Notebook: Bats bounce back

Great to see the ‘Cats snap out of their offensive funk last night. They snapped a four-game losing streak and a three-game scoreless streak, putting up four runs on nine hits and riding their pitching to a 4-2 victory over Connecticut.

Ben Heath is the face of this team’s offense right now. The catcher reached base three times in four plate appearances yesterday, most notably with a fifth-inning home run that gave Tri-City its third and ultimately decisive run. Heath has hit safely in his last six games and now leads the team in most offensive categories, at .290/.439/.613 with three homers (the rest of the ‘Cats have four combined). His 1.052 OPS ranks fourth in the NYPL right now. He’s back in the cleanup spot tonight, getting a day off from the field at DH.

That solo homer in the sixth was an absolute bomb. It landed on the Top of the Hill Bar & Grill, right next to the scoreboard in left field. I walked it out this afternoon during batting practice and estimated it at 425-430 feet, and it’s elevated a good 20 feet above field level. I’m pretty sure that’s the lfarthest homer we’ve seen at The Joe this year, although Adam Bailey’s shot last week was close.

Kiké Hernandez had a great night at the plate as well, going 3-for-5 with three clean line drive hits. He earned neither a run nor an RBI in the first inning but had the most important hit, taking a 2-2 pitch the opposite way for a stand-up double in the first inning and moving Wilton Infante over to third. He reached base with a one-out shot to left, and Mike Kvasnicka followed with another line drive base hit, snapping his 0-for-13 slump. Josue Carreno struck out the side, but not before walking Adam Bailey and throwing a wild pitch that scored Hernandez. I was surprised when Kiké tried for home and thought he was a goner, as the ball barely made it onto the grass behind home plate, but he got his hand clearly in front of Carreno’s tag.

The ‘Cats continue to have difficulty bringing runners home – they stranded 11 and only scored four last night. I believe that’s mostly due to bad luck – they don’t strike out particularly often, and I don’t think there are any other repeatable factors that could influence that – with a little blame on the bad baserunning as well (two more pickoffs last night).

Tom Shirley had another interesting outing, throwing effectively but not managing his pitches very well. Shirley threw 27 pitches in the fourth and brought his game total to 73, probably over his limit. But although he walked four and gave up three hits, he got six strikeouts to get out of quite a few jams. He did not induce a batted ball out in the first two innings; five struck out, while Heath made a nice throw to erase Alex Nunez trying to steal second. The first time Shirley got an out on a ball in play, he got two for the price of one on a 4-6-3 double play in the third; he got three ground balls and one popout last night.

All of this is nothing new for Shirley. He’s used to striking out hitters – 18 (tied for fourth in the league) in just 10 inning – and he’s used to getting ground balls (4.50 GO/AO ratio). He’s also used to short outings (the four innings today was his longest so far), because he hasn’t been efficient with his pitches. He has been getting in and out of jams all year: Shirley has allowed seven hits and seven walks in 10 innings, yet still somehow has not allowed a run. Nobody can sustain that for a full season, but if he keeps getting whiffs at this rate – if my math is correct, 43% of hitters to face him have gone down on strikes – he will be able to strand more than his share of runners.

Also, the ‘Cats are 3-0 in Shirley’s starts, and have not allowed an earned run in those three games. This is mostly due to coincidence plus Tri-City’s strong bullpen – Shirley has only been responsible for 10 of those 27 innings – but it’s a nice pattern. If he can get through innings more quickly and build up his arm strength, maybe he can actually pick up one of those wins.

Shirley also lacked a second pitch for the second consecutive start. He was pretty much just a fastball pitcher again, and it’s really amazing what he’s been able to do with that pitch – he was in the 88-90 range again yesterday, but it really gets onto hitters (especially lefties) quickly. He showed two breaking balls – looked like a slurve and a curveball to me. The slurve was in the low-70s and a little bit effective, while he threw the other breaking ball in the 60s, telegraphed it out of his hand and had very little command of it. (Note: take the pitch classifications with a huge dosage of salt. I talked to pitching coach Gary Ruby a little bit after the game but he wouldn’t really elaborate much on Shirley’s breaking stuff.) But he keeps his fastball low in the zone and commands it very well, which has been all he has needed so far.

David Martinez bounced back from a rough outing and was his usual solid self, going 1-2-3 in the fifth inning and eventually earning the win. The only hit he allowed was a ground ball single that a diving Tyler Burnett knocked down at third base, but he could not complete the play. Travis Blankenship was stuck with both runs but neither was earned; the main culprit was a two-base throwing error on Burnett. Blankenship did hit Chao-Ting Tang, who came around to score, and the second run came in on a cheap bloop to center. Blankenship, drafted out of Kansas in the 31st round this year, sure looks like he’ll be a successful LOOGY at the higher levels. He certainly fits the profile; his fastball is mid-80s, but he relies mostly on his offspeed stuff, which all has a lot of lateral movement from his 5/8ths arm slot. The results are there as well: lefties are just 1-for-9 off him this year with five strikeouts. So far, righties have also had trouble against him (1-for-9 as well), but that probably won’t remain the case throughout his career.

Joan Belliard got three strikeouts in 1.1 innings, allowing only one baserunner on an E-4. Two of his K’s came on 79-mph changeups that looked good. Belliard also gets great sink on his pitches, inducing a lot of grounders.

And Jorge De Leon notched his first save of the season, getting two ground balls and a strikeout to end the game. He wasn’t quite lighting up the radar gun like he has in the past, sitting 91-94 in his inning of work.

A couple other items…

We got our first game-time rain last night, as the skies opened briefly in the eighth inning. It never came down nearly hard enough to threaten play, but on this cold night, it sent a good portion of the 3,485 fans scurrying for cover under the concourse or out of the park altogether.

Connecticut starter Josue Carreno got the loss, but didn’t pitch that poorly and showed good stuff. He was also 88-90, with an 80-mph changeup that fooled a couple ‘Cats and a 75-mph curveball that got at least three strikeouts.

Pitchers on both sides benefitted from a very generous outside corner (to both lefties and righties). The same umpire will be behind the plate on Saturday, so look for that again.

Kvasnicka snapped his hitless streak last night, but he still does not exactly look good at the plate. In particular, he’s still very shaky from the right side – the switch-hitter is 1-for-11 on the season against southpaws. He looked absolutely lost on three offspeed pitches from Antonio Cruz in the eighth, going down on strikes.

Kvasnicka starts at catcher tonight for the first time this season. If you want to know how he plays behind the plate, you know where to look.

Kevin Whitaker


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