball to his right, and if the runner had been anybody but the speedy Felix Sanchez he would have gotten an out. Ben Orloff made two nice plays ranging to his left at third base, and Ben Heath made a pair of good throws to second; the first was too late to catch Sanchez, although the play was closer than any of us expected, and the second nailed James Kang on a steal attempt.

Jake Buchanan was easily the best I’ve seen from him, and he’s now had two consecutive strong starts (5+ IP, 1 ER in each). Both Buchanan and manager Jim Pankovits attributed his success to an aggressive approach; the righty did not walk a batter all game, and only once reached a three-ball count. He fanned five Spinners, going up the ladder with a couple fastballs and getting others with nice curves. (We have been having radar gun issues, so I don’t have velocities.)

And the ‘Cats hit. The hosts picked up 11 safeties, and had lots of chances to score. They only scored one run in the second despite racking up four hits; a double play grounder limited the damage. And in the sixth, Tyler Burnett appeared to score from third on a grounder off the bat of Mike Kvasnicka, but he was called out at home. I thought Burnett beat the tag, as did most everybody else in the press box; Burnett agreed after the game.

Although Burnett hits quite a few balls to the gaps, I doubt he’ll get another triple – the first baseman is not the slowest player on the team, but far from the fastest. His three-bagger yesterday came as sort of a fluke – Brentz dove after a popup down the line and landed hard as the ball rolled fifty feet or so away from him.

Kvasnicka had two hits, including a double, continuing to stay hot and extending his hit streak to nine games. Afenir, Hernandez and Burnett each have now hit safely in eight consecutive games.

Brandt Walker, coincidentally, issued the game’s only two walks, and Brentz scored the tying run after doubling in the seventh. But the ‘Cats got it right back and more, scoring three runs in their half of the inning on three hits and a misplayed bunt.

Mike Ness made things interesting in the ninth inning, loading the bases and putting the tying run on, but held on for the two-inning save. Ness fanned four, freezing a pair of Spinners in the final frame on pitches that might have been a couple inches off the plate. Ness now leads the team with four saves.

The ‘Cats look to keep the hot streak going with two more home games against Lowell, who fell to a league-worst 8-31.

Kevin Whitaker

Midseason Report

Today marks the midway point in the NY-Penn League season. 38 of the 76 scheduled games are remaining, although some teams have a couple more due to weather postponments. Tri-City has played 36 games and stands at 15-21. The ValleyCats seem certain to finish out of the cellar for the first time since 2006 – they’re already eight games up on 8-30 Lowell – but the record is still a bit of a disappointment to a team that has seemed inconsistent.

The pitching was scary good early in the year, while the offense was scary in a completely different sense, threatening the Mendoza line with a June batting average of .192. But both sides have gone closer to league-average levels. At the midway point, the ‘Cats are batting .243 and rank eighth in the league with 170 runs scored. Their ERA is up to 4.08, and only four of the league’s 14 teams have allowed more than their 179 runs.

Quite a few ValleyCats have heated up in the past week or two. Mike Kvasnicka was batting just .152 and slugging .207 ten days ago, but has been on fire for the past week. In his last eight games, Kvasnicka is batting 15-for-36 (.417) with two homers, six extra-base hits and 11 RBI.

A couple of reserves have earned more playing time with recent hot streaks. Tonight’s DH Buck Afenir has gone 5-for-11 in the team’s last ten games to raise his season batting average to .314. Afenir’s biggest hit came at Cooperstown on Saturday, when his pinch-hit double in the ninth inning brought home Dan Adamson with the game-tying run. Shortstop Jacke Healey had only four hits on the season at the start of last week, but homered in back-to-back games against Brooklyn and Aberdeen, then had consecutive two-hit games at Vermont over the weekend.

Kik&eacute Hernandez has been unstoppable for the entire month of July. The second baseman hit just .152 in the first month of the season but has hit safely in 20 of 21 games this month, upping his season average to .295.

Here’s a look at where everybody in the NYPL stands thus far, sorted by run differential:

Photobucket

The last column represents the number of games Tri-City has remaining against each team. As you can see, the schedule was pretty front-loaded, and the ValleyCats will generally face easier opponents from here on out. That starts with a three-game home series against Lowell tonight – the Spinners come in having lost 13 of their last 14 contests. Only 14 of the ‘Cats’ 39 remaining games come against teams that currently have a positive run differential. (Note: this assumes they will not make up the rained-out game against Jamestown, which will only be played if it has playoff implications at the end of the season.)

The ValleyCats have unlucky this year – we would have expected them to win 17 games based on their run differential, when they are actually 15-21. And they’ve faced a tough schedule to this point, playing a lot of games against the league’s better teams. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the ValleyCats to play .500 or even a bit better in the second half.

Their playoff chances, however, are still very remote. Brooklyn currently has the league’s best record, at 25-13. If the ValleyCats played like the league’s best team in the second half, they would finish at 41-35 or so. Five teams are currently on pace to have a better record than that, and another two aren’t far behind. So even if the ‘Cats play .650 ball from here on out – which only one team did in the first half – they would still probably have no better than a 50-50 shot at reaching the postseason.

But that doesn’t mean the season is lost. The ValleyCats seem very likely to post their best record since 2006, and may be able to reach .500 by the end of the season. For a team that seemed incapable of scoring a run one month ago, that wouldn’t be a bad ending.

Kevin Whitaker

Cooperstown Notebook

The ValleyCats made a special trip down to Cooperstown today, playing their annual meeting against the Tigers at Doubleday Field. The game coincides with the Hall of Fame Induction Weekend – Andre Dawson, Doug Harvey and Whitey Herzog will be officially inducted tomorrow afternoon – so the town is always full of excitement and energy. Combined with the historic nature of the field and area, it’s a great atmosphere for a ballgame.

Things are a little crazier this year, because the Tigers moved to Connecticut in the offseason. When they played in Oneonta, the Cooperstown game was a perfect fit, but this time around the ‘Cats have a very rough travel schedule: they finished a game at Aberdeen on Thursday night; drove nearly six hours up to Norwich, CT on Friday for a game that was postponed due to rain; spent four hours on the bus to get to Cooperstown for the 1:00 start today; and embarked on a 4.5-hour trip after the game to Vermont, where they will play at 1:05 tomorrow (Sunday).

But despite the crazy schedule, the players seemed pretty excited to play on Doubleday Field. They certainly got their money’s worth, playing a 13-inning marathon (longest of the season) that lasted three hours and 36 minutes and forced me to use a second scoresheet for the first time this season (mine go to 11). I was kind of wishing the game had taken place at home, just to see the kind of chaos that would have exploded on the whiteboard. 17 ValleyCats and 18 Tigers appeared in the game, including three pinch-runners, two pinch-hitters and eleven pitchers.

Each team had quite a few chances to put the game away – eleven different runners reached scoring position in the ninth and extras – so there were quite a few interesting tactical decisions made in the late innings. Here are some of the ones worth pointing out:

Look into the box score, and you’ll see an unusual move in the top of the ninth inning – the ValleyCats pinch-hit for their DH with their backup catcher. That doesn’t happen often. Now, nobody will argue it was the wrong decision – it regained the platoon advantage with lefty Logan Hoch on the mound, and Stanley isn’t exactly killing the ball regardless – and the results backed that up, as Afenir came through with the biggest hit of the day, a line-drive double to right-center that plated Dan Adamson.

On the very next batter, Connecticut made a decision that I think more teams in this league should copy. Jacke Healey pinch-ran for Afenir, and the ‘Cats were pretty clearly going to bunt – Wilton Infante, one of their best bunters, was batting, and the go-ahead run was on second. Connecticut aggressively blitzed Infante on the pitch, so that when Infante laid the bunt down, the first baseman was no more than 30 feet from the plate. It worked, as Infante bunted the ball right back to the pitcher, who had plenty of time to nail Healey at third. It was a poor bunt by Infante, but given how Connecticut played it, he would have needed to execute a very good bunt down the third-base line to successfully advance the runner. Most teams I’ve seen will play more conservatively in that situation, conceding the runner’s advancement while getting the batter out. I’m not a fan of playing exclusively for one run in that situation to begin with, but if teams are going to predictably bunt in those situations, it’s possible to exploit it and get the lead runner out more often.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, lefty Chao-Ting Tang came up with one on and one out against southpaw Travis Blankenship, and I thought for sure a pinch-hitter was coming, but Connecticut left him in. Tang hit a line drive, but it became a 6-3 double play when pinch-runner Matt Mansilla strayed too farr off first. (That was a perplexing play in its own right – Tang’s ball wasn’t hit all that hard, and it was obvious to everyone in the ballpark except Mansilla that it would be caught.) There are plenty of reasons to let Tang hit in that situation, so I didn’t think much of it until the 13th inning. Tang came up again in that frame with one on and one out against a lefty (Adam Champion)…but this time, the Tigers pinch-hit with righty Chris Sedon. That didn’t work out for them either, as Sedon struck out, setting the stage for Ryan Soares’s game-winning single. But I’m not sure what happened between the ninth and 13th innings to make pinch-hitting suddenly seem like a good idea (especially because, if I were to pick one to have a bigger expected platoon split, I’d definitely go with Blankenship over Champion as being relatively tougher on lefties).

‘Cats manager Jim Pankovits did a great job of managing his bullpen in extra innings. Blankenship was deep into his second inning of work when he got Josh Ashenbrenner to ground into a fielder’s choice for the second out. That put runners on first and third with righty Alex Nunez coming up – the Tigers’ cleanup hitter, who had two hits already in the game – and I thought for sure Blankenship would come out of the game for a righty. Blankenship has done well against right-handed hitters so far this year, but I’m not sure that’s sustainable – he comes from a low arm slot and throws a lot of breaking balls, two qualities that tend to make a pitcher vulnerable to opposite-handed batters. But Pankovits stuck with Blankenship, and it worked out in the end. He got Nunez down 1-2, then hit him with a breaking ball – which was better than leaving one out over the plate, given the situation. Then he induced an easy ground ball from the next batter, lefty Eric Roof, getting out of the jam.

Pankovits made another interesting decision in the 12th. With one out and PJ Polk on third, he had Brandt Walker intentionally walk Josh Ashenbrenner to pitch to Nunez. The reasoning for this wasn’t very obvious at the time – it seemed a sideways move at best, one that wasn’t necessarily detrimental but somewhat pointless. The ValleyCats weren’t setting up a double play – they kept the infield in after the walk – nor were they loading the bases to set up a force at home. I didn’t have stats with me at the time, but I checked and sure enough, the rationale became pretty obvious. With one out and a fast runner on third, Tri-City pretty much needed a strikeout to stay in the game (or an infield popup or a hard, at-‘em grounder, but those are less common and less predictable). Ashenbrenner has only four strikeouts in 93 at-bats this year, while Nunez has fanned 34 times in 118. Sure enough, Walker sent Nunez down swinging, and got Roof to line out to escape a seemingly impossible bind.

The one decision that didn’t pan out came in the 13th, when Pankovits elected to bring in Jorge De Leon with two outs to face Soares, who drilled the first pitch for a game-winning single. But you certainly can’t second-guess Pankovits for this one – he got his closer into the game against a hot hitter in a critical situation. (If anything, I would have brought De Leon in to face Sedon once the pinch-hitter was announced, but Champion handled him just fine.) It didn’t work out this time, but the managing instinct was the right one – have your better relievers pitch in the most important situations. If Jerry Manuel does that today, the Mets might not lose again.*

*The Mets have played 52 games on the road this season, and have 12 walk-off defeats. That’s completely insane. Yet, Manuel was content to watch another celebration today without ever getting his best reliever in to the game.

Soares, of course, lined a single into center, and pinch-runner Les Smith scored from second to win the game. Adamson’s throw home was on target, but his arm isn’t the strongest, and it bounced home a step too late to catch Smith at the plate.

Tyler Burnett continues to absolutely rake – he went 3-for-5 with a walk and a 12th-inning double today. Burnett also scored a pair of runs; he is now tied for second in the league in doubles and tied for third in walks.

The ‘Cats as a team stroked five doubles today. Wilton Infante nearly had a sixth, but Polk made a fantastic leaping catch up against the wall in right-center-field. Nobody went yard, which came as a bit of a surprise given the friiendly confines (296 down the left-field line, 338 to the marking in left-center, 316 to right); besides Infante, Adam Bailey came closest to a homer, hitting a fly to the warning track to straightaway center, easily the deepest part of the park at 390 ft.

Mike Kvasnicka had another pretty good night with the bat, 2-for-6 with a double. After a rough first month of the season, his batting average is now up to .200, and I bet he’s at least a .270 hitter from this point forward, if not better.

Walker had two nice strikeouts in the eleventh inning as well, throwing a nice breaking ball to Julio Rodriguez for the first out and then getting Soares to chase a pitch in the dirt with the winning run on second.

Andrew Robinson pitched really well, but was bitten by some very rough luck. He gave up three hits in three innings, but they came back-to-back-to-back, leading to two runs. Even worse, none of the balls was hit well – a chopper that hung in the air too long, a high bloop down the right-field line and a soft grounder up the middle.

David Martinez, on the other hand, was a bit lucky to even get through the first three innings with only three runs allowed (six hits). He was putting pitches over the plate, and Connecticut was taking advantage – in the first two frames, Martinez faced 10 hitters and threw only 17 pitches. Martinez settled down, though, and retired the last eight batters he faced.

Ben Heath had been mired in a bit of a slump – 3 for his previous 23 entering today’s game – so it was nice to see him come up with a big hit in the third inning. His double brought home Kik&eacute Hernandez and enabled the three-run outburst that tied the game.

Some pictures from today’s memorable game:

Pankovits hits some grounders during warm-ups:

warmups

Hitting coach Joel Chimelis talks to Kik&eacute and Kvasnicka before the game:

chimmy

Ben Orloff signs an autograph for a lucky fan:

Orloff autograph

Things got kind of cramped in the small dugouts:

TCdugout

CTdugout

Connecticut came up with an interesting solution: put players in the stands!

CTstands

Kvasnicka at bat:

Kvasnicka batting

Buck Afenir is congratulated after his game-tying double:

Afenir celebration

scoreboard

The Tigers celebrate the walk-off victory:

celebration

Doubleday Field

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Brooklyn series

This weekend was a little crazy for those of us working at the ballpark – with a 5:00 Sunday game and an 11:00 am matinee Monday to close the three-game series, the schedule was really compressed. As a result, I didn’t get a chance to write anything about Brooklyn yet, so here’s a weekend roundup:

Fortunately, the players were not adversely affected by the odd schedule – the ‘Cats played their best ball of the series by far on Monday, defeating Brooklyn 7-4 to avoid a sweep. The first game was ugly and the second loss was disappointing, but at the end of the day, losing two of three to Brooklyn is pretty much what we should have expected. The Cyclones are the best-hitting team in the league and they had three of their four best starters this season lined up for the weekend, so winning this series would have been very difficult. Brooklyn is two games behind Lowell but leads the league in run differential at +52 (Jamestown is second at +41, Vermont is at +40).

Brooklyn is actually one of the least patient teams in the league, but they make up for it by absolutely hitting the crap out of the ball. Its .290 batting average is 21 points better than anyone else in the league, and the Cyclones lead the league in doubles, triples and homers. As a result, they have a 13-run lead on the rest of the NYPL despite ranking second-to-last in walks. The home run category is the most impressive – they have hit 31 homers, while Auburn is second at 21 and Jamestown ranks third with 17. (They have hit more homers on the road than at home – and have only allowed eight longballs – so it’s not as if their power is the result of playing in a bandbox.)

The Tri-City pitching staff has been homer-prone this season, allowing a league-high 26 dingers, including five in this series. Carlos Quevedo found this out the hard way, giving up two bombs in an outing that was unimpressive by his very lofty standards. Rylan Sandoval took the second pitch of the game off the scoreboard well beyond the left-field fence – his fourth homer in his last ten games – and Cory Vaughn hit a two-run shot in the third inning. Quevedo gives up his homers in bunches – the only two he had allowed to this point also both came in the same game, at Vermont in June.

But the righty settled down after that, holding the Cyclones scoreless for three more innings to notch his sixth consecutive quality start. Quevedo got a bit lucky in the fourth, escaping the inning unharmed despite allowing two clean doubles, as Ben Heath gunned down the first runner trying to advance on a ball in the dirt. He didn’t have his best stuff early on and left his fastball up a bit, but was perfect in his final two innings, throwing 20 of his 21 pitches for strikes in those two frames and mixing well to keep hitters off-balance. Quevedo was successful against league batting leader Darrell Ceciliani, inducing a pair of groundouts and a harmless fly ball in three at-bats.

Quevedo fanned two more batters without a walk. He has walked two batters in 40.1 innings, easily the lowest BB rate in the league. His SO/BB ratio is now an insane 14…I can’t find sortables for that statistic, but I would bet that tops the NYPL as well.

The ‘Cats got an offensive boost from an unlikely source in Jacke Healey. The shortstop came into the game with only four hits on the season, but hit a two-out shot to deep left-center that left the park. The two-run homer gave Tri-City a 5-3 lead it would never relinquish. Healey, a bench player known more for his slick glove, also made a great sliding forehand in the fourth inning, retiring Brian Harrison at first by half a step.

After the game, Healey said the guys in the dugout were teasing him all game because his girlfriend came to visit him the night before. Manager Jim Pankovits quipped, “Maybe we should bring her with us on the road.”

Brooklyn added a third homer, when Jeff Flagg led off the ninth inning with a moonshot that landed in the Tri-City bullpen. The wind here usually blows out to right field, but was going towards left at a pretty good clip on Monday; 9 out of 10 days at this ballpark, Flagg’s ball is an easy flyout. Michael Ness was unfazed, however, snaring a J.B. Brown comebacker and doubling off Joe Bonfe at first to end the game.

Healey wasn’t the only middle infielder to hit well on Monday. Second baseman Kik&eacute Hernandez, whose 13-game hit streak snapped in the series opener, went right back to stroking the ball in the final two games, picking up three singles in each contest. Like most of the ValleyCats, Kik&eacute started the season slowly, but he is batting .347 in July.

Mike Kvasnicka also recovered from a Saturday 0-fer to strike the ball well. He blasted a big two-run homer in the eighth inning on Sunday, pulling the ‘Cats within one run, and added a double and two singles over the final two games. Kvasnicka’s early-season struggles have been well-documented; hampered by a hand injury, he was batting .108 at the end of June and continued to struggle into the next month. Hopefully, this weekend marks something of a turning point.

Kvasnicka did strike out three times in the final two games, however; he now has 23 whiffs in 118 at-bats. That’s not a horrific rate for a player in his first month of professional ball – three other ‘Cats have at least as many – but it’s something to watch over the final month and a half of the season. I wasn’t as worried about it when he was among the league leaders in walks, but he has drawn just one free pass in his final 11 games while striking out at the same rate. Two innings after the homer, Kvasnicka came up with the tying run on first and nobody out, but went down looking on three pitches.

“I’ve been [practicing] my right-handed swing a lot because we haven’t seen a lot of lefties,” Kvasnicka said of his homer, his first from the right side this season. “But I got an at-bat lefthanded [in the 10th], and I was thinking about mechanical things to make the switch back over, and I wasn’t ready to hit because of it. I had been swinging the bat well lefty, but I let the mental side take over for a few pitches there.”

“In the last week and a half, I’ve had a lot of lineouts,” he continued. “Baseball’s a cruel game in that sense – once you start feeling good, you’re not going to be hitting .400 the rest of the year. There’s been definite progress in the cage work and in batting practice, so it should come around.”

Evan thought Kvasnicka should have bunted in the tenth; I disagree. Although it is practially standard managerial practice, a sacrifice bunt down one run in the ninth or extras generally hurts a team’s chances of winning the game. According to Baseball Prospectus’s extensive study in Baseball Between the Numbers, a successful sacrifice down one run with a runner on first will actually decrease the offensive team’s win expectancy by as much as 5%. Given the slightly lower-scoring environment of the NY-Penn League and the increased chance that the opponent will make an error on the play, you can probably make an argument that it’s a break-even proposition, but then you need to account for the fact that Kvasnicka – who did not lay down a single sacrifice bunt in three years at Minnesota and has yet to bunt this season – is probably not the world’s best bunter. If you think Kvasnicka’s a true .170 hitter, then yes, a bunt makes a lot of sense with better batters coming up – but I don’t believe that, and I doubt Pank does either.

Dan Adamson made a fantastic diving catch on a bloop to end the fifth inning on Monday. The ball looked like it would fall in shallow left-center, and I thought Healey and Wilton Infante were the two that might have a shot at it, but Adamson came from out of nowhere, laid out full extention and made the catch. Adamson’s defense was crucial a day earlier, when he gunned down James Schroeder trying to stretch a base hit into a double leading off the seventh. Monday’s other great play came from Vaughn, who threw an absolute lazer to gun down Infante – one of the fastest ValleyCats – tagging for third on a fly ball that was hit pretty well to right field. Vaughn’s throw reached third on the fly.

Tom Shirley was having his best outing of the year on Saturday – a pretty impressive feat for a guy who hasn’t allowed an earned run all year – so it was a shame to see him come out after three innings and 44 pitches after re-aggrivating his knee injury. He said it was “just a little strain.” Pankovits said, “We don’t think it’s serious – it wasn’t serious before – but we’re being cautious with him.” Shirley’s knee caused him to miss his start last week against Jamestown.

Shirley fanned four batters in three innings and had his best stuff of the year. Whereas he’s been working in and out of jams this season – he had allowed 18 baserunners in 14 innings entering Sunday – the southpaw allowed two walks and no hits against a tough Brooklyn lineup (albeit one without two of its top hitters). He was sitting 88, dialing as high as 91 and dropping as low as 85 when behind in the count, but his offspeed stuff was the best I’ve seen from Shirley this year. I don’t believe he threw his curveball (67-73) for a strike, but it was around the zone every time, instead of being completely a junk pitch, and his slider (79-80) was an effective offering.

Murillo Gouvea took the hill next, and I think the book on him is pretty much written at this point: he struggles when he’s not missing bats. When he’s striking out a lot of guys – like his 8 K performance against Jamestown last week – he is an effective pitcher, but in every other outing he’s been hit hard. The first four batters Gouvea faced all reached base. Gouvea allowd four runs and really only pitched well enough to retire two batters; two more gave themselves up on sacrifices.

Mike Kvasnicka threw out his first runner from behind the plate on Sunday, gunning Vaughn at second in the top of the fifth. Kvasnicka has struggled with recieving at times this year, but I’m not worried about his arm. He also made a nice play to throw out a runner at first on a strikeout-wild pitch, when Andrew Robinson’s putaway pitch to Amauris Valdez was well wide but ricocheted off the backstop back towards the plate.

Robinson and Jorge De Leon both looked great on Sunday. Robinson held the Cyclones scoreless for 3.1 innings but left with two on and two out in the eighth, and pinch-hitter Darrell Ceciliani – the NYPL batting leader – singled off De Leon to plate both. Those were the only earned runs allowed by either pitcher in the game’s final 5.1 frames. De Leon flashed 97 mph and was consistently at 95-96 early in his outing, the fastest I’ve seen him sitting at all year. He was left in to throw 2.1 innings and 42 pitches, both easily season highs, which I found kind of surprising – the last time Tri-City stretched him out, he struggled by the end of his second frame. He still pitched well enough to get out of the tenth inning, were it not for a Figueroa throwing error, but he was down to 90-91 mph by the end of the night.

The bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday featured a somewhat humorous play, going down in the book as (Johan) Figuereo picking off Figueroa. The ValleyCats weren’t laughing, however, as it looked at the time to be the final blow to their chances of winning. Of course, fate intervened on behalf of Tri-City, as Figuereo threw two wild pitches – his first two of the season – with two outs and two on to tie the game.

42s were wild on Sunday, as the ValleyCats were all dressed in identical #42 jerseys to honor Jackie Robinson. This was a very nice tribute, but not particularly fun for those of us in the press box who had to figure out who everybody was. We were thankful this happened in July and not, say, a month earlier, as we generally knew each player well enough to identify him.

Saturday featured an electric game, but not in the good sense. From about the fifth inning through the eighth, lighning flashed all around the park every 20 seconds or so, creating an interesting atmosphere to play baseball in. Play continued throughout – the lightning was always in the distance past the outfield, and rain fell only briefly – but the storm sent many of the 4,365 fans scurrying for shelter. The brunt of the storm came after the game, making my drive home fairly adventurous.

The opener was pretty ugly otherwise, except for the eighth-inning triple play. I thought Luis Nieves’s line drive was a base hit off the bat, as did both baserunners, but Figueroa ranged to his left to get the ball fairly easily. I wasn’t thinking triple play at all, but Tyler Burnett called for the ball and Hernandez made the quick turn at second, getting the ball to first just in time to triple off Juan Centeno. I – and most of the people I talked to afterward – thought Centeno was safe at first, but Burnett was pretty adamant afterwards that they got the out.

A.J. Pinera just flat-out dominated the ‘Cats for six innings. Pinera struck out five, gave up only two hits, and never issued more than two balls to any hitter. He got through three different innings on eight pitches or less, and was only at 57 when he was pulled. This was only his second start, so Brooklyn was understandably loath to push him too hard, but it sure seemed like he could have kept going – he fanned four of the last five batters he faced. Naturally, Pinera’s replacement, Brian Needham, opened the seventh inning with four straight balls to Tyler Burnett.

Burnett, incidentally, has drawn 22 walks this season, tied for second in the NYPL. He and seven others are tied atop the league leaderboard with 10 doubles.

The ‘Cats run into another hot opponent this week in Aberdeen, winners of four straight. Brooklyn had posted four consecutive victories before coming to The Joe, while Tri-City met Staten Island on an eight-game streak earlier this month.

Kevin Whitaker

Videos:
Saturday
Sunday
Monday

And check out this ridiculous story about ‘Cats reliever Jason Chowning, courtesy of Astros County.

ValleyCats: Unluckiest team in NYPL

The ‘Cats got a big win tonight, thrashing Auburn 11-2 to snap a three-game skid. Tyler Burnett had a monster night, going 3-for-3 with a homer, a double and two walks; his 19 bases on balls rank second in the New York-Penn League. Ben Heath added a homer and a double, while Mike Kvasnicka notched his first extra-base hit since Opening Day. Tri-City pounded out 15 hits and didn’t commit an error while turning three double plays. Carlos Quevedo posted his fifth consecutive quality start, allowing two runs in six innings for his second victory of the season.

The 11 runs marked a season high for the ValleyCats this season. They also set another milestone you may not have noticed: with the blowout victory, the ‘Cats have now scored more runs on the season (112) than they have allowed (111).

That’s right, Tri-City has outscored its opponents this year. You would not expect that from the standings, however: the ‘Cats stand at 10-15 (.400), ahead of only two other teams in the NYPL.

It has generally been accepted in baseball (and in most other sports) that run (or point) differential is a better indicator of a team’s true ability than winning percentage. This is because the binary of “win” vs “loss” tells us relatively little about how well a team played in a given game. Run differential helps us get a better picture – a team that wins by 9 runs generally had a better performance than a team that won by one run. Over a larger sample, wins and losses cumulatively give us a pretty good picture of a team’s talent, but run differential will usually tell a more complete story.

Run differential and winning percentage often agree, but there are times when they don’t, such as for the ValleyCats this season. Based on run differential, we would expect Tri-City to be about .500; instead, they’re .400. Generally, difference between expected and actual winning percentage is chalked up to the vague term “luck”.

There is one factor, unique to baseball, that often explains the difference between expected and actual winning percentage: bullpen performance. If a team’s bullpen is lousy, it might lose more than its share of close games, which would hurt its winning percentage more than its run differential. However, it is easy to see that this theory does not fit the ValleyCats this year. The Tri-City bullpen has been far from weak; it has been outstanding, with a 2.68 ERA. I can’t find any sortable stats for bullpens around the NYPL, but the league-average ERA is 3.92, and the best pitching staff (Vermont) is at 2.75. Even after allowing for the fact that relievers generally have a lower ERA than starters, the ‘Cats have still had an excellent bullpen.

So, if anything, we would expect the ValleyCats to be overperforming their run differential, instead of playing well below it. Without any other likely explanation, I have to conclude that the ‘Cats have simply suffered some bad luck, and they’re more likely to play like a .500 team than a .400 team going forward.

Looking at run differential, there are a few clear-cut tiers in the NYPL:

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Jamestown, Brooklyn and Vermont sure seem to have separated themselves from the pack. Vermont has already all but clinched the Stedler Division, while the other two currently lead by small margins and should be expected to pull away. But the race for the fourth-best team is a real mess; according to run differential, 15-11 Williamsport is no better than 10-15 Tri-City. There are eight teams who are a good or bad game away from a zero run differential, which is awfully rare. Then the two Valley teams are a clear cut below, with Lowell unsurprisingly bringing up the rear.

Sabermetric pioneer Bill James devised a method of predicting winning percentage from run differential called the Pythagorean Expectation. The equation, which has held up well over the two or three decades since its inception, is fairly simple:

Expected WP% = RS-squared / (RS-squared + RA-squared)

A team who has allowed as many runs as it has scored would be expected to have a winning percentage of .500, and the results are similarly intuitive for other inputs (basically, the marginal value of each extra run has less and less effect on winning percentage).

So, compared to their Pythagorean expectation, which teams have been the luckiest and unluckiest? You won’t be surprised by the bottom team (positive = lucky; negative = unlucky).

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According to run differential, Tri-City is basically as talented as any other team in the league, save the top three. The ValleyCats’ playoff hopes look awfully slim, despite this good news – their recent bad fortune has left them 4.5 games back and behind seven other teams in the wild-card race, which is a very difficult hurdle to overcome under any circumstances. But if their run-scoring and run-allowing rates stay roughly the same, the ValleyCats seem likely to win a bit more frequently than they have thus far.

Kevin Whitaker

Washed Away

It’s difficult to really complain about last night’s rainout – our 17th home game was the first one that was even seriously threatened by the weather. Most of us were expecting the umpires to wait longer than they did to officially call the game, because the ‘Cats don’t play Jamestown again and thus don’t have an opportunity to make up the game.

VCN’s Elliot Travis does his thing:


Notebook: Clutch failures

The ValleyCats got more hits, drew more walks, and committed fewer errors than Jamestown last night. Yet somehow the game wasn’t even really close, and it was the Jammers who won. As has been the case often this season, Tri-City just could not bring home runners, stranding 12 and only scoring three times.

What was even stranger was the way it happened. On the other side, Jamestown only had eight hits and three walks, but seven runs scored. This came despite the fact that the ValleyCats struck out a season-high 17 batters (which I believe is tied for the second-most in the NYPL this year). You’d think the team with more strikeouts would be the one with trouble bringing runners around, but alas, that was not the case.

Now, of course, there were a couple contributing factors that I didn’t mention – three passed balls and two balks certainly contributed to the Jammers’ success. But in the end, Jamestown just came up with more hits in key situations. That, in a nutshell, has been the story of the ValleyCats’ season thus far.

The ‘Cats are 11th in the 14-team league in hitting, with a .237 batting average. They actually get on base at an above-average clip (.334), thanks to an outstanding walk rate, but they have struggled incredbily to bring those runners home. In just about any clutch situation, the ValleyCats just can’t hit: .201 with RISP, .182 with bases loaded, and .156 with RISP + 2 outs.

The problem is made worse by the fact that opponents actually perform slightly better in key situations. Tri-City pitchers have allowed a .265 batting average this season, but .277 with RISP, and .319 with RISP + 2 outs.

I generally subscribe to the theory that “clutch” performance is generally random, although I do see how “clutch” ability (or, rather, the lack thereof) could exist at the lower levels. But one has to assume that the gap between the ‘Cats and their opponents in clutch situations will close somewhat.

As seven-run performances go, it’s tough to beat the one displayed by the ValleyCats last night. Chris Blazek, Murillo Gouvea, Joan Belliard and Brandt Walker combined for 17 strikeouts and only three walks, and allowed a rather pedestrian eight hits. They really didn’t deserve to allow seven earned runs, but sometimes that’s how this game goes.

It was great to see Gouvea pitch well, given his recent struggles. He struggled to put away the first four hitters – hitting a batter on 3-2, allowing an eighth-pitch single and going seven pitches on another – but was lights-out after that, retiring eight in a row at one point.

Gouvea sat 89-91 with his fastball, mixing in a slow curve and a slider. It took him 30 pitches to get through the second inning but he settled down after that, although he still went all the way up to 73 pitches for 3.2 innings. Facing the heart of the order, he struck out the side in the third, doing so with three different pitches – 90 inside to get Marcell Ozuna to chase, an 80-mph slider that Ryan Fisher chased low, and a 73-mph curve that froze Sequoyah Stonecipher.

He reverted back to his old self for a bit in the fifth inning, walking the first two batters with a wild pitch mixed in, and it came back to hurt him. But all in all, it was a very good showing.

Joan Belliard was also strong, fanning six in 3.1 innings. Ozuna struck out in his first three at-bats, and was determined not to do so in his fourth. He took Belliard’s first pitch out of the stadium to left field, easily the longest homer to date at Joe Bruno Stadium. Reports vary as to where exactly the ball traveled, but best I can figure is it landed on top of the “Creating Fans for Life” building behind the scoreboard in left, which I estimate at 450 feet or so.

Belliard’s other big mistakes were the two balks in the fifth that brought Stonecipher around to score from second. Jim Pankovits didn’t really contest the first, but the second one brought him out for a 2-3 minute discussion, culminating in his ejection. The balks were called because Belliard didn’t come set before delivering; I wasn’t watching his motion very carefully, so I don’t really have an informed opinion on the validity of the calls.

Tom Shirley didn’t make his scheduled start because of some knee problems, but all signs point to him getting back on schedule later this week. If he stays healthy and pitches as well as he has, he could move through the system very quickly.

In Shirley’s absence, Pankovits went a little unconventional and called upon reliever Chris Blazek to start, with the expectation that the lefty would throw only one inning. Blazek sure got his money’s worth, throwing 28 pitches and giving up a pair of runs. He had the same stuff as usual, but was a lot looser with his control than I’ve seen, falling behind often and issuing a four-pitch walk to Stonecipher; only 12 of his 28 pitches were strikes. By the end of the inning, his fastball was down to 82-84 mph (from 87-88), part of the reason the left-handed Aaron Senne was able to pull a line drive to right to score the second run.

I was pleased with Mike Kvasnicka’s defense in his first start behind the plate, so I have to point out that he really did not have a good showing on Monday night. Jamestown didn’t really run on him at all, but he had problems recieving, allowing three passed balls and a wild pitch.

First baseman Nick Stanley had a pair of terrific plays to his backhand. The second one was more spectacular, as Stanley dove to the hole, picked the ball cleanly and completed the 3-1 play to Belliard.

It was nice to see catcher Ryan McCurdy have success in his first at-bat with Tri-City. The undrafted free agent from Duke, who was activated the day before, entered in the ninth to catch for Kvasnicka and batted second in the Tri-City half. He pulled a groundball double down the left-field line, advancing Ben Orloff to third, from where he would eventually score.

Orloff passed the qualification cutoff in Monday’s game and now leads the NYPL with a .382 batting average. His .460 on-base percentage is also best in the league. He was on his way to improving those numbers with a line-drive base hit to lead off Tuesday’s game, but the hit also brought down the rain, washing away the official records. Orloff is batting .432 over his last ten games.

Kevin Whitaker


Weather News

Final Update: The game has been officially cancelled.  It will not be rescheduled unless it has playoff implications at the end of the season.

7:41 pm: Well, we got through half an inning before the tarp came out again.  Ben Orloff got yet another hit in the meantime.  0-0 with Orloff on first and nobody out if this gets resumed.

Update #2: The tarp has been uncovered, and we are shooting for a 7:30 start time.

Pregame update: The field has been re-covered due to a patch of rain and the game will be delayed for at least an hour.  We’ll be as patient as possible with this one, as the ‘Cats are not scheduled to play Jamestown again this season.

Tonight’s forecast is a bit iffy, and it’s currently raining a little bit here at Joe Bruno Stadium.  We’re still planning on starting the game on schedule at 7 pm, but stay tuned to http://twitter.com/ValleyCats for updates.

Notebook: Record crowd

In case you haven’t heard, last night was a big night. We had 7,005 fans at Joe Bruno Stadium for the 5 pm game, easily setting the single-game franchise record.

We owe Time Warner a big thanks for the crowd. Last night was “Time Warner Cable Customer Appreciation Night,” where customers could recieve four tickets for bringing their cable bill to the ticket office. Time Warner also broadcast the game live on TW-3, announced by Robert Lee and James Allen.

Time Warner also took over the Picnic Pavilion with various activities. It had a preview of 3-D television featuring that afternoon’s Yankees-Mariners game, and a station where fans could pretend to be a meterologist, which I bring up solely for the purpose of posting this picture of VCN’s Chris Chenes:

You can check out plenty of other pictures on Vic’s blog.

Things were pretty chaotic here between the record crowd and the Time Warner television crew, but the game ran pretty smoothly nonetheless. The ‘Cats battled back from an early deficit to tie the game at 6-6, but couldn’t push a run across after that, despite 12 hits. More thoughts:

David Martinez was making his first start, and got kind of unlucky to allow five runs. Two of the five were unearned, and he was unlucky with runners on base – Jamestown scored six runs in the first two innings and only stranded one runner. He also generally kept the ball down well – ten of the 13 balls in play were on the ground. Unfortunately, the three balls in the air went for seven total bases, including a two-run Marcell Ozuna homer in the first inning. He sat 89-92 mph as a starter, going to an 82-84 changeup almost exclusively as a second pitch, and held his velocity throughout the game (although that was only 51 pitches).

Martinez’s third run was unearned, because the runner advanced on a bad pickoff attempt. I have asked this before and I will ask again: should a pickoff error count towards an earned run? I realize that fielding errors by pitchers do not and should not count against ERA, because the statistic attempts to isolate pitching performance from fielding performance. But it seems to me that a pickoff is more of a “pitching” play than a “fielding” play, and a bad pickoff throw would seem similar to a wild pitch, which does count against ERA. If the pickoff play is successful and gets an out, it will help the pitcher’s ERA…so why shouldn’t a bad throw by the pitcher hurt it?

Three errors looks bad, and the error on Heath in the fourth inning was one of the ugliest plays you’ll see this year. Aaron Dudley singled to shallow left field, loading the bases, and the runners all stopped at their respective bags. Adamson’s throw missed the cutoff and took four bounces to the plate, where Heath just whiffed on it and nobody was backing him up. A run scored on the play, and the error was ultimately responsible for another. But despite the miscues, the ‘Cats generally played strong defense last night, making a few very nice plays.

Oscar Figueroa showed great range at short, going to his left to grab a Sequoyah Stonecipher roller behind second base to end the first inning. After completing a 4-6-3 double play in the second, Figgy made a great sliding play on another ball up the middle, getting up to nail Aaron Dudley by a step at first. Possibly the best play came in the ninth. With runners on the corners and nobody out, Jamestown threatened to blow open a one-run game. But Mike Kvasnicka fielded a chopper at third, threw to Enrique Hernandez at second for one out. Kik&eacute saw the runner on third heading home and threw a strike to Ben Heath, catching Daniel Black in a rundown for the second out.

Unfortunately, Ryan Fisher extended the lead anyways, hitting a triple that was the closest ball I’ve seen to leaving the park in dead center, hitting one foot below the yellow piping.

Kvasnicka stroked the ball well at the plate, going 2-for-4 with another walk, and one of the outs was a liner to second. Kvasnicka pulled both of his hits, clean line drives to the outfield. He’s starting at catcher tonight for the second time this season.

Wilton Infante sure had a good night, going 4-for-5 and raising his batting average about 50 points. But he would have been better off going 3-for-4 – he singled in the eighth only after missing a squeeze attempt on a curveball outside, leaving pinch runner Ben Orloff caught dead between third and home with the game-tying run.

In the bottom of the ninth, I saw a play I’ve never seen before. Kvasnicka walked to lead off the inning, and Ben Heath hit a line drive. Kvasnicka broke for second, but the ball was hit right at shortstop Noah Perio, who threw to first to double off Kvasnicka. The throw hit Kvasnicka in the back but somehow bounced right into the first baseman’s glove, in time to double off Kvas. I saw the replay on TW-3 and still have no idea how that happened.

Chris Blazek starts tonight, but will only go one inning. This could be Blazek’s final outing with the ValleyCats, as he is almost finished with his rehab assignment and will likely head back up to Corpus Christi soon. He had not allowed a run this season until Staten Island tagged him for a pair on Saturday.

Kevin Whitaker


7,005

More details and analysis to come tomorrow.  But tonight the ValleyCats set a major milestone: we surpassed the 7000-fan mark for the first time ever.  Our previous record was 6,838 fans on Independence Day last year, and this season our highest mark to date was 6,124 one week ago.

Thousands of Time Warner Cable customers showed up for the company’s Customer Appreciation Night, which was also broadcast by Robert Lee and James Allen on TW-3.  Thanks to Time Warner and to all our fans for making tonight’s achievement possible!

Roster Move; Martinez mashes

Sunday Update: Outfielder Renzo Tello has also been promoted to Lexington. Tello went 2-for-4 and scored a run last night at Staten Island.

Today, I enjoyed an afternoon away from civilization, playing a round of golf (and actually playing quite well, by my extremely low standards). It wasn’t until I got back home later in the evening that I learned of the transaction that would send shockwaves throughout the baseball world.

What? Oh, right, there was that one too. But Houston made a roster move that hit a bit closer to home, promoting pitcher Brenden Stines and assigning Ryan McCurdy to the ValleyCats.

McCurdy will bolster the Tri-City catching depth, as the third true backstop on the roster behind Ben Heath and Buck Afenir. Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Duke Univeristy, McCurdy was originally assigned to Greeneville, where he recieved only seven at-bats.

The catcher joins former teammate Michael Ness on the ValleyCats, another Duke alum in his rookie year of professional baseball. As a senior this year, McCurdy batted .280 for the Blue Devils. He has never hit for much power – he only managed seven extra-base hits in his final collegiate season, all doubles – but he ranked second on the team among starters with a .407 on-base percentage. McCurdy spent his senior year behind the plate but also played third base, shortstop and second base as an underclassman.

We will miss Stines and his famous ‘stache, and hope he performs well at Lexington. The righty began his pro career at Tri-City last year, posting a 4.93 ERA in 24 appearances. As one of a handful of veterans on this season’s roster, Stines allowed a fair amount of hits but gave up only four earned runs and fanned seven hitters in 7.1 innings.

Speaking of Lexington, another Tri-City alum had a terrific night on Thursday for the Legends. Lexington lost, but that certainly wasn’t the fault of hot-hitting outfielder J.D. Martinez, who went 5-for-5 with two homers and a career-high six RBI. Martinez, who led the NY-Penn League in batting last season, currently tops the Sally League in all three rate categories at .355/.422/.572.

The current ‘Cats are back on track. They lost a pair of ugly games against Batavia earlier this week but were well-served by a day off, as they’ve recovered to win two straight against Staten Island (who came into the series on an eight-game winning streak). On Thursday, they rolled to a 9-2 victory behind two hits apiece from Heath, Ben Orloff and Tyler Burnett; tonight, Tri-City won its first extra-inning contest of the season, 3-2, on Adam Bailey’s 11th-inning single that scored Dan Adamson.

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Field of Walks?

During Sunday’s game, as Batavia lefty Kevin Siegrist was in the process of walking his fourth batter of the first inning, Vic Christopher came up into the press box and wondered, “[paraphrasing] What is it with pitchers coming in and struggling in this park?” Siegrist was not the first starter to have difficulty locating the ball early on – earlier this homestand, Josue Carreno walked two and threw a wild pitch in the first inning, and of course there was the infamous Randy Consuegra incident last month.

Well, I don’t know if Vic’s right about Joe Bruno Stadium bearing some sort of curse against opposing pitchers. But if he is, the strongest evidence came last night. Andrew Moss came into the game with a 1.69 ERA, and he had thrown seven perfect innings against Mahoning Valley in his last outing. More importantly, he had walked only one batter in 16 innings.

That changed quickly at The Joe last night. The first batter, Ben Orloff, drew a five-pitch walk. Well, okay, that was understandable – Orloff has now led off each of the last three games with bases on balls. But things got weirder when Moss walked Kik&eacute Hernandez…and then Mike Kvasnicka…and then Ben Heath, each on five pitches. One of the best pitchers in the NYPL this year walked the first four batters he faced. That was probably the most inexplicable thing I have seen this year – at least Consuegra had a history of wildness.

Moss certainly settled down quickly. With the bases loaded and nobody out, the ‘Cats threatened to score several more runs, but Moss got Tyler Burnett to dink a curveball back to the mound for an easy force at home. Dan Adamson got a hittable fastball but grounded it straight to the shortstop for a 6-4-3 double play. Moss would walk two more batters for the game but held Tri-City scoreless for the next four innings. He only throws 87-91 but hides the ball really well and goes to his offspeed stuff more often than any starter I’ve seen so far in this league, leaning heavily on a tight 81-mph slider and a slow, high-70s curve. He dropped down to a sidearm slot for an 0-2 slider to Adamson in the fourth, getting the strikeout.

I remain unconvinced that “The Joe” has some kind of pitcher-destroying mystique, but has certainly had another, more tangible effect on the last couple games – the wind is always blowing out to right field. Frank Almonte hit a seemingly harmless fly ball that carried over the right-field fence on Sunday. Last night, with two on and two out in the seventh, Ben Heath’s fly ball to right looked like it would die on the warning track, but it hit the wind and carried a good 15 feet into the visitors’ bullpen. Heath is now tied for second in the league with four homers; that blast closed the score to 7-6, as close as the ‘Cats would ever get.

Tri-City got into a hole early as Murillo Gouvea allowed four runs in the first*. Nick Longmire led off the game with a fly ball into the left-field bullpen, which was not exactly a shocking event – the league’s best slugger taking the league’s most homer-prone pitcher deep. Gouvea was sitting 88-89 with his fastball but all over the place, walking Colin Walsh on four pitches and issuing another free pass to Jon Rodriguez two batters later. Gouvea wasn’t commanding his low-70s curveball well either, and after Adam Melker singled to load the bases, pitching coach Gary Ruby came out to the mound. Raniel Rosario hit a blast to the deepest part of the ballpark but Adamson ran it down, limiting the damage to a sacrifice fly. Audry Perez lined a single through the right side, ending Gouvea’s night.

*I’ve mentioned before that earned runs are not the be-all and end-all of pitcher performance, and we got another good example last night. You may know that if a runner scores on a passed ball, it is (usually) not earned. Last night, Gouvea was charged with his fourth earned run because ANOTHER PITCHER threw a wild pitch – Brendan Stines threw a ball past Heath, allowing Gouvea’s runner, Melker, to score.

We’ll see what happens to Gouvea rin the coming days. His ERA stands at an unsightly 12.75, he’s allowed a league-high 5 homers – at least one in each start – and he hasn’t performed particularly well in any of his four outings.

Brendan Stines came on and showed some wildness, throwing only three of nine pitches for strikes but getting out of that inning. Stines, who is 88-90 with his fastball and boasts a slow curve and slider, escaped the second inning after allowing a double to Walsh, but gave up an RBI single to Perez in the third.

David Martinez threw four very good innings of relief for the ‘Cats, allowing just two unearned runs. He struck out four batters in that span, showing off his secondary pitches in the fourth. He fanned the first batter he faced, Yunier Castillo, with a changeup (81 mph), and followed with an 83-mph breaking ball to freeze Longmire for the second out; he fanned Jon Edwards with another change in the next inning. Martinez sits in the low-90s with his fastball, fanning Walsh with a 92-mph heater in the sixth.

Jason Chowning made his first appearance of the season after being added to the roster earlier this homestand. He sat 86-90 with his fastball, leaning towards the top end of that rnage. He lost a curveball inside to hit the first batter he faced, Perez, but recovered and fanned Edwards with 90-mph heat. He threw a better curve later on, 78 mph and also showed an 80-mph changeup. With two out and two on, Chowning was pulled in favor of lefty Travis Blankenship, to turn around the switch-hitting Walsh. Blankenship succeeded, getting a strikeout on a 71-mph hook.

In the eighth inning, Andrew Robinson was called upon to replace Blankenship, intentionally walking Rainel Rosario to load the bases with one out. Robinson did his job, inducing a textbook double-play grounder from Perez, but Hernandez’s relay throw bounced well in front of first base, handcuffing Nick Stanley. Oscar Figueroa almost beat out a drag bunt to lead off the ninth but was called out, and the ‘Cats could not rally.

There were a couple of nice Tri-City defensive plays last night – Kik&eacute had a nice sliding forehand at second, and Stanley laid out for a foul popup after the failed double play in the ninth. But the four errors (two by Adamson on the same play) really hurt. The run prevention has been terrific all year, so let’s hope those errors and the (tied for) season-high seven walks were an aberration.

Kevin Whitaker

http://web1.nyc.youtube.com/v/E-VCifzJk-g&hl=en_US&fs=1

Independence Day Notebook

July 4th is always a big day at Joe Bruno Stadium, and last night was no exception. 6,124 fans came to “The Joe” to see some baseball and fireworks, and they got an exciting contest. The ‘Cats won 8-6 behind Dan Adamson’s tie-breaking homer in the eighth inning.

The offense pounded out 13 hits, setting a season high (previous had been 12 on Opening Day). After a three-game shutout sweep at Vermont, the ‘Cats were hitting .197 and we were wondering if they would ever score runs. But in four games since coming home, they’ve averaged 6.5 runs and more than 10 hits per game. Their batting average is up to .220, no longer last in the league (ahead of Lowell and Mahoning Valley). Tri-City won’t be among the league leaders at the end of the year, but fortunately it doesn’t look as inept as it seemed early in the year.

The ‘Cats get a very tough test tonight against Batavia’s Andy Moss. Moss has a 1.69 ERA in 16 innings this season, with 18 strikeouts. He went seven perfect innings in his last start against Mahoning Valley, striking out the side in the seventh. In particular, his command seems likely to pose a problem to Tri-City’s patience-heavy offense – he has walked only one batter this season. If the ValleyCats approach ten hits again tonight, they’ll really be on fire.

Nobody has been better over this homestand than Ben Orloff – the infielder is 5-for-9 with five more BB/HBP, and playing his usual strong defense now that he has recovered from last year’s elbow tendonitis. He was 3-for-3 last night, including his first extra-base hit of the season, a double to bring home Frank Almonte in the fifth inning. Orloff now leads the team with a .370 batting average and a .485 OBP. After the game, manager Jim Pankovits praised the veteran, saying, “it’s no coincidence we’ve been winning more since Orloff has been in the lineup.”

Almonte had the biggest hit of the early stages of the game, a two-run homer to right in the third. It looked like a lazy fly ball off the bat and right fielder Adam Melker expected to catch the ball, but the wind (which always blows out to right field here) carried it a few feet over the wall.

Batavia starter Kevin Siegrist could not find the zone in the first inning, walking four batters in the frame. He threw 31 pitches – only nine of which were strikes – and the damage might have been worse had Frank Almonte not grounded a 2-1 pitch at his hands to short. All of the lefty’s pitches were missing to the same spot – down and in to a right-handed batter (which the Tri-City lineup was filled with yesterday). But he calmed down a little bit afterwards, only allowing one walk in his final two innings. He was pretty much limited to one pitch, as he could find the zone with neither his curveball nor his changeup.

‘Cats starter Bobby Doran left the game in line for his first win of the season. Working quickly, he retired the side in order in the first inning, getting some help from Kik&eacute Hernandez, who showed nice range to his backhand to stab Colin Walsh’s grounder. Doran hit 90 mph on the nose with most of his fastballs, but showed 92 and fanned Joey Bergman with 91 to end the first.

Doran got a little unlucky in the second, as a Jon Rodriguez chopper went over Mike Kvasnicka’s head at third for a double, putting two runners in scoring position with nobody out. Three groundballs limited the damage to just one run. 10 of the 12 outs on balls in play off Doran, and four of the seven base hits, came on grounders.

The righty located pretty well, pitching mostly off his fastball but giving up seven base hits. Two more balls could have easily been hits, but the big Doran got in the way: a fourth-inning line drive that he got his glove on, knocking the ball down and making the play at first; and a one-hop comebacker in the fifth that he fielded cleanly with two on.

Doran flew through the fourth, needing only nine pitches (all strikes). He showed his offspeed chops, fanning Jon Rodriguez with a 76-mph curve. He got in some trouble in the fifth, when two clean singles, a bloop single and a whild pitch brought home two, but froze designated hitter Geoff Klein with an 88-mph fastball to get out of the inning.

The ‘Cats stranded eight runners in the first four innings, 12 for the game. Wilton Infante appeared stranded in the fourth, but reliever Chris Corrigan made a play I don’t believe I’ve ever witnessed – he fielded a soft grounder off Kvasnicka’s bat, had all the time in the world so he lobbed the ball softly to first…except the ball landed 20 feet past first base, allowing Infante to score.

Kvasnicka went 0-for-5, bringin him to 5-for-50 since his first two at-bats. But if he keeps swinging like he did last night, he’ll break out of his slump soon: he hit a hard line drive right at the center fielder in the first inning, and pulled a shot towards the hole with two out in the fifth, but Rodriguez made a terrific diving grab at first. Kvasi also made a couple nice plays at third base, picking a hot grounder to start a 5-4-3 double play in the seventh inning.

The most interesting pitcher we’ve seen here at “The Joe” is Houston Summers, who came in to pitch the sixth and seventh. Summers is a knuckleballer; it was amusing to see the radar gun read 53-58 and be accurate, while the righty lit up the gun with fastballs anywhere from 72-80 mph. But he was certainly successful – Orloff’s bunt single was the only hit the ‘Cats could manage in two innings (Infante also drew a walk). Neither of the players I talked to after the game, Orloff and Dan Adamson, had ever faced a knuckleballer before, and they were amused by the experience.

Alex Sogard wasn’t terribly sharp in his two innings, throwing only 14 strikes in 27 pitches, but the only run he gave up was Rainel Rosario’s line drive longball to left. Joan Belliard came into the eighth inning with a spotless ERA and a .103 BAA, but gave up a single to Bergman and then a moonshot homer to Rodriguez, tying the game.

The offense picked up the bullpen for once, as Adamson took a 1-1 fastball over the fence for a tie-breaking homer. The ball was gone off the bat, landing just below the Metroland sign in left-center. Three singles later, the ‘Cats had picked up an insurance run for the final margin.

Jorge De Leon came on for the save, thrilling the crowd with plenty of heat. He was 92-95 with his fastball, dialing it up to 96 to strike out star Muckdog Nick Longmire looking (to be fair, the pitch was 5-6 inches off the corner). He showed some wildness, walking Walsh and falling behind Bergman. But he got the latter to fly out to center, and then struck out Klein with a 95-mph fastball to end the game.

Given how strong Vermont has looked – the Lake Monsters are off to an unbelievable 14-3 start, with eight consecutive wins – the ValleyCats’ slim playoff hopes probably rest on the wild card. On that front, they got good news last night, as all four Stedler Division teams won on the first day of inter-divisional play.

Kevin Whitaker


Pankovits appreciates fans

Manager Jim Pankovits was thrilled with the crowd of 6,124 last night, saying that “[the fans] were a big factor in the win tonight.”

Ben Orloff agreed:

“It’s definitely cool to see the seats full – it gets the adrenaline flowing. The fans here are awesome. Especially on the Fourth of July, they always pack the house.”

Thanks to all the fans who showed up, and please continue to support the ‘Cats throughout the summer! Finish up the long weekend with another patriotically-themed 6 pm game tonight with fireworks, and the homestand concludes tomorrow with Tunes For Tuesday – Country Night.

Notebook: Carlos Quevedo is Cliff Lee

Didn’t get to finish this as quickly as I wanted, so it’s a little dated now. Tonight’s notebook should be up around the usual time tomorrow.

At the end of yesterday’s notebook, I wrote:

The ‘Cats continue to have absolutely no success at bringing runners home – they’re 4-for-25 with RISP in two games this series, stranding 11 runners each game. I remain hopeful that this is just bad luck, and the team will start to convert more hits into runs soon.

Well, that correction came, and it came quickly. The ValleyCats scored 10 runs in the first two innings, going 6-for-9 with RISP. They only left four runners on base for the game. The nine hits was actually right at where they had been all series, but with eight of them in the first two innings, they were able to convert them into many more runs than usual.

Now, just as the ‘Cats were bound to start driving in more runners after their slow start, they also won’t keep up this pace – I can guarantee they won’t go 9-for-14 with runners on base again tonight. But hopefully a few more of those baserunners will be driven in, and hopefully a few more of those close losses will become close victories.

Carlos Quevedo is Cliff Lee. Quevedo handed out a five-pitch walk to PJ Polk, which was unusual – it was his first walk of the season in 16.1 innings. But he certainly found his groove after that; he didn’t throw another ball that inning, and didn’t get to another three-ball count all night.

Quevedo now leads the New York-Penn League with 22 strikeouts, and has just the one walk on the season. That is insane. (Lee currently boasts a 15.60 K/BB ratio for the Mariners, which would be the best mark ever if he maintains it for the full season.) I love watching the way he attacks hitters, and he’s been very successful with it so far, holding a 2.01 ERA. The only disappointment is that, at this rate, Houston’s not going to keep him in the NYPL all year.

The righty struggled a bit in the first, leaving a lot of balls up in the zone. Alex Nunez and Josh Ashenbrenner each hit a fastball hard to center, but Dan Adamson tracked them both down. Julio Rodriguez got a soft line drive hit to right, but a pair of 83-mph changeups fanned James Robbins*.

*Robbins was lighting up the park in batting practice – he took three consecutive pitches over the wall, reaching the third fence in right field with the first one.

Quevedo again sat 88-90 mph* with his fastball, and settled down after the first inning. He gave up a cheap single to Matt Perry, a lazy opposite-field fly ball that just fell inside the line. He got Brett Anderson to hit a grounder to second that looked like it might erase Perry, but the ‘Cats could not complete the double play. two pitches later, Quevedo induced the same from Les Smith, getting out of the inning with a second 4-6-3.

*For those of you who are new or may have forgotten, all reported velocities are from the stadium gun. But I have seen no reason to doubt its accuracy so far – obvious misreads such as 51-mph fastballs aside, pitchers are hitting their expected ranges.

A pair of singles to lead off the fourth led to two runs, one earned, but that was all the Tigers could get off Quevedo. The Venezuelan native flew through six innings on 71 pitches – throwing single digits in three differnt frames – to notch yet another quality start.

Clemente Mendoza pitched well against the ‘Cats on Opening Day, but Tri-City sure figured him out the second time around. He allowed nine hits at The Joe two weeks ago, but limited the damage to just three runs. On Saturday, he wasn’t so lucky. The ValleyCats tagged him for nine runs on seven hits, three walks and a hit batsman. After a four-pitch walk for Orloff, Kik&eacute Hernandez drove a fly ball to the wall in left-center – his third first-inning double in as many games. With the bases loaded, Tyler Burnett followed with a double that brought home two more.

I’m not sure if it was because he was spooked by Oscar Figueroa’s game-changing out at the plate the night before or because the game was a blowout quickly, but Jim Pankovits was almost comically gun-shy with runners rounding third last night. (I’m leaning towards the latter – he did send Orloff home from first on Kik&eacute’s double.) Ben Heath could have easily scored from first on Burnett’s double in the first inning. The next inning Heath only advanced from second to third on Burnett’s second two-bagger; he got a poor read and was tagging up from second, but still would have likely made it home.

The most notable example came earlier that inning, on Heath’s cracked-bat single down the right-field line. Hernandez could have walked home from third, but Pankovits put up the stop sign; Kik&eacute didn’t see it until he was 50 feet from the plate. He dutifully stopped, but had nowhere to return, as Mike Kvasnicka was already standing on third base. Fortunately for the ‘Cats, the relay throw home bounced off the catcher’s glove 40 feet from the plate, allowing both Hernandez and Kvasnicka to score – it was that kind of night.

Mendoza’s night mercifully ended after a Dan Adamson sacrifice fly in the second inning, but Adam Bailey had one more statement to make. He took Logan Hoch’s second pitch some 400 feet to right field, landing it just in front of the OTB sign.

The ‘Cats sent all nine hitters to the plate in the first and second innings, but Hoch and Drew Gagnier shut them down after that, retiring 15 consecutive batters. It’s easy to give up on plate appearances when you have a ten-run lead, so there’s probably not a whole lot to say about that. There were a lot of strikeouts in the mix (10 for the game), which is not what one usually sees from this offense.

Chris Blazek threw a pair of scoreless innings, sitting 87-89 as usual. He went deep into counts but located well, hitting or just missing the corner with almost every pitch. He threw a dirty 80-mph changeup to the righty Anderson but ended up walking him; two batters later, he fanned righty Londell Taylor with a 78-mph one.

Michael Ness was called on for the final inning, allowing a groundball single but no other trouble. He fanned Les Smith with an 88-mph fastball to seal the 10-2 victory.

Radio broadcaster and fellow ‘Cats Corner blogger Evan Valenti may want to forego his budding career in broadcast journalism and move into something more along the lines of being a psychic. We were discussing the crowd size between innings at some point, and Evan threw out the number 4,525. Some other members of the ‘Cats staff who shall remain nameless (i.e., not me) mocked that estimate as optimistic. We got the official number an inning or so later, and it was…4,525 exactly.

Adam Bailey, on the other hand, may want to work on his counting skills. While being interviewed for the crowd on the field after the game, Bailey said, “…it’s nice to finally win two games in a row.” As nice as the win was – it marked the first time Tri-City had won a series – it did not change the fact that the ‘Cats lost their previous game 5-4. (The ValleyCats did win on Sunday to actually get that elusive back-to-back victory, so I feel a little better ragging on Bailey for it.)

Check out Astros County’s Q&A with our very own Vic Christopher.

Kevin Whitaker


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