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


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