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

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