The Tri-City ValleyCats 2016 season was memorable in many ways as the club celebrated their 15th Anniversary and welcomed their two millionth fan through the gates. An average of 4,281 fans per game came to Joseph L. Bruno Stadium to see the ‘Cats, the second best attendance average in the entire 14-team New York-Penn League, which is the highest ranking in their 15 year history.
On the field, the team put up at least a .500 record for the fifth straight year, but early injuries and a record number of transactions contributed to the club missing the New York-Penn League playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Back in October, the Astros named Lamarr Rogers the seventh manager in ValleyCats history, taking over managerial duties from Ed Romero, who finished with an overall record of 134-93, including three consecutive Stedler Division titles in his three seasons.
Rogers and the ‘Cats kicked off the season with a promising Opening Night victory. Stephen Wrenn led off the game with a home run in his first professional at-bat, and Taylor Jones added a grand slam in a 13-1 mauling of the Connecticut Tigers.
The ValleyCats played a 17 inning marathon game against the Brooklyn Cyclones on their first road trip, a televised contest that lasted six hours and five minutes. The teams were tied at six headed to the 17th, before Daz Cameron hit a 2-RBI double and Wrenn added a 2-run home run to give the ‘Cats the lead for good, 10-9.
After the Brooklyn series the ‘Cats dropped two of three to Vermont and took two of three from Lowell, staging a matchup with the Williamsport Crosscutters. In the pair of division match-ups, Carmen Benedetti and Cameron combined to score 30 runs and both players hit their first professional home runs.
The ‘Cats started off the series with Williamsport on the wrong foot – literally. Astros 4th round draft pick Brett Adcock exited his start after only two pitches in the first game of a doubleheader. Adcock gave up a double on the first pitch of the game, then rolled his ankle trying to field a sacrifice bunt from the next batter.
Exactly a week later, on July 6, Daz Cameron suffered a season-ending injury of his own. In the final game of a series against the State College Spikes, Cameron was hit by a pitch, breaking his left index finger. He’d been hitting .278 with 13 runs, 14 RBI, and eight SB in 19 games, and looked like he was ready for a breakout year.
With the departure of Cameron came the emergence of Ryne Birk, the Astros 13th round pick from Texas A&M. Birk cranked a solo home run in the bottom of the ninth inning against State College to send the game to extra innings. He finished that game 4-5 with 3 RBI, and registered eight multi-hit games on the season, before his promotion to Quad Cities.
Wrenn, Birk and Randy Cesar led the ‘Cats through a hot July. At one point before his promotion, Cesar reached base in 11 consecutive plate appearances and led the NYPL with a .389 batting average.
Tri-City opened the month taking two of three from rival Hudson Valley before a tough series with the eventual NYPL-champion State College Spikes. The ‘Cats followed it with their first six game road trip, where they swept the West Virginia Black Bears and finished 4-2 on the trip.
Highlighted by a game that lasted just two hours and eleven minutes, the ‘Cats took two of three from Connecticut when they came back home, which included a stretch of 16 innings where the pitching staff didn’t allow a run.
Hector Perez and Enrique Chavez both enjoyed tremendous seasons in Troy. Perez pitched in seven games and started three of them before he was called up to Class-A Quad Cities. His 1.57 ERA was in the top five in the NYPL before his promotion, and in 28.2 innings he struck out 36 batters, walking only 12.
After Adcock’s injury, and the departures of Perez and Framber Valdez, Chavez became the new staff ace – and thrived in it. He was one of three ValleyCats elected to the NYPL All-Star Game, and went 3-2 with the ‘Cats. He had a 2.78 ERA in 11 appearances and a 35/11 K/BB ratio.
August brought a losing record and quiet bats, but tons of excitement in the organization. Chavez, Taylor Jones and Chuckie Robinson were selected to the North Team’s roster in the 2016 New York-Penn League All-Star Game, which was held at Dutchess Stadium, home of the Hudson Valley Renegades.
“You can’t say enough about how much these three players have contributed to our team,” Rogers said. “They’re all incredibly deserving. I can’t wait to see what they accomplish not only in the All-Star Game, but in their careers as well.”
Jones, who ended the season as the ValleyCats leader in hits, home runs and doubles, went hitless in the game, while Chuckie caught the final five innings, including Chavez’s scoreless fifth.
At the All-Star Game, the ‘Cats and NYPL announced the ValleyCats will be the host team for the 2017 New York-Penn League All-Star Game. The two-day event will take place in mid-August with the exact date to be announced in October. Joseph L. Bruno Stadium last played host to the New York-Penn League All-Star Game in 2008, which drew over 6,000 fans.
The week after the showcase, the ValleyCats and Houston Astros announced that the clubs had extended their Player Development Contract (PDC) for another two years, continuing their partnership through the 2018 season. From 2012 to 2016, the ValleyCats had more wins than any other Class-A short season franchise. Prior to 2016, Tri-City had won four straight Stedler Division titles, posting more wins than any team in the New York-Penn League in that span, in addition to capturing two championship titles (2010, 2013).
When Tri-City and Lowell met to begin the month of August, they both sat atop the New York-Penn League in offense with .263 batting averages, the first time all season the ‘Cats hadn’t owned sole possession of that category. The offense scored at least eight runs eight times in July, but did so just twice in August.
The ‘Cats took two of three from Lowell, and the series spurned a compete 360-degree turn in Ronnie Dawson‘s play. Dawson hit just .190 in June and .183 in July, but caught fire in August, finishing with a .294 batting average, 30 of his 53 hits, two home runs and 16 RBI.
Ronnie also took part in a video mini-series this season with ValleyCats Senior Account Executive Chris Dawson in a few “Dawson vs. Dawson” epic showdowns.
Another standout second half player was Rodrigo Ayarza, who tripled in back-to-back games in the final homestand, the only ValleyCat with that feat in 2016. Ayarza hit at a .317 clip over his last ten games, with 13 hits, six runs scored and three RBI. You can read more about “Drigo” in Eric Lomeli’s feature on Ayarza.
Despite his 0-1 record, righty Tyler Britton was phenomenal in his short time with the ‘Cats. Britton worked a 2.04 ERA over 17 innings, striking out 29 and walking just six.
As a team, the ‘Cats very much lived and died by the long ball, and whether or not they outhit their opponent. They compiled a 25-12 record when hitting a home run, and 13-24 without a homer. When they registered more hits than the opponent, they went 24-6, compared to a 10-25 mark when they were outhit.
Tri-City finished the season going 19-19 both at home and on the road, and 16-18 in division play. The offense that hit .276 in June and .256 in July hit just .240 in August. The pitching staff improved dramatically over the course of the season, posting a 4.96 ERA in June and a 3.73 ERA in August.
The ValleyCats tied for the league lead with 131 doubles, and mashed 51 home runs, 12 more than any other team. ‘Cats pitchers struck out 654 batters, second most in the league, and tossed five shutouts.
It may be easy to look at the NYPL standings and see a .500 team, but if anything, the 2016 season was anything but average. A record number of call-ups speaks volumes to the talent the Astros drafted, and while 2016 may not stand out among the best, there were many bright spots to reflect upon.
With the first 38 games in the bag, the ‘Cats sit one game behind the Lowell Spinners, have won four consecutive games, and have the pieces to make a run in the New York-Penn League playoffs. They sit atop the league in nearly every category, and have hit 34 home runs on the year, 16 more than second place Williamsport (18). I dished out some awards for the first half, feel free to hand out your own in the comments below!
MVP – Stephen Wrenn
At one point, he led the New York-Penn League in at-bats, runs scored, home runs, RBI, hits, slugging %, and OPS. He’s proven he can hit anywhere in the top 4 spots in the batting order; Wrenn has the speed for a leadoff man, the contact for a 2-3 hitter and the power to hit cleanup. The ‘Cats are 8-1 when he hits a homer, and the one loss came when he hit two in the same game against Williamsport. Wrenn was called up to Quad Cities after the ‘Cats swept the Lake Monsters, and the ValleyCats were downright lucky to hang on to him as long as they did.
Clutch performer – Ryne Birk
Since joining the club on June 23, (despite a recent slump) Birk has consistently hit over .300, and Manager Lamarr Rogers loves how dangerous his at bat is in the lineup. Birk cranked a solo home run in the bottom of the ninth inning against State College, to send the game to extra innings. He finished that game 4-5 with 3 RBI, and has registered six multi-hit games this season. He’s hitting .273 with RISP this year with 17 RBI.
Starter – Hector Perez
Perez pitched in seven games this season, and started three of them before he was called up to Class-A Quad Cities. His 1.57 ERA was in the top five in the NYPL before his promotion, and in 28.2 innings he struck out 36 batters, walking only 12. On June 27, he held Stedler Division-leading Lowell to one hit in 4.1 innings with four strikeouts. His best performance to date came against the Hudson Valley Renegades, when he tossed 5.2 innings on 81 pitches, striking out six and allowing only three base runners.
Reliever – Nick Hernandez
Hernandez has pitched in more games than any other ValleyCats pitcher (11) and has a 1.72 ERA in 15.2 innings with four saves. The Astros 8th round selection out of the University of Houston been the most reliable arm for pitching coach Drew French out of the ‘pen, and is currently riding a streak of seven games in which he’s allowed only one run.
Most improved – Daz Cameron/Randy Cesar
Before he was hit by a pitch, breaking his left index finger and ending his season, Daz Cameron was hitting .278 with 13 runs, 14 RBI, and eight SB in 19 games. Before he got to the ‘Cats though, while he was with Quad Cities, he had a lowly .143 batting average with 33 strikeouts. He jumped his OPS from .442 to .770 between the two clubs, and looked like he was ready for a breakout year before the injury.
Cesar hit .236 last year for the Greeneville Astros, and has never hit above .275 in his career until this season. Before his promotion to the River Bandits, he led the NYPL with a .389 batting average.
Gold Glove(s) – Alex DeGoti/Daz Cameron/Stephen Wrenn
DeGoti has been stellar at short this season, turning 12 double plays and making only four errors in 161 total chances. For more about DeGoti, check out his story.
Before going down with an injury, Cameron was all over the place in centerfield, and made one particularly incredible catch against the Hudson Valley Renegades. Cameron started running to his right, had to shift to his left, then back to his right before making a diving, over-the-shoulder catch on the warning track.
Since taking over in center for Cameron, and finally playing his natural position, not much gets by Wrenn. Sliding catches are routine for him, and had one error in 78 chances, with an outfield assist.
Silver Slugger(s) – Stephen Wrenn/Randy Cesar/Carmen Benedetti/Ryne Birk
The ‘Cats offense, which has led the NYPL in AVG, HR, 2B, R, RBI, OBP and OPS for most of the season has been led by the men listed above. During one week from July 6-12, Birk rode a 7-game hit streak in which he was 14-29 with 2 home runs, 4 doubles, 9 RBI, 9 runs and 3 walks. Wrenn reached base in his first 21 professional games, and even homered in his very first at bat to lead off Opening Day. Benedetti, who missed a few games due to soreness, has reached base in all but one game he’s played in, and has 12 multi-hit games in 26 appearances.
First half notes:
- The ‘Cats own the best offense in the NYPL, but the second-worst pitching staff as a whole. The pitchers are constantly bailed out by the offense, highlighted by the fact the ‘Cats have won only one ballgame scoring less than five runs.
- Tri-City has hit 34 home runs this year. West Virginia, Batavia, Auburn, Connecticut and Hudson Valley have hit 32 combined.
- Even though the pitching has been weak as a whole, they’ve shown flashes of greatness. Between June 14-15 against Connecticut, Perez, Howie Brey, Enrique Chavez and Kevin Hill held the Tigers scoreless for 15 consecutive innings. Reliever Sean Stutzman, who was signed as an undrafted free agent, earned a win and two saves in his first four games, before losing two decisions.
- The staff ERA was at one point over 5.00 runs per game, but has settled to 4.55, and has been as low as 4.38.
- Centerfield is the new glaring issue on the roster after Wrenn’s departure and Cameron’s injury, and Brauly Mejia seems like the most likely candidate to step in and fill the void. He’s hitting .250 this year and already has played three games in center. The ‘Cats have an abundance of corner outfielders, so we could even likely see Rodrigo Ayarza make a start or two in the outfield.
- Dillon Lawson, who began the season as the ValleyCats hitting coach, resigned abruptly on Twitter to take the hitting coach position at the University of Missouri. Lawson’s position has been unofficially filled by bench coach Danny Ortega, and the ValleyCats have continued to lead the NYPL in nearly every offensive category in Lawson’s absence.
Projected 2nd half rotation – The ‘Cats have been working off of a piggy-back system, but the pairs below have been the most consistent for French’s staff.
- Enrique Chavez / Dustin Hunt
- Ryan Hartman / Kevin Hill
- Sebastian Kessay / Erasmo Pinales
- Austin Nicely / Agapito Barrios
- Makay Nelson / Edgardo Sandoval
Projected 2nd half depth chart
C – Jake Rogers/Chuckie Robinson | Kevin Martir
1B – Taylor Jones | Spencer Johnson | Carmen Benedetti
2B – Ryne Birk | Tyler Wolfe | Marcos Almonte
3B – Connor Goedert | Rodrigo Ayarza | Tyler Wolfe
SS – Alex DeGoti | Rodrigo Ayarza | Marcos Almonte
LF – Ronnie Dawson | Spencer Johnson
CF – Brauly Mejia | Rodrigo Ayarza
RF – Carmen Benedetti | Ronnie Dawson | Brauly Mejia
DH – Chuckie Robinson/Brauly Mejia | Carmen Benedetti | Kevin Martir | Spencer Johnson
3B Randy Cesar (Promoted to QC)
OF Stephen Wrenn (Promoted to QC)
LHP Framber Valdez (Promoted to QC)
RHP Hector Perez (Promoted to QC)
RHP Luis Ramirez (Sent down to GRN)
LHP Brett Adcock (60-day DL)
OF Daz Cameron (Broken finger)
RHP Dylan James (Released)
RHP Juan Santos (Sent down from QC)
IF Tyler Wolfe (Promoted from GRN)
RHP Makay Nelson (Sent down from QC)
IF Connor Goedert (Sent down from QC)
IF Marcos Almonte (Promoted from GRN)
RHP Angelo Serrano (Promoted from GRN)
As always, you can follow me on Twitter @thefiorentino, and be sure to follow @ValleyCats for all of your updated information on the team.
Let’s take a look at the ‘Cats first five games of the season. Though a small sample size, we’ve actually learned quite a bit.
First of all, despite the 2-3 record, this team has the potential to succeed. They’ve shown flashes of greatness, but silly mistakes and a lack of clutch hitting have been the downfall thus far.
Friday, June 17 – Valley Cats 13, Tigers 1
Offense was no issue in the ValleyCats home opener, as they mashed 14 hits en route to a 13-1 victory.
Stephen Wrenn, who leads the NYPL in runs scored (8), hit a leadoff homerun in the first inning, and his BA currently sits at .500.
Tri-City hit four doubles in the fifth inning, scoring four runs, including a 2-RBI double from Daz Cameron, who reached base four times. Randy Cesar picked up an RBI-single in the sixth, and Carmen Benedetti singled in Kolbey Carpenter, which set the table for a Taylor Jones line drive grand slam homerun to left field.
Akeem Bostick, who picked up the win, allowed only two hits while striking out two over six innings pitched, using only 70 pitches. Bostick, on a rehab stint from the Lancaster JetHawks, is scheduled for one more start before rejoining the Class-A Advanced affiliate.
Sebastian Kessay, who faced 15 batters over the final three innings, picked up the save in relief, striking out seven.
Quick take: Kessay kept his composure despite allowing a few baserunners. The offense proved they can score in bunches 1 through 9. I was especially impressed with Taylor Jones. It may seem easy to pick the guy who hit the grand slam, but Jones hits the ball hard in every at bat.
Saturday, June 18 – Tigers 9, ValleyCats 5
The ‘Cats left 23 runners on base and struck out 13 times in a 9-5 loss to the Tigers, with nine of the 13 strikeouts looking.
Ben Smith (0-1) took the loss for the ValleyCats, and allowed eight runs (five earned) on three hits and four walks in one inning of work. Smith pitched to three batters in the top of the second inning.
Hector Perez and Edgardo Sandoval combined for 6 2/3 innings of shutout baseball, striking out seven. Josue Uribe came on to pitch the final 1 1/3 innings, allowing one run on one hit.
Stephen Wrenn reached base in all five of his plate appearances. Wrenn walked and singled twice, and led off the game with a double. Daz Cameron, who made an over the shoulder, diving catch in centerfield in the 5th inning, was 2 for 4 with two RBI.
Quick take: This one was tough to swallow. Leaving 23 men on base in unacceptable, and the nine strikeouts looking shouldn’t have happened. Homeplate umpire Matt Cowan’s strike zone was consistently large all night, and the ‘Cats just couldn’t make the adjustment. They left the bases loaded three times, including twice in the last three frames. Other than Ben Smith’s rocky start, the pitching was superb. Perez and Sandoval were lights out, and Uribe only allowed a run.
Sunday, June 19 – Cyclones 2, ValleyCats 1
The ‘Cats had plenty of opportunities at the plate on Sunday, but once again couldn’t find the big hit.
Chuckie Robinson, the Astros 21st round selection, picked up his first professional hit and RBI, driving in Carmen Benedetti to put the ValleyCats on top 1-0 in the 7th inning.
In the bottom half of the inning, three consecutive singles by Cyclones batters gave them a 2-1 advantage. Benedetti was the only ‘Cat with a multi-hit game, going 3-for-4. Ronnie Dawson, the Astros 2nd rounder from Ohio State, made his professional debut batting third as the designated hitter.
LHP Austin Nicely started for the ‘Cats, and through the first four innings only allowed one hit while walking one. Erasmo Pinales came on in relief of Nicely and worked a scoreless two innings before surrendering the two runs in the seventh.
Quick take: Again, a tough loss to swallow. Nicely looked solid in an abbreviated start, and Pinales looked better than he did during the exhibition game. It’s tough to win when your top four batters are a combined 1-15.
Monday, June 20 – ValleyCats 10, Cyclones 9 (17 innings)
In the top of the 17th inning, with Cyclones infielder Santo Marte on the mound for his second inning work, ValleyCats third baseman Kolbey Carpenter reached base with a two out single to left. Marcos Almonte followed up with a double to put runners on second and third, and Daz Cameron delivered a two run go-ahead single to left to give the ‘Cats an 8-6 lead.
Then Stephen Wrenn launched a long two-run home run over the left field wall to extend the ‘Cats lead to 10-6, which seemed at that point to be plenty of insurance runs.
At one point, ValleyCats hurlers retired 17 consecutive Cyclones batters, led by Cuban native Carlos Sierra who was perfect for 3 2/3 innings.
Stephen Wrenn went 3-for-9 for the ‘Cats with four RBI, and what proved to be the game winning home run. Carmen Benedetti finished the game 3-for-8 with a double and two runs batted in. Daz Cameron also drove in a pair of runs.
Luis Ramirez (1-0) picked up the win for Tri-City, who improved to 2-2 on the young 2016 New York-Penn League season.
Quick takes: What a marathon. If you didn’t get a chance to watch the last inning of this one, try to find a recording somewhere. These teams were tied at six going into the 17th inning, and exploded for seven combined runs. My MVP? Carlos Sierra. The guy was incredible in the 6+ innings he tossed, essentially making a start in the middle of the six hour game.
Tuesday, June 21 – Cyclones 8, ValleyCats 3
The ‘Cats scored once in each of the first three innings, the first an RBI groundout by Marcos Almonte after a lead-off triple by Stephen Wrenn to begin the ballgame.
In the second, a Randy Cesar homer put the ‘Cats up 2-0, and in the third, Astros 2016 second round draft selection Ronnie Dawson picked up his first professional home run to give the ‘Cats a 3-0 lead.
Brooklyn got them all back in the bottom of the fourth off of ‘Cats starting pitcher Sebastian Kessay, who allowed the three earned runs, four hits, four strikeouts and two walks in his four innings of work.
Framer Valdez came on in relief of Kessay in the fifth, and worked two scoreless innings before things unravelled for the ‘Cats.
With two outs and Cyclones baserunners on first and second, back-to-back singles plated them both to give Brooklyn a 5-3 lead, and they didn’t look back. Tri-City picked up just two hits through the final six innings of the ballgame.
Quick takes: Rough start for Kessay. The ‘Cats should have taken advantage of a tired Brooklyn bullpen that has pitched in 64 innings in five games. Instead, it was the other way around. This is going to be a long season if the offense relies on solely the long ball to win games.
It was a busy weekend for the ValleyCats – especially Southpaw. On Saturday, some of the front office staff and Southpaw travelled to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame Classic, featuring the Knucksies and the Wizards.
The lineups were loaded with former All-Star big leaguers, including former Astro Brandon Backe, Travis Hafner, Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones. Jerry Hairston Jr. won the Home Run Derby, and the Knucksies came away with a narrow 5-4 victory. Melvin Mora, a former Met and longtime Oriole earned Bob Feller Player of the Game honors, thanks to a pair of two-run homers. Southpaw enjoyed messing around with third base coach and Hall of Fame member Rollie Fingers.
On Monday morning, the ValleyCats staff participated in the Troy Memorial Day parade, put on by the Veterans of Lansingburgh. Southpaw rode around on his Harley all day, much to the community’s amusement.
Back in October, the ValleyCats announced Lamarr Rogers would be taking over managerial duties in favor of Ed Romero, who is no longer with the Astros organization. Romero, who managed for three seasons, finished with an overall record of 134-93, including three consecutive Stedler Division titles. The team also announced the hire of first-year assistant coaches Drew French and Dillon Lawson.
Lamarr Rogers, Manager
Rogers, though new to the ValleyCats, has 23 years of baseball experience, including one with the Astros organization. Last year, he was the skipper for the Rookie Level Greenville Astros, and finished with a 34-33 record, good for second in the division, Appalachian League champs for the first time in eleven years. Rogers spent quite a few years with the St. Paul Saints Pro Baseball Club (Independent Northern League). From 1999-2003, he was the assistant and 1st base coach, and from 2004-2014, the hitting coach and 3rd base coach. He helped his team to the 2004 Northern League Championship, and appeared in the playoffs seven times.
Rogers himself was a former player, originally drafted in 1992 by the Colorado Rockies in the 49th round.
He played 4 season in the Rockies organization, before being picked up by the Tigers in the ’96 Rule 5 Draft. After his cup of coffe with the Tigers, he played 2 years for St. Paul Saints before becoming a coach.
In 560 professional games, Rogers hit .288 with 128 steals, but has a few accolades to his name from college as well. He graduated from Long Beach State in 1993 with a business major and a TV/broadcast communications minor. With the Dirtbags, Rogers was an All-Big West and All-Regional Selection in 1991-’92, a Cape League All-Star in 1990-’91 and a College World Series All-Star in 1991.
He was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, currently lives in Phoenix with his wife, Heather, and their four kids: Anya (16), Lamarr II (12), Cole (10) and Ava (6).
Drew French, Pitching coach
French is coming off of two seasons at Lee University (DII) as an assistant coach, and three seasons at Florida International University (DI). Prior to that, he spent four seasons at Alabama, three of which he was Director of Baseball Operations.
He also served as pitching coach Norfolk Osprey (NYCBL) from 2008-’09, and was a coach and recruiting coordinator at Concordia University, Austin from 2006-’07. French graduated from CUA in 2006 with a major in business administration, and a minor in communication. While at Concordia, he pitched and played outfield, and was a 3-time Academic All-Southwestern Conference selection.
Dillon Lawson, Hitting coach
Lawson has amassed nine years coaching collegiately, including the last four at Southeast Missouri State University.
He helped the Redhawks to two straight Ohio Valley Conference Championships, and, most notably, two top-10 D1 offenses (8th in 2014, 3rd in 2015).
Prior to Southeast Missouri, Lawson was an assistant coach at Morehead State from 2009-2012, and graduate assistant baseball coach at NAIA Lindenwood University from 2007-‘09. Lawson holds a Masters’ of Education, specializing in strength and conditioning, and completed his undergraduate studies at Transylvania University in 2007. In college, he was a 4-year starter, and All-Conference junior and senior year. He and his wife, Amanda Duncan Lawson, are both from Kentucky, and their son, Asa, will turn two this year.
The General Gist
Tri-City hired a new coaching staff for the year.
(Name, position, previous team)
Lamarr Rogers, Manager, Greenville Astros
Drew French, Pitching coach, Lee University
Dillon Lawson, Hitting coach, Southeast Missouri State University
‘Cats in the Show, 4/26 – Tri-City alumni top performances
Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston Astros: 1-4 vs. Baltimore
Tyler White, 1B, Houston Astros: 0-1, R, 2 BBvs. Baltimore
George Springer, RF, Houston Astros: 2-4, 2 HR’s, 2 R, 2 RBI vs. Baltimore
Michael Feliz, RP, Houston Astros: 2 IP, H, 4 K’s vs. Baltimore
As usual, follow me on Twitter (@thefiorentino), email me (email@example.com) or drop a comment below.
According to simple math, an average team should sweep about one of every four doubleheaders. Entering last night, the ValleyCats – admittedly not quite an average team for most of their history – had played 19 doubleheaders in the last six years and swept exactly none of them. But that all changed on Friday, as the ‘Cats dominated Hudson Valley in the opener and eked out a 2-1 win in game two for their first sweep of a doubleheader since the Pence/Zobrist days of 2004.
At the center of it, of course, was Rafael Valenzuela. The infielder singled in the first inning of game one and added three more hits – all doubles – throughout the night. Valenzuela – who will start in right field tonight, his first professional appearance in the outfield – drove two balls to the center-field wall and took an 0-1 pitch the opposite way into the left-field corner, scoring three runs and breaking open the first game, which the ‘Cats ultimately won 9-2.
Since August 2, when he joined the team after making a short rehab appearance in the GCL, Valenzuela leads the NY-Penn League with ten extra-base hits. He ranks second in slugging (.762), tied for second in RBIs (10) and tied for third in batting average (.429).
“Having someone like him in the lineup not only makes everybody else better, but it makes the clubhouse better,” manager Stubby Clapp said. “When he got hurt in extended [spring training], we knew it was going to be a bit of a blow to us, and having him back has been important.”
Valenzuela, who said he has no idea what his numbers are (do they ever say they keep track of that?), does not have the pedigree of a player expected to have such success – he was signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Arizona last summer. In a way, that makes him right at home on this team.
The ‘Cats had three undrafted free agents in the lineup in the first game (and will do so again tonight), and all three made a rather large impact. Four innings before Valenzuela’s bases-clearing double, catcher Ryan McCurdy pulled a low grounder to the same spot for a three-RBI hit of his own, capping a five-run first inning that gave the ‘Cats the lead for good.
Valenzuela and McCurdy are joined by Neiko Johnson, who has cemented a spot in the everyday lineup with a .424 on-base percentage, fourth-best among NYPL qualifiers. Listed at a generous 5’9”, Johnson has a small strike zone, and he knows how to use it. Despite seeing limited playing time in the first third of the season, the utility player has drawn 33 walks, third-best in the league. And this is no fluke – going back to his college days, Johnson routinely walked in 20 percent or more of his plate appearances.
Add in Johnson’s versatility – he has started games at five different positions this year – and the fact that he has been one of the only ValleyCats to add real value with his basestealing ability (16 of 19 on steal attempts for a team that has been caught more often than any other), and he’s clearly been one of the key parts of the Cats’ late-season charge.
In fact, this marks one of the biggest distinctions between the 2011 ValleyCats and last year’s NYPL champions: the 2010 team’s everyday lineup was comprised almost entirely of first- and second-day draft selections. In addition to Johnson, Valenzuela and McCurdy, Chris Epps – a recently-promoted outfielder and the walk-off hero from earlier this week – was a 45th-round selection, while Chase Davidson (who tore up Greeneville and was just added to the roster) was also taken late on day three.
A fourth undrafted free agent, Andrew Walter, made his second start with the ValleyCats and had an interesting evening. The righty pegged three batters, walked two others and threw a few pitches to the backstop, but he allowed only one hit and would have held the Renegades scoreless if not for a two-out passed ball in the second.
Walter struck out five batters, all swinging, going up the ladder with fastballs to get the first three and then fanning lefties Juniel Querecuto and Jeff Malm in order with inside curveballs.
“Walter was a little bit shaky, but he was good enough to keep us close and keep them off-balance,” Clapp said. The ‘Cats have won both games started by the young righty.
Travis Blankenship – a former third-day draft pick himself – replaced Walter after the righty hit Kyle Holloway for the second time and pitched much more conventionally. Blankenship needed only 33 pitches, 25 of them strikes, to record nine outs and preserve a one-run lead. Ryan Cole – dubbed “Cardiac Cole” after the game by Clapp – allowed two hits in the ninth but held on for his eighth save of the season.
Lost in the offensive outburst of the first game was a terrific pitching performance from Adam Champion. The southpaw, making just his third pro start, threw 80 pitches over six innings, striking out five and allowing only one hit over his final five frames.
“It was an easy game for McCurdy to call,” he said. “It was basically, sinker away and let them hit it, and they just kept beating it into the ground. It’s easy baseball when you just throw to a spot and keep pitching.”
Champion worked as a reliever for last year’s championship team and started 2011 in the ‘pen, even returning there after making a spot start against Staten Island. But with two great outings in August, he may force his way into a suddenly crowded rotation even as the hectic schedule settles down after the All-Star break.
“I’ve been a starter my whole life,” Champion said. “It’s pretty easy to go from relief to starter. I just go back to my roots, and basically do what I have done in the past, and keep the routine.”
The ‘Cats, winners of seven of their last ten games, look to keep it rolling against the Renegades tonight. The broadcast will probably have started by the time you read this; as always, if you can’t make the game, listen live online.
Saturday night’s game has been postponed due to rain, and will be made up in a doubleheader at Vermont, as the Lake Monsters do not return to “The Joe” this year. Tickets for tonight’s game can be exchanged for any remaining regular-season home game.
All season long, the ValleyCats have struggled to get clutch hits. The ‘Cats have watched opponents execute better in the late innings, suffering an unlucky 4-10 record in close games despite playing nearly even in blowouts. On Friday night, that all changed, led by one of the newest members of the team.
Rafael Valenzuela joined the ValleyCats in Jamestown on Tuesday, the first of three position players assigned to Tri-City this week. Friday marked his first game at Joe Bruno Stadium, and it was a good day to debut – a pleasant evening in front of a sellout crowd of 5,267 fans.
After several fruitless opportunities in the earlier innings, Valenzuela strode to the plate with two on in the eighth inning to face NYPL saves leader Tanner Peters. He swing at a 3-1 fastball and flicked a high line drive the opposite way, slicing into left-center for a clean double. Justin Gominsky scored and Valenzuela replaced him on second, listening to his first ovation from the hometown crowd.
“I was nervous,” Valenzuela said of playing at Joe Bruno Stadium for the first time. “All the guys were talking about how great the atmosphere is and how great the fans are, and I was just happy I was able to give them a big hit tonight.”
Valenzuela was tentatively expected to open the season in Troy after playing at Rookie League Greeneville last season, but he broke his hamate bone in June and missed the first month. The infielder played four games in the Gulf Coast league on a rehab assignment and was happy to get the call-up to Tri-City this week.
“I spent most of my time with these guys during Spring Training, so being back with my friends here was really nice,” he said.
Drew Muren was intentionally walked to load the bases and Chris Epps struck out, preserving the tie game for Ryan McCurdy. With two outs, McCurdy took a strike and then turned on a fastball, driving a hard grounder two feet to the fair side of the third-base bag for a two-run, game-winning hit.
Manager Stubby Clapp was happy to see his team come through in the clutch. “That’s huge,” he said. “It’s good timing, if it’s going to start now.”
Don’t overlook the work of center fielder Justin Gominsky, who led off the inning with a hard single that bounced off pitcher Drew Bailey. Gominsky also singled to open the sixth inning, staying with a tough curveball on an 0-2 count and driving it up the middle, but was stranded at third.
A scout was in the press box before the game during last week’s homestand when the Michael Bourn trade went down. The scout, who covered the Midwest and saw some of Gominsky in college, said he thought Bourn could be a close comparison for Gominsky’s ceiling – great arm, good speed, little power but a good hit tool.
Also, make sure not to overlook another ValleyCat with an even stronger arm: reliever Dayan Diaz. He came on for Juri Perez with a man on and no outs in the seventh inning, and completed it with this sequence: 94 mph fastball past Jordan Tripp; 94-mph fastball up the ladder chased by Xavier Mackliln; fastball on the inside corner to freeze Jacob Tanis.
He got another strikeout to open the eighth inning, allowed a single, induced a ground ball but got the wrong end of a bang-bang call on the back end of the double play and allowed a soft roller with eyes through the 3-4 hole, giving the Lake Monsters some life. But Diaz got two strikes and reached back for a 95-mph fastball, and Chad Lewis had no chance.
Diaz, despite working out of the bullpen, has now earned five victories, tied for the NYPL lead.
The ValleyCats pulled to within five games of the division-leading Lake Monsters, exactly where they were through 47 games last season. Though they have three teams to catch, the ‘Cats can still dream of a comeback.
Adding to the excitement is the fact that all four teams have played at about the same level this season. Although five games separate the top and bottom of the division, every team has a run differential within 12 runs of the others:
Though they have struggled to win close games this season, the ‘Cats hope that last night may have been a turning point.
“It’s important to get the ball rolling at home,” McCurdy said. “We’ve got a couple games here, then we go on the road for a couple and a big homestand. It’s always fun to play at home, and over the last month or so, we really have to get going.”
Meanwhile, Valenzuela says he wouldn’t mind a playoff push – after missing the first half of the season, he wants to be a part of as many games as possible.
“I would like to play a lot of baseball still,” he said. “I really want us to get hot and keep playing a lot of games.”
Entering last night, the ValleyCats had scored eight runs in their last five games. Five games, spanning 135 outs. On Thursday, they matched that total with only one out, as the first eight runners reached base and scored.
Entering last night, it had been more than a week since a ValleyCat drove in a teammate with a base hit. On Thursday, three ‘Cats did so in the first inning, and Matt Duffy did it again with one out in the second.
So, what happened? Why the offense?
Beyond the usual explanations of baseball being a funny game, you can look to the opposing starter for some clues. Stetson Allie entered the season as arguably the best major-league prospect in the NYPL, but he hasn’t shown it this year. The righty, who has thrown 100 mph in the past, was only around 91-93 last night, reportedly in line with his other outings this season.
Allie paired his diminished stuff with horrible command, not a good combination for a pitcher. After he got ahead 0-2 on John Hinson, Allie threw only six of his final 19 pitches for strikes, allowing a clean double to Hinson on a full count and eventually hitting consecutive batters with the bases loaded. With the ‘Cats up 2-1 and the bases loaded, Allie left the game without an out to his credit.
Manager Stubby Clapp said after the game that Allie’s wildness helped the hosts’ hitters beyond the results in the box score.
“He wasn’t really around the zone, and it gave our guys a chance to settle in and see some pitches before they needed to hit,” he said. “When pitchers attack the zone real quick, it puts the guys in swing mode, and sometimes they’re not swinging at good pitches.”
A lineup that has struggled to bring teammates home this season had no such trouble in that first inning, as the bottom of the order greeted Vince Payne with four consecutive singles. Duffy, a first-pitch line drive into left to plate two; Drew Muren, a perfectly-placed bunt single dropped down the line; Kellen Kiilsgaard, a clean line drive into left field that scored two, his first hit in nearly two weeks; and Neiko Johnson, a soft flare off the end of his bat that found green behind the first baseman, scoring Muren. Hinson, batting a second time, capped the rally with a sacrifice fly, the first of 24 outs that the Spikes needed.
Duffy floated a double into the right-field corner with one out in the second inning, scoring Brandon Meredith all the way from first with the Cats’ ninth and final run.
Will this break the ‘Cats out of their slump? Stubby wasn’t sure. “We’ll find out tomorrow,” he said. “One day’s good; let’s see if we can get it two days in a row.”
Some other notes:
-Neiko Johnson was 2-for-4 with a stolen base – he’s 11-for-13 in that department, incidentally, the only ValleyCat to steal many bases at a high rate – but may have been more impressive in the field. Playing shortstop for the first time in three weeks, Johnson was not only errorless in five chances, he made two highlight-reel plays. With two on and nobody out in the second inning, Kirk Singer hit a hard smash up the middle; Johnson dove to his left, snared the ball and flipped with his glove to Hinson, a spectacular force that nearly became a double play (pictured below). He went to the dirt for another ball to his left in the sixth inning, helping Travis Smink get out of a jam.
“It was a pretty tough play…it kind of skidded off the mound,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think I was going to get there, but I did, and I just made a good flip to Hinson.”
Johnson is penciled back into the lineup at shortstop tonight. Jacke Healey had a Web Gem on Wednesday, getting a good jump on a grounder up the middle, diving to his left and adjusting to a rough hop on the fly before throwing the runner out at first.
-Jonas Dufek had another sharp outing on Wednesday, getting hung with a tough loss. He struck out a season-high five batters, throwing his curveball more often than usual to go with his usually sharp two-seamer. Both runs came in the second inning on a walk, two seeing-eye grounders and a wild pitch.
-Dayan Diaz was electric as always on Thursday, picking up Quezada in the second inning and pitching into the sixth. He was 93-94 with his fastball, blowing it by several hitters and getting a couple of his seven strikeouts with the occasional secondary pitch. Diaz is now tied for second in the league with four wins and has fanned 37 batters in 26 innings, the third-best K rate among relievers.
We hope to be back at it tonight for the rubber match; the forecast is not ideal but the tarp is off now and there’s a spot of sunlight. As always, listen live on tcvalleycats.com and follow us on Twitter for updates throughout the game.
If you quickly saw the final score of yesterday’s game, and saw that Connecticut won 15-9, you might assume that there wasn’t a whole lot of drama. And boy, you would be wrong. Let’s try to make some sense of what happened…
-Even as of the third inning, this was a pretty remarkable game. The ValleyCats, breaking a recent trend, jumped out to a first-inning lead and kept hitting the ball well, eventually racking up 10 hits in their first two times through the order. Jacke Healey, who came into the game with two hits in 45 at-bats, matched that total in the first three innings with a homer and a double in his first two times up. But the ‘Cats scored only five runs, leaving the maximum six in scoring position (seven total).
Also in the third inning, Bubby Williams did this to our press box window:
Allow me to describe what we were thinking: “Oh, hey, he fouled that ball right towards us.” *thud* “Oh, wow, that hit the window.” [one second passes] “Oh, crap, the window’s falling.” The ball didn’t shatter the window – it bounced back onto the concourse – but it did dislodge it from the frame, sending the pane down right above my usual seat. I was standing on the other side of the room at the time – marking down a pitching change on the whiteboard (see later), because Connecticut went to the bullpen after only two innings – or else it would have come down right on my head.
This could not have happened on any other day. During games, we always open the press box windows to get a better feel for the sounds on the field. If the window had been open, the pane would have been blocked and could not have fallen into the press box. But because yesterday’s start was during the middle of the day, and because it was a sweltering 96 degrees outside, we kept the windows closed to preserve a bit of cool air in the press box. And of course, it was the one day a foul ball came up.
-That might not have even been the weirdest play of the game. In the sixth inning, some poor ValleyCats baserunning turned a single into a 4-5-2-6-5-2-1 double play – and the pitcher made both putouts.
With Matt Duffy on second base, John Hinson hit a grounder well to the second baseman’s left. Colin Kaline (yes, the grandson of the famous one) gloved the ball but could not get it out in time to retire Hinson at first. But Duffy took a very wide turn at third base and then lost his footing a bit; Kaline threw over to third and the runner was hung up.
Duffy – not the most nimble runner on the ValleyCats – stayed alive long enough to force five throws as Hinson rounded the bases. Pitcher Rayni Guichardo eventually tagged Duffy out going back to third, looked up and saw John Hinson about 30 feet from the bag, trying to advance during the rundown. Guichardo never broke stride, ran over and tagged out Hinson for a double play that I am sure I’ll never see again.
-Compared to that play, the fact that the ‘Cats ran themselves out of the 11th inning with a 1-3-2-5 caught stealing was trivial. A two-out rally put men on the corners, with the game-winning run on third, but submarine righty Daniel Bennett used a third-to-first move to pick off the runner at first and start the wild play. Making things even more interesting, both runners were Johnsons (Neiko at third, Zach at first).
-There was a sellout crowd of 4,686 fans on Wednesday – quite an attendance, given the 11 a.m. start. But the vast majority of the fans were camp groups on a fixed schedule, which had to leave by the time the game went to extra innings. The oppressive heat, as high as 96 degrees, understandably drove some other fans away, so by the time the 12th inning rolled around, there were only a handful of spectators in the park. Jeff Holm – who did not start and only entered the game as a defensive replacement in the 11th inning as part of a double-switch – naturally took the first strike he saw well over the left-field fence, giving the Tigers their first runs in five innings and a 9-7 lead.
Matt Duffy and Brandon Meredith reached base to lead off the Cats’ half of the inning, but after two quick outs, it looked like the game would finally end. Drew Muren worked a 2-2 count and fouled two pitches off. With absolutely no energy in the ballpark – it felt more like the late innings of a blowout amateur game – Muren capped a four-hit night with a line drive double to right field, tying the game.
-And, of course, the final score looked more like a blowout, as Kristian Bueno allowed four walks, three hits and a grand slam in a six-run, 44-pitch 13th inning.
-The game took a total of four hours and 40 minutes, which we believe is a ValleyCats franchise record. It was the longest game played in the New York-Penn League in more than a year, going back to a 4:48 15-inning Williamsport-Vermont contest on July 6, 2010.
-Entering the game, the Tigers and ‘Cats ranked 11th and 13th in the league, respectively, in batting average. So naturally, they each racked up 19 hits on Wednesday. (Connecticut jumped over five teams with yesterday’s outburst.) It was a season high for both teams, and the most for the ValleyCats since reaching 20 in a 17-9 victory over Hudson Valley on 7/31/08. And I probably don’t have to tell you that it was the most hits ever for the ‘Cats in a loss.
-Miles Hamblin, a left-handed hitter, pinch-hit in the 12th for Kellen Kiilsgaard, a left-handed hitter who pinch-hit for designated hitter Hector Rodriguez in the ninth. If you’re counting, that’s three players who occupied the DH slot.
-Through nine innings, the ValleyCats drew three walks. All three were earned by Neiko Johnson. Johnson, who added two singles in the game, only batted leadoff because Justin Gominsky was scratched about a half-hour before game time. His walk rate is through the roof – 17 BBs in 88 plate appearances – and if you look at his college numbers from Kentucky, this is no fluke.
-Meanwhile, the ‘Cats issued 11 walks of their own, blowing by their previous season high of eight. Tri-City entered the game allowing just 3.46 walks per nine innings, the fourth-best rate in the league. 10 percent of the ValleyCats’ walks so far this season came last night.
-The ValleyCats sent 65 hitters to the plate, Connecticut 69.
-Today was the first time in more than four years that the ValleyCats allowed 15 runs in a game (7/16/07 at Mahoning Valley).
-Williams had four singles and reached scoring position three times, but he never scored. The ‘Cats stranded 17 runners for the game – 12 in scoring position – and had three others killed on the bases. (Connecticut left 15 on base.)
“Too many walks and not enough clutch hitting. That’s what lost it for us,” Muren said.
And the best part is: after playing nearly eight hours of baseball in a 21-hour span, the ‘Cats and Tigers get to do it all again, traveling to Norwich for a doubleheader today before finishing the season series on Friday.
Still, they may be playing for less time in today’s doubleheader than they did in a single game yesterday. Williams, who caught all 13 innings and 253 pitches for the ValleyCats, said that he lost seven pounds of water weight during the game.
“It was warm back there behind the plate. A couple of those innings got long,” Williams said. “But I guess I’m just used to it…I live in Kansas City, and in August, it’s 110 degrees all the time there.”
“There’s worse places [to play], trust me,” Muren said. “Down in Florida…I’ve heard nothing but horrors from down there. You drink a lot of water and Gatorade, and you’ll be fine.”
Both bullpens will be taxed during tonight’s twin bill. The two sides used a combined 13 pitchers on Wednesday, adding to seven lineup changes that created a complicated scorecard:
A couple other notes from the series:
-One of the most interesting revelations of the first 31 games is Brandon Meredith’s speed. He doesn’t look like a fast guy – 6-2, 225 lbs. is not a sprinter’s frame – but he covers the gaps really well and can turn it on from first to third. Meredith tripled again on Tuesday (his fourth of the season, tied for third in the league) and scored from first on Muren’s double last night.
Meredith said he’s aware that people don’t peg him as a speedster. “I love it. That’s why I always go for triples,” he said. “When it’s in the gap, I’m going for three for sure.”
-Ryan McCurdy was hit by a pitch on consecutive at-bats on Tuesday. If that were to happen to anybody, of course it would be McCurdy, who was pegged three times in 27 plate appearances in 2010.
Two games in Connecticut tonight, starting at 6:05 p.m. Listen to Erik and Matt on the broadcast on tcvalleycats.com, with a chance of hearing Erik descend into madness if one goes deep into extra innings.
Despite a blowout loss last night, the ValleyCats’ home series against the league-leading Staten Island Yankees ended about as well as they could have expected: with two victories in three games. The biggest reason was starting pitching, as Jonas Dufek and Euris Quezada combined for 11.1 innings of one-run ball in the wins.
For Dufek, this was nothing new: with six scoreless innings on Saturday, the righty has not allowed a run in 20.1 frames, the last 18 of which have come in three wins at home. This most recent start was his best yet; in six innings against one of the league’s best offenses, Dufek allowed just two walks and two hits – both grounders, one of which stayed in the infield. In past starts, Dufek had been working in and out of frequent jams, but on Saturday he was just great.
In particular, Dufek worked out of the zone frequently, getting a lot of swings and misses. The Yankees rank near the bottom of the league in walk rate; Dufek said after the game that he knew they were going to be aggressive, and he exploited it well.
The more surprising start came from Euris Quezada 22 hours later. Up to that point, Quezada had not put together any particularly good outings; in his first five starts, he never recorded more than 12 outs and never allowed fewer than three runs.
But Quezada came out looking very sharp in the first inning on Sunday, and maintained that performance until hitting a bit of a wall with two outs in the sixth. Quezada had a tick more velocity than usual, up in the 91-93 range. But most of his damage was done with the slider, which probably accounted for more than half of his 62 pitches. The 83-84 mph offering, usually thrown over the inner half to righties, generated four or five of his strikeouts and allowed Quezada to retire 11 straight hitters during his second time through the order.
Quezada lowered his ERA nearly two runs to 7.04.
Some other notes from the weekend:
-John Hinson made a great play in the third inning of Saturday’s game, leaping to grab a high line drive and doubling off Jhorge Liccien by inches at first. He also turned a fantastic double play in the ninth inning on Monday, making a lightning-fast exchange to get Shane Brown by half a step at first.
-The ValleyCats’ outfield defense was on display again on Sunday. Neiko Johnson took a couple games to get readjusted to the outfield, but he made a great read to come in on a low line drive by Mason Williams. Three innings later, Justin Gominsky robbed Williams of an extra-base hit, flying all the way from the third-base side of center to the right-field gap to run down a high fly ball.
-Stubby Clapp put nine righties in the lineup against southpaw Evan DeLuca, who came in with the league’s fourth-best ERA. It worked out well, as the ‘Cats racked up 12 hits in the game, including five off DeLuca and two when the Yankees followed with a left-handed reliever.
-The Cats’ outburst on Sunday could have been even greater – they scored eight runs in eight innings despite having three runners caught stealing.
-Brandon Meredith has such sneaky speed. He absolutely flies from first to third, and then you look at him (6’2”, 225 lbs.) and you just think, how did he do that? He hit a gapper to right-center in the sixth inning of Sunday’s game and Stubby held up a stop sign as he headed towards second; Meredith never slowed down and slid into third without a throw for his third triple of the season.
-Though his final line was ugly, Dayan Diaz looked great on Monday. He retired the first six batters he faced in order, striking out four with even more electric stuff than usual. His fastball, usually at 95, ticked up to 96 a couple times and even hit 97 in a big spot, going up the ladder to strike out Mason Williams with the bases loaded in the sixth.
Diaz’s fastball isn’t just fast, it has some life too, most noticeably when it ran back to the inside corner to send the left-handed Williams down looking in the fourth. I wouldn’t worry too much about the rocky sixth inning; he’s thrown three innings without faltering before, and with a reliever’s frame and a reliever’s arsenal, he’s likely to have shorter and shorter outings as he climbs the professional ladder.
-Tip for any Yankees fans that read this: former first-round draft pick Cito Culver can’t hit from the left side. I’m far from the first person to say this, but his swing there is not pretty and the numbers have backed it up – he’s 19-for-113 (.168) from the left side in the NYPL in the last two years. Manager Stubby Clapp said after the game that he left a tiring Diaz in to face Culver in the sixth because he wanted to keep Culver on that side (which worked out okay for the Yankees, as Diaz issued a seven-pitch RBI walk). On the flip side, he can mash lefties (20-for-45), as Adam Champion found out when he gave up a double to the center-field wall in the first inning.
Division rival Connecticut is in town tonight and 11 a.m. tomorrow. Listen to the game live, as usual.
At some point, teams are going to stop testing the ValleyCats’ outfield arms. Right?
Connecticut learned this lesson the hard way, watching three runners get thrown out at the plate in the final two games of this week’s series. Different outfielders were responsible for all three kills. Brandon Meredith picked one up last night – the first time he had ever thrown out a runner at the plate, he said – to erase what proved to be a critical run in the ValleyCats’ 6-5 victory. His throw wasn’t particularly strong but was right on target as Samir Rijo ran into his second out in as many nights.
Drew Muren and Justin Gominsky started the action on Monday. Muren’s throw home in the third reached home plate about 15 feet ahead of Rijo, who tried and failed to knock the ball loose from catcher Bubby Williams. Gominsky made a strong throw home after ranging to his right on a Colin Kaline single to end the seventh inning.
Kellen Kiilsgaard, the only outfielder without an assist, has also shown a strong arm in practice – as you’d expect from a former high school standout and college quarterback.
The real story of Tuesday’s game, however, came on the other side of the ball. The ‘Cats, who managed only one run on eleven hits in the first two games of the series, scored six times in the finale.
Manager Stubby Clapp shook up the lineup a little bit for the game, sliding John Hinson down a couple spots. As The Record’s Ed Weaver pointed out this morning, it seemed to work. Justin Gominsky, who said he rarely led off in his amateur career, singled twice from the top of the lineup, coming around to score both times.
“He made me look good. Thanks, Gom,” Clapp quipped after the game.
“There was no rhyme or reason except just to shake things up a bit, to get some guys different opportunities at different spots in the lineup,” Clapp said. “If I could make a lineup the first day of the year, in short-season A, and they hit there in the big leagues, I’d be a genius and I’d be rich.”
Meredith, who went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles and a stolen base, didn’t think the team’s approach changed much from the previous two games.
“I didn’t really think there was much different, I just think we were finding holes,” he said. “Luck was on our side tonight.”
Even beyond the balls that found holes, luck certainly seemed to be smiling on the ValleyCats in the final contest of a six-game homestand. Look at the box score and find a category in which the ‘Cats came out on top – it’s not easy. Connecticut outhit the hosts 14-9, had more extra-base hits, drew more walks, and even drove in more runs (two ‘Cats scored on wild pitches). But the Tigers stranded 10 runners on base while Tri-City left only four on, getting their hits at the right times.
In one particularly notable inning, Connecticut hit two clean singles, drew a walk and a hit by pitch, yet brought only five batters to the plate and did not score a run. Matt Duffy snagged a hard line drive by the third-base bag with the bases loaded, doubling off the runner from third, and Meredith’s throw from left field ended the frame. 13 Tigers reached base in the final four innings, but only three scored –seven were stranded and three were thrown out or doubled up on the bases.
-Connecticut has a roster full of major-league blood. Colin Kaline is Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline’s grandson, catcher Patrick Leyland’s father is Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland and outfielder Bo McClendon is the son of Lloyd McClendon, an eight-year MLBer who is now Detroit’s hitting coach. More surprisingly, 66-year-old Jim Leyland has a son who is younger than I am.
-In addition to the two outfield assists, we saw some great infield defense on Monday, courtesy of Hinson. The second baseman made a diving play for a soft grounder to his left to end the first inning and went to the ground again in the third, this time to his right. He got up and fired to first, where Zach Johnson made a great stretch and pick to get the out.
-Juri Perez, this homestand: two starts, 10+ IP, 8 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 16 SO. He appears to be rather good at this sport. All 15 outs he recorded on Tuesday came on ground balls or strikeouts.
-The ValleyCats have exactly zero sacrifice bunts in 11 games this season. As a fan of not giving away outs, this pleases me greatly. (It’s probably coincidence, but the two teams with by far the most sacrifice bunts so far are Aberdeen and State College, at 8 and 9 respectively – nobody else has more than three – and those two teams are dead last in scoring.)
The ‘Cats go on the road for five games. Erik will be with the team for the entire trip, broadcasting the games live and updating you on the ValleyCats’ travels via various VCN channels.
You know the Little League cliché: the worst player gets sent to right field. From Lucy Van Pelt to Timmy Lupus, right field has been memorialized as the least-important position, the place for the hopeless goofball.
Well, right field was pretty important at Joe Bruno Stadium on Sunday evening, as it was the site of the five biggest plays in Connecticut’s 3-1 win.
It started with a couple near-homers in the middle innings. Miles Hamblin – facing lefty Matt Crouse, his teammate at Ole Miss just one month earlier – drove a fastball well over the right-field wall, landing it near the tennis courts more than 400 feet away. But it was ruled just foul – the ball crossed the foul pole too high to get a clear look from an angle – and Hamblin eventually went down swinging.
The very next batter was Connecticut third baseman Jason King, a fourth-round draft pick this year who showed some power in batting practice. He drove a line drive hard the opposite way, sending Drew Muren back to the wall … and leaping … and making the catch above the wall, taking a home run away from King. I thought initially that it might be one of those catches where the fielder jumps and catches the ball five feet from the fence, and his momentum carries him over – which describes about half of the “home run robbing” highlights that you see on Top 10 – but I asked Drew about it after the game, and he said it would have been gone.
But in the ninth inning, the Tigers hit two blasts that Muren could do nothing about. King led off the inning with another opposite-field blast that reached the visitors’ bullpen – snapping a streak of ten consecutive outs for Connecticut, and 20 of 21 – and Zach Maggard followed with a no-doubter to right-center, also an opposite-field homer.
Zach Johnson gave the right-field corner a fitting farewell with a two-out RBI double in the bottom half of the ninth, plating the Cats’ only run.
-Kyle Hallock gave up four hits in six innings, two of which were infield singles that leadoff hitter Chad Wright barely beat out. He had success early pitching with his slow stuff and then got everything going by the third inning, getting four or five of his six strikeouts with offspeed pitches against his 87-89 mph fastball. John Sickels of Minor League Ball had a brief writeup of Hallock this morning, which you should check out.
-I’ve seen a startling number of good changeups this season. Hallock told me before the season that his changeup was his out pitch (though not without some thought) and Juri Perez has a very good slowball, and we’ll get our first look at Nick Tropeano tonight, who Baseball America said might have had the best changeup among draft-eligible college players in the nation. A couple opponents have shown nice changeups as well, including Crouse last night.
-The most interesting moment of last night’s game: Ebert Rosario coming in with one on and two out in the ninth, throwing his warmup pitches, only to leave the mound with a smile before throwing a pitch. The story: Rosario had been suffering from strep throat for the previous couple of days, so he didn’t suit up for the games and wasn’t on the lineup card … and last night, manager Stubby Clapp forgot to add him back in, so he was ineligible to play. The mistake became unfortunate when Garrett Bullock, pitching without the platoon advantage, allowed Maggard’s two-run homer on the second pitch.
Baseball is a weird sport:
On Friday night, with runners on first and third, Miles Hamblin started running from third as Hector Rodriguez squared for a suicide squeeze. Rodriguez missed the bunt, but the ball bounced off the catcher’s glove and rolled behind the umpire and Hamblin scored standing up. Because he broke as the pitcher was throwing, according to the rules, he was credited with a steal of home, even though he would not have scored had the pitch not gotten by the catcher.
On Saturday night, with runners on first and third, Zach Johnson broke for second on the pitch. The catcher’s throw was on line but not quite in time to catch Johnson, who slid in safely just ahead of the tag. Matt Duffy attempted to score from third on the play, but the second baseman turned after trying to tag Johnson and threw home, beating Duffy to the plate by five feet. Because Duffy was caught stealing home, Johnson does not get credit for a steal of second, even though it would have been a steal if not for the event that did not affect the play at second.
Oh, Rule 10, how I missed you.
I generally agree with the cliché that says baseball is great because there is no clock, but it certainly can have its disadvantages. An 18-minute rain delay last night was followed by four innings that featured nine runs, 15 hits and eight walks; the fifth inning did not even start until about 9:00. Naturally, this happened on getaway day for Lowell and in the middle of a grueling homestand for us.
Fortunately, the second half of the game was much quicker than the first, keeping the total time (not counting the delay) under eight hours. That was due in large part to Dayan Diaz, who was electric in three innings of relief. Diaz consistently hit 94 and 95 on the radar gun and got five strikeouts against no walks, throwing 37 of 55 pitches for strikes.
A couple more scattered thoughts:
-Stats do lie, part 2: Catcher Ryan McCurdy allowed four of four runners to steal successfully last night. Bad game for him, right? Well, no. All four steal attempts came with Euris Quezada pitching. Quezada did not show a good pickoff move and was very slow to the plate, so all four runners had great jumps to beat McCurdy’s good throws. Part of that is inexperience – Quezada is a very raw 22, as he was signed at age 20 and came straight to America instead of playing in the Dominican league – and part of that is simply Quezada’s massive frame (6’6”, 240), which is not conductive to snap throws or a quick motion. McCurdy also caught Quezada’s first start and, as the ValleyCats’ best defensive catcher, may continue to play with the tall righty.
-Quezada threw only nine of 27 pitches for strikes in the first inning, which is not exactly stellar. In fairness, there were no high strikes early on last night, and no low ones either. He settled down afterward, sandwiching a spot of wildness in the third with 13/15 and 5/7 strike rates in the second and fourth innings.
-Three Johnsons were in the game last night: Neiko at short, Zach at first and Matty in left for Lowell. I was hoping for (M.) Johnson to ground out, (N.) Johnson to (Z.) Johnson, but sadly, that never happened.
-The ‘Cats aren’t taking batting practice before today’s game, and it sure doesn’t seem like they need it – Tri-City is atop the NYPL in all three triple-slash categories (.275/.380/.387) and leads the league with 52 runs scored despite playing one fewer game than many teams.
Back at it tonight for game four of six, as the Connecticut Tigers come to town with quite a few familiar faces on their roster. Listen live on your iPhone/Droid or online.
Manager Stubby Clapp, on last night’s victory:
“It’d be nice to put up 14 hits every day. We’d win a lot of ballgames.”
Of course, 14 hits don’t quite guarantee a victory, as the Lowell Spinners found out last night. The visitors matched the Cats’ hit total but committed four errors, including three in a costly fifth inning, as the ValleyCats jumped above .500 for the first time with a 12-8 victory.
I thought Zach Johnson summed up the crazy game pretty well in his first response after the game, saying, “We got down early, came back, got back down, came back and then we pushed through at the end with some extra runs … it was a good win.”
Both teams hit 14-for-39, a .359 clip, despite what looked like a very wide strike zone. Between well-hit line drives, soft shots that found holes and bad plays, lots of runners reached base – neither defense converted even half of the balls in play into outs (Tri-City was 13/28, Lowell 15/32).
We’ll likely be playing in similar conditions tonight. Rain fell heavily about an hour before the game and will slightly delay the start, and there is a small front of light storms that is scheduled to pass through during the game. As a getaway day for Lowell, the visitors probably hope for more outs and a quicker game than last night’s season-long 2:59.
A few more thoughts:
-Who leads the NYPL in runs scored right now? I posed this question to Erik and Dave this morning, and even after they figured out that it was a ValleyCat, it still took six or seven guesses for them to correctly identify Brandon Meredith. I was shocked when I saw him atop the leaderboard, but his eight runs are best in the league. He’s only hitting .227 and has usually been in the lower half of the lineup, but he’s drawn seven hits in as many games and the ‘Cats have been productive behind him.
-Starter Jonas Dufek just didn’t have a good night. He wasn’t wild, not walking anyone until the final batter and going to three balls only once (in a ten-pitch at-bat), but his secondary stuff wasn’t particularly sharp and he missed a couple spots. Balls in the air will eventually kill you in this park, especially when the wind blows out – though there wasn’t much doubt about either homer – and he should be better in his next start.
-Have I mentioned yet that Drew Muren has a good arm? He chased a line drive to the right-field wall, maybe 20 feet from the line in the corner, and didn’t pick it up very cleanly, but still was able to gun down Travis Shaw at second base. The throw was right on a line, didn’t bounce and hit Hector Rodriguez perfectly to get the out by a step.
-I may have missed a pitch, but I had Travis Smink with 17 strikes and zero balls in two innings.
-One day after being pinch-hit for in the ninth inning, Joantoni Garcia pinch-hit for Roberto Ramos in the eighth. Ramos was 2-for-3 on the night, though both hits were bunt singles; I suppose Lowell didn’t think he could get away with a third. Garcia hit into an inning-ending double play – on a beautiful turn at short by Rodriguez – so the Spinners might have been better off with Ramos’s speed.
-Matt Duffy scored from first on a double in the third inning, which probably won’t happen very often. He was running on the 3-2 pitch (with two outs) and Miles Hamblin hit a perfectly-placed grounder that rolled all the way to the right-field wall.
-The ‘Cats hit three triples in the game, as Kellen Kiilsgaard, Johnson and Meredith each had three-baggers. That was the first three-triple game for Tri-City going back to 2005, the earliest year for which we have easily-accessible stats.
-Duffy, by the way, was 4-for-5 and leads the league with a .483 batting average, keeping the tradition of success for Houston’s 20th-round draft picks alive and well.
The ValleyCats, as most winning teams do, got 27 outs on Thursday night. Unlike in most games, though, Tri-City’s fielders had little to do with that. The home team earned 16 strikeouts* while walking only three batters and evened their record with a 3-2 victory.
*Three more batters were put out 1-3, meaning the seven players in the field combined to make only eight plays on batted balls.
Nine of those K’s came from starter Juri Perez, who was lights-out in his five innings. Perez commanded his fastball well early on, throwing it 90-91 with good run into a righty’s hands and getting a few strikeouts with it, and often went to a high-70’s changeup as his out pitch.
Perez allowed two hits – a soft grounder through the left side and a line drive back up the box – and generated soft contact on his other balls in play, getting five of his six outs on grounders.
In his Opening Day start, Perez lost his command after four innings, eventually leading to a four-run rally that broke open the game. It looked like we might be headed for a repeat performance in the fourth inning of last night’s game, as Perez issued a one-out walk to Garin Cecchini, started the next batter with two balls and then fell behind Boss Monaroa 3-0, missing many fastballs badly. But Perez simply switched to his best pitch of the night, throwing three consecutive changeups to strike Monaroa out looking and end the inning.
But despite Perez’s performance and seven strikeouts from three other pitchers, the ValleyCats still entered the bottom of the eighth in a 2-2 tie, after the Spinners struck twice off Brad James in the top of the inning. Center fielder Justin Gominsky went the other way with the first pitch he saw, lifting a soft line drive over the first baseman’s head and a couple feet to the fair side of the chalk. Gominsky sprinted into second, beating the throw from shallow right field for a leadoff double.
“It’s always fair until it’s foul,” he said, pronouncing “foul” with a trademark Minnesotan accent (sounding more like “fall”). “I was running it out whether it was foul or not.”
Drew Muren reached on a perfectly-placed bunt single, putting runners on the corners with no outs for NYPL hits leader Matt Duffy. Duffy hit a grounder to shortstop Jose Garcia’s left; he took a look at Gominsky, who stopped, then flipped to second. Gominsky broke for home, the second baseman threw to first and completed the double play but allowed the game-winning run to score.
The perfect play would have been to get the out at second and then throw home; Gominsky is fast, but because he hesitated to watch the play unfold, a throw home from second probably would have had him out. But that’s a difficult and unnatural play to make; in hindsight, the Spinners probably wish they had played the infield all the way in, allowing Garcia to look Gominsky back and then throw out Duffy at first.
The quickest game of the year was finished in two hours, 27 minutes, but many of us were a bit surprised that it even started. Heavy rain fell overnight and in the morning, and lighter drops showered the field throughout the day, but the clouds cleared about 90 minutes before game time and held off throughout the evening.
More thoughts from the notebook:
-The Spinners started a few familiar faces, including the memorable double-play tandem of Jose Garcia and Joantoni Garcia, confusing broadcasters since 2010*. The team added a third J. Garcia over the winter, pitcher Jason. None are related to each other, however; they hail from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and the Bronx, respectively, meaning Lowell only needs one from Cuba or somewhere to hit for the J. Garcia cycle.
*Lowell also has two Monaroas – first baseman Boss and outfielder Moko – brothers from Australia who were signed as international free agents in 2008. This is definitely the league’s most interesting roster to read.
-Fun fact: if Lowell left fielder Seth Schwindenhammer ever reaches the majors, he’ll have the longest name of anyone to wear an MLB jersey, breaking Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s record by one letter. Don’t get your hopes up too high, though; ‘Hammer’ is 3-for-20 with 13 strikeouts in his second time through the NYPL.
-Last night was not exactly an offensive showcase. The two teams combined for 25 strikeouts and just 11 hits, two of which were bunt singles (Muren’s in the eighth and Gominsky’s, which stopped atop the third-base chalk, in the third).
-Officially, catcher Miles Hamblin has one professional stolen base, a successful steal of home. The full story is a lot less exciting, however – Hector Rodriguez attempted a suicide squeeze with Hamblin on third in the seventh inning and missed, but the catcher could not cleanly handle the pitch. According to the literal interpretation of the lovely Rule 10, if a runner starts towards the next base on the pitch and the play would ordinarily be ruled a wild pitch or passed ball, it goes down as a stolen base, with no exceptions for a play at the plate. It was a confusing play even in real time, as most of us thought Rodriguez had fouled the pitch back and Hamblin would be sent back.
-The Cats’ 16 strikeouts is a league-high for a nine-inning game this season. Staten Island, remarkably, has struck out 17 in each of its past two games, but both went to extras.
-Reason #136,251 why the win statistic is flawed: Brad James got the win on Thursday for being the game’s least effective pitcher, blowing a 2-0 lead in the eighth but watching his offense score in the bottom of the inning. Wins are a bad tool for evaluating starting pitchers, for reasons that have been well-discussed by now, but for relievers they are completely useless.
If you’re reading this while locked inside a windowless room with no means of escape, then I suppose you have an excuse for not being at the ballpark for tonight’s game, but you can still listen live online. Jonas Dufek vs. Raynel Velette, first pitch at 7:00.