June 2011

Game Story: ‘Cats Blanked in Lowell

LOWELL, Mass. — The scoreless streak is up to 16 innings. And counting. Tri-City dropped game two of the three game set at Lowell 8-0.

The game-winning run came in the second inning for the Spinners when Matty Johnson ripped an RBI single into right, but the 6-run third inning took the wind out of the ValleyCats’ sails.

Reliever Mitch Lambson entered the game facing a bases loaded, nobody out jam with the score 2-0 in the third. Designated hitter Boss Moanaroa laced Lambson’s first pitch to deep right center, driving in two more Lowell runs. The Spinners tacked on three more runs in the inning and were in cruise control from there.

Lowell starter Madison Younginer went the first four innings, allowing four hits. Reliever Luis Bastardo earned the win in a dominating performance. He pitched four shutout innings and struck out eight ValleyCats.

Tri-City starter Euris Quezada was touched up for five runs on four hits and two walks in 2+ innings. He fell to 0-2 on the year.

Catcher Miles Hamblin and first baseman Zach Johnson had the only multi-hit nights for the ‘Cats, both going 2-4.

For the first time all season, the ValleyCats did not commit an error in the field.

Tri-City will try to avoid being swept tomorrow night at LeLacheur Park before heading up to Vermont for a weekend series. First pitch is set for 7:05.

I’ll have the call on tcvalleycats.com, beginning with the pregame show at 6:50. Hope you can join me!

Erik Elken

Notebook: Cannons

At some point, teams are going to stop testing the ValleyCats’ outfield arms. Right?

Connecticut learned this lesson the hard way, watching three runners get thrown out at the plate in the final two games of this week’s series. Different outfielders were responsible for all three kills. Brandon Meredith picked one up last night – the first time he had ever thrown out a runner at the plate, he said – to erase what proved to be a critical run in the ValleyCats’ 6-5 victory. His throw wasn’t particularly strong but was right on target as Samir Rijo ran into his second out in as many nights.

Drew Muren and Justin Gominsky started the action on Monday. Muren’s throw home in the third reached home plate about 15 feet ahead of Rijo, who tried and failed to knock the ball loose from catcher Bubby Williams. Gominsky made a strong throw home after ranging to his right on a Colin Kaline single to end the seventh inning.

Kellen Kiilsgaard, the only outfielder without an assist, has also shown a strong arm in practice – as you’d expect from a former high school standout and college quarterback.

The real story of Tuesday’s game, however, came on the other side of the ball. The ‘Cats, who managed only one run on eleven hits in the first two games of the series, scored six times in the finale.

Manager Stubby Clapp shook up the lineup a little bit for the game, sliding John Hinson down a couple spots. As The Record’s Ed Weaver pointed out this morning, it seemed to work. Justin Gominsky, who said he rarely led off in his amateur career, singled twice from the top of the lineup, coming around to score both times.

“He made me look good. Thanks, Gom,” Clapp quipped after the game.

“There was no rhyme or reason except just to shake things up a bit, to get some guys different opportunities at different spots in the lineup,” Clapp said. “If I could make a lineup the first day of the year, in short-season A, and they hit there in the big leagues, I’d be a genius and I’d be rich.”

Meredith, who went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles and a stolen base, didn’t think the team’s approach changed much from the previous two games.

“I didn’t really think there was much different, I just think we were finding holes,” he said. “Luck was on our side tonight.”

Even beyond the balls that found holes, luck certainly seemed to be smiling on the ValleyCats in the final contest of a six-game homestand. Look at the box score and find a category in which the ‘Cats came out on top – it’s not easy. Connecticut outhit the hosts 14-9, had more extra-base hits, drew more walks, and even drove in more runs (two ‘Cats scored on wild pitches). But the Tigers stranded 10 runners on base while Tri-City left only four on, getting their hits at the right times.

In one particularly notable inning, Connecticut hit two clean singles, drew a walk and a hit by pitch, yet brought only five batters to the plate and did not score a run. Matt Duffy snagged a hard line drive by the third-base bag with the bases loaded, doubling off the runner from third, and Meredith’s throw from left field ended the frame. 13 Tigers reached base in the final four innings, but only three scored –seven were stranded and three were thrown out or doubled up on the bases.

Notes:

-Connecticut has a roster full of major-league blood. Colin Kaline is Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline’s grandson, catcher Patrick Leyland’s father is Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland and outfielder Bo McClendon is the son of Lloyd McClendon, an eight-year MLBer who is now Detroit’s hitting coach. More surprisingly, 66-year-old Jim Leyland has a son who is younger than I am.

-In addition to the two outfield assists, we saw some great infield defense on Monday, courtesy of Hinson. The second baseman made a diving play for a soft grounder to his left to end the first inning and went to the ground again in the third, this time to his right. He got up and fired to first, where Zach Johnson made a great stretch and pick to get the out.

-Juri Perez, this homestand: two starts, 10+ IP, 8 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 16 SO. He appears to be rather good at this sport. All 15 outs he recorded on Tuesday came on ground balls or strikeouts.

-The ValleyCats have exactly zero sacrifice bunts in 11 games this season. As a fan of not giving away outs, this pleases me greatly. (It’s probably coincidence, but the two teams with by far the most sacrifice bunts so far are Aberdeen and State College, at 8 and 9 respectively – nobody else has more than three – and those two teams are dead last in scoring.)

The ‘Cats go on the road for five games. Erik will be with the team for the entire trip, broadcasting the games live and updating you on the ValleyCats’ travels via various VCN channels.

Kevin Whitaker

Road Trippin’

I come to you for the first time on ‘Cats Corner with great news. Originally, I was going to broadcast all 38 home games, with the occasional road game sprinkled in. Now, I will be traveling with the team for 25 of the remaining 36 road games and broadcasting them. That means you’ll be able to follow the ValleyCats even more closely this season!

I know I’m excited about it. Here’s the gist of it: I’ll come on with the pregame show 15 minutes before first pitch as I have been at home, broadcast the entire game, and then have a quick postgame wrap. I’ll probably be on my own most of the time, but Kevin will be making some of the trips and joining me. I’ll also try to snag some guest interviews and/or broadcasters if there are special guests in the park that night.

What I also hope to do  is give fans a closer look at what it’s like being on the road in Minor League Baseball. There are no chartered flights and luxurious room service. It can be a grind, but that’s part of the experience. It seems like we have a fun group of guys early on here in this season, and I hope to bring some of the off-the-field antics to you. Basically, the goal is to provide you with a closer and more in-depth look at your 2011 Tri-City ValleyCats.

If you have any suggestions or ideas as to what you would like to see or hear, leave us a comment and I’ll see what I can do. Let’s have fun with this!

For those of you wishing to know a little more about me, check out my bio on our website.

Finally, I leave you with a list of the road trips I plan to attend and games that I will broadcast on tcvalleycats.com.

June 29-July 1: Lowell Spinners
July 2-3: Vermont Lake Monsters
July 6-8: Hudson Valley Renegades
July 21-22: Connecticut Tigers (Doubleheader on the 21st)
July 23-25: Staten Island Yankees
August 20-22: Brooklyn Cyclones
August 26-17: Lowell Spinners
August 30-September 1: Aberdeen IronBirds
September 2-4: Vermont Lake Monsters

Plus, all playoff games.

Erik Elken

Note: Erik left on August 15 to begin a full-time TV job in Oregon, which is a great opportunity for him but unfortunately cancels his road-tripping plans. We will still have a broadcast of every home game, and if we go on the road we’ll let you know.

Notebook: Right (field) place, right time

You know the Little League cliché: the worst player gets sent to right field. From Lucy Van Pelt to Timmy Lupus, right field has been memorialized as the least-important position, the place for the hopeless goofball.

Well, right field was pretty important at Joe Bruno Stadium on Sunday evening, as it was the site of the five biggest plays in Connecticut’s 3-1 win.

It started with a couple near-homers in the middle innings. Miles Hamblin – facing lefty Matt Crouse, his teammate at Ole Miss just one month earlier – drove a fastball well over the right-field wall, landing it near the tennis courts more than 400 feet away. But it was ruled just foul – the ball crossed the foul pole too high to get a clear look from an angle – and Hamblin eventually went down swinging.

The very next batter was Connecticut third baseman Jason King, a fourth-round draft pick this year who showed some power in batting practice. He drove a line drive hard the opposite way, sending Drew Muren back to the wall … and leaping … and making the catch above the wall, taking a home run away from King. I thought initially that it might be one of those catches where the fielder jumps and catches the ball five feet from the fence, and his momentum carries him over – which describes about half of the “home run robbing” highlights that you see on Top 10 – but I asked Drew about it after the game, and he said it would have been gone.

But in the ninth inning, the Tigers hit two blasts that Muren could do nothing about. King led off the inning with another opposite-field blast that reached the visitors’ bullpen – snapping a streak of ten consecutive outs for Connecticut, and 20 of 21 – and Zach Maggard followed with a no-doubter to right-center, also an opposite-field homer.

Zach Johnson gave the right-field corner a fitting farewell with a two-out RBI double in the bottom half of the ninth, plating the Cats’ only run.

Notebook:

-Kyle Hallock gave up four hits in six innings, two of which were infield singles that leadoff hitter Chad Wright barely beat out. He had success early pitching with his slow stuff and then got everything going by the third inning, getting four or five of his six strikeouts with offspeed pitches against his 87-89 mph fastball. John Sickels of Minor League Ball had a brief writeup of Hallock this morning, which you should check out.

-I’ve seen a startling number of good changeups this season. Hallock told me before the season that his changeup was his out pitch (though not without some thought) and Juri Perez has a very good slowball, and we’ll get our first look at Nick Tropeano tonight, who Baseball America said might have had the best changeup among draft-eligible college players in the nation. A couple opponents have shown nice changeups as well, including Crouse last night.

-The most interesting moment of last night’s game: Ebert Rosario coming in with one on and two out in the ninth, throwing his warmup pitches, only to leave the mound with a smile before throwing a pitch. The story: Rosario had been suffering from strep throat for the previous couple of days, so he didn’t suit up for the games and wasn’t on the lineup card … and last night, manager Stubby Clapp forgot to add him back in, so he was ineligible to play. The mistake became unfortunate when Garrett Bullock, pitching without the platoon advantage, allowed Maggard’s two-run homer on the second pitch.

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Silly rules

Baseball is a weird sport:

On Friday night, with runners on first and third, Miles Hamblin started running from third as Hector Rodriguez squared for a suicide squeeze. Rodriguez missed the bunt, but the ball bounced off the catcher’s glove and rolled behind the umpire and Hamblin scored standing up. Because he broke as the pitcher was throwing, according to the rules, he was credited with a steal of home, even though he would not have scored had the pitch not gotten by the catcher.

On Saturday night, with runners on first and third, Zach Johnson broke for second on the pitch. The catcher’s throw was on line but not quite in time to catch Johnson, who slid in safely just ahead of the tag. Matt Duffy attempted to score from third on the play, but the second baseman turned after trying to tag Johnson and threw home, beating Duffy to the plate by five feet. Because Duffy was caught stealing home, Johnson does not get credit for a steal of second, even though it would have been a steal if not for the event that did not affect the play at second.

Oh, Rule 10, how I missed you.

I generally agree with the cliché that says baseball is great because there is no clock, but it certainly can have its disadvantages. An 18-minute rain delay last night was followed by four innings that featured nine runs, 15 hits and eight walks; the fifth inning did not even start until about 9:00. Naturally, this happened on getaway day for Lowell and in the middle of a grueling homestand for us.

Fortunately, the second half of the game was much quicker than the first, keeping the total time (not counting the delay) under eight hours. That was due in large part to Dayan Diaz, who was electric in three innings of relief. Diaz consistently hit 94 and 95 on the radar gun and got five strikeouts against no walks, throwing 37 of 55 pitches for strikes.

A couple more scattered thoughts:

-Stats do lie, part 2: Catcher Ryan McCurdy allowed four of four runners to steal successfully last night. Bad game for him, right? Well, no. All four steal attempts came with Euris Quezada pitching. Quezada did not show a good pickoff move and was very slow to the plate, so all four runners had great jumps to beat McCurdy’s good throws. Part of that is inexperience – Quezada is a very raw 22, as he was signed at age 20 and came straight to America instead of playing in the Dominican league – and part of that is simply Quezada’s massive frame (6’6”, 240), which is not conductive to snap throws or a quick motion. McCurdy also caught Quezada’s first start and, as the ValleyCats’ best defensive catcher, may continue to play with the tall righty.

-Quezada threw only nine of 27 pitches for strikes in the first inning, which is not exactly stellar. In fairness, there were no high strikes early on last night, and no low ones either. He settled down afterward, sandwiching a spot of wildness in the third with 13/15 and 5/7 strike rates in the second and fourth innings.

-Three Johnsons were in the game last night: Neiko at short, Zach at first and Matty in left for Lowell. I was hoping for (M.) Johnson to ground out, (N.) Johnson to (Z.) Johnson, but sadly, that never happened.

-The ‘Cats aren’t taking batting practice before today’s game, and it sure doesn’t seem like they need it – Tri-City is atop the NYPL in all three triple-slash categories (.275/.380/.387) and leads the league with 52 runs scored despite playing one fewer game than many teams.

Back at it tonight for game four of six, as the Connecticut Tigers come to town with quite a few familiar faces on their roster. Listen live on your iPhone/Droid or online.

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Hit parade

Manager Stubby Clapp, on last night’s victory:

“It’d be nice to put up 14 hits every day. We’d win a lot of ballgames.”

Of course, 14 hits don’t quite guarantee a victory, as the Lowell Spinners found out last night. The visitors matched the Cats’ hit total but committed four errors, including three in a costly fifth inning, as the ValleyCats jumped above .500 for the first time with a 12-8 victory.

I thought Zach Johnson summed up the crazy game pretty well in his first response after the game, saying, “We got down early, came back, got back down, came back and then we pushed through at the end with some extra runs … it was a good win.”

Both teams hit 14-for-39, a .359 clip, despite what looked like a very wide strike zone. Between well-hit line drives, soft shots that found holes and bad plays, lots of runners reached base – neither defense converted even half of the balls in play into outs (Tri-City was 13/28, Lowell 15/32).

We’ll likely be playing in similar conditions tonight. Rain fell heavily about an hour before the game and will slightly delay the start, and there is a small front of light storms that is scheduled to pass through during the game. As a getaway day for Lowell, the visitors probably hope for more outs and a quicker game than last night’s season-long 2:59.

A few more thoughts:

-Who leads the NYPL in runs scored right now? I posed this question to Erik and Dave this morning, and even after they figured out that it was a ValleyCat, it still took six or seven guesses for them to correctly identify Brandon Meredith. I was shocked when I saw him atop the leaderboard, but his eight runs are best in the league. He’s only hitting .227 and has usually been in the lower half of the lineup, but he’s drawn seven hits in as many games and the ‘Cats have been productive behind him.

-Starter Jonas Dufek just didn’t have a good night. He wasn’t wild, not walking anyone until the final batter and going to three balls only once (in a ten-pitch at-bat), but his secondary stuff wasn’t particularly sharp and he missed a couple spots. Balls in the air will eventually kill you in this park, especially when the wind blows out – though there wasn’t much doubt about either homer – and he should be better in his next start.

-Have I mentioned yet that Drew Muren has a good arm? He chased a line drive to the right-field wall, maybe 20 feet from the line in the corner, and didn’t pick it up very cleanly, but still was able to gun down Travis Shaw at second base. The throw was right on a line, didn’t bounce and hit Hector Rodriguez perfectly to get the out by a step.

-I may have missed a pitch, but I had Travis Smink with 17 strikes and zero balls in two innings.

-One day after being pinch-hit for in the ninth inning, Joantoni Garcia pinch-hit for Roberto Ramos in the eighth. Ramos was 2-for-3 on the night, though both hits were bunt singles; I suppose Lowell didn’t think he could get away with a third. Garcia hit into an inning-ending double play – on a beautiful turn at short by Rodriguez – so the Spinners might have been better off with Ramos’s speed.

-Matt Duffy scored from first on a double in the third inning, which probably won’t happen very often. He was running on the 3-2 pitch (with two outs) and Miles Hamblin hit a perfectly-placed grounder that rolled all the way to the right-field wall.

-The ‘Cats hit three triples in the game, as Kellen Kiilsgaard, Johnson and Meredith each had three-baggers. That was the first three-triple game for Tri-City going back to 2005, the earliest year for which we have easily-accessible stats.

-Duffy, by the way, was 4-for-5 and leads the league with a .483 batting average, keeping the tradition of success for Houston’s 20th-round draft picks alive and well.

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: K-fest

The ValleyCats, as most winning teams do, got 27 outs on Thursday night. Unlike in most games, though, Tri-City’s fielders had little to do with that. The home team earned 16 strikeouts* while walking only three batters and evened their record with a 3-2 victory.

*Three more batters were put out 1-3, meaning the seven players in the field combined to make only eight plays on batted balls.

Nine of those K’s came from starter Juri Perez, who was lights-out in his five innings. Perez commanded his fastball well early on, throwing it 90-91 with good run into a righty’s hands and getting a few strikeouts with it, and often went to a high-70’s changeup as his out pitch.

Perez allowed two hits – a soft grounder through the left side and a line drive back up the box – and generated soft contact on his other balls in play, getting five of his six outs on grounders.

In his Opening Day start, Perez lost his command after four innings, eventually leading to a four-run rally that broke open the game. It looked like we might be headed for a repeat performance in the fourth inning of last night’s game, as Perez issued a one-out walk to Garin Cecchini, started the next batter with two balls and then fell behind Boss Monaroa 3-0, missing many fastballs badly. But Perez simply switched to his best pitch of the night, throwing three consecutive changeups to strike Monaroa out looking and end the inning.

But despite Perez’s performance and seven strikeouts from three other pitchers, the ValleyCats still entered the bottom of the eighth in a 2-2 tie, after the Spinners struck twice off Brad James in the top of the inning. Center fielder Justin Gominsky went the other way with the first pitch he saw, lifting a soft line drive over the first baseman’s head and a couple feet to the fair side of the chalk. Gominsky sprinted into second, beating the throw from shallow right field for a leadoff double.

“It’s always fair until it’s foul,” he said, pronouncing “foul” with a trademark Minnesotan accent (sounding more like “fall”). “I was running it out whether it was foul or not.”

Drew Muren reached on a perfectly-placed bunt single, putting runners on the corners with no outs for NYPL hits leader Matt Duffy. Duffy hit a grounder to shortstop Jose Garcia’s left; he took a look at Gominsky, who stopped, then flipped to second. Gominsky broke for home, the second baseman threw to first and completed the double play but allowed the game-winning run to score.

The perfect play would have been to get the out at second and then throw home; Gominsky is fast, but because he hesitated to watch the play unfold, a throw home from second probably would have had him out. But that’s a difficult and unnatural play to make; in hindsight, the Spinners probably wish they had played the infield all the way in, allowing Garcia to look Gominsky back and then throw out Duffy at first.

The quickest game of the year was finished in two hours, 27 minutes, but many of us were a bit surprised that it even started. Heavy rain fell overnight and in the morning, and lighter drops showered the field throughout the day, but the clouds cleared about 90 minutes before game time and held off throughout the evening.

More thoughts from the notebook:

-The Spinners started a few familiar faces, including the memorable double-play tandem of Jose Garcia and Joantoni Garcia, confusing broadcasters since 2010*. The team added a third J. Garcia over the winter, pitcher Jason. None are related to each other, however; they hail from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and the Bronx, respectively, meaning Lowell only needs one from Cuba or somewhere to hit for the J. Garcia cycle.

*Lowell also has two Monaroas – first baseman Boss and outfielder Moko – brothers from Australia who were signed as international free agents in 2008. This is definitely the league’s most interesting roster to read.

-Fun fact: if Lowell left fielder Seth Schwindenhammer ever reaches the majors, he’ll have the longest name of anyone to wear an MLB jersey, breaking Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s record by one letter. Don’t get your hopes up too high, though; ‘Hammer’ is 3-for-20 with 13 strikeouts in his second time through the NYPL.

-Last night was not exactly an offensive showcase. The two teams combined for 25 strikeouts and just 11 hits, two of which were bunt singles (Muren’s in the eighth and Gominsky’s, which stopped atop the third-base chalk, in the third).

-Officially, catcher Miles Hamblin has one professional stolen base, a successful steal of home. The full story is a lot less exciting, however – Hector Rodriguez attempted a suicide squeeze with Hamblin on third in the seventh inning and missed, but the catcher could not cleanly handle the pitch. According to the literal interpretation of the lovely Rule 10, if a runner starts towards the next base on the pitch and the play would ordinarily be ruled a wild pitch or passed ball, it goes down as a stolen base, with no exceptions for a play at the plate. It was a confusing play even in real time, as most of us thought Rodriguez had fouled the pitch back and Hamblin would be sent back.

-The Cats’ 16 strikeouts is a league-high for a nine-inning game this season. Staten Island, remarkably, has struck out 17 in each of its past two games, but both went to extras.

-Reason #136,251 why the win statistic is flawed: Brad James got the win on Thursday for being the game’s least effective pitcher, blowing a 2-0 lead in the eighth but watching his offense score in the bottom of the inning. Wins are a bad tool for evaluating starting pitchers, for reasons that have been well-discussed by now, but for relievers they are completely useless.

If you’re reading this while locked inside a windowless room with no means of escape, then I suppose you have an excuse for not being at the ballpark for tonight’s game, but you can still listen live online. Jonas Dufek vs. Raynel Velette, first pitch at 7:00.

Notebook: Late-game drama

With 9-3 and 10-0 decisions in the first two games of the season, the one thing lacking was late-game drama, and it appeared the trend would continue when Vermont took a four-run lead into the eighth inning on Sunday. But the the ValleyCats rallied for three runs on three hits, bringing up John Hinson in the highest-leverage situation of the short season: down one, first and third, two outs.

Hinson drove the ball hard to the opposite field – just as he had done in the previous two at-bats, for a double and a single – and Ryan McCurdy, leading off first, said that he thought it would be a game-tying hit. But shortstop Sam Roberts stepped to his backhand, jumped softly and snared the line drive to end the inning.

Matt Duffy singled with two outs in the ninth but advanced no further, and Vermont took the game and the series, 6-5.

Now, the ‘Cats go away from home for the first time this season. The rookies have taken road trips before in college, but manager Stubby Clapp commented on some differences that they will have to adjust to.

“They’ve been on the bus rides, but they’ll need to get used to the system, the organization we use on the road,” he said. “We don’t have our own facilities, we have to deal with the opposing team’s schedule and go from there.”

As I write this, the ‘Cats seem to be handling the change of scenery just fine, taking a large lead at Connecticut in the opener of the three-game series.

Abbreviated notebook:

-Drew Muren and Duffy have been in the 3-4 slots all three games so far, and if they keep playing like this, they’ll hold that position all year. Muren drew three walks last night while Duffy had three hits. Muren was caught stealing for the first time in three attempts when Vermont guessed right and pitched out on 0-2; it worked out okay for the ‘Cats, as with a new count in the second  inning, Duffy smacked a first-pitch double and eventually scored.

-Muren had the defensive play of the night in the ninth inning, preventing a potentially key insurance run by gunning out Xavier Macklin at the plate on a single. Muren had to range to his right and was not able to come in very far to field it, but he threw a dart to home plate, beating a surprised Macklin by 10 feet.

-The first eight balls in play off Euris Quezada were all on the ground, none hit all that hard; two went for hits, but both were slow rollers back through the box and over second base for singles. The Lake Monsters finally elevated a couple balls the second time through, though only two of the five fourth-inning hits were struck very hard. After three runs scored, he bounced back nicely, striking out Michael Fabiaschi with the bases loaded and inducing a soft grounder from Chad Oberacker to end the inning.

Quezada didn’t throw all that hard, topping out around 88, but had a strange release point and hitters seemed to have trouble picking up his breaking stuff in particular. He certainly seems to have potential to pick up more velocity – he got a late start to his pro career (signed out of the Dominican Republic and debuted at 20, two years ago) so his mechanics are probably not a finished product, and at 6’6”, 240 lbs., he seems to have more strength to tap.

-Travis Blankenship last night: 23 pitches, 12 strikes, no runs. Having seen a lot of the lefty last year, I can tell you that was a very Blankenship-like outing. He fell behind the first four hitters but got two out, then retired Jordan Tripp on a harmless fly ball to right.

-You don’t see this often: catcher Beau Taylor assisted three of Vermont’s first five outs – two whiffs were put out 2-3 and Muren’s CS.

-For the third straight game, Vermont’s starter went up there in pitches – J.C. Menna threw 87, which would be on the high side for an August game and is certainly a lot for an Opening Weekend contest at this level.

-If the people I met and worked with this weekend are any indication, the Oakland A’s are a classy organization, and the NY-Penn League is lucky to have them.

-13,965 fans turned out to “The Joe” this weekend, putting us ahead of last year’s record-setting pace despite some bad weather on Friday. Thanks to everybody who came to the ballpark, and we’ll see you later this week!

Stubby on his first weekend at Joe Bruno Stadium: “It was fun. I love being here, and I know the guys love being here.”

Kevin Whitaker

Sellout Sunday!

The second annual Father’s Day Brunch at “The Joe” was a great start to a festive Sunday. Over 170 people joined SouthPaw and Pappy for this afternoon event at the ballpark which featured an on-field catch and the brand new customizable Baseball Card Kiosk presented by Cap Com FCU. Fathers posed with their children for their own special card throughout the day.

Today also marked the first Sunday Funday of the 2011 season. Fans were invited onto the field at 4:00 PM for some pre-game fun as fathers played catch with their sons and daughters. Following the game, kids made their way to the left field gate for an opportunity to run the bases . . . a few fathers snuck by the age limit as well.

4,518 fans witnessed a ‘Cats comeback fall just short. The sellout crowd was ready to erupt as Matt Duffy and Ryan McCurdy led an 8th inning comeback. Unfortunately Vermont shortstop, Sam Roberts, snared a scorching John Hinson liner to end the rally.

All-in-all it was a solid open to the 2011 season, with a great atmosphere at the ballpark and the team showing a lot of promise on the field. The ‘Cats head to Connecticut for their first road trip of the year. The Tiger should be ready as Monday mark’s their home opener. The team returns to “The Joe” on Thursday to begin a six game homestand. They will take on Red Sox affiliate, Lowell, with postgame fireworks. The theme will be the NBA Draft Party and the ‘Cats plan to follow the progress of local star, Jimmer Fredette. This game is presented by TD Bank and will feature a TD drawstring bag giveaway for the first 2,500 fans through the gate.

Click here for full promotional schedule and to purchase tickets>>

Here is a slideshow of pictures from Father’s Day Sunday at “The Joe!”

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Notebook: First W

Next time Stubby Clapp plays the lottery, he might want to consider choosing the numbers 6 and 18.

On June 18, 2011, Clapp earned his first win as a manager as the ValleyCats downed Vermont, 10-0. The victory came ten years to the day after another, even more memorable milestone: his MLB debut.

Clapp pinch-hit in the bottom of the eighth inning for the Cardinals against the Cubs, a game the Redbirds won 6-2.

“I struck out, and I remember walking back to the bench and not even touching the ground,” he said. “I was so excited to be there, it didn’t even matter what happened.”

(AUDIO: Clapp remembers major league debut)

Clapp also recalled that it was Father’s Day, and that he couldn’t find his dad (Stubby II) because, “he was putting a tile floor in my sister’s house and had the radio playing while they were working.”

Today, of course, is Father’s Day, and we appreciate all of our fathers and everyone else who has helped make their children’s lives better.

Saturday night’s lineup, surprisingly, featured only one change from the first game – on Opening Day weekend, teams usually shuffle their players so team scouts can get a look at everybody; across the field, Vermont’s lineup featured five new faces. Tri-City has a thin bench for this level – just four position players (and now three for tonight’s game*) – but I still expected some more turnover.

*Jacke Healey sprained his ankle while running out a close play at first in the third inning and collapsed on the grass behind first base for a few minutes. He walked off on his own and is said to be day-to-day, but is not on the active roster for tonight’s game.

That one change, of course, was a big one – Kellen Kiilsgaard was the designated hitter, playing his first professional game. Kiilsgaard struck out swinging in his first at-bat, but made up for it in his final three appearances, hitting a home run, a deep sacrifice fly and a double.

The home run – the first of what will likely be many this year at Joe Bruno Stadium, the best park for homers in the NY-Penn League – was a low line drive that got out of the park quickly, clearing the roughly 370-foot fence in right-center. His double was also well-hit, a hard liner into the right-field corner off a left-handed reliever.

Kiilsgaard was drafted in the 30th round of last year’s draft and did not play last summer while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He was asked about that after the game.

“I always looked at that and thought, ‘If I was healthy, I would have been drafted higher,’ so I just go out and try to prove that every day when I’m on the field,” he said.

The game really dragged through the early and middle innings; 2:55 for a 10-0 game is not unusual, but we were at about two hours and seven minutes through six full innings when the score was just 4-0. Vermont’s catchers come out to the mound frequently, and the first two pitchers for both teams worked somewhat slowly, giving plenty of looks and throws to runners on first base.

The hosts broke the game open in the seventh inning – thanks in no small part to former ValleyCat Jeiler Castillo, who did his best Randy Consuegra impression, walking three batters on 13 pitches, most of which were nowhere near the plate – on Matt Duffy’s three-run double, which was smoked to center field and two-hopped the wall. Hector Rodriguez, who entered the game for Healey, joined the fun with a stand-up triple that took two bounces to the wall in right-center an inning later.

The ‘Cats will run mostly the same team out there again tonight, making only one change from last night’s closing lineup: Ryan McCurdy will catch, with Miles Hamblin DH’ing and Justin Gominsky the odd man out. 5 p.m. start, listen live on tcvalleycats.com.

To the notebook:

-Jonas Dufek, on the early-season-college-rookie pitch count (he threw 51), looked solid in his first professional outing. The radar gun was back last night, and while I don’t know that it’s accurate, it generally aligned with scouting reports last season and did so again last night for Dufek, who sat 88-91. He showed a tight slider but went more frequently to his curve, fanning a left-handed hitter with one off the outside corner. Dufek only retired four batters on his own in the first while allowing two hits and two walks, benefitting from two baserunner kills (though he would have been out of the first earlier if not for an error), but he settled down after hitting a batter in the third to get a strong 1-2-3.

-The hardest thrower of the night was righty Dayan Diaz, who allowed just one hit in his three innings of work. Diaz sat 92-94, hit 95 on the stadium gun a couple times (including one on the outside corner to freeze Jacob Tanis in the fourth) and touched 96 once. He went to a slider for his secondary pitch, sending lefty Jeff Bercume down looking with a backdoor slider to end the fifth.

-Travis Smink walked none in three innings, throwing 22 strikes against just nine balls and facing the minimum, thanks to two double plays. But aside from Smink, the ‘Cats again struggled to find the zone at times – though they threw a shutout, the hosts actually walked more batters (five) than they struck out (four), hitting another. That makes 11 walks and four hit batsmen in two games, a long way from the control-freak 1-2 of Carlos Quevedo and Bobby Doran last year.

-Vermont starter Argenis Paez took the loss, but he did a great job of keeping the ball on the ground – he induced nine groundouts in 4.2 innings, all to the left side, and did not give up a single fly ball to the outfield. There were a few line drives, however, leading to five hits, and he only notched one strikeout.

-The Lake Monsters have been letting their starters go further than most NYPL teams do for their first appearance, at least that I’ve seen. Seth Frankoff threw 81 pitches on Friday and Paez reached 77 last night.

-For the second consecutive night, both teams were aggressive on the basepaths. The ‘Cats helped out Paez in the fourth and fifth, as Johnson and Rodriguez were caught stealing in a three-batter span, but Hinson, Muren and Gominsky were all successful on attempts. On the other side, Vermont again had success testing Miles Hamblin, swiping second twice (once on a delayed steal, the first time I’ve seen that play) and being caught only when a runner left early on a first-and-third pickoff play.

-Outfield defense: again solid. Gominsky ran down a couple balls in the gaps and Kiilsgaard moved well to cut off a line drive to his left. Gominsky threw out Bercume at the plate on a two-out single to end the second inning; the ball was in short center field and Gominsky didn’t release it fast, but the throw was on a line and perfectly on target to get the runner by a step.

-The infield defense was much-improved, as well; the ‘Cats committed two errors, but one was a pickoff throw that went straight through the webbing of Zach Johnson’s glove. Rodriguez looked very smooth at shortstop, showing nice footwork on a couple double-play turns.

-The ‘Cats executed a perfect hit-and-run in the sixth, when Johnson singled behind a running Hamblin.

-Vermont catcher Dan Pettiti did great work behind the plate, blocking numerous wild offerings from Castillo and others.

-Drew Muren had another terrific game, going 2-for-3 with two walks, two runs and another stolen base. Through two games, he has looked like the best baseball player on this team.

Here’s Travis Blankenship and Adam Champion signing autographs for young fans before the game. Check out last night’s post for more pictures.

Adam Champion and Travis Blankenship sign autographs

Kevin Whitaker

A tip of the cap…to Stubby Clapp!

On a beautiful night at “The Joe”, the ValleyCats rebounded with a 10-0 victory over the Vermont Lake Monsters. The Championship Celebration continued as fans received posters at the gate commemorating the ‘Cats historic 2010 season.
The on-field fireworks were provided by Kellen Kiilsgaard, who’s first professional hit was a home run. Special thanks to a young fan named Paul for returning the home run ball as a momento for Kellen.
Matt Duffy added three R.B.I. and Drew Muren continued his hot start with two hits. Not to be outdone, starting pitcher Jonas Dufek combined with Dayan Diaz and Travis Smink to blank the boys from Vermont.
A tip of the cap to Stubby Clapp on his first win as professional manager, 10 years to the day that he had his first MLB at-bat.  Best wishes for many more!
Thanks to the ‘Cats victory, all kids will be able to eat FREE at the Ninety Nine Restaurant on Sunday. The promotion is available at all six Capital Region locations – Clifton Park, Colonie, Guilderland, Queensbury, Rotterdam and Saratoga Springs – with the purchase of an adult entree.
The Ball Launch debuted on Opening Night and seems destined to become a fan favorite. ‘Cats intern, Steve Agars, has taken the lead on this promotion and seems to revel in providing fans with the opportunity to win prizes by landing their tennis balls on selected targets.
This promotion will be run on all thirteen of our remaining fireworks nights with the launch taking place after the game as an appetizer for the Price Chopper fireworks. Which were amazing as always!
Mayor Jennings was victorious in The Old Brick Mayors Race again but the post competition dancing was the real highlight. Here is Mayor Jennings and Tutunjian visiting with one of our fans up in the suites.
The ‘Cats are home again on Sunday as they invite fans to join SouthPaw and his grandfather, Pappy, to celebrate Father’s Day. For the second year in a row, the ValleyCats will host a brunch from 11:30 AM – 1:30 PM. Limited tickets will be available at the box office.
The final game of Opening Weekend is our first Sunday Funday, presented by MVP Health Care, with kids invited out early for a pre-game catch at 4:00 PM and then back onto the field to run the bases following the final out. The team will look to win the first series of the year as they finish the set with Vermont.
Here are more photos from Saturday night:

Notebook: Opening Day

Last year, the ValleyCats opened their season in highlight-reel fashion: with a walk-off hit in the ninth capping a well-played victory on a perfect summer evening.

Suffice to say, tonight’s game isn’t likely to appear on any highlight reels.

Vermont beat the ‘Cats, 9-3, despite racking up the same number of hits (seven) and fewer for extra bases. The ugly numbers, in ascending order: three hit batters, four wild pitches, five errors and six walks issued by Tri-City pitchers.

“That was the story of the game,” manager Stubby Clapp said after the game. “First-game jitters, whatever it may be for the guys. It’s done, it’s over with, we’ll come back tomorrow.”

The plays didn’t seem indicative of a bad defensive team, necessarily – three of the errors were committed by pitchers, while another was Miles Hamblin’s error trying to throw behind a double steal – it was just a rough night. Things weren’t much prettier at the plate, for either side – the Lake Monsters drove in just four of their nine runs, only one on a well-struck ball, while the ‘Cats drove in just one of three (the others scored on a wild pitch and a GIDP).

Afterwards, Clapp talked about the different “speed of the game,” compared to college ball – something that players have told me about often as the biggest difference. He pointed to one play in particular – in the eighth inning, second baseman John Hinson sat back on a two-hop chopper as the runner came in front of him to second, and leadoff hitter Chad Oberacker beat Hinson’s throw to first for an infield single. Clapp said Hinson had to adjust not only to quicker batters and baserunners, but also to the different speed of the ball off the wood bat – the two-hopper doesn’t get to you as quickly as it does from aluminum.

Keeping in mind that we’re only 1.28% of the way through the season – Clapp even said after the game, “It’s way too early right now to see anything” – a couple notes from the night:

-There were a couple highlight-reel-worthy plays in the game. In the second inning, right fielder Drew Muren went back over the wrong shoulder, turned at the warning track and leaped to catch a deep line drive, crashing into the wall one step after making the grab. It was especially nice for Muren, who played mostly center in college and isn’t as used to the tricky angles and spins that right field provides. Justin Gominsky made a great play in the seventh inning, racing in to snare a sinking liner in shallow center field. (Lake Monsters third baseman Chad Lewis may have topped them both in the fifth, diving to his left to rob Matt Duffy of a single in the hole and completing the throw.)

One game is certainly not indicative of anything, but I do think the outfield defense has a chance to be very good this year. Meredith is not the fleetest of foot in left, though he wasn’t tested today, but Muren and Gominsky looked like good defenders, and Kellen Kiilsgaard and Muren both have great arms.

Starting pitcher Juri Perez looked great at times – such as the first inning, when he fanned the first two batters with a great changeup and a fastball at the knees. But, while the word “inconsistent” is overused in sports analysis, it applies to his outing tonight. He just lost his command at a few points – including both times he reached the bottom of the lineup – walking four batters in four-plus innings and hitting another.

“I was really happy with the way he came out,” Clapp said of his starter. “He’s really aggressive to the zone, aggressive to the hitters, and it looked like he just sort of ran out of gas.”

-Nobody went deep on Friday, or even really hit any flyballs to the warning track – a rarity at homer-friendly Joe Bruno=- Stadium. First baseman Zach Johnson, however, did pull a no-doubter over the left-field wall in the fifth inning; the umpire ruled it foul, but it couldn’t have missed by more than a foot, based on where it landed.

-Vermont shortstop Chih Fang Pan had one of the weaker three-RBI, two-run games you’ll see…he drove in two when he fisted a ball over first base for a single, plated another with a broken-bat grounder that was too slow to turn two on and reached and eventually scored when Joan Belliard threw away a potential double-play grounder. Second baseman Michael Fabiaschi had a line you don’t usually see from a ninth hitter, reaching base on two walks, a hit by pitch and a single.

I have some other notes written down, but it’s really late and we have 77 more of these to learn from.

Kevin Whitaker

ValleyCats baseball is back!

Despite a rainy start, the ValleyCats celebrated the first championship in their New York-Penn League Championship in front of 5,081 fans.

The festivities kicked off with a trophy presentation by N.Y.P.L. President, Ben Hayes, to ValleyCats President, Bill Gladstone.

The Trophy was the centerpiece on the field while the ‘Cats also unveiled their 2010 championship banner for the first time.

As always, SouthPaw stole the show hitching a limo ride onto the field to deliver the trophy and as has become the Opening Day custom at “The Joe”, the ValleyCats managers/players introduced themselves to the crowd.

The ‘Cats had some chances on offense but were undone by 5 errors as they dropped a 9-3 decision in the Opener.

They look to even the score tomorrow as Championship weekend continues. With a much improved forecast and postgame fireworks, Saturday night should be another big night at “The Joe.”

Click here for a full game recap>>

Box Score>>

Below are some more photos from the night: (click the thumbnail for a bigger image).

Photos are courtesy of Mark Morand of Mainframe Photography. He specializes in weddings, sports, portrait, and events.  If you would like to find out more info, visit his main site at www.mpiphoto.com and click on the Contact Us link or email him directly at mark@mpiphoto.com.

Opening Day

We are four hours from the first pitch of the 2011 season. Mother Nature scared us with some rain earlier today, but the sun is out now and the game should start as planned.

Here’s tonight’s Opening Day lineup:

Some links from yesterday’s Media Day: The Times Union talks to the undrafted players, including infielder Neiko Johnson … Ed Weaver previews tonight’s game and writes about the Cats’ crowded catching situation …  superfan Jim Davey has some pictures from the day and from the season ticketholders’ picnic … YNN takes a look at the new faces.

Here’s how to follow the ValleyCats tonight and throughout the season:

Before the game: Read our preview and brush up on the 2011 roster, and get to know some of the players better from our Media Day quotes. And read this post, but it looks like you’ve already got that one covered.

During the game: If you can’t make it to “The Joe,” listen live to Erik Elken’s broadcast on tcvalleycats.com, starting around 6:50. New this year, you can listen to the live radio stream – and get all the other information on the ValleyCats – from your iPhone or Droid with the free ValleyCats Mobile App! Outfielder Kellen Kiilsgaard thinks you should download it, and so do we. And follow @ValleyCats on Twitter for pictures and updates throughout the evening.

After the game: Check tcvalleycats.com for a full recap moments after the game, and look for an Opening Day notebook on ‘Cats Corner, which will hopefully be published after the game tonight but might not be up until tomorrow afternoon.

Media Day

Before practice this afternoon, the players split up into the Luxury Suites and answered questions from members of the local media. Here are some highlights:

Second-year catcher Ryan McCurdy, on last year’s NY-Penn League championship and the thought of repeating:

We had a lot of fun doing it. It’s a long summer, and you really work through the entire summer, but once we were [in the playoffs] we had a lot of fun. The new guys see clips on the times we’ve had, they’ve been posted around the stadium, and flashing our rings has inspired the guys too. It would be really fun for the fans and the community, but also for us, it’s definitely something we expect to do. Once you’ve done it once, you want to do it again.

Veteran relievers Travis Blankenship and Adam Champion, on what they can teach the rookies:

Champion: A lot of it is what to expect. It’s a whole new dynamic in pro ball, you hear stories but you just don’t know what it’s like, so they ask all sorts of questions about fans, what’s it like, what do you do every night. We kinda help them ease through the initial shock of being here.

Blankenship: We say, you got drafted for a reason, so go out and use your talents and let the game come to you and relax, and everything will work out.

Outfielder Kellen Kiilsgaard, who was drafted in 2010 but spent the entire year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, on the differences between pro and college baseball:

You have a lot more time to focus on baseball. When I was at Stanford, I had a lot of schoolwork going on … the last couple months down in Florida, I learned that baseball takes up a lot of your day.

Pitcher Nick Tropeano, on what he’s noticed so far:

I would have to say that everyone has the same common goal, and that’s that we all love baseball, and everyone’s trying to advance. In college, there’s certain guys that, they’re part of the team but, you know, they’re not really into it. Here, everyone’s into it and trying to win that championship.

Surprisingly, manager Stubby Clapp said that nobody asked him about his name during Media Day. I expected that everybody would want to hear about it, though I guess that story’s been told a few times already.

Tomorrow, all the preparation finally leads to the reward. ValleyCats vs. Vermont Lake Monsters, 7:00 at Joe Bruno Stadium.

Kevin Whitaker

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