Notebook: Little expectations, big numbers

According to simple math, an average team should sweep about one of every four doubleheaders. Entering last night, the ValleyCats – admittedly not quite an average team for most of their history – had played 19 doubleheaders in the last six years and swept exactly none of them. But that all changed on Friday, as the ‘Cats dominated Hudson Valley in the opener and eked out a 2-1 win in game two for their first sweep of a doubleheader since the Pence/Zobrist days of 2004.

At the center of it, of course, was Rafael Valenzuela. The infielder singled in the first inning of game one and added three more hits – all doubles – throughout the night. Valenzuela – who will start in right field tonight, his first professional appearance in the outfield – drove two balls to the center-field wall and took an 0-1 pitch the opposite way into the left-field corner, scoring three runs and breaking open the first game, which the ‘Cats ultimately won 9-2.

Since August 2, when he joined the team after making a short rehab appearance in the GCL, Valenzuela leads the NY-Penn League with ten extra-base hits. He ranks second in slugging (.762), tied for second in RBIs (10) and tied for third in batting average (.429).

“Having someone like him in the lineup not only makes everybody else better, but it makes the clubhouse better,” manager Stubby Clapp said. “When he got hurt in extended [spring training], we knew it was going to be a bit of a blow to us, and having him back has been important.”

Valenzuela, who said he has no idea what his numbers are (do they ever say they keep track of that?), does not have the pedigree of a player expected to have such success – he was signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Arizona last summer. In a way, that makes him right at home on this team.

The ‘Cats had three undrafted free agents in the lineup in the first game (and will do so again tonight), and all three made a rather large impact. Four innings before Valenzuela’s bases-clearing double, catcher Ryan McCurdy pulled a low grounder to the same spot for a three-RBI hit of his own, capping a five-run first inning that gave the ‘Cats the lead for good.

Valenzuela and McCurdy are joined by Neiko Johnson, who has cemented a spot in the everyday lineup with a .424 on-base percentage, fourth-best among NYPL qualifiers. Listed at a generous 5’9”, Johnson has a small strike zone, and he knows how to use it. Despite seeing limited playing time in the first third of the season, the utility player has drawn 33 walks, third-best in the league. And this is no fluke – going back to his college days, Johnson routinely walked in 20 percent or more of his plate appearances.

Add in Johnson’s versatility – he has started games at five different positions this year – and the fact that he has been one of the only ValleyCats to add real value with his basestealing ability (16 of 19 on steal attempts for a team that has been caught more often than any other), and he’s clearly been one of the key parts of the Cats’ late-season charge.

In fact, this marks one of the biggest distinctions between the 2011 ValleyCats and last year’s NYPL champions: the 2010 team’s everyday lineup was comprised almost entirely of first- and second-day draft selections. In addition to Johnson, Valenzuela and McCurdy, Chris Epps – a recently-promoted outfielder and the walk-off hero from earlier this week – was a 45th-round selection, while Chase Davidson (who tore up Greeneville and was just added to the roster) was also taken late on day three.

A fourth undrafted free agent, Andrew Walter, made his second start with the ValleyCats and had an interesting evening. The righty pegged three batters, walked two others and threw a few pitches to the backstop, but he allowed only one hit and would have held the Renegades scoreless if not for a two-out passed ball in the second.

Walter struck out five batters, all swinging, going up the ladder with fastballs to get the first three and then fanning lefties Juniel Querecuto and Jeff Malm in order with inside curveballs.

“Walter was a little bit shaky, but he was good enough to keep us close and keep them off-balance,” Clapp said. The ‘Cats have won both games started by the young righty.

Travis Blankenship – a former third-day draft pick himself – replaced Walter after the righty hit Kyle Holloway for the second time and pitched much more conventionally. Blankenship needed only 33 pitches, 25 of them strikes, to record nine outs and preserve a one-run lead. Ryan Cole – dubbed “Cardiac Cole” after the game by Clapp – allowed two hits in the ninth but held on for his eighth save of the season.

Lost in the offensive outburst of the first game was a terrific pitching performance from Adam Champion. The southpaw, making just his third pro start, threw 80 pitches over six innings, striking out five and allowing only one hit over his final five frames.

“It was an easy game for McCurdy to call,” he said. “It was basically, sinker away and let them hit it, and they just kept beating it into the ground. It’s easy baseball when you just throw to a spot and keep pitching.”

Champion worked as a reliever for last year’s championship team and started 2011 in the ‘pen, even returning there after making a spot start against Staten Island. But with two great outings in August, he may force his way into a suddenly crowded rotation even as the hectic schedule settles down after the All-Star break.

“I’ve been a starter my whole life,” Champion said. “It’s pretty easy to go from relief to starter. I just go back to my roots, and basically do what I have done in the past, and keep the routine.”

The ‘Cats, winners of seven of their last ten games, look to keep it rolling against the Renegades tonight. The broadcast will probably have started by the time you read this; as always, if you can’t make the game, listen live online.

Kevin Whitaker

1 Comment

neiko, we are sooooo proud of you!! all the love from your family in

ROME, GEORGIA!!

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