Archive for the ‘ Dailies ’ Category

Notebook: Clutch failures

The ValleyCats got more hits, drew more walks, and committed fewer errors than Jamestown last night. Yet somehow the game wasn’t even really close, and it was the Jammers who won. As has been the case often this season, Tri-City just could not bring home runners, stranding 12 and only scoring three times.

What was even stranger was the way it happened. On the other side, Jamestown only had eight hits and three walks, but seven runs scored. This came despite the fact that the ValleyCats struck out a season-high 17 batters (which I believe is tied for the second-most in the NYPL this year). You’d think the team with more strikeouts would be the one with trouble bringing runners around, but alas, that was not the case.

Now, of course, there were a couple contributing factors that I didn’t mention – three passed balls and two balks certainly contributed to the Jammers’ success. But in the end, Jamestown just came up with more hits in key situations. That, in a nutshell, has been the story of the ValleyCats’ season thus far.

The ‘Cats are 11th in the 14-team league in hitting, with a .237 batting average. They actually get on base at an above-average clip (.334), thanks to an outstanding walk rate, but they have struggled incredbily to bring those runners home. In just about any clutch situation, the ValleyCats just can’t hit: .201 with RISP, .182 with bases loaded, and .156 with RISP + 2 outs.

The problem is made worse by the fact that opponents actually perform slightly better in key situations. Tri-City pitchers have allowed a .265 batting average this season, but .277 with RISP, and .319 with RISP + 2 outs.

I generally subscribe to the theory that “clutch” performance is generally random, although I do see how “clutch” ability (or, rather, the lack thereof) could exist at the lower levels. But one has to assume that the gap between the ‘Cats and their opponents in clutch situations will close somewhat.

As seven-run performances go, it’s tough to beat the one displayed by the ValleyCats last night. Chris Blazek, Murillo Gouvea, Joan Belliard and Brandt Walker combined for 17 strikeouts and only three walks, and allowed a rather pedestrian eight hits. They really didn’t deserve to allow seven earned runs, but sometimes that’s how this game goes.

It was great to see Gouvea pitch well, given his recent struggles. He struggled to put away the first four hitters – hitting a batter on 3-2, allowing an eighth-pitch single and going seven pitches on another – but was lights-out after that, retiring eight in a row at one point.

Gouvea sat 89-91 with his fastball, mixing in a slow curve and a slider. It took him 30 pitches to get through the second inning but he settled down after that, although he still went all the way up to 73 pitches for 3.2 innings. Facing the heart of the order, he struck out the side in the third, doing so with three different pitches – 90 inside to get Marcell Ozuna to chase, an 80-mph slider that Ryan Fisher chased low, and a 73-mph curve that froze Sequoyah Stonecipher.

He reverted back to his old self for a bit in the fifth inning, walking the first two batters with a wild pitch mixed in, and it came back to hurt him. But all in all, it was a very good showing.

Joan Belliard was also strong, fanning six in 3.1 innings. Ozuna struck out in his first three at-bats, and was determined not to do so in his fourth. He took Belliard’s first pitch out of the stadium to left field, easily the longest homer to date at Joe Bruno Stadium. Reports vary as to where exactly the ball traveled, but best I can figure is it landed on top of the “Creating Fans for Life” building behind the scoreboard in left, which I estimate at 450 feet or so.

Belliard’s other big mistakes were the two balks in the fifth that brought Stonecipher around to score from second. Jim Pankovits didn’t really contest the first, but the second one brought him out for a 2-3 minute discussion, culminating in his ejection. The balks were called because Belliard didn’t come set before delivering; I wasn’t watching his motion very carefully, so I don’t really have an informed opinion on the validity of the calls.

Tom Shirley didn’t make his scheduled start because of some knee problems, but all signs point to him getting back on schedule later this week. If he stays healthy and pitches as well as he has, he could move through the system very quickly.

In Shirley’s absence, Pankovits went a little unconventional and called upon reliever Chris Blazek to start, with the expectation that the lefty would throw only one inning. Blazek sure got his money’s worth, throwing 28 pitches and giving up a pair of runs. He had the same stuff as usual, but was a lot looser with his control than I’ve seen, falling behind often and issuing a four-pitch walk to Stonecipher; only 12 of his 28 pitches were strikes. By the end of the inning, his fastball was down to 82-84 mph (from 87-88), part of the reason the left-handed Aaron Senne was able to pull a line drive to right to score the second run.

I was pleased with Mike Kvasnicka’s defense in his first start behind the plate, so I have to point out that he really did not have a good showing on Monday night. Jamestown didn’t really run on him at all, but he had problems recieving, allowing three passed balls and a wild pitch.

First baseman Nick Stanley had a pair of terrific plays to his backhand. The second one was more spectacular, as Stanley dove to the hole, picked the ball cleanly and completed the 3-1 play to Belliard.

It was nice to see catcher Ryan McCurdy have success in his first at-bat with Tri-City. The undrafted free agent from Duke, who was activated the day before, entered in the ninth to catch for Kvasnicka and batted second in the Tri-City half. He pulled a groundball double down the left-field line, advancing Ben Orloff to third, from where he would eventually score.

Orloff passed the qualification cutoff in Monday’s game and now leads the NYPL with a .382 batting average. His .460 on-base percentage is also best in the league. He was on his way to improving those numbers with a line-drive base hit to lead off Tuesday’s game, but the hit also brought down the rain, washing away the official records. Orloff is batting .432 over his last ten games.

Kevin Whitaker


Weather News

Final Update: The game has been officially cancelled.  It will not be rescheduled unless it has playoff implications at the end of the season.

7:41 pm: Well, we got through half an inning before the tarp came out again.  Ben Orloff got yet another hit in the meantime.  0-0 with Orloff on first and nobody out if this gets resumed.

Update #2: The tarp has been uncovered, and we are shooting for a 7:30 start time.

Pregame update: The field has been re-covered due to a patch of rain and the game will be delayed for at least an hour.  We’ll be as patient as possible with this one, as the ‘Cats are not scheduled to play Jamestown again this season.

Tonight’s forecast is a bit iffy, and it’s currently raining a little bit here at Joe Bruno Stadium.  We’re still planning on starting the game on schedule at 7 pm, but stay tuned to http://twitter.com/ValleyCats for updates.

Notebook: Record crowd

In case you haven’t heard, last night was a big night. We had 7,005 fans at Joe Bruno Stadium for the 5 pm game, easily setting the single-game franchise record.

We owe Time Warner a big thanks for the crowd. Last night was “Time Warner Cable Customer Appreciation Night,” where customers could recieve four tickets for bringing their cable bill to the ticket office. Time Warner also broadcast the game live on TW-3, announced by Robert Lee and James Allen.

Time Warner also took over the Picnic Pavilion with various activities. It had a preview of 3-D television featuring that afternoon’s Yankees-Mariners game, and a station where fans could pretend to be a meterologist, which I bring up solely for the purpose of posting this picture of VCN’s Chris Chenes:

You can check out plenty of other pictures on Vic’s blog.

Things were pretty chaotic here between the record crowd and the Time Warner television crew, but the game ran pretty smoothly nonetheless. The ‘Cats battled back from an early deficit to tie the game at 6-6, but couldn’t push a run across after that, despite 12 hits. More thoughts:

David Martinez was making his first start, and got kind of unlucky to allow five runs. Two of the five were unearned, and he was unlucky with runners on base – Jamestown scored six runs in the first two innings and only stranded one runner. He also generally kept the ball down well – ten of the 13 balls in play were on the ground. Unfortunately, the three balls in the air went for seven total bases, including a two-run Marcell Ozuna homer in the first inning. He sat 89-92 mph as a starter, going to an 82-84 changeup almost exclusively as a second pitch, and held his velocity throughout the game (although that was only 51 pitches).

Martinez’s third run was unearned, because the runner advanced on a bad pickoff attempt. I have asked this before and I will ask again: should a pickoff error count towards an earned run? I realize that fielding errors by pitchers do not and should not count against ERA, because the statistic attempts to isolate pitching performance from fielding performance. But it seems to me that a pickoff is more of a “pitching” play than a “fielding” play, and a bad pickoff throw would seem similar to a wild pitch, which does count against ERA. If the pickoff play is successful and gets an out, it will help the pitcher’s ERA…so why shouldn’t a bad throw by the pitcher hurt it?

Three errors looks bad, and the error on Heath in the fourth inning was one of the ugliest plays you’ll see this year. Aaron Dudley singled to shallow left field, loading the bases, and the runners all stopped at their respective bags. Adamson’s throw missed the cutoff and took four bounces to the plate, where Heath just whiffed on it and nobody was backing him up. A run scored on the play, and the error was ultimately responsible for another. But despite the miscues, the ‘Cats generally played strong defense last night, making a few very nice plays.

Oscar Figueroa showed great range at short, going to his left to grab a Sequoyah Stonecipher roller behind second base to end the first inning. After completing a 4-6-3 double play in the second, Figgy made a great sliding play on another ball up the middle, getting up to nail Aaron Dudley by a step at first. Possibly the best play came in the ninth. With runners on the corners and nobody out, Jamestown threatened to blow open a one-run game. But Mike Kvasnicka fielded a chopper at third, threw to Enrique Hernandez at second for one out. Kik&eacute saw the runner on third heading home and threw a strike to Ben Heath, catching Daniel Black in a rundown for the second out.

Unfortunately, Ryan Fisher extended the lead anyways, hitting a triple that was the closest ball I’ve seen to leaving the park in dead center, hitting one foot below the yellow piping.

Kvasnicka stroked the ball well at the plate, going 2-for-4 with another walk, and one of the outs was a liner to second. Kvasnicka pulled both of his hits, clean line drives to the outfield. He’s starting at catcher tonight for the second time this season.

Wilton Infante sure had a good night, going 4-for-5 and raising his batting average about 50 points. But he would have been better off going 3-for-4 – he singled in the eighth only after missing a squeeze attempt on a curveball outside, leaving pinch runner Ben Orloff caught dead between third and home with the game-tying run.

In the bottom of the ninth, I saw a play I’ve never seen before. Kvasnicka walked to lead off the inning, and Ben Heath hit a line drive. Kvasnicka broke for second, but the ball was hit right at shortstop Noah Perio, who threw to first to double off Kvasnicka. The throw hit Kvasnicka in the back but somehow bounced right into the first baseman’s glove, in time to double off Kvas. I saw the replay on TW-3 and still have no idea how that happened.

Chris Blazek starts tonight, but will only go one inning. This could be Blazek’s final outing with the ValleyCats, as he is almost finished with his rehab assignment and will likely head back up to Corpus Christi soon. He had not allowed a run this season until Staten Island tagged him for a pair on Saturday.

Kevin Whitaker


7,005

More details and analysis to come tomorrow.  But tonight the ValleyCats set a major milestone: we surpassed the 7000-fan mark for the first time ever.  Our previous record was 6,838 fans on Independence Day last year, and this season our highest mark to date was 6,124 one week ago.

Thousands of Time Warner Cable customers showed up for the company’s Customer Appreciation Night, which was also broadcast by Robert Lee and James Allen on TW-3.  Thanks to Time Warner and to all our fans for making tonight’s achievement possible!

Roster Move; Martinez mashes

Sunday Update: Outfielder Renzo Tello has also been promoted to Lexington. Tello went 2-for-4 and scored a run last night at Staten Island.

Today, I enjoyed an afternoon away from civilization, playing a round of golf (and actually playing quite well, by my extremely low standards). It wasn’t until I got back home later in the evening that I learned of the transaction that would send shockwaves throughout the baseball world.

What? Oh, right, there was that one too. But Houston made a roster move that hit a bit closer to home, promoting pitcher Brenden Stines and assigning Ryan McCurdy to the ValleyCats.

McCurdy will bolster the Tri-City catching depth, as the third true backstop on the roster behind Ben Heath and Buck Afenir. Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Duke Univeristy, McCurdy was originally assigned to Greeneville, where he recieved only seven at-bats.

The catcher joins former teammate Michael Ness on the ValleyCats, another Duke alum in his rookie year of professional baseball. As a senior this year, McCurdy batted .280 for the Blue Devils. He has never hit for much power – he only managed seven extra-base hits in his final collegiate season, all doubles – but he ranked second on the team among starters with a .407 on-base percentage. McCurdy spent his senior year behind the plate but also played third base, shortstop and second base as an underclassman.

We will miss Stines and his famous ‘stache, and hope he performs well at Lexington. The righty began his pro career at Tri-City last year, posting a 4.93 ERA in 24 appearances. As one of a handful of veterans on this season’s roster, Stines allowed a fair amount of hits but gave up only four earned runs and fanned seven hitters in 7.1 innings.

Speaking of Lexington, another Tri-City alum had a terrific night on Thursday for the Legends. Lexington lost, but that certainly wasn’t the fault of hot-hitting outfielder J.D. Martinez, who went 5-for-5 with two homers and a career-high six RBI. Martinez, who led the NY-Penn League in batting last season, currently tops the Sally League in all three rate categories at .355/.422/.572.

The current ‘Cats are back on track. They lost a pair of ugly games against Batavia earlier this week but were well-served by a day off, as they’ve recovered to win two straight against Staten Island (who came into the series on an eight-game winning streak). On Thursday, they rolled to a 9-2 victory behind two hits apiece from Heath, Ben Orloff and Tyler Burnett; tonight, Tri-City won its first extra-inning contest of the season, 3-2, on Adam Bailey’s 11th-inning single that scored Dan Adamson.

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Field of Walks?

During Sunday’s game, as Batavia lefty Kevin Siegrist was in the process of walking his fourth batter of the first inning, Vic Christopher came up into the press box and wondered, “[paraphrasing] What is it with pitchers coming in and struggling in this park?” Siegrist was not the first starter to have difficulty locating the ball early on – earlier this homestand, Josue Carreno walked two and threw a wild pitch in the first inning, and of course there was the infamous Randy Consuegra incident last month.

Well, I don’t know if Vic’s right about Joe Bruno Stadium bearing some sort of curse against opposing pitchers. But if he is, the strongest evidence came last night. Andrew Moss came into the game with a 1.69 ERA, and he had thrown seven perfect innings against Mahoning Valley in his last outing. More importantly, he had walked only one batter in 16 innings.

That changed quickly at The Joe last night. The first batter, Ben Orloff, drew a five-pitch walk. Well, okay, that was understandable – Orloff has now led off each of the last three games with bases on balls. But things got weirder when Moss walked Kik&eacute Hernandez…and then Mike Kvasnicka…and then Ben Heath, each on five pitches. One of the best pitchers in the NYPL this year walked the first four batters he faced. That was probably the most inexplicable thing I have seen this year – at least Consuegra had a history of wildness.

Moss certainly settled down quickly. With the bases loaded and nobody out, the ‘Cats threatened to score several more runs, but Moss got Tyler Burnett to dink a curveball back to the mound for an easy force at home. Dan Adamson got a hittable fastball but grounded it straight to the shortstop for a 6-4-3 double play. Moss would walk two more batters for the game but held Tri-City scoreless for the next four innings. He only throws 87-91 but hides the ball really well and goes to his offspeed stuff more often than any starter I’ve seen so far in this league, leaning heavily on a tight 81-mph slider and a slow, high-70s curve. He dropped down to a sidearm slot for an 0-2 slider to Adamson in the fourth, getting the strikeout.

I remain unconvinced that “The Joe” has some kind of pitcher-destroying mystique, but has certainly had another, more tangible effect on the last couple games – the wind is always blowing out to right field. Frank Almonte hit a seemingly harmless fly ball that carried over the right-field fence on Sunday. Last night, with two on and two out in the seventh, Ben Heath’s fly ball to right looked like it would die on the warning track, but it hit the wind and carried a good 15 feet into the visitors’ bullpen. Heath is now tied for second in the league with four homers; that blast closed the score to 7-6, as close as the ‘Cats would ever get.

Tri-City got into a hole early as Murillo Gouvea allowed four runs in the first*. Nick Longmire led off the game with a fly ball into the left-field bullpen, which was not exactly a shocking event – the league’s best slugger taking the league’s most homer-prone pitcher deep. Gouvea was sitting 88-89 with his fastball but all over the place, walking Colin Walsh on four pitches and issuing another free pass to Jon Rodriguez two batters later. Gouvea wasn’t commanding his low-70s curveball well either, and after Adam Melker singled to load the bases, pitching coach Gary Ruby came out to the mound. Raniel Rosario hit a blast to the deepest part of the ballpark but Adamson ran it down, limiting the damage to a sacrifice fly. Audry Perez lined a single through the right side, ending Gouvea’s night.

*I’ve mentioned before that earned runs are not the be-all and end-all of pitcher performance, and we got another good example last night. You may know that if a runner scores on a passed ball, it is (usually) not earned. Last night, Gouvea was charged with his fourth earned run because ANOTHER PITCHER threw a wild pitch – Brendan Stines threw a ball past Heath, allowing Gouvea’s runner, Melker, to score.

We’ll see what happens to Gouvea rin the coming days. His ERA stands at an unsightly 12.75, he’s allowed a league-high 5 homers – at least one in each start – and he hasn’t performed particularly well in any of his four outings.

Brendan Stines came on and showed some wildness, throwing only three of nine pitches for strikes but getting out of that inning. Stines, who is 88-90 with his fastball and boasts a slow curve and slider, escaped the second inning after allowing a double to Walsh, but gave up an RBI single to Perez in the third.

David Martinez threw four very good innings of relief for the ‘Cats, allowing just two unearned runs. He struck out four batters in that span, showing off his secondary pitches in the fourth. He fanned the first batter he faced, Yunier Castillo, with a changeup (81 mph), and followed with an 83-mph breaking ball to freeze Longmire for the second out; he fanned Jon Edwards with another change in the next inning. Martinez sits in the low-90s with his fastball, fanning Walsh with a 92-mph heater in the sixth.

Jason Chowning made his first appearance of the season after being added to the roster earlier this homestand. He sat 86-90 with his fastball, leaning towards the top end of that rnage. He lost a curveball inside to hit the first batter he faced, Perez, but recovered and fanned Edwards with 90-mph heat. He threw a better curve later on, 78 mph and also showed an 80-mph changeup. With two out and two on, Chowning was pulled in favor of lefty Travis Blankenship, to turn around the switch-hitting Walsh. Blankenship succeeded, getting a strikeout on a 71-mph hook.

In the eighth inning, Andrew Robinson was called upon to replace Blankenship, intentionally walking Rainel Rosario to load the bases with one out. Robinson did his job, inducing a textbook double-play grounder from Perez, but Hernandez’s relay throw bounced well in front of first base, handcuffing Nick Stanley. Oscar Figueroa almost beat out a drag bunt to lead off the ninth but was called out, and the ‘Cats could not rally.

There were a couple of nice Tri-City defensive plays last night – Kik&eacute had a nice sliding forehand at second, and Stanley laid out for a foul popup after the failed double play in the ninth. But the four errors (two by Adamson on the same play) really hurt. The run prevention has been terrific all year, so let’s hope those errors and the (tied for) season-high seven walks were an aberration.

Kevin Whitaker

http://web1.nyc.youtube.com/v/E-VCifzJk-g&hl=en_US&fs=1

Independence Day Notebook

July 4th is always a big day at Joe Bruno Stadium, and last night was no exception. 6,124 fans came to “The Joe” to see some baseball and fireworks, and they got an exciting contest. The ‘Cats won 8-6 behind Dan Adamson’s tie-breaking homer in the eighth inning.

The offense pounded out 13 hits, setting a season high (previous had been 12 on Opening Day). After a three-game shutout sweep at Vermont, the ‘Cats were hitting .197 and we were wondering if they would ever score runs. But in four games since coming home, they’ve averaged 6.5 runs and more than 10 hits per game. Their batting average is up to .220, no longer last in the league (ahead of Lowell and Mahoning Valley). Tri-City won’t be among the league leaders at the end of the year, but fortunately it doesn’t look as inept as it seemed early in the year.

The ‘Cats get a very tough test tonight against Batavia’s Andy Moss. Moss has a 1.69 ERA in 16 innings this season, with 18 strikeouts. He went seven perfect innings in his last start against Mahoning Valley, striking out the side in the seventh. In particular, his command seems likely to pose a problem to Tri-City’s patience-heavy offense – he has walked only one batter this season. If the ValleyCats approach ten hits again tonight, they’ll really be on fire.

Nobody has been better over this homestand than Ben Orloff – the infielder is 5-for-9 with five more BB/HBP, and playing his usual strong defense now that he has recovered from last year’s elbow tendonitis. He was 3-for-3 last night, including his first extra-base hit of the season, a double to bring home Frank Almonte in the fifth inning. Orloff now leads the team with a .370 batting average and a .485 OBP. After the game, manager Jim Pankovits praised the veteran, saying, “it’s no coincidence we’ve been winning more since Orloff has been in the lineup.”

Almonte had the biggest hit of the early stages of the game, a two-run homer to right in the third. It looked like a lazy fly ball off the bat and right fielder Adam Melker expected to catch the ball, but the wind (which always blows out to right field here) carried it a few feet over the wall.

Batavia starter Kevin Siegrist could not find the zone in the first inning, walking four batters in the frame. He threw 31 pitches – only nine of which were strikes – and the damage might have been worse had Frank Almonte not grounded a 2-1 pitch at his hands to short. All of the lefty’s pitches were missing to the same spot – down and in to a right-handed batter (which the Tri-City lineup was filled with yesterday). But he calmed down a little bit afterwards, only allowing one walk in his final two innings. He was pretty much limited to one pitch, as he could find the zone with neither his curveball nor his changeup.

‘Cats starter Bobby Doran left the game in line for his first win of the season. Working quickly, he retired the side in order in the first inning, getting some help from Kik&eacute Hernandez, who showed nice range to his backhand to stab Colin Walsh’s grounder. Doran hit 90 mph on the nose with most of his fastballs, but showed 92 and fanned Joey Bergman with 91 to end the first.

Doran got a little unlucky in the second, as a Jon Rodriguez chopper went over Mike Kvasnicka’s head at third for a double, putting two runners in scoring position with nobody out. Three groundballs limited the damage to just one run. 10 of the 12 outs on balls in play off Doran, and four of the seven base hits, came on grounders.

The righty located pretty well, pitching mostly off his fastball but giving up seven base hits. Two more balls could have easily been hits, but the big Doran got in the way: a fourth-inning line drive that he got his glove on, knocking the ball down and making the play at first; and a one-hop comebacker in the fifth that he fielded cleanly with two on.

Doran flew through the fourth, needing only nine pitches (all strikes). He showed his offspeed chops, fanning Jon Rodriguez with a 76-mph curve. He got in some trouble in the fifth, when two clean singles, a bloop single and a whild pitch brought home two, but froze designated hitter Geoff Klein with an 88-mph fastball to get out of the inning.

The ‘Cats stranded eight runners in the first four innings, 12 for the game. Wilton Infante appeared stranded in the fourth, but reliever Chris Corrigan made a play I don’t believe I’ve ever witnessed – he fielded a soft grounder off Kvasnicka’s bat, had all the time in the world so he lobbed the ball softly to first…except the ball landed 20 feet past first base, allowing Infante to score.

Kvasnicka went 0-for-5, bringin him to 5-for-50 since his first two at-bats. But if he keeps swinging like he did last night, he’ll break out of his slump soon: he hit a hard line drive right at the center fielder in the first inning, and pulled a shot towards the hole with two out in the fifth, but Rodriguez made a terrific diving grab at first. Kvasi also made a couple nice plays at third base, picking a hot grounder to start a 5-4-3 double play in the seventh inning.

The most interesting pitcher we’ve seen here at “The Joe” is Houston Summers, who came in to pitch the sixth and seventh. Summers is a knuckleballer; it was amusing to see the radar gun read 53-58 and be accurate, while the righty lit up the gun with fastballs anywhere from 72-80 mph. But he was certainly successful – Orloff’s bunt single was the only hit the ‘Cats could manage in two innings (Infante also drew a walk). Neither of the players I talked to after the game, Orloff and Dan Adamson, had ever faced a knuckleballer before, and they were amused by the experience.

Alex Sogard wasn’t terribly sharp in his two innings, throwing only 14 strikes in 27 pitches, but the only run he gave up was Rainel Rosario’s line drive longball to left. Joan Belliard came into the eighth inning with a spotless ERA and a .103 BAA, but gave up a single to Bergman and then a moonshot homer to Rodriguez, tying the game.

The offense picked up the bullpen for once, as Adamson took a 1-1 fastball over the fence for a tie-breaking homer. The ball was gone off the bat, landing just below the Metroland sign in left-center. Three singles later, the ‘Cats had picked up an insurance run for the final margin.

Jorge De Leon came on for the save, thrilling the crowd with plenty of heat. He was 92-95 with his fastball, dialing it up to 96 to strike out star Muckdog Nick Longmire looking (to be fair, the pitch was 5-6 inches off the corner). He showed some wildness, walking Walsh and falling behind Bergman. But he got the latter to fly out to center, and then struck out Klein with a 95-mph fastball to end the game.

Given how strong Vermont has looked – the Lake Monsters are off to an unbelievable 14-3 start, with eight consecutive wins – the ValleyCats’ slim playoff hopes probably rest on the wild card. On that front, they got good news last night, as all four Stedler Division teams won on the first day of inter-divisional play.

Kevin Whitaker


Pankovits appreciates fans

Manager Jim Pankovits was thrilled with the crowd of 6,124 last night, saying that “[the fans] were a big factor in the win tonight.”

Ben Orloff agreed:

“It’s definitely cool to see the seats full – it gets the adrenaline flowing. The fans here are awesome. Especially on the Fourth of July, they always pack the house.”

Thanks to all the fans who showed up, and please continue to support the ‘Cats throughout the summer! Finish up the long weekend with another patriotically-themed 6 pm game tonight with fireworks, and the homestand concludes tomorrow with Tunes For Tuesday – Country Night.

Notebook: Carlos Quevedo is Cliff Lee

Didn’t get to finish this as quickly as I wanted, so it’s a little dated now. Tonight’s notebook should be up around the usual time tomorrow.

At the end of yesterday’s notebook, I wrote:

The ‘Cats continue to have absolutely no success at bringing runners home – they’re 4-for-25 with RISP in two games this series, stranding 11 runners each game. I remain hopeful that this is just bad luck, and the team will start to convert more hits into runs soon.

Well, that correction came, and it came quickly. The ValleyCats scored 10 runs in the first two innings, going 6-for-9 with RISP. They only left four runners on base for the game. The nine hits was actually right at where they had been all series, but with eight of them in the first two innings, they were able to convert them into many more runs than usual.

Now, just as the ‘Cats were bound to start driving in more runners after their slow start, they also won’t keep up this pace – I can guarantee they won’t go 9-for-14 with runners on base again tonight. But hopefully a few more of those baserunners will be driven in, and hopefully a few more of those close losses will become close victories.

Carlos Quevedo is Cliff Lee. Quevedo handed out a five-pitch walk to PJ Polk, which was unusual – it was his first walk of the season in 16.1 innings. But he certainly found his groove after that; he didn’t throw another ball that inning, and didn’t get to another three-ball count all night.

Quevedo now leads the New York-Penn League with 22 strikeouts, and has just the one walk on the season. That is insane. (Lee currently boasts a 15.60 K/BB ratio for the Mariners, which would be the best mark ever if he maintains it for the full season.) I love watching the way he attacks hitters, and he’s been very successful with it so far, holding a 2.01 ERA. The only disappointment is that, at this rate, Houston’s not going to keep him in the NYPL all year.

The righty struggled a bit in the first, leaving a lot of balls up in the zone. Alex Nunez and Josh Ashenbrenner each hit a fastball hard to center, but Dan Adamson tracked them both down. Julio Rodriguez got a soft line drive hit to right, but a pair of 83-mph changeups fanned James Robbins*.

*Robbins was lighting up the park in batting practice – he took three consecutive pitches over the wall, reaching the third fence in right field with the first one.

Quevedo again sat 88-90 mph* with his fastball, and settled down after the first inning. He gave up a cheap single to Matt Perry, a lazy opposite-field fly ball that just fell inside the line. He got Brett Anderson to hit a grounder to second that looked like it might erase Perry, but the ‘Cats could not complete the double play. two pitches later, Quevedo induced the same from Les Smith, getting out of the inning with a second 4-6-3.

*For those of you who are new or may have forgotten, all reported velocities are from the stadium gun. But I have seen no reason to doubt its accuracy so far – obvious misreads such as 51-mph fastballs aside, pitchers are hitting their expected ranges.

A pair of singles to lead off the fourth led to two runs, one earned, but that was all the Tigers could get off Quevedo. The Venezuelan native flew through six innings on 71 pitches – throwing single digits in three differnt frames – to notch yet another quality start.

Clemente Mendoza pitched well against the ‘Cats on Opening Day, but Tri-City sure figured him out the second time around. He allowed nine hits at The Joe two weeks ago, but limited the damage to just three runs. On Saturday, he wasn’t so lucky. The ValleyCats tagged him for nine runs on seven hits, three walks and a hit batsman. After a four-pitch walk for Orloff, Kik&eacute Hernandez drove a fly ball to the wall in left-center – his third first-inning double in as many games. With the bases loaded, Tyler Burnett followed with a double that brought home two more.

I’m not sure if it was because he was spooked by Oscar Figueroa’s game-changing out at the plate the night before or because the game was a blowout quickly, but Jim Pankovits was almost comically gun-shy with runners rounding third last night. (I’m leaning towards the latter – he did send Orloff home from first on Kik&eacute’s double.) Ben Heath could have easily scored from first on Burnett’s double in the first inning. The next inning Heath only advanced from second to third on Burnett’s second two-bagger; he got a poor read and was tagging up from second, but still would have likely made it home.

The most notable example came earlier that inning, on Heath’s cracked-bat single down the right-field line. Hernandez could have walked home from third, but Pankovits put up the stop sign; Kik&eacute didn’t see it until he was 50 feet from the plate. He dutifully stopped, but had nowhere to return, as Mike Kvasnicka was already standing on third base. Fortunately for the ‘Cats, the relay throw home bounced off the catcher’s glove 40 feet from the plate, allowing both Hernandez and Kvasnicka to score – it was that kind of night.

Mendoza’s night mercifully ended after a Dan Adamson sacrifice fly in the second inning, but Adam Bailey had one more statement to make. He took Logan Hoch’s second pitch some 400 feet to right field, landing it just in front of the OTB sign.

The ‘Cats sent all nine hitters to the plate in the first and second innings, but Hoch and Drew Gagnier shut them down after that, retiring 15 consecutive batters. It’s easy to give up on plate appearances when you have a ten-run lead, so there’s probably not a whole lot to say about that. There were a lot of strikeouts in the mix (10 for the game), which is not what one usually sees from this offense.

Chris Blazek threw a pair of scoreless innings, sitting 87-89 as usual. He went deep into counts but located well, hitting or just missing the corner with almost every pitch. He threw a dirty 80-mph changeup to the righty Anderson but ended up walking him; two batters later, he fanned righty Londell Taylor with a 78-mph one.

Michael Ness was called on for the final inning, allowing a groundball single but no other trouble. He fanned Les Smith with an 88-mph fastball to seal the 10-2 victory.

Radio broadcaster and fellow ‘Cats Corner blogger Evan Valenti may want to forego his budding career in broadcast journalism and move into something more along the lines of being a psychic. We were discussing the crowd size between innings at some point, and Evan threw out the number 4,525. Some other members of the ‘Cats staff who shall remain nameless (i.e., not me) mocked that estimate as optimistic. We got the official number an inning or so later, and it was…4,525 exactly.

Adam Bailey, on the other hand, may want to work on his counting skills. While being interviewed for the crowd on the field after the game, Bailey said, “…it’s nice to finally win two games in a row.” As nice as the win was – it marked the first time Tri-City had won a series – it did not change the fact that the ‘Cats lost their previous game 5-4. (The ValleyCats did win on Sunday to actually get that elusive back-to-back victory, so I feel a little better ragging on Bailey for it.)

Check out Astros County’s Q&A with our very own Vic Christopher.

Kevin Whitaker


Notebook: Kvasnicka catches

The ValleyCats went with a different defensive alignment than usual yesterday. Ben Orloff played his first game at shortstop since July 8, 2009, and handled the position very well. Orloff had only two chances yesterday but made the most of them. He handled a soft grounder in the first inning, but the highlight-reel play came in the fourth, when he reached a grounder up the middle and flipped it to Kiké Hernandez, who barehanded it and relayed to first while falling backwards, getting Brett Anderson by a step for a double play*.

Evan also nominated that as the best play at The Joe this season. I’m sorry, but that honor still belongs to Chad Mozingo, for his catch diving backwards on the warning track that turned into a double play. We’ll all be extremely lucky if that one gets topped this year.

As a senior at UC-Irvine in 2009, Orloff won the Brooks Wallace Award, given to the nation’s best collegiate shortstop, so it was nice to see him play well back at his old position. If you’re looking for some man-love for Orloff, Evan gave you plenty of it this afternoon. Orloff is a very good defender and one of the nicest people on the team. Let’s just say I don’t think he’ll still be leading the team in batting average at the end of the season.

But the defensive assignment that will get more notoriety is the fact that Mike Kvasnicka started at catcher for the first time as a professional. Kvasnicka was seen by many teams as a catcher entering the draft and he played there at times in college, but the Astros announced him as a third baseman, and he’s spent his time at third and in right this year. They still want to have him catch once in a while to stay fresh; he’s been catching bullpen sessions and he was behind the plate in a game situation for the first time last night.

It was only one game, but Kvasnicka looked more comfortable behind the plate than he has anywhere else this year. Connecticut didn’t test him much early on – they put Anderson in motion in the second, but PJ Polk put the ball in play – and the pitchers also made it easy on him, for the most part.

Things finally got interesting for Kvasnicka in the seventh, when the speedy Polk stole second and third. Both bags were stolen more off pitcher Brandt Walker than off Kvasnicka, though. In particular, his release and throw to second base was terrific; Polk had a great jump and I was expecting him to have the base easy, but Kvasnicka made it a close play. He was more to blame for the steal of third, as he had trouble transferring a pitch low and away (to a RHB) into his hand and didn’t make a throw, but given Polk’s jump and the pitch location I’m not sure he had a play anyways.

I can only remember one ball in the dirt from the first seven innings, a relatively harmless one right into Kvasnicka’s glove. However, the rookie did make a really nice play to block an 0-0 pitch from Andrew Robinson with a man on in the eighth; the ball bounced in the left-handed batter’s box and kicked up high, but Kvasnicka moved well to get his body in front of it. (He then got crossed up on the next pitch, expecting fastball and getting curve, but the pitch was down the middle and he was able to catch it before talking to Robinson.)

Overall, a very strong first outing behind the plate. If the Astros decide they want him behind the plate – or if, a year down the road, another team wants him there badly enough to trade for him – I saw nothing yesterday that would dissuade them.

Buchanan didn’t have a bad outing last night, allowing three runs in 4.2 innings. He was sitting 88-91 mph with his fastball all night, although the Tigers tagged it for a few hits. He hit Josh Ashenbrenner with a 1-2 pitch and it came back to hurt him, as James Robbins hit a ground-ball single off the glove of a diving Hernandez. His curve was very sharp, as he racked up three strikeouts in the first three innings on 76-77 mph curveballs.

The second-inning run came on a bit of a fluke, as Les Smith hit a grounder that took a bad hop and jumped over Tyler Burnett’s head at first, going for a double. Anderson immediately jumped on a first-pitch fastball for a single to bring home the run, but Buchanan settled down after that. He finished with six strikeouts on the night, getting two more later in the start by climbing the ladder with fastballs.

Buchanan also displayed Houston’s “organizational philosophy”, throwing first-pitch strikes to the first 11 batters he faced (17/20 overall).

The fifth-inning run was anything but lucky, as Londell Taylor took a 3-2 pitch well over the fence in left field. The Tri-City pitchers have generally been excellent this season, but they have been susceptible to the long ball, allowing 11 homers (tied with Hudson Valley for most in they NYPL). Murillo Gouvea has been the worst offender, allowing a league-high four homers.

On the other side, Brennan Smith was starting for the first time after opening the season in the bullpen, but you wouldn’t have known it from watching him. The righty made a seamless transition to the rotation, throwing four scoreless innings.

The ValleyCats had more success against the Tiger bullpen. Tyler Clark, with a herky-jerky delivery and a 69-71 mph curveball, allowed three hits and three walks in two innings, but escaped with only two runs. He could have gotten out of the fifth unscathed when Hernandez hit a possible double-play grounder with the bases loaded, but the relay throw pulled the first baseman off the bag.

Adam Champion didn’t have his best outing. The southpaw entered with two out in the fifth and gave up a bases-empty double to lefty Josh Ashenbrenner, but got out of that inning without further trouble. He fell behind the first four batters he faced in the sixth, however, and it cost him; he pegged James Robbins with his first pitch, and Robbins came around to score on Anderson’s two-out single.

Oscar Figueroa went 2-for-4 with a pair of RBIs, including the big hit in the sixth inning: a ground-ball single up the middle that may have went off Clark’s bare hand, scoring Bailey.

Patience fueled the ‘Cats’ late inning rallies. Ben Orloff led off the seventh with a 10-pitch walk (though he admitted afterwards that he fouled off a couple pitches he should have hit), Heath’s critical grounder that Anderson booted came after seven pitches, and Burnett drew a seven-pitch, bases-loaded walk (technically, Tyler White only threw six pitches, as the second ball was called because he went to his mouth on the pitching mound).

Dan Adamson led off the eighth with a triple to center, also on a full count. Adamson’s blast short-hopped the wall in the deepest part of the ballpark, and would have been gone most anywhere else on the field. Oscar Figueroa brought him home with a double, but stayed at second when Wilton Infante popped up a bunt.

Then came the game’s deciding play – Ben Orloff grounded through the right side, Taylor picked up the ball in shallow right field as Figueroa was rounding third, and manager Jim Pankovits waived him home. The throw was good enough to beat Figueroa, who slid past the tag and base, and was finally tagged out in a cat-and-mouse game behind home plate.

The ball, as mentioned, was picked up in shallow right field, and Taylor had plenty of time to throw Figueroa out. But I have no problem with Pankovits’ decision. First off, as he mentioned after the game, it’s not exactly like the ‘Cats have been good recently at bringing runners home – this was probably their best shot. And although outfielders should probably make that play on a shallow ground ball, they don’t always succeed – I’ve seen basically that same play at the plate four times this season, and Figueroa was only the second runner to be thrown out (Kvasnicka gunned down the other in last week’s 11-inning contest).

Walker had a long inning, even though he faced only five hitters and didn’t allow a hit. He walked Polk, who stole two bases and scored, and then walked Julio Rodriguez. But his stuff is clearly there, starting with a 94-95 fastball with good sink. He threw a 77-mph curve to freeze Ashenbrenner for his first strikeout, then threw an 83 changeup to set up a fastball that he blew by Robbins to end the inning. Walker needed 26 pitches to get through the five batters.

Nine runners scored last night. Six of them reached base on either a walk or hit by pitch.

The ‘Cats continue to have absolutely no success at bringing runners home – they’re 4-for-25 with RISP in two games this series, stranding 11 runners each game. I remain mystified by their inability to drive in runs. It would make sense that they would struggle to move guys along if they struck out a lot…but they don’t (only 3 K’s last night). I guess it could be partly due to lineup construction – this early in the season, it’s hard to know who your best hitters are, so it’s more difficult to cluster them together, making it more likely that guys who get on base will be left there…but I don’t really think that can explain more than a small part of it. I remain hopeful that this is just bad luck, and the team will start to convert more hits into runs soon.

Kevin Whitaker


Random Thoughts Heading into the Holiday Weekend

This doesn’t extend to everyone on the team, but the
ValleyCats so far this season are dead last in the New York-Penn League in
batting with a .205 average (I was pleasantly surprised after checking this stat).
A couple of days ago the ‘Cats were batting below the Mendoza line… as a team! They were shut out in three
straight games on the road. Honestly, that isn’t acceptable.

Don’t get me wrong, there are guys on this team that can hit. Ben Orloff has really come
around and has stepped up as one of the leaders of this team. Heading into the
final game in a three-game set against the Tigers, Orloff leads the team with a
.333 batting average. He struggled last year, partly due to some elbow
tendonitis. He never batted above .179 last year and was 1 for his first 21. In
21 ABs this year he already has seven hits. 

And defensively, don’t even get me started. Orloff is one of
the most talented defensive middle infielders I have ever seen. He has already
made two highlight reel worthy defensive plays. I’m talking SportsCenter top
ten and Baseball Tonight’s web gem kind of plays. He had one the other night
that blew me away. On a pop up in foul territory, Orloff ran all the way from
second base and made a sliding, over-the-shoulder catch just in front of the
tarp. And last night might have been the best play fans at “The Joe” have seen
all season. On a ground ball up the middle, Orloff ranged all the way to his
left, scooped up the ball on the second base side of the bag, flipped it to
second baseman Kiké Hernandez, who bare-handed it over to first for the 6-4-3
twin killing. Media Relations/Productions Manager Chris Chenes was standing
next to me at the time. His jaw hit the floor.

 As my fellow
VCN member Kevin Whitaker has already pointed out, pitching has been the
strength of this team. The bullpen has pitched exceptionally well. As a group,
the ‘pen under Pitching Coach Gary Ruby (Ruby Ruby Rubaaaaayyyyyy. Sorry,
couldn’t help myself. Love that song when he comes out, even if he doesn’t) has
a 2.50 ERA. The pitching staff collectively has a 3.21 ERA, which is good for
fourth in the entire New York-Penn League. Tom Shirley and Carlos Quevedo have
been phenomenal so far for the ‘Cats. Quevedo is in the top-20 in the NYPL in
ERA and is eighth in strikeouts. Shirley ranks fourth in K’s, but the biggest
problem with Shirley is that he throws too many pitches. He allows a lot of baserunners, which could come back and bite him later.

“It’s pretty evident to everybody we can really pitch,” said
Orloff. “It’s good as a hitter cause we’re in every ball game. We’re never
going to be chasing five or six runs with the way these guys have been throwing
the ball. So if we can just execute – do these little things, score enough runs
- we’re going to be real successful this year.”

Notes from the
World Cup:

It’s the biggest sporting event in the entire world (apologies
to die hard American football fans and bracketologists all around the world,
but it’s true) and it’s coming to a close. We had “World Cup Wednesday” here at
ballpark last week and it really brought out a lot of love for the event. A lot
of the front office staff here in Troy is extremely interested. Some watch it
on their computers, some listen to it on the radio, and some watch it on the TV
in the concourse.

When USA played Ghana, and eventually lost in a heartbreaker
in extra time, we had quite the scene here from “The Joe.” There were
ValleyCats staff members mixed in with Lowell Spinners players and a few
ValleyCats players sprinkled in. Most of the crowd lived and died with every US
shot, except for Kiké Hernandez. When people say the world stops for the World Cup,
they aren’t lying.

As for my prediction: have to go with the Netherlands against Germany. Germany
dominated, and I mean dominated, the
favorite to win the cup after beating Argentina 4-0. The Netherlands team is
very interesting as well. Sneijder and Van Persie have been sensational, and
you can’t forget about Kuyt. In the end, I have the Germans winning in a 3-1 game over the Netherlands. Germany is on a
roll right now. The only team that can stop them is Spain, and the only way
they do so is if Fernando Torres remembers how to play. He has not been himself
this entire cup (to his credit he is coming off an injury).  

 

Evan Valenti

Notebook: Bats bounce back

Great to see the ‘Cats snap out of their offensive funk last night. They snapped a four-game losing streak and a three-game scoreless streak, putting up four runs on nine hits and riding their pitching to a 4-2 victory over Connecticut.

Ben Heath is the face of this team’s offense right now. The catcher reached base three times in four plate appearances yesterday, most notably with a fifth-inning home run that gave Tri-City its third and ultimately decisive run. Heath has hit safely in his last six games and now leads the team in most offensive categories, at .290/.439/.613 with three homers (the rest of the ‘Cats have four combined). His 1.052 OPS ranks fourth in the NYPL right now. He’s back in the cleanup spot tonight, getting a day off from the field at DH.

That solo homer in the sixth was an absolute bomb. It landed on the Top of the Hill Bar & Grill, right next to the scoreboard in left field. I walked it out this afternoon during batting practice and estimated it at 425-430 feet, and it’s elevated a good 20 feet above field level. I’m pretty sure that’s the lfarthest homer we’ve seen at The Joe this year, although Adam Bailey’s shot last week was close.

Kiké Hernandez had a great night at the plate as well, going 3-for-5 with three clean line drive hits. He earned neither a run nor an RBI in the first inning but had the most important hit, taking a 2-2 pitch the opposite way for a stand-up double in the first inning and moving Wilton Infante over to third. He reached base with a one-out shot to left, and Mike Kvasnicka followed with another line drive base hit, snapping his 0-for-13 slump. Josue Carreno struck out the side, but not before walking Adam Bailey and throwing a wild pitch that scored Hernandez. I was surprised when Kiké tried for home and thought he was a goner, as the ball barely made it onto the grass behind home plate, but he got his hand clearly in front of Carreno’s tag.

The ‘Cats continue to have difficulty bringing runners home – they stranded 11 and only scored four last night. I believe that’s mostly due to bad luck – they don’t strike out particularly often, and I don’t think there are any other repeatable factors that could influence that – with a little blame on the bad baserunning as well (two more pickoffs last night).

Tom Shirley had another interesting outing, throwing effectively but not managing his pitches very well. Shirley threw 27 pitches in the fourth and brought his game total to 73, probably over his limit. But although he walked four and gave up three hits, he got six strikeouts to get out of quite a few jams. He did not induce a batted ball out in the first two innings; five struck out, while Heath made a nice throw to erase Alex Nunez trying to steal second. The first time Shirley got an out on a ball in play, he got two for the price of one on a 4-6-3 double play in the third; he got three ground balls and one popout last night.

All of this is nothing new for Shirley. He’s used to striking out hitters – 18 (tied for fourth in the league) in just 10 inning – and he’s used to getting ground balls (4.50 GO/AO ratio). He’s also used to short outings (the four innings today was his longest so far), because he hasn’t been efficient with his pitches. He has been getting in and out of jams all year: Shirley has allowed seven hits and seven walks in 10 innings, yet still somehow has not allowed a run. Nobody can sustain that for a full season, but if he keeps getting whiffs at this rate – if my math is correct, 43% of hitters to face him have gone down on strikes – he will be able to strand more than his share of runners.

Also, the ‘Cats are 3-0 in Shirley’s starts, and have not allowed an earned run in those three games. This is mostly due to coincidence plus Tri-City’s strong bullpen – Shirley has only been responsible for 10 of those 27 innings – but it’s a nice pattern. If he can get through innings more quickly and build up his arm strength, maybe he can actually pick up one of those wins.

Shirley also lacked a second pitch for the second consecutive start. He was pretty much just a fastball pitcher again, and it’s really amazing what he’s been able to do with that pitch – he was in the 88-90 range again yesterday, but it really gets onto hitters (especially lefties) quickly. He showed two breaking balls – looked like a slurve and a curveball to me. The slurve was in the low-70s and a little bit effective, while he threw the other breaking ball in the 60s, telegraphed it out of his hand and had very little command of it. (Note: take the pitch classifications with a huge dosage of salt. I talked to pitching coach Gary Ruby a little bit after the game but he wouldn’t really elaborate much on Shirley’s breaking stuff.) But he keeps his fastball low in the zone and commands it very well, which has been all he has needed so far.

David Martinez bounced back from a rough outing and was his usual solid self, going 1-2-3 in the fifth inning and eventually earning the win. The only hit he allowed was a ground ball single that a diving Tyler Burnett knocked down at third base, but he could not complete the play. Travis Blankenship was stuck with both runs but neither was earned; the main culprit was a two-base throwing error on Burnett. Blankenship did hit Chao-Ting Tang, who came around to score, and the second run came in on a cheap bloop to center. Blankenship, drafted out of Kansas in the 31st round this year, sure looks like he’ll be a successful LOOGY at the higher levels. He certainly fits the profile; his fastball is mid-80s, but he relies mostly on his offspeed stuff, which all has a lot of lateral movement from his 5/8ths arm slot. The results are there as well: lefties are just 1-for-9 off him this year with five strikeouts. So far, righties have also had trouble against him (1-for-9 as well), but that probably won’t remain the case throughout his career.

Joan Belliard got three strikeouts in 1.1 innings, allowing only one baserunner on an E-4. Two of his K’s came on 79-mph changeups that looked good. Belliard also gets great sink on his pitches, inducing a lot of grounders.

And Jorge De Leon notched his first save of the season, getting two ground balls and a strikeout to end the game. He wasn’t quite lighting up the radar gun like he has in the past, sitting 91-94 in his inning of work.

A couple other items…

We got our first game-time rain last night, as the skies opened briefly in the eighth inning. It never came down nearly hard enough to threaten play, but on this cold night, it sent a good portion of the 3,485 fans scurrying for cover under the concourse or out of the park altogether.

Connecticut starter Josue Carreno got the loss, but didn’t pitch that poorly and showed good stuff. He was also 88-90, with an 80-mph changeup that fooled a couple ‘Cats and a 75-mph curveball that got at least three strikeouts.

Pitchers on both sides benefitted from a very generous outside corner (to both lefties and righties). The same umpire will be behind the plate on Saturday, so look for that again.

Kvasnicka snapped his hitless streak last night, but he still does not exactly look good at the plate. In particular, he’s still very shaky from the right side – the switch-hitter is 1-for-11 on the season against southpaws. He looked absolutely lost on three offspeed pitches from Antonio Cruz in the eighth, going down on strikes.

Kvasnicka starts at catcher tonight for the first time this season. If you want to know how he plays behind the plate, you know where to look.

Kevin Whitaker


Goose Eggs

There are a lot of things to like about this ValleyCats team, twelve games into the 2010 season. The pitching staff has been dominant, posting a 2.90 ERA – fourth-best in the NY-Penn League. Tri-City leads the league with 108 strikeouts, and has only walked 38 batters, less than the league average.

And the offense has shown strong secondary skills. The ‘Cats have walked 54 times, second-best in the league to date. And their power numbers – 17 doubles and six homers – are not bad in the context of the league.

But, as important as walks and power are, you still can’t score a lot of runs when you’re batting .197, as the ValleyCats are after tonight’s 4-0 shutout loss at Vermont, the second goose egg in as many days. And that’s certainly the biggest story surrounding the Tri-City team right now. On Sunday afternoon, I wrote that I really liked that night’s lineup, and they proceeded to score two runs on three hits, only one of which was well-struck. But although I thought I had jinxed them that night, Sunday’s lineup looks absolutely potent compared to the one we’ve seen in Vermont. Last night, three Lake Monsters combined for a four-hit shutout; tonight, three more home team pitchers allowed only two hits and three walks.

I will offer many of the same warnings I offered last week: we’re still dealing with small samples. This team certainly has the ability to hit – we saw that in the middle of last week’s homestand, when they racked up 28 hits in three games. And the fact that the secondary skills are still there gives me some confidence that the ‘Cats will figure out what they’re doing at the plate.

And again, we’ve seen this before. Tri-City’s batting average through 12 games last year was .198, eerily similar to that of this year’s team. The 2009 offense turned out to be fine, finishing up just shy of the league average at .242 despite the cold start. (Of course, that team picked up an offensive boost at about this point in the season, adding unknown college outfielder J.D. Martinez*, who eventually led the league in hitting. We certainly can’t count on getting that kind of addition again.) Vermont also has the best pitching staff in the league to date, although with only 12 games in the books we run into some cause-and-effect issues with the stats that we need time to sort out (i.e., does Vermont have good numbers because Tri-City is bad, or do the ‘Cats have bad numbers because their opponents can pitch?).

*Care to guess who’s currently leading the ValleyCats in batting average? That’s right, a college outfielder drafted in the 20th round, Dan Adamson.

So I guess my message is pretty much the same as it was last week: be patient. If the ‘Cats are still flirting with the Mendoza Line at the end of the upcoming six-game homestand, well, then it might be time to panic. But right now, it could be no more than a teamwide slump happening at a bad time.

Mike Kvasnicka will not finish the season hitting .121, I promise you that. He’s still found ways to be productive at the plate, however, drawing 10 walks (tied for fourth in the league).

Although the hitting is obviously the headliner, this also has not been a very good defensive team. The ValleyCats rank second in the NYPL in fielding percentage at .974, but that only tells a small part of the story – this defense is allowing a lot of balls to fall for hits. Even with all the strikeouts, opponents are batting .263 against Tri-City pitchers – 20 points above the league average. I plan on diving into this more in a later post, but eyeballing the numbers, I would expect that the ‘Cats have allowed the highest batting average on balls in play, and it might not be close. They have also thrown 12 wild pitches, one shy of the league high, and have thrown out a below-average share of base stealers.

I would expect the defense to get better over time, as the ‘Cats have been breaking in players at new positions. The fact that they are fourth in ERA despite having a lot of players unfamiliar at their position is a tremendous credit to the pitching staff.

Baserunning has been another pitfall of this young team. The ValleyCats got five runners on base tonight, and only two stayed there until the end of the inning. Vermont turned a pair of double plays, which certainly aren’t the runners’ fault, but Wilton Infante was picked off and caught stealing after his base hit in the fourth inning. Tri-City has had eight runners caught stealing and only five successful thefts, and I can’t find stats for pure pickoffs but there have been a couple of those.

It’s probably worth mentioning that, despite the 4-8 record, Tri-City has only been outscored by four runs (44-40). However, that comes with the caveat that Randy Consuegra basically handed them 5-10 runs, depending on how you want to count the inherited runners. Drawing walks is absolutely a skill, and this is a patient lineup, but Consuegra was a special case – batters could pretty much step in the box, see four or five pitches and know they were going to take first base.

I was legitimately disappointed that Carlos Quevedo pitched last night, because the team was on the road and I couldn’t watch. That’s how good he has been this year. He did give up a pair of longballs on Monday but was otherwise brilliant, allowing just two other runners to reach base in six innings. For the season, Quevedo has 16 strikeouts and no walks. That’s Cliff Lee territory. His next start should be at The Joe, projected for July 3rd against Connecticut.

Quevedo’s record so far is 0-1, which should demonstrate exactly how useful that statistic is for measuring pitchers (particularly in this league).

And after a pair of shaky outings last week, the bullpen is right back to its amazing old self. Tri-City relievers have thrown six scoreless innings in the series so far, giving up only three hits.

The ValleyCats and Lake Monsters finish their three-game set tomorrow. Tri-City looks to take the first step towards breaking out of its slump against Matt Swynenberg, who frustrated the ‘Cats in Troy last week. But as long as the pitching keeps this up, we will at the very least have a season full of close, fast-paced games.

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Toaster trouble

As fans were filing into Joe Bruno Stadium about an hour before Sunday’s game, there was an awful stench coming from the concourse. It did not take long to locate the source of the chaos: someone in the home clubhouse had left a piece of bread burning in the toaster.

Apparently, this is not the first time that the ValleyCats have struggled with a toaster. Earlier this season, corner infielder Tyler Burnett had a similar toaster-related mishap in the players’ dorms at RPI, setting off the fire alarms in the wee hours of the morning.

As much trouble as the ValleyCats have had figuring out kitchen appliances, it pales in comparison to the difficulty they have had figuring out Lowell pitchers. Aside from the unbelievably wild Randy Consuegra, the Spinners pitchers have had tremendous success against Tri-City.

The line so far for Lowell pitchers, sans Consuegra, against the ValleyCats:

34.2 IP, 19 H, 35 SO, 14 BB, 3 ER, 0.78 ERA, .156 BAA

Right from the start, it was clear that yesterday would be tough for the Tri-City offense. Lefty Hunter Cervenka dialed it up as high as 94 mph and hit every one of his spots early on. He was perfect with five strikeouts through the first two innings, needing only 23 pitches to make the home team hitters look foolish. Cervenka got a little looser with his command in the third and the ‘Cats made him pay, taking advantage of a walk, a hit batsman and an error to tie the game at 1-1, but still could not hit balls hard.

Cervenka took a no-hitter into the fifth inning, when veteran first baseman Nick Stanley broke up the bid with a one-out single after fighting through an eight-pitch at-bat. Stanley’s safety was not particularly well-hit – a Texas Leaguer to the opposite field – but it fell in the right place. The hard-throwing lefty was then removed from the game, as he had already reached surpassed his limit with 72 pitches.

“[Cervenka's] command was real good,” Ben Heath said. “He pitched against us over at Lowell, and he was also really good there.”

“I don’t know what it is with that kid, but we didn’t swing the bats well against him over there,” manager Jim Pankovits said of Cervenka. “Lowell is kind of a strange team – [tonight it was] a different team than you saw last night, that’s for sure.”

Reliever Stephen Fox was just as effective. The righty only reached the high 80s with his fastball, but went to his 75-77 curveball early and often, keeping Tri-City hitters off-balance. Fox retired the first ten hitters he faced, and the first hit he allowed was similarly soft: Dan Adamson hit a grounder to first and beat the pitcher to the bag for an infield single.

The only well-struck base hit the ValleyCats had all game came in the ninth inning, when Heath lined an 0-1 slider over the Tri-City bullpen in left. The catcher leads the team with a pair of longballs, both ninth-inning blasts.

Lost in the shuffle was the fact that Tri-City starter Jake Buchanan threw very well. Pankovits said after the game that Buchanan isn’t yet where he’d like to be, and that’s undoubtedly true in terms of stamina – he was pulled after three innings and 50 pitches. But I was very impressed with the righty’s performance last night.

Buchanan was sitting 88-89 with his fastball, but hitters were still swinging late often, possibly out of respect for his changeup and curveball. He had good run to the arm side as well; shortstop Oscar Figueroa was the main beneficiary of this, picking up three 6-3 assists in the first two innings.

The eighth-round draft pick out of NC State did walk two hitters, but it wasn’t as if he showed a complete lack of control – he issued a bases-empty walk to Kolbrin Vitek in the first on a full count, and Nick Robinson worked an 11-pitch walk in the third inning. Robinson’s would prove more critical when Felix Sanchez followed with a line drive single up the middle – the first hit of the game – and Buchanan hit Jose Garcia on a 2-2 couint, loading the bases. Vitek hit into a fielder’s choice at short, but it was too slow to complete the double play and Robinson scored.

Chris Blazek came on for the fourth, and was brilliant as usual, consistently at 88 mph with his fastball. He did allow his second hit of the season, but it was a lazy fly ball to left that could have been caught if Renzo Tello had made a better read on it. Blazek retired the next two hitters in order, throwing a dirty 79-mph changeup to send David Renfroe down swinging. His season line: 4.2 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 10 SO.

Blazek is too good for this level. But don’t tell that to anyone in the Houston front office, because I really enjoy watching him pitch.

It was the other Tri-City relievers who uncharacteristically struggled. David Martinez came into the game with a perfect ERA in 6.2 innings, but the Lowell ofefnse woke against him immediately. Felix Sanchez reached on a one-out bunt single – his second of the two-game series – and stole second base; Jose Garcia advanced him 90 feet with a line drive to left. Martinez got Kolbrin Vitek to fly out to shallow right field and could have been out of the inning, but while Adam Bailey’s throw was in plenty of time to catch the speedy Sanchez, it was too far up the third-base line for Heath to make the tag. Two more line-drive hits, the last a shot to the center-field wall by Brandon Jacobs, and the Spinners had a 4-1 lead.

Martinez had a strong second inning, but the meat of the Lowell lineup feasted on Brendan Stines. Garcia hit a line drive into the Lowell bullpen, and Vitek and Miles Head followed with base hits, tacking on two more runs.

Brandt Walker came on to finish the game. His line wasn’t pretty – five hits and a run in two innings – but I would not worry much about the five hits – they were all singles and each one was a grounder that found a hole. The four outs in play off Walker were also ground balls. When you can hit 92-93 like Walker can (and he flashed a nice curve to fan Garcia) with that kind of sink, you’re usually going to have success as a pitcher. Walker did issue a four-pitch walk to Vitek and a five-pitch free pass to Robinson, each of which loaded the bases.

The box score shows a poor game for Heath defensively, as he fielded the bunt single and allowed stolen bases to Sanchez and Vitek. But although I’ve been critical of Heath’s defense before, that wasn’t the problem last night: Sanchez is fast as hell, his bunt was perfectly placed, Vitek stole on a breaking ball and both runners got good jumps off the pitcher. I’ll continue to keep an eye on him behind the plate as the season progresses, but I have no complaints from last night.

I got a chance yesterday to talk with Heath about making the transition to pro ball as a catcher:

Anytime you have a new staff, it’s an adjustment. But it’s also exciting to catch guys who have really good stuff. A lot of guys here throw heavy sinkers – a lot of times, you see a guy throwing 88-90 and think it’s not huge velocity, but if he has sink on the ball, you can’t really tell from the side. It’s definitely a different level than college. But we have a great pitching staff, and it’s fun to catch.

A couple other news items from the weekend:

The 19th overall draft pick, Mike Foltynewicz, made his debut for the Greenville Astros on Saturday. He threw one inning, allowing a hit but erasing the runner with a pickoff. He will be in rookie ball all season, according to reports, so he will not be a ValleyCat in 2010.

And we have reports that third-round pick Austin Wates will sign with Houston soon. Houston will reportedly try Wates out at second base. Given the similarities between Wates and Mike Kvasnicka – advanced bats with positional questions – I would have to think there’s a good chance he comes to Troy. If he does, Wates could be an impact bat for the ValleyCats right away – something it looks like this team could use.

(Update: apparently that report was false.)

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Vermont roundup

I meant to post this before tonight’s game, but some World Cup-related distractions got in the way, so it’s now a little dated.

Well, the last two games went a little differently than the first six. The biggest difference was that the ‘Cats actually hit the ball. The stats:

-Tri-City had 10 hits in each game, 20 total – as many as the four games before that combined.
-The ValleyCats were batting .197 after six games, but raised that average to .222.
-5 runs on Thursday tied the season high to that point, which was then broken by Friday’s seven-run output.

Adam Bailey and Nick Stanley each broke out of slumps in big ways, getting three hits apiece. Stanley picked up all three in the first six innings – the last of which drove in Mike Kvasnicka to pull Tri-City within three – and walked in his fourth plate appearance. Stanley, meanwhile, drove in the game’s first run with a sacrifice fly in the second and doubled with two out in the tenth, but most will remember his game-tying two-run homer in the eighth.

Bailey’s homer was gone from the moment it hit the bat, easily clearing the second fence in right field. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts cup of coffee with a giveaway if anyone hits it, and the sign has been mocked for its distance (at least 450 feet away in right field, maybe more). But if Bailey’s shot had been hit another degree or two to the left, it would have landed within 5-10 feet of the sign. I’d be shocked if anyone else comes closer to hitting it all year.

The ValleyCats are now hitting .222 and are no longer last in the league. Even that understates their offense to some degree – their team OPS of .662 ranks 10th of 16 teams in the NYPL. Offensive numbers in this league are always going to be lower than they are in MLB, because many players are in their first year learning to use wooden bats. For example, while the MLB league batting average is generally in the .260-.270 range, the NYPL average is .243 so far this year.

So…I don’t want to say I told you so, but I kinda did. But seriously, the last two games don’t mean the ValleyCats’ offense will be good any more than the previous two meant it was terrible, and so it’s important to keep an eye on the bats moving forward. But now I think we can all relax a bit after their cold start.

Yes, the bullpen was bad last night, giving up six runs and 11 hits in five innings. But it had a 0.70 ERA coming into the game. That was never going to last. The regression came at a bad time, but I still like it to be a strength going forward; a couple bad pitches ended up in bad places against a good-hitting team, but I loved how Belliard and Champion got out of the two-on, one-out jam in the 8th to keep the ‘Cats in the game, and I’m confident the relievers will continue to be strong.

I’m going to keep writing a lot about Mike Kvasnicka, because there’s a lot of interest in how he develops, particularly among Astros fans. Kvasnicka broke out of an 0-for-16 slump with a line-drive single in the first inning of Thursday’s game, also his first base hit right-handed this year. He still hasn’t been lighting things up offensively, but his swing has looked better from both sides, and he is pretty much where you expect him to be in his development. The first-pitch home run on Opening Day was nice, but he still has work to do. One encouraging sign is his plate discipline – he walked four times in 11 plate appearances against Vermont.

Defensively, things were mixed for Kvasnicka at third base against Vermont. He made a nice play in the second inning Thursday, picking up a slow roller and throwing across the diamond. But in the seventh inning of that game, he overran a foul popup, getting to the dugout only to see it fall five feet away, back towards the field. That play really just showed his unfamiliarity with the position – anyone who has ever tried to field a popup from third or catcher knows how difficult it is to judge a ball spinning back towards the field. Later that inning, Connor Rowe hit a hard worm-burner to his right; Kvasnicka got in front of it and gloved it, but couldn’t pick it off the ground, committting his first error of the season at third base. He got another chance with two outs and runners on the corners, redeeming himself on a hard two-hopper right at him. Last night, Marcus Jones hit a ground-ball double down the third-base line that Kvasnicka might have been able to knock down, but he reacted too slowly. Kvas is back in right field tonight.

Another player with positional questions is catcher Ben Heath. He’s still a backstop and will be for the forseeable future, but people have wondered if he has what it takes to stay behind the plate in the big leagues. He really hasn’t made strides towards answering that question yet this season. Heath was behind the plate for two wild pitches by Robert Doran two days ago and a third by Gouvea yesterday, all of which looked blockable. (On the final one, he reached out to scoop a backhand off the bounce instead of getting his body in front of it). He was also slow getting out from behind the plate in the first inning on Friday, allowing Blake Kelso to reach base on a bunt single. I’m not a scout and don’t know if he’ll end up catching in the big leagues, but he’ll have to work hard defensively to get there.

Renzo Tello made a couple of beautiful throws from left field to kill baserunners in Wednesday’s game, but came up short in a critical spot on Friday. Connor Rowe’s tenth-inning single was a soft grounder through the 5-6 hole, and Tello was playing relatively shallow in left. He came up throwing and would have had plenty of time to get Hendry Jimenez at the plate, but it was too far up the first-base line for Heath to make a play. Tello almost made a sensational play in the ninth, leaping to catch Stephen King’s line-drive homer, but missed it by inches (and was shaken up on the play).

But overall, the defense has been very strong recently. Kvasnicka’s fielding error was the only miscue of those two games for Tri-City. As well as he hit on Friday, I was just as impressed with Nick Stanley in the field. I have been critical of Stanley’s defense before, after two subpar games to open the season, but yesterday’s performance makes me think those might have been an aberration. He made a great play in the fourth inning, sliding to backhand a ball in the hole and completing the 3-1 play. A couple batters later, he started a 3-6-1 double play to get out of the inning.

Of course, the two best defensive plays were made by Lake Monsters. In the eighth inning of Thursday’s game, Frank Almonte hit a line drive to left field that looked like a sure double, but speedy outfielder Chad Mozingo raced back and made a terrific diving catch on the warning track. Renzo Tello was already past second base, expecting the ball to drop; Mozingo was able to get the ball back to the infield in time for the relay throw to double Tello off at first. And yesterday, Enrique Hernandez drove a one-hopper off the mound, but second baseman Blake Kelso dove to his right and snared the ball off the bounce, recovering to throw Hernandez out at first.

We had a scary moment in the third inning of Thursday’s game when shortstop Oscar Figueroa and center fielder Wilton Infante collided going after a popup in the middle of the field. Infante made the catch and was fine, but Figgy went down hard and stayed there for a couple minutes. He remained in the game and it didn’t seem to affect his play much, but he was still feeling the collision in his shoulder the following day.

Some other assorted notes on Tri-City pitchers:

Robert Doran had a very good outing Thursday night. His final line is okay – 4 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 3 SO, 1 BB – but it really could have been a lot better than that. Only one of those was really well-struck, though – a line-drive double to center by Wilfri Pena that scored a run. Pena only batted that inning because Doran slipped going after a nubber towards third, and while the other hits weren’t as lucky as that one, they could have easily been outs. A pair of ground balls found holes, and Justin Miller hit a ball in the gap that looked like an easy out off the bat but carried forever, going with the wind for a double. It’s a shame Doran was pulled after four due to his pitch count (57); he deserved the win in that game.

Doran was sitting 89-91 for the game, showing an 80 changeup fairly often. More impressively, he threw first-pitch strikes to the first 16 hitters he faced. Astros County picked up on this as well, and it’s by no means unusual within this staff. The day before, Carlos Quevedo went FPS on 15 of the first 16; on Opening Day Quevedo started out 12/12.

The guy who did get the win Thursday, lefty reliever Chris Blazek, did pitch even better. Blazek pitched in Troy way back in 2005 and was last seen in Corpus Christi in 2008, but sat out last season with a labrum tear in his pitching shoulder. The 25-year-old is working his way back up the ranks, and probably won’t be with the ValleyCats much longer if he continues to throw like he did against Vermont. Blazek struck out the side in order in the fifth inning, throwing a dirty changeup to fool Jimenez for the second out. He was just as perfect in his second inning of work, getting two strikeouts and a harmless grounder to first. The southpaw only sits around 85-87 (touched 88), but he hides the ball very well in his delivery, making it hard to pick up out of his hand. Opponents also have to respect his offspeed stuff – the change that got Jimenez clocked at 80, while he throws a breaking ball in the mid-70s – so even though his fastball doesn’t have great velocity, it gets on hitters quickly. As much as I’d love to see Blazek here as long as possible, I would imagine he’ll get promoted sometime in the next couple weeks.

Possibly the most interesting Tri-City pitcher this year is Jorge De Leon, a converted shortstop with an incredibly live arm. The closer was stretched out for a two-inning save on Thursday and got five-sixths of the way there, but walked the final two hitters and had to be replaced by Michael Ness. De Leon didn’t have great command that night, walking two and hitting a third. But he still showed flashes of dominance, freezing King on a curveball to open the eighth and then sawing off Jason Martinson with a 91-mph fastball on the hands. He never hit the 97 that he’s capable of on Thursday, but was in the low-90s and ramped it up as high as 95.

Murillo Gouvea did not command the ball well in his first start, losing a lot of pitches at the batters’ eyes. He had some more bad at-bats on Friday, but overall his control was much better, and he walked only one in five innings of work. Gouvea was again hurt by the longball, though; he gave up his second homer of the season, a two-run shot to Rowe in the fifth. That was about all the damage Gouvea allowed, however – he gave up a run in the fifth on a walk, bunt single, sacrifice bunt and sacrifice fly, and didn’t allow anyone else past second base.

I’ll have more analysis from tonight’s crazy game, hopefully tomorrow afternoon before the 5 pm start.

Kevin Whitaker

Other links: Fan blogger Jim Davey talks about Heath’s game-tying homer and some fans he encountered at “The Joe”

VCN’s Elliot Travis has video from Thursday’s game:

And from Friday:


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