Homestand Recap: July 4th-July 9th

By Matt Appel (@mattappel)

The most recent homestand for the Tri-City ValleyCats was certainly not the best stretch of baseball the team has played this year. They wound up losing four of the six games, but had a lead in three of the four games they lost, as the bullpen faltered on multiple occasions. Over the span of the six games, the offense, which came into the homestand leading the league in runs scored, pushed across just 15 runs. Despite the struggles at home, it was quite possibly the most historic homestand in team history, as 2013 #1 overall pick Mark Appel made his debut with the ValleyCats, starting on both July 5th and July 9th. With the ‘Cats now on the road for six games, let’s take a look back on the week that was:

July 4th: Loss, 4-2 vs. Lowell: This loss was just the 2nd for the ValleyCats at home in 2013 at the time. In their first home game without Dan Gulbrnansen following his promotion, the ‘Cats went just 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position, which began a concerning trend that lasted throughout the homestand of failing to deliver in key spots. A three-run 4th inning proved enough for the Spinners to win, as ‘Cats starter Kevin Comer took his first loss of the season, going just 3.1 IP and yielding three runs, all earned. After Tri-City pushed a run across in the 4th to cut the lead to 3-1, they let a golden chance get by them in the 5th. Tony Kemp stepped to the plate with bases loaded and no one out. However, for the second time in the game, the speedster bounced in a double play. While a run scored, the momentum was killed, and the ‘Cats would not score again in the contest. In the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th, the ‘Cats left at least one runner in scoring position, which doomed them when Lowell added a run in the 8th.

‘Cats Player of the Game: In a pretty lackluster offensive performance from the ‘Cats (of which there were many more to come), SS Chan Moon went 2-for-3 to bump his batting average up to .385.

July 5th: Win, 5-4/10 vs. Lowell: The ValleyCats could have scored 25 runs in this one, and the story of the game still would have been Mark Appel’s debut. Admittedly nervous in his first live game action since May 24th for Stanford, Appel came out of the gate pretty sluggish. Lowell SS Tzu-Wei Lin smashed the righty’s first offering over James Ramsay’s head in center for leadoff triple. A ground out scored Lin, and Lowell scored once more to take a 2-0 lead before the ‘Cats even came to bat. In his second inning, under a strict 30-pitch limit, Appel sent down the Spinners in order on just seven pitches, which finished his outing. His final line was 2 IP, 3 hits, 2 runs, no walks and one K. After the start, Astros Assistant General Manager David Stearns said that Appel’s velocity and movement on his pitches were both there in his two innings, and that was the thing that the team was really looking at. The ‘Cats tied up the game with two two-out hits in a row in the 3rd, coming from James Ramsay and Conrad Gregor. It was one of three deficits the ‘Cats would erase on Friday. After another Gregor RBI scored Tony Kemp to even the score at four in the 7th, we headed to extras at the first time in 2013 at The Joe. In the bottom of the 10th, with Thomas Lindauer at third and Luis Alvarez at the plate, Alvarez swung and missed badly at a 1-2 slider in the dirt from Lowell pitcher Kyle Martin. However, the ball bounced away from catcher David Sopilka, allowing Lindauer to race home to score the winning run, in the most unconventional of walk-offs. The ‘Cats stole four bases, their season high, including two from Kemp.

‘Cats Player of the Game: Conrad Gregor. Gregor had three hits in five at bats, including a pair of two-out hits that brought home tying runs. This year’s 4th round pick of the Astros also made a number of nice plays in the field, which is what we have come to expect from Conrad over at first, game in and game out.

July 6th: Loss, 4-3 vs. Lowell: After the most wild win of their season the night before, the ‘Cats encountered their most difficult loss on Saturday night. Leading 3-0 into the ninth inning, Lowell loaded the bases with just one out. Pat Christensen came in to relieve Albert Minnis, who faced two batters and got neither out. The first batter Christensen faced, Cleuluis Rondon, silenced the home crowd with one swing of the bat. Rondon sent a fastball over the right field fence, his first home run of the season, and gave the Spinners a 4-3 lead with a 9th inning grand slam. As the ‘Cats failed to push across a run in the bottom half of the inning, Lowell walked away with a dramatic victory, as well as a series win. It was the first time all season that Tri-City lost a game in which they led after eight innings. The loss obscured great pitching from both starter Andrew Thurman, who went four scoreless innings, as well as Michael Feliz, who went 4.1 IP in relief. Both Ryan Dineen and Tony Kemp had three hits for the ‘Cats, but a 2-for-13 line with RISP hurt the team, as they failed to add insurance runs to a 3-0 lead they had after five. For the second night in a row, the ‘Cats stole four bases, including two more from Kemp, which gave him the league-lead in thefts.

‘Cats Player of the Game: Michael Feliz. The Dominican 19 year-old went 4.1 IP, and had six strikeouts, retiring 10 straight at one point. Feliz has arguably been the team’s best pitcher this season, and this outing put Feliz into a tie for the most strikeouts in the league with 25. He was in line for the win before the bullpen’s implosion in the 9th.

July 7th: Loss, 3-1 vs. Aberdeen: This loss was by far the most listless performance from the ‘Cats at home this season, and was followed by a closed-door meeting led by manager Ed Romero. The team managed just four hits, the second fewest all season. The lone run came in the 3rd inning, as a Dineen groundout score Chan Moon. Kyle Westwood turned in a phenomenal outing, allowing just a base hit in five innings of work, lowering his ERA to a league-best 0.49. He was in line for a victory until Chris Cotton allowed the tying run in the 6th. In the 7th, with the score 1-1, Tri-City loaded the bases with just one out, looking to take the lead. Romero pinch-hit for Chan Moon with Ernesto Genoves. However, that move back-fired, as “Geno” bounced into a 6-4-3 double play, ending the frame. Cotton allowed two runs in the 8th, and the ValleyCats never really threatened again, falling in the series opener to the Ironbirds, 3-1. It was the first time all season the ‘Cats had dropped three out of four games. Mike Yastrzemski, grandson of Carl, had two extra-base run-scoring hits to lead the way for Aberdeen, who came in winners of 10 of their last 14 games.

‘Cats Player of the Game: Kyle Westwood. In Westwood’s first appearance in front of a home crowd, he worked quickly and efficiently to get through his five innings. With the ‘Cats struggling, a lot of pressure has been on the pitching, but it did not seem to bother the 13th round pick of the Astros this year. The University of North Florida product had his third scoreless outing of the season, and registered three K’s.

July 8th: Win, 2-1/12 vs. Aberdeen: Once again, it was a struggle offensively for the ValleyCats. Once again, they couldn’t buy a hit with runners in scoring position. But on Monday night, it didn’t matter. In the 12th inning, with the score tied at one, as it had been since the 6th, Ryan Dineen hit the first walk-off home run for the ‘Cats since Chris Epps hit one against Mahoning Valley on August 10th, 2011, a span of 65 home games.  It was Dineen’s first home run in 2013, and his first home run ever at The Joe, going back to last year. It was the second win for the ‘Cats on the homestand, both coming via walk-off victories. Before the dramatic and exciting ending, it was yet another game dominated by pitching. Randall Fant became the third straight ‘Cats starter to go at least four scoreless innings, as he went five, allowing four hits, walking none, and striking out two. Zach Morton, despite allowing the only Aberdeen run, pitched well, going four innings. And then came the pitching performance of the season for the ‘Cats. Richard Rodriguez, who has pitched well all year since being assigned to Tri-City from Quad Cities, entered in the 10th and struck out the side. He came out for the 11th, and did it again. He pitched the 12th, and registered two more K’s. All told, R-Rod struck out the first seven (!!!!!) hitters he faced, and finished the outing with eight overall. He received the win when Dineen sent the crowd on “Bark in the Park Night” home with a victory.

‘Cats Player of the Game: Even though I’m slightly tempted to pick Rodriguez, obviously it’s Dineen. Dineen is one of the hardest working guys on this team, and he had as good a homestand as anyone not named Tony Kemp offensively. His walk-off was a no-doubter, and a great way to end a really fun game to watch, especially with the ValleyCats in desperate need of win. They improved to 14-8 overall and 9-4 at home.

July 9th: Loss, 8-2/10 vs. Aberdeen: Despite the largest run differential in loss for the ‘Cats this year, this was another close game that they couldn’t quite get enough production to win. Appel made his second start in the 11 AM day game, and appeared more comfortable than he did in his first appearance. In what proved to be his final start with the team, Appel went three innings, allowed no runs, just three hits, and struck out five Ironbirds. His outing ended with an outfield assist from D’Andre Toney at the plate to end the third. Appel’s best pitch in the game was his slider, which was accountable for three of the five punch-outs. It was the 4th straight scoreless outing for a ValleyCats starter, equating to 18.1 IP. Offensively, the only two Tri-City runs came on a opposite-field Michael Martinez home run in the 4th inning, scoring Gregor and himself. For Martinez, it was his team-leading third home run. However, the ‘Cats continued to not get big hits late in games with runners on base. The team left runners at second and third in the 7th, an inning that included a questionable call for a safety squeeze from Chan Moon with one out. Moon’s bunt went right in the air to the pitcher Alex Santana. In the 9th inning, a strike ‘em out-throw ‘em out double play ended another potential game-winning scoring threat. Then came the ugliest inning of the season for Tri-City in the 10th. Kevin Comer, who had been in the game since the 7th inning, allowed two run-scoring singles, before departing. On the first pitch Pat Christensen threw, he gave up a home run (sound familiar?) to Anthony Vega, a three-run shot, to make the score 7-2 and out of reach for the ‘Cats. Aberdeen added one more for a 8-2 final.

‘Cats Player of the Game: Mark Appel. After his start, the #1 pick of the ‘Stros was promoted, as was expected, to Quad Cities, where he is slated to start on Sunday. Appel looked the role of the top selection in a draft on Tuesday, using his outstanding of command of his fastball, which topped out at around 95, and a devastating slider, that hitters had a difficult time picking up. In his two starts with the ‘Cats to begin his professional career, the righty finished with a line of five innings, six hits, two runs, no walks, and six strikeouts.

 

All in all, the ‘Cats were almost lucky to get out of the homestand at 2-4. The team went an almost-inconceivable 6-for-59 with RISP, which equates to a .102 average. They averaged just 2.5 runs per game, a complete cliff-dive for a team that was averaging 5.1 runs per game before the homestand. The bullpen needs to improve, and improve fast. In three of the four losses, the ‘Cats led going into the sixth inning, only to see that lead evaporate. The one true bright spot that came from the past six games for Tri-City was that the starters simply dominated. The six Tri-City starters, including Appel twice, gave up just five earned runs in 22.1 IP, which is a 2.02 ERA. For the time being, it is the pitching that is carrying the Tri-City ValleyCats. Despite the struggles, the team still finds itself on top of the Stedler Division standings with a record of 14-9, a half-game ahead of the Spinners before the ‘Cats play two in Mahoning Valley Thursday night. It was a homestand that thanks to a top draft pick from Stanford who happens to hail from Houston, will not soon be forgotten in ValleyCats history. More than a quarter of the way through the season, and the ‘Cats are still in great position to make it back to the New York-Penn League playoffs.

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