by Evan Valenti (@EvanValenti)
I wrote about a month ago how this year’s team might be the greatest in ValleyCat history. The other two teams that even come close to comparing to this squad are the 2004 ‘Cats and the 2010 version, and each for different reasons.
The 2004 team was stacked with Major League talent (well, stacked in terms of that type of talent on a Short-Season A team). The two most successful Tri-City alums, Ben Zobrist and Hunter Pence, went on to be Major League All-Stars for both the American and National Leagues. Zobrist has cemented himself as one of the most versatile players in the Majors today. He’s the new Mark DeRosa, but better than DeRosa ever was. Pence, even though he has played for a handful of teams in the past couple of teams, is still one of the most productive and hardest working corner outfielders in the game.
Oh, I almost forgot…that team also won 50 games that season!
In terms of historical records, the ’04 team ranks first in ‘Cats history in the following categories: runs scored (425), home runs (63), on-base percentage (.352), slugging (.400), on-base plus slugging (.752), and total strikeouts by a pitching staff (667).
But that “super-team” failed to bring home the gold. They lost in the New York-Penn League championship, a colossal failure.
The 2010 team has not produced any Major League talent… yet. They had a great clubhouse, some decent prospects (Austin Wates, Ben Orloff, Kike Hernandez, Bobby Doran, Jake Buchanan), but they were more of a team that caught fire at the right time.
Tri-City that year went 17-11 in August, 3-2 in September, and 4-1 in the playoffs. How did they do it? Pitching, what else. In July the ‘Cats posted a 14-14 record, but that was thanks to a .267 average as a team. The pitching staff gave up an average of 5.2 runs per game (that’s with unearned runs factored in). That kind of production simply is not going to win you too many ball games. But the pitchers kicked it up a notch when the calendar turned to August. They propelled the team the rest of the way, sporting a 2.56 ERA in August (down almost two full runs from the previous month) and giving them a chance to win the division.
They did that and much more, as they went on to capture the first, and only, NYPL Championship in franchise history.
Where does this year’s team fit in?
Well, they just captured the 50-win mark with a handful of games to go. It’s safe to say that they will take that record shortly (knock on wood).
In terms of offensive numbers, the 2012 ‘Cats are either close to, tied with, or have already broken numerous offensive and pitching records (they have a new season-high in stolen bases).
They were the first team to win their respective division, which is impressive two-fold. One, Hudson Valley has been elite all season and Auburn is just now starting to fall apart. Two, the ValleyCats were so good against their division this year the three other teams spent the majority of the season behind by double digits in the loss column.
The ValleyCats have a couple of potential elite prospects playing for them currently (plus two that have already been called up). Outfielder Preston Tucker, catcher Tyler Heineman, former outfielder Andrew Aplin, pitchers Aaron West, Vincent Velasquez, Brady Rodgers, Travis Ballew, and Kenny Long have all drawn rave reviews from scouts one way or another.
But let’s not kid ourselves here. This season could totally be wiped out if Tri-City falters at all during the playoffs. Anything short of a championship will be considered a failure.
This team has been a joy to watch and a pleasure to cover for the three-plus months they have been playing. Previous results indicate that this team should be the favorite to win the whole thing. But there’s a reason why the games are played on the field and not on paper. Tri-City has a few more hurdles to jump and a steep mountain to climb if they want to finish this season the way they started it.
ValleyCats Broadcaster talks with Tri-City Manager Stubby Clapp about the team’s playoff aspirations, pitcher Joe Bircher, outfielder Preston Tucker, and much, much more! Leave your questions for next time in the comments section!
by: Evan Valenti (@EvanValenti)
Hey everyone! I know Matt is gone, but because of the overwhelming popularity of this “segment” on ‘Cats Corner I have decided to try and continue “Pre-Game Meal”.
The team had to axe batting practice outside this afternoon because of the inclement weather, but I still have a few tidbits to share with you.
1.) There is an article about Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen hanging in the clubhouse. The article details how, despite his superstar status, McCutchen is one of the Major League’s best hustlers. Most hitters, no matter who it is, when they hit a sharp ground ball to the infield give more of a “courtesy jog” than a full-out sprint. Andrew McCutchen is not one of those players. He runs out everything using at least 95 percent of his speed. He understands his speed is one of his biggest tools, and that by running out ground balls he puts pressure on the infield to make clean plays to try and get him at first. You can see that Manager Stubby Clapp is trying instill that kind of mentality onto his players. Hustle out everything, because you never know what can happen on a measly ground ball.
2.) Ping pong has to be the most popular game played by the guys in the clubhouse, and Aaron West seems to be the king of the table. Juri Perez and Vincent Velasquez have had some matches, however, that should be shown on ESPN Classic or ESPN 8 “The Ocho”. And the two players have significantly different attitudes when they play. Perez is laid back, usually barefoot, and is listening to music, while Velasquez is more focused and vocal. Jarrod McKinney has clearly found a loop-hole in the rules (well, the rules the team plays by). When facing game point, the server cannot lose if the serve does not hit the table. McKinney will keep on serving until his serve just barely hits the corner, making it almost impossible to return it. I had the pleasure of playing Stubby Clapp in one match. He cleaned my clock, 21-10. Hey, at least I scored in double digits. The rematch is coming.
3.) It is Derek Jeter Bobblehead Giveaway Night here at “The Joe”, which officially kicks off our Capital Region Baseball Heritage series. Jeter played here in the Capital Region in 1994 as a member of the Albany-Colonie Yankees. He played in 34 games for the Yankees, who played their home games at Heritage Park in Colonie from 1985-1994. People started lining up outside the gates at around 1 PM. Here’s the picture of what it looked like outside the gates at 5 PM, 45 minutes before the gates opened.
Here is tonight’s lineup:
Sclafani – SS
Elkins – 2B
Tucker – RF
Cokinos – C
Batista – 1B
Gulbransen – DH
McKinney – LF
Dineen – 3B
King – CF
RHP – Brady Rodgers (6-2, 2.37 ERA)
By Matt Appel (@mattappel)
A good Sunday afternoon to you, ‘Cats fans! It’s “NFL Night” here at The Joe, as the ValleyCats and Staten Island Yankees will do work in the second of three between the two teams. Tri-City comes in with a rare two-game losing streak after dropping last night’s affair 5-2, behind the first bad performance, or at least sub-par, from Aaron West. It’s also Sunday Funday at the ballpark, and the ValleyCats are only 1-2 on Sunday home games this season. It’s up to Joe Bircher to right the ship for the home team. He’ll face Tim Flight, a fellow southpaw, for Staten Island.
-It’s frankly been very weird to see this team play like they have the last two nights. They just haven’t really looked themselves at all. It begins at the plate, where the patience has been missing over the past two ballgames. Way too many times hitters have gone down within the first two pitches of an at-bat, which doesn’t really give you a good look at what the opposing pitcher is throwing. Patience is a huge part of what Stubby Clapp preaches to his team, so the past two nights must have been a little frustrating for him as well. Additionally, the fact that in back-to-back nights, Brian Holmes and Aaron West have had their collective worst starts of the year does not help the winning cause. It’s safe to say that those two won’t have repeat outings the next time through the rotation.
-One bright spot from the last two nights is that Tyler Heineman just keeps on hitting. The ‘Cats catcher last night drove in the only two runs of the ballgame for Tri-City, and raised his league-leading average to .369. Heineman has also done a great job behind the plate the last two games, handling a lot of breaking balls in the dirt and doing his best to control the runners on the basepaths. The ValleyCats All-Star catcher is in the lineup and DH’ing tonight.
-The ValleyCats, as most teams do, play better when they play errorless ball. The ‘Cats did last night, and for only the second time in 2012, lost when that happened. The defense played solid, and in a complete 180 from the previous night, the bullpen did its job as well. Jeremiah Meiners pitched 3.1 scoreless relief after allowing an inherited runner to score in the 6th. Over the past two nights, Stubby Clapp has only used four guys out of the pen, so most of the relievers should be ready to go if need be today.
-No batting practice today, so we can’t have a Batting Practice Hero. But look for a big game from Preston Tucker, who is hitting an insane .455 against left-handed pitchers. Tim Flight, the starter for Staten Island, has been knocked around in his last two outings and for the majority of the season, so he might be in for a rude awakening from the former Florida Gator.
-Tonight’s my final game with the ValleyCats, as I head back to school this week. It was been a truly great opportunity covering this team this season, and an honor bringing all the info I can to you faithful ‘Cats fans that read ‘Cats Corner every single day, or even just occasionally. A majority of the time this season, this hasn’t even felt like work because I love doing what I do. I hope you fans have had as much fun watching this team as I have writing and talking about them. Gear up for a very exciting stretch fun, folks, because this team is the real deal.
“You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too.”
By Matt Appel (@mattappel)
May the force be with you, ‘Cats fans! It’s my favorite night of the year: Star Wars Night! I’ll spare you the embarrassing amount I know about Star Wars by saying I’m very excited, and it’s typically a promotion the fans get really into. As for the team, they’ll face the Staten Island Yankees in the first of three here tonight. These teams head into this series with completely different outlooks on 2012. The ValleyCats are the presumable favorites to go all the way, and are virtual locks for the playoffs. The Yankees, on the other hand, can’t get this season over with soon enough. Staten Island is a New York-Penn League-worst 17-39, and would be 24.5 games behind Tri-City if the two played in the same division. The ‘Cats will try to get back to their winning ways after dropping last night’s walk-riddled affair 12-4 to the Cyclones.
-It’s behind the team at this point, as it should be, but the 9th inning of last night’s game was just about as bad an inning as this team has had this year. And I think that says a lot. Last night’s 9th was one of the very few, and I mean very few times, that this team has really struggled to get outs. The fact that Travis Ballew, a reliever with typically impeccable control, walked two batters and hit two others is an indication to chalk that frame up to a fluke. We’ve all been spoiled by the way this team has played so far, and it can be tough to remember that sometimes teams don’t look perfect.
-I don’t think there is one player on this team that routinely takes advantage of the coaching advice around him like M.P. Cokinos does. Almost every round of batting practice, M.P. is either talking to hitting coach Mark Bailey, or whatever Astros instructor is currently with the team. When Astros rover Ty Van Burkleo was here a few weeks, he was really trying to get M.P. to stay in with his front side more, and it immediately paid off, as Cokinos has been pretty hot ever since, and his power has picked up.
-Astros Minor League Coordinator Paul Runge is in Tri-City this week working with the players. Today during BP, Runge was very vocal during the third round, which consists of Jarrod McKinney, Dan Gulbransen, Emilio King, Catfish Elkins, and Preston Tucker. Runge made sure every player got down a bunt that would, as he put it, be “good in the 7th game of the World Series.” He also had Catfish bunt two or three times every round, to stress to the second basemen that his ability to bunt for a hit is something he needs to utilize more. It was great seeing Runge interact with the players by being tough on them, but also encouraging them on what they need to do to be the best ballplayer they can be.
-Not really a ton of long balls in batting practice today, but by far the best of them was an opposite field shot Emilio King hit during his final round. Emilio tends to go to right field a lot in the cage, and he got one up that just kept on going until it disappeared over the Valvoline sign in right-center. On the very next pitch, Emilio hit a very similar ball that hit off the very top of the wall.
-Aaron “0 ER” West goes tonight for the ‘Cats. The former Washington Huskie has been the best pitcher in all of the NYPL this year, and has gone at least 6 inning in five straight starts. West doesn’t walk any batters, and doesn’t really give up any hits, which as far as I’m concerned, is a pretty good combo. In his 50 innings, West has allowed just 5 earned runs (!!!!), and also has issued just 5 free passes. He’s been amazing, and I think just about everyone knows that by now. But what you might not now, is that Aaron is also a sensational ping-pong player. He and Preston Tucker had a great rally during a game in the clubhouse around 1pm today, and West, without fail, returned the best Tucker had to offer. From what I can gather, West and Juri Perez are the two best players on the team.
-Batting Practice Hero: This might be the most unconventional BPH we have the rest of the year. Today’s award goes to Catfish Elkins, for not hitting home runs, but laying down some of the greatest BP bunts I’ve ever seen. I’m not saying players don’t taking bunting in BP seriously, but it’s typically not their main focus, which is understandable. With Paul Runge behind the cage today, however, the pressure was on. When Catfish got in the cage, Runge yelled, “two down the third base line, one down the first. Go.” Elkins preceded to execute the bunts to perfection, and garner a compliment from Runge, which doesn’t appear to be easy to do. Catfish continued to lay down beauties throughout his round, and for that, the ‘Cats second basement gets today’s nod.
“Do or do not. There is no try.”
-Yoda, Jedi Master
By Matt Appel (@mattappel)
A very happy Friday, ‘Cats fans! It’s been a long week, so get ready for a hearty Pregame Meal before this third and final game between the ValleyCats and Cyclones. Tri-City will go for the sweep and try to inch even closer to wrapping up the Stedler Division. It’s Brian Holmes for the ‘Cats and Gabriel Ynoa for Brooklyn, in a matchup of two starters with very low ERA’s both making their 10th starts of 2012. It’s “Blizzard in August” night at The Joe-fans will be given white rally towels and given white t-shirts. With that theme in mind, the ‘Cats will try to blank the Cyclones in the series.
-Despite a seemingly ordinary game, last night’s 4-2 win had a lot of positives to take away for the ValleyCats. Lance Day won his 4th straight start to improve to 5-0, and has quietly become a very reliable cog in the rotation. The bullpen, which has game-in-and-game-out been a huge part of the team’s success, pitched a dazzling 3.2 scoreless in relief of Day, including Blake Ford getting his league-leading 14th save of the year. Above all, Emilio King had a tremendous game. King had a two-run homer in the 5th, and then a lead-saving catch in center the next inning. King has struggled for a majority of the season, and last night might be the start of a turnaround for Emilio. We also want to wish Emilio a very happy 23rd birthday from all of us here at the ‘Cats Corner. Also, a belated happy birthday to Jeremiah Meiners, who turned 24 yesterday.
-It’s only been two batting practices and one game, but so far I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen from infielder Jean Batista. Batista has a good looking, easy swing from both sides of the plate, and can appear to be able to hold his own in the field. He did drop a pop-up in the 6th last night, but he said after the game that he lost it in the lights, so as he gets adjusted to the lighting here in Troy, I wouldn’t expect to see that too often. He added a line drive double down the right field line and picked up his first stolen base with the team right after. He is again in the lineup tonight, and moves over to short after playing third last night.
-I mentioned above that the ‘Cats are attempting to sweep the Cyclones tonight. Should they be successful, it would be their eighth of the season, wayyyyy more than any other team, not like that really needs to be said. If they win tonight, the 24 wins they would have gotten in those series would surpass or equal 5 teams total victory count so far this year. Ironically, the only series loss the team has suffered this year was a sweep at home versus the State College Spikes. That remains the only series Tri-City has lost this year, which is hard to believe considering we’re now more than half way through August.
-Brian Holmes takes the mound, in the midst of a streak that is just as strong as any pitcher has had in the league this year. He has won his past 5 starts, going at least 6 innings in four of them and not allowing more than one run in any of them. The All-Star lefty has been the arguably the best pitcher on this team (in the non-Aaron West division) over the last month, if not the whole year. In my opinion, the “Big Three” of West, Rodgers, and Velazquez, is now definitely the “Big Four” with the addition of Holmes.
-Aaron West’s pitching credentials speak for themselves. But he made the play of the year in batting practice today. On a ball hit to the outfield, West appeared to be gearing up to make a routine catch of a line drive. Boy, was I wrong. He did a quick 180 and caught the ball with his glove behind him, as he was facing the wall. Doesn’t get much better than a no-look, behind the backer. I went up to Aaron after BP had ended and I asked him if he actually caught it, because frankly I couldn’t believe me eyes. He told me he did, but made it seem so nonchalant, as if it were a normal drill. Oh, to be athletically talented….
-Batting Practice Hero: I thought I would be writing to you ValleyCats fans today that I had to induct Preston Tucker into the Batting Practice Hall of Fame, after dominating again. But the former Florida Gator was upset today by Jesse Wierzbicki. Jesse has been a great BP guy throughout the year, as the ball really takes off after contact. Great opposite field power too, which is always nice to see in the cage. Wierzbicki today hit a ball that, off that bat, I thought had warning track power. But it just kept on going and going and going until I didn’t see it anymore, because it had been deposited in the deepest part of the park in left-center. It was a long home run for a guy that hits a ton of them before and sometimes even during games. Runner-up goes to Jarrod McKinney. McKinney, on his second to last swing of BP, swung through a Stubby Clapp fastball that gave everyone a good chuckle, including McKinney himself. In a glimpse of true redemption, J-Mac (decent nickname, right?) tattooed the next pitch well over the Tri-City ‘pen in left field to go out on a high note.
Christian Moronta DH (his position his catcher, called up on 8/10)
“There are three things you can do in a baseball game. You can win, you can lose, or it can rain.”
Hey ‘Cats fans! It’s good to be back after almost a week and a half away. Since the last time we sat down for a Pregame Meal, the ValleyCats have gone 7-1, to extend their league-leading record to a incredulous 41-14. Magic number down to 8, folks.
-Thanks to a little tip, we found out today that ‘Cats catcher M.P. Cokinos, on occasion, keeps his bats in a freezer before game time. I thought for sure there was some reason, or some superstition, or even some scientific evidence as to why M.P. does this, so I decided to find out for myself. Well, I really couldn’t have been more wrong. He told me that it’s just something he does once in a while, for no real purpose. Not if he’s hitting well, not if he’s hitting poorly. Just if he thinks the bat needs a good freezing. Ironically, M.P. has been red-hot recently with his chilled bat. He’s hitting .438 over his last ten games, and has an 4 multi hit games in that span, including 2 home runs.
-The ValleyCats are currently on a 5-game winning streak. That in itself is impressive, but when you take into account that this is their 4th such streak of the season, it becomes that much more remarkable. One of the previous three stopped at 5, but the other two went lengths of 11 and 7, and this one has a good shot of going farther.
-Preston Tucker was named New York-Penn League Player of the Week during the All-Star Break, and certainly backed up that recognition. Last night he had 3 RBI’s, and in just 22 games this year, he has 23 runs knocked in. He’s been the best extra-base hitter the ‘Cats have had since he joined the team. I asked him before BP if when he’s hot, does he at all alter his pre-game BP routine. He told me “Not really, it’s just a routine. If I’m feeling a good, I’ll take a few less reps, if I don’t feel good, maybe a few more.”
-Going through notes before the game today, I saw that Tri-City is 35-11 in night games, clearly very good. Then I took a look at the standings of the New York-Penn League. If the “ValleyCats At Night” were a team, they would have the second most wins in the league, just one behind Hudson Valley. I’m beginning to run out of ways to show the different ways that this team is just far superior to every other team in the league.
-Tonight’s starter for Brooklyn is Matthew Bowman, who is making his first start of the year, after pitching out the ‘pen up to this point in 2012. Bowman pitched at Princeton, so he is a Ivy League product just like ‘Cats shortstop Joe Sclafani. I asked Joe for a scouting report on the righty Bowman, and even though he told me he had never faced him, he told me Bowman has “a 90-92 fastball, and a good curve. He also throws like Tim Lincecum does.” Sclafani told me that Bowman was Princeton’s number #1 guy, so we’ll see if we can invoke “The Freak” tonight and try to shut down the ‘Cats.
-Batting Practice Hero: One more time, and I have to retire this guy. Preston Tucker put on the show to end all shows today in BP. He hit 4 straight home runs, all longer than the last, in one round. If you’ve been to the park, you’ve probably noticed the bulls-eye in deep right center on top of the hill. Tucker barely missed that. It was remarkable. His hands are so quick that once he makes contact, it’s pretty much a lock to be a line drive hit hard somewhere, and probably deep.
Jean Bautista 3B