Results tagged ‘ Brandt Walker ’

Sweeps Notebook

The ValleyCats pretty much knocked Connecticut out of the playoff race, taking all four games from the Tigers in a one-week span. Even after defeating Vermont last night to pull within two games, Connecticut’s odds of reaching the playoffs are still in the 2-3% range. Usually, I find claims of “must-win” games this far out to be hyperbole, but Connecticut probably can’t make the playoffs unless it takes the next two to sweep the Lake Monsters.

Bobby Doran was coming off five spectacular outings (29 IP, 5 ER combined), but didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday. He uncharacteristically left his fastball up and in hittable places often. Back when he was throwing low-90s early in the year, he might have been able to get away with that command, but last night he was 87-89 (and lower for the first couple batters, though that could have been a radar gun issue) and gave up nine hits. Three doubles in the fourth inning led to two runs, tying the game at 3-3.

Doran went to his curveball often and early in counts, getting a pair of strikeouts on hooks in the third inning. As usual, Doran didn’t walk anybody; he has allowed only seven unintentional free passes this year, for the second-best walk rate in the league (behind only teammate Carlos Quevedo).

Second baseman Alex Nunez made a pair of terrific plays in the early innings. He robbed Ben Orloff of a base hit, diving fully extended to his left and just barely snaring a grounder. He also made a great play coming in on a grounder off the pitcher’s foot making a quick throw while falling to get Mike Kvasnicka on a bang-bang play.

Dan Adamson continued to demonstrate his ridiculous power, getting a 1-2 curveball in the first inning and absolutely crushing it to left field. The blast landed right underneath the scoreboard, some 410 feet from home plate.

Travis Blankenship came on for Doran in the fifth with two outs and two runners in scoring position, and needed just one pitch to get out of the jam. Blankenship fanned lefty Eric Roof in the next inning with three curveballs away and continues to look very strong out of the bullpen.

Scary moment in the fifth: Austin Wates was hit on the right wrist by a 3-2 pitch by Josue Carreno. Wates went down quickly and stayed there for a couple minutes, eventually leaving the game. Things worked out pretty well, however. Pinch-runner Wilton Infante stole second and eventually scored on an infield single by birthday boy Kik&eacute Hernandez, while X-rays on Wates were negative.

Wates, who has a reputation as a terrific hitter, has been performing as advertised since joining the ValleyCats. We watched his first round of BP and it was not pretty – he was slicing balls around the cage, nearly hitting the visitors’ clubhouse a few times, and only squared up one or two well – but he needed no time to adjust, getting five hits in ten at-bats before leaving Tuesday’s game. He sat last night and I don’t know when he will rejoin the lineup, but this does not look like a serious setback.

Carreno came out after the fifth inning and had already thrown 90 pitches. I believe that’s the most we’ve seen from a starter at JBS this year.

Blankenship wasn’t the only reliever to have success on Tuesday. Brandt Walker wasn’t throwing quite as hard as usual – 92-93 instead of 95-ish – but got three strikeouts in 1.2 perfect innings. Meanwhile, Alex Sogard was consistently throwing 92 mph, as hard as I’ve seen all year. Sogard fanned the first four hitters he faced and then got four ground balls; two went through the left side for hits, but the next one was a tailor-made double play ball to escape the 10th.

The ValleyCats stranded seven runners between the 7th and 9th innings, any of which would have won the game. They loaded the bases in the ninth on a two-out rally that did not involve a hit; Ramon Lebron, consistently at 95-96 mph, walked Kik&eacute to load the bases but got Adamson to swing through a fastball up in the zone to force extras. Lebron struck out the side in the tenth inning and got two quick outs in the eleventh. But a walk to Ben Orloff sparked another two-out rally that again did not involve a hit; Hernandez reached base on a throwing error by shortstop Brett Anderson, and Burnett’s grounder went off Anderson’s glove into left field (his fourth error of the game) to bring home Orloff with the winning run.

Kevin Whitaker

Sweep Notebook

My apologies for not finishing this sooner. This notebook is obviously a bit dated now, but hopefully it’s still of interest.

The ValleyCats had their best homestand of the season, sweeping a pair of games with division-leading Vermont. Tri-City hammered the Lake Monsters 10-1 on Monday night and pulled out a 5-3 victory on Tuesday, edging to within five games of Vermont in the standings.

Monday’s outburst was fueled by a two-homer, seven-run third inning, but Kik&eacute Hernandez and Wilton Infante each tripled later in the contest. The last time the ValleyCats had two homers and two triples in a game was way back on July 22, 2004: Mario Garza and Kevin Vital homered, while Vital and Brandon Barganier tripled. The ‘Cats scored two in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game but ultimately fell to Staten Island, 6-5 in 13 innings.

If you had asked me three weeks ago who would rank second on the team in home runs right now, it would have taken me a long, long time to guess Jacke Healey. Yet that’s exactly where the shortstop lies right now after his leadoff blast sparked a seven-run third inning on Monday night. Exactly one month into the season, Healey was scavenging for playing time, hitting .129 as the clear fourth man in a middle-infield rotation. But he homered in consecutive games in mid-July and did so again this week, coming within a couple feet of hitting the giant inflatable Uncle Sam more than 400 feet away against Vermont.

Healey has been solid all year and made a nice play on Monday on a chopper over the second-base bag. But the bigger story has been his power surge. Healey is now slugging .571 in 13 games since July 19, which is very valuable combined with his good glove at short. He put on a laser show in BP before Tuesday’s game, hitting five homers and some more line drives.

This isn’t the first time Healey has shown a power surge – this spring, the shortstop set a Youngstown State University record with 12 homers. He also led the Penguins with 59 RBI.

I would have been much more likely to guess Dan Adamson, who homered later that same inning to remain tied with Healy at four. Adamson, of course, hit the big walk-off homer on Friday night, and has been in the middle of quite a few big innings for the ValleyCats. As of Thursday night, he leads the team with a .848 OPS (edging out Tyler Burnett), tied for first in slugging and second in OBP.

The outfielder has fanned 48 times in 182 plate appearances, an ugly number that leads the team by 10, but it’s not all bad as he also has 22 walks (second on the ‘Cats). He started the season in center field, was moved to left for Wilton Infante shortly thereafter, but he was shifted back to center two weeks ago. He has looked good patrolling the middle of the outfield; the shift has certainly been an improvement for the Tri-City defense. He ran down a fly ball to the deepest part of the warning track in the top of the third on Monday.

Adamson went 0-for-4 in four plate appearances on Tuesday, which was unusual – it marked the first time in 22 games this season that Adamson did not reach base at home. Only Brooklyn superstar Darrell Ceciliani has had a longer such streak this season.

But Adamson’s streak is nothing compared to what Tyler Burnett has done recently. Burnett leads the team in OBP at .397, in large part because he has reached base in every game he has played since June 30th: 30 consecutive games. His streak is the longest in the NYPL this season by six games, and the longest active one by nine. The ValleyCats have been three-hit once and four-hit three times in that span, including three shutouts, but Burnett has constantly been producing. He hit his third homer of the season on Tuesday, a no-doubter to right field that gave the ‘Cats a seventh-inning insurance run.

Burnett’s defense has been coming along nicely at first, while Mike Kvasnicka continues to improve at Burnett’s natural position, third base. Kvasnicka made a pair of great barehanded plays on drag bunts on Monday, throwing out Hendry Jimenez by a step in the first inning and getting speedy outfielder Chad Mozingo in the third. He made a poor play in the seventh inning, drifting on a popup that fell past his glove on the infield (Healey should have called him off but let Kvasnicka take the play the whole way, for whatever it’s worth), but has otherwise looked decent at the hot corner recently. (Kvasnicka recovered to throw David Freitas going for second on that play.)

Jake Buchanan, first five starts: 17 IP, 15 R, 6 BB, 19 SO, 6.88 ERA
Jake Buchanan, last three starts: 16.2 IP, 2 R, 1 BB, 9 SO, 1.08 ERA

Most of the damage came from a two-inning, seven-run start at Auburn on July 16, but he’s certainly turned things around since then with three dominant starts. Buchanan has lowered his season ERA from 6.88 to 4.01, and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue that trend. The righty allowed only two hits and one walk against Vermont on Monday; the hits, both clean singles, came in the second inning. He found his breaking ball after that and was unhittable from the third onward, fanning Hendry Jimenez with a hook in the third and freezing Jack Walker with a fastball to end the fifth. Buchanan’s best inning was his last one, as he got Connor Rowe to chase a curveball in the dirt for his third whiff, then induced a pair of easy ground balls in his third time through the top of the order. He was pulled after six scoreless innings and 73 pitches.

Alex Sogard wasn’t as dominant but pitched fairly well, scattering four hits for two runs in 3.1 innings. The lefty again went to his curveball often, even against opposite-handed hitters, and fanned Blake Kelso with a pair of hooks off the inside corner. He was pitching inside to righties with his fastball as well and getting ahead in counts – he went 0-2 on the first three batters and didn’t walk any. He allowed a home run to Justin Miller that was very, very wind-aided – I actually looked down because I was sure it was going to be an easy fly ball, but the wind from a nearby storm carried the ball over the wall and just beyond a leaping Infante’s glove. After the storm and some light rain had passed, star catcher David Freitas tagged a Sogard fastball in the fourth much harder, but without the wind it went for a double off the wall in left-center.

Murillo Gouvea had another good outing on Tuesday, allowing one run in 2.2 innings. He was living a bit dangerously at times – both his strikeouts came on high curveballs – but got the job done. Gouvea had a 12.78 ERA two weeks ago, but has allowed just one run in 10.1 innings since, fanning 15 batters in that span (3 BB).

With a one-run lead, two outs and a man on in the seventh inning, Jim Pankovits took out lefty Travis Blankenship and brought in Brandt Walker to face right-handed slugger David Freitas. Blankenship had walked the previous batter, but had only thrown eight pitches and Pankovits has generally been reluctant to play matchups with the southpaw. I was glad to see the change, as although Blankenship has actually been tougher on righties thus far (LHB .194/.390/.226; RHB .133/.278/.133), that screams “sample-size fluke” to me: Blankenship is the classic model of a LOOGY, relying heavily on breaking stuff from a low arm angle.

Walker retired Freitas to end the inning, and froze a pair of Lake Monsters in the next inning with fastballs on the outside corner. The ValleyCats’ other flamethrower, Jorge De Leon, came on to close the game out in the ninth. He fell behind his first three hitters 2-0 and brought the tying run to the plate with two outs, but Ben Heath made a nice sliding catch on a Jason Martinson popup to end the game.

Either Vermont has some great relievers or the ValleyCats are falling into a dangerous habit of giving up on at-bats late in games: Vermont’s last pitcher Kevin Cahill fanned five ‘Cats in 1.2 innings on Monday; and Tuesday’s final reliever, Mark Herrera, struck out four in 1.1 IP. So that’s nine outs, nine strikeouts to end games for the ValleyCats, who did have three singles scattered through those innings. I’m guessing it’s a combination of good pitching and poor approach, as I’ve seen this a little bit in the past from the ‘Cats.

Astros news: #8 overall draft pick Delino DeShields, Jr. has officially signed with Houston, for $2.15 million. Although it would be great to see DeShields in a ValleyCats uniform, it won’t happen unless the 18-year-old really, really lights up the Appy League out of the gate – he’ll be going to Greeneville next week.

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Going Green

Last night was our annual “Going Green” celebration here at Joe Bruno Stadium, where the park was environment-themed. Elliot Travis has more:

We also had a special seventh-inning stretch, featuring “Take Me Out to the Green Game,” written by our e-friend Mike Tauser. Mike is the man behind Farmstros and the creator of the incredibly creative “Quest for 3,000 Syllables”. He is tweeting 3,000 syllables about the Houston farm system in 2010, in haiku form – which works out to 177 haikus for the summer. Previous haikus about the ValleyCats include:

Talk about control
Just two walks by Quevedo
He has started six

And from last night:

Valley Cats go green
Do their part for the planet
Win the game as well

You can read all 2,278 and counting of Mike’s syllables here.

The ValleyCats won their third consecutive game, the first time this season they have had a three-game win streak. Lowell has not exactly been the toughest opponent this season and four of the ‘Cats’ five runs were unearned, but make no mistake, they deserved to win this game.

Tri-City committed a pair of its own errors but also had some great defensive plays. Kik&eacute Hernandez had the play of the night, when he made a sliding forehand deep in the outfield grass and threw to first to get Bryce Brentz by a step. Hernandez started the play near his regular position, but by the time he reached the ball he was about where the second baseman plays on an overshift, 15-20 feet beyond the infield dirt.

Shortstop Oscar Figueroa made a great snag of a ball to his right, and if the runner had been anybody but the speedy Felix Sanchez he would have gotten an out. Ben Orloff made two nice plays ranging to his left at third base, and Ben Heath made a pair of good throws to second; the first was too late to catch Sanchez, although the play was closer than any of us expected, and the second nailed James Kang on a steal attempt.

Jake Buchanan was easily the best I’ve seen from him, and he’s now had two consecutive strong starts (5+ IP, 1 ER in each). Both Buchanan and manager Jim Pankovits attributed his success to an aggressive approach; the righty did not walk a batter all game, and only once reached a three-ball count. He fanned five Spinners, going up the ladder with a couple fastballs and getting others with nice curves. (We have been having radar gun issues, so I don’t have velocities.)

And the ‘Cats hit. The hosts picked up 11 safeties, and had lots of chances to score. They only scored one run in the second despite racking up four hits; a double play grounder limited the damage. And in the sixth, Tyler Burnett appeared to score from third on a grounder off the bat of Mike Kvasnicka, but he was called out at home. I thought Burnett beat the tag, as did most everybody else in the press box; Burnett agreed after the game.

Although Burnett hits quite a few balls to the gaps, I doubt he’ll get another triple – the first baseman is not the slowest player on the team, but far from the fastest. His three-bagger yesterday came as sort of a fluke – Brentz dove after a popup down the line and landed hard as the ball rolled fifty feet or so away from him.

Kvasnicka had two hits, including a double, continuing to stay hot and extending his hit streak to nine games. Afenir, Hernandez and Burnett each have now hit safely in eight consecutive games.

Brandt Walker, coincidentally, issued the game’s only two walks, and Brentz scored the tying run after doubling in the seventh. But the ‘Cats got it right back and more, scoring three runs in their half of the inning on three hits and a misplayed bunt.

Mike Ness made things interesting in the ninth inning, loading the bases and putting the tying run on, but held on for the two-inning save. Ness fanned four, freezing a pair of Spinners in the final frame on pitches that might have been a couple inches off the plate. Ness now leads the team with four saves.

The ‘Cats look to keep the hot streak going with two more home games against Lowell, who fell to a league-worst 8-31.

Kevin Whitaker

Cooperstown Notebook

The ValleyCats made a special trip down to Cooperstown today, playing their annual meeting against the Tigers at Doubleday Field. The game coincides with the Hall of Fame Induction Weekend – Andre Dawson, Doug Harvey and Whitey Herzog will be officially inducted tomorrow afternoon – so the town is always full of excitement and energy. Combined with the historic nature of the field and area, it’s a great atmosphere for a ballgame.

Things are a little crazier this year, because the Tigers moved to Connecticut in the offseason. When they played in Oneonta, the Cooperstown game was a perfect fit, but this time around the ‘Cats have a very rough travel schedule: they finished a game at Aberdeen on Thursday night; drove nearly six hours up to Norwich, CT on Friday for a game that was postponed due to rain; spent four hours on the bus to get to Cooperstown for the 1:00 start today; and embarked on a 4.5-hour trip after the game to Vermont, where they will play at 1:05 tomorrow (Sunday).

But despite the crazy schedule, the players seemed pretty excited to play on Doubleday Field. They certainly got their money’s worth, playing a 13-inning marathon (longest of the season) that lasted three hours and 36 minutes and forced me to use a second scoresheet for the first time this season (mine go to 11). I was kind of wishing the game had taken place at home, just to see the kind of chaos that would have exploded on the whiteboard. 17 ValleyCats and 18 Tigers appeared in the game, including three pinch-runners, two pinch-hitters and eleven pitchers.

Each team had quite a few chances to put the game away – eleven different runners reached scoring position in the ninth and extras – so there were quite a few interesting tactical decisions made in the late innings. Here are some of the ones worth pointing out:

Look into the box score, and you’ll see an unusual move in the top of the ninth inning – the ValleyCats pinch-hit for their DH with their backup catcher. That doesn’t happen often. Now, nobody will argue it was the wrong decision – it regained the platoon advantage with lefty Logan Hoch on the mound, and Stanley isn’t exactly killing the ball regardless – and the results backed that up, as Afenir came through with the biggest hit of the day, a line-drive double to right-center that plated Dan Adamson.

On the very next batter, Connecticut made a decision that I think more teams in this league should copy. Jacke Healey pinch-ran for Afenir, and the ‘Cats were pretty clearly going to bunt – Wilton Infante, one of their best bunters, was batting, and the go-ahead run was on second. Connecticut aggressively blitzed Infante on the pitch, so that when Infante laid the bunt down, the first baseman was no more than 30 feet from the plate. It worked, as Infante bunted the ball right back to the pitcher, who had plenty of time to nail Healey at third. It was a poor bunt by Infante, but given how Connecticut played it, he would have needed to execute a very good bunt down the third-base line to successfully advance the runner. Most teams I’ve seen will play more conservatively in that situation, conceding the runner’s advancement while getting the batter out. I’m not a fan of playing exclusively for one run in that situation to begin with, but if teams are going to predictably bunt in those situations, it’s possible to exploit it and get the lead runner out more often.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, lefty Chao-Ting Tang came up with one on and one out against southpaw Travis Blankenship, and I thought for sure a pinch-hitter was coming, but Connecticut left him in. Tang hit a line drive, but it became a 6-3 double play when pinch-runner Matt Mansilla strayed too farr off first. (That was a perplexing play in its own right – Tang’s ball wasn’t hit all that hard, and it was obvious to everyone in the ballpark except Mansilla that it would be caught.) There are plenty of reasons to let Tang hit in that situation, so I didn’t think much of it until the 13th inning. Tang came up again in that frame with one on and one out against a lefty (Adam Champion)…but this time, the Tigers pinch-hit with righty Chris Sedon. That didn’t work out for them either, as Sedon struck out, setting the stage for Ryan Soares’s game-winning single. But I’m not sure what happened between the ninth and 13th innings to make pinch-hitting suddenly seem like a good idea (especially because, if I were to pick one to have a bigger expected platoon split, I’d definitely go with Blankenship over Champion as being relatively tougher on lefties).

‘Cats manager Jim Pankovits did a great job of managing his bullpen in extra innings. Blankenship was deep into his second inning of work when he got Josh Ashenbrenner to ground into a fielder’s choice for the second out. That put runners on first and third with righty Alex Nunez coming up – the Tigers’ cleanup hitter, who had two hits already in the game – and I thought for sure Blankenship would come out of the game for a righty. Blankenship has done well against right-handed hitters so far this year, but I’m not sure that’s sustainable – he comes from a low arm slot and throws a lot of breaking balls, two qualities that tend to make a pitcher vulnerable to opposite-handed batters. But Pankovits stuck with Blankenship, and it worked out in the end. He got Nunez down 1-2, then hit him with a breaking ball – which was better than leaving one out over the plate, given the situation. Then he induced an easy ground ball from the next batter, lefty Eric Roof, getting out of the jam.

Pankovits made another interesting decision in the 12th. With one out and PJ Polk on third, he had Brandt Walker intentionally walk Josh Ashenbrenner to pitch to Nunez. The reasoning for this wasn’t very obvious at the time – it seemed a sideways move at best, one that wasn’t necessarily detrimental but somewhat pointless. The ValleyCats weren’t setting up a double play – they kept the infield in after the walk – nor were they loading the bases to set up a force at home. I didn’t have stats with me at the time, but I checked and sure enough, the rationale became pretty obvious. With one out and a fast runner on third, Tri-City pretty much needed a strikeout to stay in the game (or an infield popup or a hard, at-‘em grounder, but those are less common and less predictable). Ashenbrenner has only four strikeouts in 93 at-bats this year, while Nunez has fanned 34 times in 118. Sure enough, Walker sent Nunez down swinging, and got Roof to line out to escape a seemingly impossible bind.

The one decision that didn’t pan out came in the 13th, when Pankovits elected to bring in Jorge De Leon with two outs to face Soares, who drilled the first pitch for a game-winning single. But you certainly can’t second-guess Pankovits for this one – he got his closer into the game against a hot hitter in a critical situation. (If anything, I would have brought De Leon in to face Sedon once the pinch-hitter was announced, but Champion handled him just fine.) It didn’t work out this time, but the managing instinct was the right one – have your better relievers pitch in the most important situations. If Jerry Manuel does that today, the Mets might not lose again.*

*The Mets have played 52 games on the road this season, and have 12 walk-off defeats. That’s completely insane. Yet, Manuel was content to watch another celebration today without ever getting his best reliever in to the game.

Soares, of course, lined a single into center, and pinch-runner Les Smith scored from second to win the game. Adamson’s throw home was on target, but his arm isn’t the strongest, and it bounced home a step too late to catch Smith at the plate.

Tyler Burnett continues to absolutely rake – he went 3-for-5 with a walk and a 12th-inning double today. Burnett also scored a pair of runs; he is now tied for second in the league in doubles and tied for third in walks.

The ‘Cats as a team stroked five doubles today. Wilton Infante nearly had a sixth, but Polk made a fantastic leaping catch up against the wall in right-center-field. Nobody went yard, which came as a bit of a surprise given the friiendly confines (296 down the left-field line, 338 to the marking in left-center, 316 to right); besides Infante, Adam Bailey came closest to a homer, hitting a fly to the warning track to straightaway center, easily the deepest part of the park at 390 ft.

Mike Kvasnicka had another pretty good night with the bat, 2-for-6 with a double. After a rough first month of the season, his batting average is now up to .200, and I bet he’s at least a .270 hitter from this point forward, if not better.

Walker had two nice strikeouts in the eleventh inning as well, throwing a nice breaking ball to Julio Rodriguez for the first out and then getting Soares to chase a pitch in the dirt with the winning run on second.

Andrew Robinson pitched really well, but was bitten by some very rough luck. He gave up three hits in three innings, but they came back-to-back-to-back, leading to two runs. Even worse, none of the balls was hit well – a chopper that hung in the air too long, a high bloop down the right-field line and a soft grounder up the middle.

David Martinez, on the other hand, was a bit lucky to even get through the first three innings with only three runs allowed (six hits). He was putting pitches over the plate, and Connecticut was taking advantage – in the first two frames, Martinez faced 10 hitters and threw only 17 pitches. Martinez settled down, though, and retired the last eight batters he faced.

Ben Heath had been mired in a bit of a slump – 3 for his previous 23 entering today’s game – so it was nice to see him come up with a big hit in the third inning. His double brought home Kik&eacute Hernandez and enabled the three-run outburst that tied the game.

Some pictures from today’s memorable game:

Pankovits hits some grounders during warm-ups:

warmups

Hitting coach Joel Chimelis talks to Kik&eacute and Kvasnicka before the game:

chimmy

Ben Orloff signs an autograph for a lucky fan:

Orloff autograph

Things got kind of cramped in the small dugouts:

TCdugout

CTdugout

Connecticut came up with an interesting solution: put players in the stands!

CTstands

Kvasnicka at bat:

Kvasnicka batting

Buck Afenir is congratulated after his game-tying double:

Afenir celebration

scoreboard

The Tigers celebrate the walk-off victory:

celebration

Doubleday Field

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


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

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