Notebook: Kvasnicka catches
The ValleyCats went with a different defensive alignment than usual yesterday. Ben Orloff played his first game at shortstop since July 8, 2009, and handled the position very well. Orloff had only two chances yesterday but made the most of them. He handled a soft grounder in the first inning, but the highlight-reel play came in the fourth, when he reached a grounder up the middle and flipped it to Kiké Hernandez, who barehanded it and relayed to first while falling backwards, getting Brett Anderson by a step for a double play*.
Evan also nominated that as the best play at The Joe this season. I’m sorry, but that honor still belongs to Chad Mozingo, for his catch diving backwards on the warning track that turned into a double play. We’ll all be extremely lucky if that one gets topped this year.
As a senior at UC-Irvine in 2009, Orloff won the Brooks Wallace Award, given to the nation’s best collegiate shortstop, so it was nice to see him play well back at his old position. If you’re looking for some man-love for Orloff, Evan gave you plenty of it this afternoon. Orloff is a very good defender and one of the nicest people on the team. Let’s just say I don’t think he’ll still be leading the team in batting average at the end of the season.
But the defensive assignment that will get more notoriety is the fact that Mike Kvasnicka started at catcher for the first time as a professional. Kvasnicka was seen by many teams as a catcher entering the draft and he played there at times in college, but the Astros announced him as a third baseman, and he’s spent his time at third and in right this year. They still want to have him catch once in a while to stay fresh; he’s been catching bullpen sessions and he was behind the plate in a game situation for the first time last night.
It was only one game, but Kvasnicka looked more comfortable behind the plate than he has anywhere else this year. Connecticut didn’t test him much early on – they put Anderson in motion in the second, but PJ Polk put the ball in play – and the pitchers also made it easy on him, for the most part.
Things finally got interesting for Kvasnicka in the seventh, when the speedy Polk stole second and third. Both bags were stolen more off pitcher Brandt Walker than off Kvasnicka, though. In particular, his release and throw to second base was terrific; Polk had a great jump and I was expecting him to have the base easy, but Kvasnicka made it a close play. He was more to blame for the steal of third, as he had trouble transferring a pitch low and away (to a RHB) into his hand and didn’t make a throw, but given Polk’s jump and the pitch location I’m not sure he had a play anyways.
I can only remember one ball in the dirt from the first seven innings, a relatively harmless one right into Kvasnicka’s glove. However, the rookie did make a really nice play to block an 0-0 pitch from Andrew Robinson with a man on in the eighth; the ball bounced in the left-handed batter’s box and kicked up high, but Kvasnicka moved well to get his body in front of it. (He then got crossed up on the next pitch, expecting fastball and getting curve, but the pitch was down the middle and he was able to catch it before talking to Robinson.)
Overall, a very strong first outing behind the plate. If the Astros decide they want him behind the plate – or if, a year down the road, another team wants him there badly enough to trade for him – I saw nothing yesterday that would dissuade them.
Buchanan didn’t have a bad outing last night, allowing three runs in 4.2 innings. He was sitting 88-91 mph with his fastball all night, although the Tigers tagged it for a few hits. He hit Josh Ashenbrenner with a 1-2 pitch and it came back to hurt him, as James Robbins hit a ground-ball single off the glove of a diving Hernandez. His curve was very sharp, as he racked up three strikeouts in the first three innings on 76-77 mph curveballs.
The second-inning run came on a bit of a fluke, as Les Smith hit a grounder that took a bad hop and jumped over Tyler Burnett’s head at first, going for a double. Anderson immediately jumped on a first-pitch fastball for a single to bring home the run, but Buchanan settled down after that. He finished with six strikeouts on the night, getting two more later in the start by climbing the ladder with fastballs.
Buchanan also displayed Houston’s “organizational philosophy”, throwing first-pitch strikes to the first 11 batters he faced (17/20 overall).
The fifth-inning run was anything but lucky, as Londell Taylor took a 3-2 pitch well over the fence in left field. The Tri-City pitchers have generally been excellent this season, but they have been susceptible to the long ball, allowing 11 homers (tied with Hudson Valley for most in they NYPL). Murillo Gouvea has been the worst offender, allowing a league-high four homers.
On the other side, Brennan Smith was starting for the first time after opening the season in the bullpen, but you wouldn’t have known it from watching him. The righty made a seamless transition to the rotation, throwing four scoreless innings.
The ValleyCats had more success against the Tiger bullpen. Tyler Clark, with a herky-jerky delivery and a 69-71 mph curveball, allowed three hits and three walks in two innings, but escaped with only two runs. He could have gotten out of the fifth unscathed when Hernandez hit a possible double-play grounder with the bases loaded, but the relay throw pulled the first baseman off the bag.
Adam Champion didn’t have his best outing. The southpaw entered with two out in the fifth and gave up a bases-empty double to lefty Josh Ashenbrenner, but got out of that inning without further trouble. He fell behind the first four batters he faced in the sixth, however, and it cost him; he pegged James Robbins with his first pitch, and Robbins came around to score on Anderson’s two-out single.
Oscar Figueroa went 2-for-4 with a pair of RBIs, including the big hit in the sixth inning: a ground-ball single up the middle that may have went off Clark’s bare hand, scoring Bailey.
Patience fueled the ‘Cats’ late inning rallies. Ben Orloff led off the seventh with a 10-pitch walk (though he admitted afterwards that he fouled off a couple pitches he should have hit), Heath’s critical grounder that Anderson booted came after seven pitches, and Burnett drew a seven-pitch, bases-loaded walk (technically, Tyler White only threw six pitches, as the second ball was called because he went to his mouth on the pitching mound).
Dan Adamson led off the eighth with a triple to center, also on a full count. Adamson’s blast short-hopped the wall in the deepest part of the ballpark, and would have been gone most anywhere else on the field. Oscar Figueroa brought him home with a double, but stayed at second when Wilton Infante popped up a bunt.
Then came the game’s deciding play – Ben Orloff grounded through the right side, Taylor picked up the ball in shallow right field as Figueroa was rounding third, and manager Jim Pankovits waived him home. The throw was good enough to beat Figueroa, who slid past the tag and base, and was finally tagged out in a cat-and-mouse game behind home plate.
The ball, as mentioned, was picked up in shallow right field, and Taylor had plenty of time to throw Figueroa out. But I have no problem with Pankovits’ decision. First off, as he mentioned after the game, it’s not exactly like the ‘Cats have been good recently at bringing runners home – this was probably their best shot. And although outfielders should probably make that play on a shallow ground ball, they don’t always succeed – I’ve seen basically that same play at the plate four times this season, and Figueroa was only the second runner to be thrown out (Kvasnicka gunned down the other in last week’s 11-inning contest).
Walker had a long inning, even though he faced only five hitters and didn’t allow a hit. He walked Polk, who stole two bases and scored, and then walked Julio Rodriguez. But his stuff is clearly there, starting with a 94-95 fastball with good sink. He threw a 77-mph curve to freeze Ashenbrenner for his first strikeout, then threw an 83 changeup to set up a fastball that he blew by Robbins to end the inning. Walker needed 26 pitches to get through the five batters.
Nine runners scored last night. Six of them reached base on either a walk or hit by pitch.
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 mystified by their inability to drive in runs. It would make sense that they would struggle to move guys along if they struck out a lot…but they don’t (only 3 K’s last night). I guess it could be partly due to lineup construction – this early in the season, it’s hard to know who your best hitters are, so it’s more difficult to cluster them together, making it more likely that guys who get on base will be left there…but I don’t really think that can explain more than a small part of it. I remain hopeful that this is just bad luck, and the team will start to convert more hits into runs soon.