Notebook: Clutch hitting

Saturday night’s game has been postponed due to rain, and will be made up in a doubleheader at Vermont, as the Lake Monsters do not return to “The Joe” this year. Tickets for tonight’s game can be exchanged for any remaining regular-season home game.

All season long, the ValleyCats have struggled to get clutch hits. The ‘Cats have watched opponents execute better in the late innings, suffering an unlucky 4-10 record in close games despite playing nearly even in blowouts. On Friday night, that all changed, led by one of the newest members of the team.

Rafael Valenzuela joined the ValleyCats in Jamestown on Tuesday, the first of three position players assigned to Tri-City this week. Friday marked his first game at Joe Bruno Stadium, and it was a good day to debut – a pleasant evening in front of a sellout crowd of 5,267 fans.

After several fruitless opportunities in the earlier innings, Valenzuela strode to the plate with two on in the eighth inning to face NYPL saves leader Tanner Peters. He swing at a 3-1 fastball and flicked a high line drive the opposite way, slicing into left-center for a clean double. Justin Gominsky scored and Valenzuela replaced him on second, listening to his first ovation from the hometown crowd.

“I was nervous,” Valenzuela said of playing at Joe Bruno Stadium for the first time. “All the guys were talking about how great the atmosphere is and how great the fans are, and I was just happy I was able to give them a big hit tonight.”

Valenzuela was tentatively expected to open the season in Troy after playing at Rookie League Greeneville last season, but he broke his hamate bone in June and missed the first month. The infielder played four games in the Gulf Coast league on a rehab assignment and was happy to get the call-up to Tri-City this week.

“I spent most of my time with these guys during Spring Training, so being back with my friends here was really nice,” he said.

Drew Muren was intentionally walked to load the bases and Chris Epps struck out, preserving the tie game for Ryan McCurdy. With two outs, McCurdy took a strike and then turned on a fastball, driving a hard grounder two feet to the fair side of the third-base bag for a two-run, game-winning hit.

Manager Stubby Clapp was happy to see his team come through in the clutch. “That’s huge,” he said. “It’s good timing, if it’s going to start now.”

Don’t overlook the work of center fielder Justin Gominsky, who led off the inning with a hard single that bounced off pitcher Drew Bailey. Gominsky also singled to open the sixth inning, staying with a tough curveball on an 0-2 count and driving it up the middle, but was stranded at third.

A scout was in the press box before the game during last week’s homestand when the Michael Bourn trade went down. The scout, who covered the Midwest and saw some of Gominsky in college, said he thought Bourn could be a close comparison for Gominsky’s ceiling – great arm, good speed, little power but a good hit tool.

Also, make sure not to overlook another ValleyCat with an even stronger arm: reliever Dayan Diaz. He came on for Juri Perez with a man on and no outs in the seventh inning, and completed it with this sequence: 94 mph fastball past Jordan Tripp; 94-mph fastball up the ladder chased by Xavier Mackliln; fastball on the inside corner to freeze Jacob Tanis.

He got another strikeout to open the eighth inning, allowed a single, induced a ground ball but got the wrong end of a bang-bang call on the back end of the double play and allowed a soft roller with eyes through the 3-4 hole, giving the Lake Monsters some life. But Diaz got two strikes and reached back for a 95-mph fastball, and Chad Lewis had no chance.

Diaz, despite working out of the bullpen, has now earned five victories, tied for the NYPL lead.

The ValleyCats pulled to within five games of the division-leading Lake Monsters, exactly where they were through 47 games last season. Though they have three teams to catch, the ‘Cats can still dream of a comeback.

Adding to the excitement is the fact that all four teams have played at about the same level this season. Although five games separate the top and bottom of the division, every team has a run differential within 12 runs of the others:

*Also of note: Auburn has a winning percentage 100 points lower than Staten Island does, but the Doubledays have a notably higher run differential. The Yankees are a ludicrous 15-3 in one-run games.

Though they have struggled to win close games this season, the ‘Cats hope that last night may have been a turning point.

“It’s important to get the ball rolling at home,” McCurdy said. “We’ve got a couple games here, then we go on the road for a couple and a big homestand. It’s always fun to play at home, and over the last month or so, we really have to get going.”

Meanwhile, Valenzuela says he wouldn’t mind a playoff push – after missing the first half of the season, he wants to be a part of as many games as possible.

“I would like to play a lot of baseball still,” he said. “I really want us to get hot and keep playing a lot of games.”

Kevin Whitaker

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