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