Results tagged ‘ Connecticut Tigers ’

Game Story: Tigers Sweep ‘Cats in Doubleheader

The ‘Cats fell to 3-11 on the road in last night’s doubleheader sweep at the hands of Connecticut. Tri-City’s averaging just over three runs per game in the 14 road games so far this season. That’s especially discouraging considering the ValleyCats averaged almost seven runs per game in the most recent five game homestand.

Perhaps it was just a worn out team coming off the 4:40 game Tuesday, and Connecticut was just a tad better.

Manager Stubby Clapp put it simply before the team got off the bus last night, “There’s still a lot of baseball left on this road trip”.

He’s right.

Matt Appel and I will be back on the broadcast tonight from Norwich in the final meeting of the season between Connecticut and Tri-City. We’ll start the pregame show at 6:50, first pitch is set for 7:05. Euris Quezada goes for the ‘Cats, coming off his first win of the season. Below is last night’s game story.

Tigers Sweep ‘Cats in Doubleheader

NORWICH, Conn. — After it took four hours and 40 minutes to play one 13-inning game at ‘The Joe’ yesterday afternoon, Tri-City and Connecticut completed a doubleheader in just three hours and 27 minutes.

In total, it was just over eight hours to forget for the ValleyCats.

Tri-City fell in both games of Thursday’s doubleheader 4-2 and 3-2 and dropped to 13-20 on the season.

In game one, right-handed starter Jonas Dufek was spotted a 2-0 lead in the second but had his scoreless streak snapped at 21.1 innings when the Tigers touched him up for three runs on four hits in the second inning.

Second baseman John Hinson was the only ValleyCat to record a multi-hit game. The ‘Cats got the potential tying run to the plate in the seventh, but Miles Hamblin lined into a double play, ending any threat.

(Game One Box)

In game two, the ‘Cats fell 3-2 despite another solid pitching performance by lefty Kyle Hallock. The southpaw tossed five innings and allowed three runs, two earned, on six hits, three of them infield singles.

Designated hitter Jason King delivered the game-winning blow in a 1-1 game in the 5th inning. With two on and one out, King roped a two-run double down the left field line.

The ‘Cats managed to get one run back in the sixth on a Matt Duffy infield RBI single.

Trailing by one in the seventh, Zach Johnson struck out looking with the tying and go-ahead runs on base.

(Game Two Box)

With the two losses, Tri-City falls to four games out of first place. The ValleyCats face the Tigers for the final time of the regular season Friday night at 7:05 before heading to Staten Island for a three game series with the Yankees.

Erik Elken

Notebook: Weird baseball

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.

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Cannons

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.

Notes:

-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.

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Right (field) place, right time

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.

Notebook:

-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.

Kevin Whitaker

Pennant Chase Postmortem

Me, on 7/5:

Given how strong Vermont has looked – the Lake Monsters are off to an unbelievable 14-3 start, with eight consecutive wins – the ValleyCats’ slim playoff hopes probably rest on the wild card.

Me, on 7/15:

Vermont has already all but clinched the Stedler Division. [...] The ValleyCats’ playoff hopes look awfully slim, despite [the good run differential] – their recent bad fortune has left them 4.5 games back and behind seven other teams in the wild-card race, which is a very difficult hurdle to overcome under any circumstances.

Me, on 7/28:

[The ValleyCats'] playoff chances, however, are still very remote. Even if the ValleyCats played like the league’s best team in the second half, they would finish at 41-35 or so. Five teams are currently on pace to have a better record than that, and another two aren’t far behind, so they would still probably have no better than a 50-50 shot at reaching the postseason.

Evan, on 8/13:

If you had told me back in the beginning of July that, come August, the ValleyCats would have a shot to win the division, I would have had you declared officially insane. [...] It was July 10 and most fans were already hoping for the wild card.

=====

One month into the season, it was not exactly likely that the ValleyCats would be playing meaningful games in September. They stood at 11-18 on the morning of July 19, 9.5 games behind Vermont. The Lake Monsters had cooled off slightly – it would have been impossible to do otherwise after a 14-3 start – but still had a firm hold on the Stedler Division. Tri-City was also well behind Connecticut in the division and trailed several teams in the wild card, and looked headed for a third-place finish.

There were some signs that things might turn around. The ‘Cats were unlucky in close games, and their strong run differential portended better things for the future. Meanwhile, their offense was bound to improve, while their pitching staff was one of the league’s best.

You can trace the ValleyCats’ turnaround to a late-July game at Vermont. Nearing the end of a seven-day road trip that had proven less than fruitful to that point, they found themselves in a 7-3 hole to the Lake Monsters, after ace Carlos Quevedo suffered his worst start of the season. But the ‘Cats battled back, striking for three runs in the seventh and two on a Mike Kvasnicka single in the eighth to win a 10-8 slugfest. Bobby Doran picked up his first win the next night to complete an unlikely sweep.

After the great weekend, fellow VCN member Chris Chenes proclaimed that the ValleyCats would make the playoffs. Evan and I thought he was crazy. We were both optimistic about their future, but the math seemed too daunting – they still trailed the Lake Monsters by 7.5 games (with only two head-to-head matches left), and the wild card was looking less and less attainable as the Pinckney Division teams pulled away from the pack. 

Recent history doesn’t matter a whole lot in the minors – teams change almost completely from year to year. What little difference it does make, however, certainly seemed to go against the ValleyCats. Tri-City was coming off three consecutive last-place finishes, and indeed no Houston affiliate had reached the playoffs since 2007*. But Chris stuck to his guns, and would eventually be vindicated. 
*The manager on that pennant-winning Salem Avalanche? None other than our own Jim Pankovits.

Tri-City was in danger of losing its next series, a three-game home set against Lowell, when they trailed the rubber match 5-1 in the seventh inning. Such a loss, particularly on their home field, would have been very disappointing for the ‘Cats, as the Spinners had not yet won a series all season. But Adam Bailey belted the team’s first (and only) grand slam to tie the game, and Dan Adamson sent the fans home happy, leading off the 11th inning with a walk-off homer.

The ‘Cats swept another two-game set with Vermont early in August, then embarked on a six-game road trip to Mahoning Valley and State College. They lost slugger Ben Heath to promotion midway through the trip, yet ended it on a high note by winning the last two to split the six games. Tri-City allowed just eight runs over the final five games of that trip, which manager Jim Pankovits credits as the point where his team really started its comeback:

About that time, we had made some adjustments to the rotation and started to go to a more regular lineup, and I think we just got on a roll. We played very well that series, and it continued to a couple more series when we came home. The game of baseball is a really streaky game, and we got on a really good hot streak about then.

The ValleyCats then returned to Joe Bruno Stadium, where they won 11 of their final 15 games, and won series against Williamsport – then leading the Pinckney Division – and Staten Island. The All-Star break did little to cool their momentum, as they swept Connecticut on the road, pulling back to .500 for the first time since the first week of the season. More importantly, they passed Connecticut to take second place in the division, and stood only 1.5 games back of the Lake Monsters.

That paved the way for a thrilling, topsy-turvy stretch run:

Photobucket

Shown above are my playoff odds on each day for the final two weeks. The ValleyCats swept a home-and-home with Connecticut – taking the latter on a heartbreaking two-error eleventh inning by shortstop Brett Anderson – pushing the Tigers three games back and seemingly knocking them out of the race. But Connecticut would not quit, proceeding to take three at Vermont while the ValleyCats dropped three of their own at Hudson Valley, an extremely unlikely turn of events that left the Tigers right back int he thick of things. The division was still completely up for grabs heading into the last week of the season.

The ValleyCats more or less saved their season in their home finale, pulling out a 14-inning thriller on the heels of a 12-inning defeat to Hudson Valley. Two extra-inning losses would have left the ‘Cats deep in third place and in an unenviable position to embark on a season-ending, six-game road trip.

Instead, Chris Wallace doubled to the left-field wall in the 14th, his third huge hit of the series. Bailey followed with his third hit of the game, a single to right field, and Wallace slid home just inches in front of the tag. Bailey was far from the ValleyCats’ most consistent hitter this season – his batting average was just a point above the Mendoza Line entering that game – but he would be critical down the stretch, racking up a league-high 14 hits in the final week of the season.

The ValleyCats then swept Lowell, while Connecticut improbably did the same to Aberdeen to remain a half-game back. Vermont, meanwhile, dropped four of five at Brooklyn to be all but eliminated from the race. The two teams switched places on Friday, setting the stage for a remarkable Saturday. The ValleyCats took an 8-7 slugfest at Brooklyn – with the key hit, naturally, provided by Bailey – wihle the Tigers finally lost at Aberdeen.

That left the ValleyCats needing only a win or a Connecticut loss entering the final day of the season. Connecticut and Aberdeen began 2.5 hours before Tri-City took on the Cyclones, but the ‘Cats still didn’t know if they needed a win as their game started, because Connecticut forced extra innings. The Tigers twice threatened to make the Tri-City game decisive, scoring in the 11th and twice in the 13th. They entered Sunday with a league-best 19-10 record in one-run games, and a 6-2 record in extras, and it seemed like they would pull another victory out of nowhere (Connecticut finished above .500 despite being outscored by 44 runs).

But this time, they came out on the short end of an improbable defeat. The Ironbirds put two runners on with two outs, and #3 overall draft pick Manny Machado tripled off the right-field wall. Kipp Schutz, who hit a walk-off grand slam against the ValleyCats back in July, ended Connecticut’s season with a game-winning single, and the ValleyCats were free to celebrate.

In the end, the ValleyCats won with incredible pitching. Their 17-11 August was fueled by a 2.56 ERA and 81 runs allowed, both best in the league. Vermont, meanwhile, posted a 5.45 ERA while allowing 159 runs in August, going just 9-17 to blow a seven-game lead. Connecticut fared slightly better on that end, allowing 119 runs with a 3.57 ERA, but hit a league-low .212 for the month.

All five regular starters had a terrific month, posting ERAs below 3.00. David Martinez, a mid-season conversion from the bullpen, fared the best, allowing just four earned runs in 30.1 innings and fanning a team-high 31 batters. Bobby Doran (3-1, 2.41) and Jake Buchanan (2-3, 2.97) rebounded from slow starts with strong months, while Carlos Quevedo (3-1, 2.97) and Andrew Robinson (2-2, 2.74) continued excellent seasons in August. On the other side, the mid-month additions of Marcus Nidiffer (.317/.386/.540 in August) and Austin Wates (.368/.500/.474 in 19 at-bats) boosted an offense that saw some of its regulars drop off a bit, while the arm of Chris Wallace (14/25 CS with Tri-City) proved a valuable asset behind the plate.

The ValleyCats make the playoffs, and will be a tough match for a strong Batavia squad in the first round. All four playoff teams are very good, which should make for a very fun week.

So, Chris: You were right, and I was wrong. And I couldn’t be happier.

Kevin Whitaker

Close Calls

The ValleyCats have outplayed Connecticut by 5.5 games this season in contests decided by more than one run. Unfortunately, in one-run games, the Tigers are 19-10 while the ‘Cats are just 8-11. That gap widened last night, as the ‘Cats fell 5-4 at Brooklyn while the Tigers won their fourth straight over Aberdeen, 7-6.

The ‘Cats generally played well last night but allowed one big inning – four runs in the fourth off starter Bobby Doran – and that proved the difference. Both teams were fairly efficient with their baserunners; the ‘Cats left four on and scored four, while the Cyclones had five of each. So Tri-City now has to win one, and almost certainly two of its next two games, and even that won’t guarantee a playoff spot. I have the ‘Cats at just 27% to make the playoffs now, with Connecticut nearly a 3-to-1 favorite. (Vermont was eliminated with its loss to Staten Island last night.)

The ValleyCats’ offense, save for a couple games at Lowell, has not played well over the last week and a half, and it can’t count on the pitching staff to continue putting up otherworldly numbers to stay in games. The ‘Cats need to get some runs against newly-converted starter Jonathan Kountis if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive.

I’ll be tweeting updates from the game.

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Home Finale

The ValleyCats played their last home game of the regular season last night, and apparently they just did not want to leave Joe Bruno Stadium. We saw extra baseball for the second consecutive game; this one lasted even longer, a 14-inning thriller that took nearly four and a half hours to complete.

Monday’s result was happier for the ValleyCats, as they ended the home slate the same way it began*: a walk-off hit to score the winning run from second. Most of the 6,215 fans had left by that point – it was, after all, 11:30 on a Monday night – but the few that stayed saw the last of many thrilling games at “The Joe” this season.

Cool fact: the same umpires that were here on Opening Day also worked Monday’s finale: Carlos Torres behind the plate and Shane Livensparger on the bases.

Monday’s game was Tri-City’s longest of the season in both innings and time, lasting even longer in absolute time than the 11-inning Vermont game that saw a one-hour power delay. The ValleyCats have had tremendous pitching depth all season and needed all of it last night, going to 14 frames after playing 12 on Sunday. Aside from an uncharacteristically shaky seventh inning by lefty Travis Blankenship – who came into the game with only four earned runs but allowed three last night – the ‘Cats’ pitching was lights-out. Jake Buchanan allowed only one run – a two-out double by the ValleyCats’ nemesis, Nick Schwaner – and fanned eight batters without walking any. Brandt Walker, Jorge De Leon and Jason Chowning were more than solid in relief, seeing the go-ahead run reach third only once in the final seven innings.

Chris Wallace came up with the big hits all series, and last night was no exception. The catcher doubled home Mike Kvasnicka for the eventual deciding run in Saturday’s 2-1 victory and homered to give the ‘Cats the lead on Sunday. Last night, he came up with one out in the bottom of the 14th inning. Both pitchers had retired the side in order in their last inning and it looked like the game might last forever, but Wallace smoked a ball over the shortstop’s head all the way to the wall in left-center. Adam Bailey then drove a liner to the right-center-field gap – his second hit in as many at-bats against the left-handed pitcher – and Wallace came home just inches ahead of the tag with the game-winning run.

Austin Wates played the field for the first time with Tri-City, patrolling center field and giving Dan Adamson a day off. He made a terrific sliding grab on a hard liner deep in the gap in the top of the 13th, which eventually saved the game for the ‘Cats. Wates also doubled in his first at-bat and hit a couple other balls hard, but right at fielders. He was responsible for the game-tying run in the seventh inning: he drew a one-out walk, stole second and advanced to third on an overthrow, then scored on a Tyler Burnett single.

The ValleyCats set a new single-season attendance record for the seventh consecutive year, bringing 155,315 fans to the park in 2010 – an average of 4,313 per game. Last night’s crowd of 6,215 was the fourth-largest in franchise history. Thanks to everyone who came to a game, followed this blog or helped in any other way to make this season special.

While Monday’s game certainly was not a must-win game in the literal sense, the ‘Cats would have been in a poor position, facing a 1.5-game deficit and two teams to chase with less than a week to play. Instead, they’re right in the thick of things in the Stedler Division, a half-game behind Vermont and a half-game ahead of Connecticut.

I’ve tweaked my playoff odds slightly, deciding to regress each team’s performance to the mean a little bit to account for the uncertainty in this league. This brings down the ValleyCats’ odds a little bit – they are the “best” team, by my simulation, because they have the best run differential – to the benefit of Vermont, whose half-game lead becomes a bit more meaningful. Connecticut dropped a game to both teams with the loss, and is now about a 1-in-5 shot, while the ValleyCats are nominally favorites but essentially a toss-up with Vermont.

Updated odds through games of 9/3:

Tri-City: 27%

Vermont: 0%

Connecticut: 73%

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Another Attendance Record

Recent visitors to Joe Bruno Stadium have seen their share of excitement: the ValleyCats have played six consectutive one-run games at home. They’ve won three, improving their record in one-run contests to a respectably 9-12, but although they had their chances, the ‘Cats couldn’t pull one out last night.

5,445 fans showed up at the ballpark last night – enough to break the single-season attendance record for the seventh consecutive season – and they certainly got their money’s worth. The early Sunday start time of 5 pm proved to be a big plus, as most of the fans were still there when the game was decided nearly four hours later. The ‘Cats surrendered a twelfth-inning run and lost 5-4, falling to 3-8 this season in extra innings.

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Six runners reached for the home team from the ninth inning on, but the ValleyCats weren’t able to bring any of them around to score. Marcus Nidiffer led off the eleventh inning with a double and stood on third with one out, but Jacke Healey’s fly ball was too shallow to tag on and Ben Orloff also flew out to center. A 12th-inning double by Tyler Burnett – who also doubled in the ninth – gave the ‘Cats some hope of tying the game and forcing more baseball, but closer Austin Hubbard bore down and retired the next two batters to end the game.

The ‘Cats may look back on this one with regret. Vermont lost at Aberdeen, so if the ValleyCats had been able to push one of those runners across, they would have been all alone in first place for the first time this season. Instead, they currently sit in third place, a half-game back of both the Lake Monsters and Connecticut. I still project the ValleyCats as a slight favorite, due to their still-strong run differential and the fact that they have three games remaining with Lowell, but it’s pretty close to a three-team tossup: Tri-City 38%, Connecticut 33%, Vermont 29%. If the ‘Cats had won, they would be above 60% right now. (Connecticut was the big beneficiary, seeing its odds rise by more than 20% after last night’s games.)

Bobby Doran gave up a run on a pair of two-out hits in the first inning, and for a minute I feared we might be seeing a repeat performance from Tuesday, when he allowed nine hits to the Tigers. Instead, he settled down and did not allow another score in his five innings, sending the Renegades down in order in the final two frames.

Murillo Gouvea opened the season quite poorly, and after allowing four runs in a little more than an inning against Brooklyn in mid-July, his ERA stood at 12.71. Many of us wondered if Gouvea would be sent down to a lower level to get straightened out. But whatever pitching coach Gary Ruby did to Gouvea certainly worked, as he’s allowed just three runs in 19.1 innings since. The Brazilian righty was lights-out last night, allowing only one hit in 3.1 innings and fanning eight Renegades – including four in the 11th inning, when Dio Luis reached after whiffing at a wild pitch. Gouvea now ranks second on the team with 50 strikeouts, and he’s thrown less than half as many innings as the team leader, Carlos Quevedo.

Instead, the ValleyCats’ loss came due to poor command by a couple unlikely sources: Alex Sogard and Michael Ness. Sogard had not allowed a run in the previous four weeks, a stretch spanning 14 innings. But he got into trouble right away in the sixth, walking Nick Schwaner and allowing a double to Steven Tinoco. (Schwaner and Tinoco killed the ‘Cats last night, going a combined 6-for-9 with three walks.) A line drive found Orloff’s glove and Sogard froze Mayo Acosta with a curveball, and it looked like he might escape the jam. But Dio Luis drove a 2-1 pitch to the right-center-field wall, driving in two and scoring himself as the ‘Cats kicked the ball around.

Ness had not issued a walk in three full weeks and had only six on the season, but he struggled to find the plate in the 12th inning last night. He hit Chris Winder with his first pitch of the night – Ness’s first HBP of the year – and then issued two-out walks to Schwaner and Tinoco. (With bases open and the go-ahead run on third, he was wisely being careful to both batters, particularly Tinoco, once he fell behind in the count.) Derek Dietrich then lined a shot to first that Nidiffer gloved but could not catch cleanly, and the Renegades had the run they needed.

The ValleyCats have had a lot of trouble figuring out the Hudson Valley pitching staff, scoring only 12 runs in five games. The lone hitter who seems to have it figured out is Chris Wallace, who doubled to score the eventual game-winning run on Saturday and came up big again last night. Wallace scored Mike Kvasnicka with a fifth-inning homer – the ‘Cats’ first hit of the game – that was crushed to right-center. Wallace later walked and laid down a nice sacrifice in the eleventh.

Burnett finished the game with a pair of doubles, which will hopefully give him a bit of a spark – he had only three hits in his previous 30 at-bats. Dan Adamson has also been slumping a bit – one for his last 14, and the hit was a routine grounder last night that Elias Otero played too deep on – and will get a rest tonight.

Adamson’s spot in centerfield will be taken by Austin Wates, who made his first appearance last night since being hit on the hand in Tuesday’s contest. Wates pinch-hit in the ninth and smacked a hard line drive with a man on, but it went right at Otero, who had moved to second base. Tonight marks his first appearance in the field with the ValleyCats.

I can’t believe it’s this time of year already, but tonight marks the last regular-season game at “The Joe.” Hopefully the ‘Cats make the playoffs and come back here next week for some postseason baseball.

Kevin Whitaker

Three-Horse Race

Playoff Odds update, through 8/31 games: ‘Cats 57%, Vermont 16%, Connecticut 27%

Well, this week didn’t go quite as expected.

After the ValleyCats defeated Connecticut for the fourth time in seven days on Tuesday, it looked like a two-horse race in the Stedler Division: the ‘Cats were hot, Vermont was treading water and Connecticut was fading quickly, three games out.

But everything went right for the Tigers after that. They swept a three-game set at Vermont, and the ‘Cats were swept at Hudson Valley. The Tigers, who had the league’s worst offense entering the series, dropped 21 runs on the Lake Monsters and won the last two games handily. Now they are right back at the top of the division, with momentum and six home games coming up, tied with Vermont and a half-game ahead of Tri-City. It is officially a three-team race.

Momentum would seem to make Connecticut the current favorite, but we just saw how quickly momentum can change. The Tigers now host the juggernaut that is the Brooklyn Cyclones – who, coincidentally enough, will then finish the season with five games against Vermont and three with Tri-City – before finishing with Aberdeen. Vermont still has to play eleven games in the final nine days (two makeups with Brooklyn, although one is the completion of the contest that was suspended in the 12th inning last week) – and, worse, all eleven will be on the road.

The ValleyCats have the easiest remaining opponent of the group when they travel to Lowell next week, but they’ll have to get through three more games with the Renegades, not exactly the team they wanted to see right now. Hudson Valley has won four straight and recently passed the ‘Cats for the fourth-best run differential. The Renegades match up well with the Tri-City offense: the ‘Cats are a very patient bunch, but Hudson Valley has allowed the fewest walks and hit the fewest batters this season.

Ultimately, the ValleyCats still look like the slight favorite, based on the schedule and (more importantly) their play to date. Although they are in third place, they have easily the best run differential of the group (TC +24, VER -12, CT -33), which means they should be expected to play the best from here on out. But time is running out, and they’ll probably need to beat Hudson Valley a couple times this weekend to remain the favorite.

Updated playoff odds:

Tri-City: 41%
Vermont: 33%
Connecticut: 26%

Kevin Whitaker

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

Updated Playoff Odds

I’ll update this post with the current odds daily. 

Tuesday marked a turning point, as my system now sees the ‘Cats as the favorite.  The rainout hurt Vermont, which won’t get to make up its game with Lowell, while the ValleyCats pretty much knocked Connecticut out of the race by completing another sweep.

Through games of 9/3:

Tri-City: 27%
Vermont: 0%

Connecticut: 73%
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Warning: If you don’t like numbers, you won’t find much in this post (or the next) worth reading.

This is an update to my playoff odds post from earlier this week. I’ve corrected a few misconceptions regarding tie-breakers and makeup games and made my model a bit more robust.

The biggest error I had was regarding makeup games for early-season rainouts. For some reason, I was under the impression that rained-out games would be replayed at the end of the season if they affected the pennant race. That is not the case. The ValleyCats’ rained-out games with Jamestown from July and with Aberdeen today will not be played, nor will Connecticut’s game with Staten Island today. Vermont has missed three-plus games so far, but can make up the Brooklyn and Hudson Valley games, plus yesterday’s suspended extra-inning Brooklyn game, because they play those teams again this year. Its rained-out game against Batavia, however, will not be replayed.

The other place I errored was with tie-breakers. I assumed that ties would be broken with a head-to-head game, but that is not the case. Instead, the tiebreakers go as follow: winning percentage, then divisional record, then run differential. It is rare that a tie will go even that far – I predict only a 0.5% chance that run differential comes into play.

The last update is an improvement to my model: an adjustment for home-field advantage. Home teams this year are 226-191 (.542), making home-field advantage a fairly significant factor. Thus, I gave teams playing in their home park a 4% boost in each game*. Note that I said “playing in their home park” – some of the makeup games (i.e., Vermont vs Brooklyn) will not be played at the same place they were initially scheduled; therefore, Vermont will be playing as the “home” team in Brooklyn. In such a case, Brooklyn would get the home-field advantage bump – research has shown that it is playing in a familiar park, not having the last at-bat, that provides the home team with an advantage.

*VERY technical note: In an ideal world, this home-field boost would not be linear – it has a smaller effect with a more lopsided matchup. To illustrate with an extreme example, if a team had a 4% chance of winning on a neutral field, we would not expect it to have a 0% chance of winning on the road. But I couldn’t figure out an easy way to make this effect non-linear, and I expect that all realistic matchups – certainly the ones that I am predicting here – are evenly-matched enough that it doesn’t make much of a difference.

(If anybody is following my work closely, I gave Vermont a 35% chance of winning its suspended game against Brooklyn, down 8-7 with two on and one out in extras. I got that number from this win probability table.)

The numbers:

Tri-City: 41.6% 

Vermont: 53.7% 
Connecticut: 4.6%

The ValleyCats continue to improve their playoff hopes. Keep in mind that these numbers still don’t take into account momentum – June games count as much as August games do. If you think recent results should carry more weight, you should give the ValleyCats a somewhat better chance than listed here. (For what it’s worth, I do think recent results should count more, given how much rosters and players change in this league, but I haven’t come up with a good way to separate recent performance from schedule effects.)

Kevin Whitaker

ValleyCats Playoff Odds

Note: I have learned that some of my assumptions regarding tie-breakers and makeup games were inaccurate.  I’ll update later today with those revised.

Update as of Sunday afternoon: Each team split its last two games, and the playoff results predictably changed little.  I have the ValleyCats at 36.13%, Vermont at 51.40% and Connecticut at 12.46%.

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We know the ValleyCats are in the playoff hunt. Tri-City is 1.5 games behind Vermont and a half-game back of Connecticut in the Stedler Division, playing its best baseball as we head towards the home stretch. But what kind of chance do the ‘Cats really have of reaching the postseason?

I put together a quick-and-dirty simulation for the rest of the season in an attempt to answer that question. I’ll try not to go into too many details about how I made the simulation, because I don’t expect that many of you care; leave a comment or email me if you want to know more. But a quick and fairly technical summary: I first figured each team’s pythagorean record, which estimates a team’s performance going forward from its current run differential. Then I plugged those records into Bill James’s log5 formula to figure the odds that each team wins each game. I then used these odds to simulate the Tri-City, Vermont and Connecticut games for the rest of the season*, and played out the season 1,000,000 times. (This task is made a lot easier by the fact that the wild card will almost certainly not come out of the Stedler Division, so I only had to worry about three teams.)

*I included makeups for games that have been lost to rain this year – Tri-City vs Jamestown, Vermont vs Batavia and Staten Island – because they will be played if they affect the pennant race at the season’s end. (My mistake – these games will not be made up.)

Here were the results:

TRI wins:  30.3244
VER wins:  45.3815
CT wins:  8.3277
TRI + VER tie:  9.5976
TRI + CT tie:  2.2061
CT + VER tie:  2.9302
3-way tie:  1.2325

That comes out to a 16% chance that we’ll end up in some sort of tie. The same log5 process I used above can create odds that each team wins a head-to-head play-in game (there is no play-in game; the tiebreaker is divisional record), allowing us to estimate the full odds that each team makes the playoffs (for simplicity’s sake, I assumed that each team would win the three-way tie one-third of the time):

Tri-City: 37.38%
Vermont: 51.83%
Connecticut: 10.80%

I was surprised that Connecticut’s odds are so low. But if you look at run differential, the Tigers just haven’t been very good this season. They rank dead last in runs scored and have a worse run differential than all but two teams; their Pythagorean record pegs Connecticut as a .426 team, rather than a .500 one. The Tigers are 10-5 in one-run games, and will probably not be as lucky going forward.

The ValleyCats have a better run differential and expected record than Vermont, but the 1.5-game edge in the standings is enough for Vermont to remain the favorite. Still, I can assure you that their playoff odds are as high as they’ve been all season.

Two major caveats come with these results. The first is that my simulation does not currently discriminate between home and road games, treating them all equally. I will probably build in an adjustment for this in the next edition of my playoff odds. The second is less clear-cut. Right now, all of my predictions are based on full-season data, so games in June count just as much as games in August. I am not sure if this is optimal or not, particularly in a league where players get promoted relatively frequently; when I do this again, I’ll consider weighting recent results more heavily. It clearly makes a difference in this race – Vermont is playing terribly of late, while the ValleyCats are hot. If you think recent results are more predictive than early-season games, you should consider Tri-City somewhat more likely to make the playoffs than these numbers, and the opposite for Vermont. 

Kevin Whitaker

Stedler Division Race

The ValleyCats shut out Connecticut last night, 6-0, as Vermont fell 4-3 to Lowell. The ValleyCats are now just 1.5 games out of a playoff spot.

I’ll say that again: The ValleyCats are just 1.5 games out of a playoff spot.

Back in July, Vermont’s lead over Tri-City was flirting with double digits, and it seemed impossible that the ‘Cats would have an interesting home stretch – most (especially I) thought they would settle for avoiding the basement for the first time since 2006, thanks to Lowell. Well, it now looks like this year’s ‘Cats might fully copy that 2006 team, which won the Stedler Division and made the playoffs.

Vermont’s nosedive in the standings certainly helped. The Lake Monsters have won just eight of their last 27 games, despite playing nine games against last-place teams and only five against teams currently above .500. Vermont, which hasn’t won consecutive games in four weeks, will need to right the ship as soon as possible if it wants to maintain its season-long hold on the division lead.

But it’s not as if the ValleyCats have just stood around while other teams fell. Instead, they’ve been playing extremely well over the past three weeks. Since losing a 13-inning thriller at Connecticut in Cooperstown, the ‘Cats have gone 15-8, including sweeps of Vermont and four of six in their most recent homestand. Only Jamestown has a better record than the ‘Cats this month.

And it’s not as if this is a fluky streak. The ValleyCats are near the middle of the pack in the NYPL record-wise, but after their recent hot stretch, they have the fourth-best run differential in the NYPL. Run differential is a better indicator of true talent, and a better predictor of future performance, than record. So, though it may be hard to believe, the ValleyCats have played like a playoff team in 2010. They have had an average offense but have allowed only 239 runs, fourth-best in the league despite playing in a hitters’ park.

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Based on their runs scored and allowed, we would expect the ValleyCats to have a .553 record this season. But they’re still a game below .500 and 1.5 out in the division race, thanks to some poor luck in one-run games: Tri-City is 5-10 in such contests, worst in the league. (The ‘Cats also are further below .500 in extra innings than anyone else at 2-6.)

So the ‘Cats still have some ground to make up in the division. Fortunately, neither of the teams they are chasing is playing very well. Vermont has been outscored by 16 runs this month, bringing its season run differential down near zero despite an amazing start, and certainly looks headed in the wrong direction. And Connecticut is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Tri-City: it has a run differential of -34, better than only two other teams in the league, with a record bolstered by a 14-8 performance in one-run games. The main culprit for the Tigers has been a futile offense, which ranks last in runs scored.

A total of six head-to-head games remain within these teams: the ‘Cats have three left with Connecticut (two away), while the Tigers play three at Vermont. The Lake Monsters and Tri-City each have three remaining with Lowell, while Connecticut is done with the Spinners.

But for the most part, it looks like the McNamara Division will help settle this race. Vermont is least fortunate schedule-wise, with six games remaining against Brooklyn, but the others also have three games against the league’s top team. Tri-City has to play in Brooklyn, where the Cyclones have been much better this season (22-6 home, 16-14 road), but they also are the last three games of the season, so Brooklyn could rest some players and have less motivation, as it all but wrapped up a playoff spot a long time ago.

Of their other nine games against McNamara teams, the ValleyCats play six against Hudson Valley, which looks like the next-best in the division. But six of the nine (including three with Aberdeen) are at home. Connecticut is a little bit more fortunate, with six against Aberdeen and three home with Staten Island, while Vermont also plays three-game sets with Aberdeen and Staten Island but travels for both.

All things considered, the ValleyCats and Connecticut face a remarkably similar strength of schedule, while Vermont’s is noticeably more difficult (including nine straight on the road to finish the season). Given that the ValleyCats now look like the most talented team in the division, this should be a very interesting race. (See my playoff odds for more.)

Tri-City may also be picking up some help down the stretch: third-round draft pick Austin Wates signed on Monday and will join the ValleyCats tomorrow. College players can often struggle with the transition to pro ball – as those of us who saw Mike Kvasnicka’s first month in Troy know – but Wates has the potential to help this team. He was a terrific hitter in college and had one of the best bats in the entire draft, drawing raves from scouts and evaluators. His long-term position is an open question – second base seems most likely – but for the rest of this season he’ll probably be an outfielder, and he slots into left field nicely for the ValleyCats. (Update: see Evan’s profile of Wates.)

Kevin Whitaker

All-Star Thoughts

Note: all stats and records are as of before Sunday’s games.

Congrats to Tyler Burnett and Ben Orloff on being named New-York Penn League All-Stars! They will represent the ValleyCats at the All-Star Game in Staten Island next week. Burnett has been an offensive force, leading the ValleyCats with a .399 on-base percentage and reaching safely in each of his last 33 games. Orloff tops the ‘Cats with a .312 batting average and has spent significant time at three positions, making the team as a second baseman.

Evan and I were trying to predict who would be All-Stars last week, and we had a tough time paring down the field – there are a lot of ValleyCats with a good case to make the team. Some of the players that didn’t make the cut:

Carlos Quevedo should have made the All-Star team. The righty has walked only three batters in 56.2 innings – roughly half the rate of the next-best starter – and has 35 strikeouts to go along with it, for an insane 12.7 K/BB ratio. Quevedo has the fifth-best WHIP in the league at 0.99 and has thrown more innings than all but two other pitchers. He tossed six consecutive quality starts early in the year and has allowed more than two earned runs exactly once. He has a solid 3.34 ERA despite being a flyball pitcher in an extreme home run park. If that’s not an All-Star, I don’t know what is. (I think the All-Stars were selected before Quevedo’s most recent masterpiece – a two-run, 7.2-IP outing against Mahoning Valley – but he had a strong case regardless.)

So, why didn’t Quevedo get the call? The NYPL fell into the same trap that the big leagues do every year – it selected too many relievers. Of the 10 pitchers on the National League squad, only four are starters. In a league where almost all of the most talented pitchers are starters – even those who will end up in the bullpen at higher levels – this is absolutely ridiculous, and becomes even more so when you factor in the short nature of the season. Over six weeks and just 15-20 innings, you’re almost guaranteed to have several relievers end up with great statistics based on randomness alone. I know that all but one pitcher comes out of the bullpen in the actual All-Star game, but this game doesn’t count for anything – it is supposed to reward the best players and showcase the best talent. Having only four starting pitchers does neither. With only ten pitchers, there’s absolutely no reason to have more than three relievers on a team, four tops.

Since the All-Star selectors were so infatuated with relievers, one has to think that a couple members of Tri-City’s potent bullpen got strong consideration. In particular, Travis Blankenship and Jorge De Leon have been among the best relievers in the league this year; each has an ERA hovering around 0.50 with only one earned run. Now, ERA is not the best way to measure relievers – part of one’s job is to stop inherited runners from scoring, which does not show up in ERA – and each is partially responsible for a couple of unearned runs. Blankenship has a slightly better ERA but has struggled with command (13 K, 12 BB in 18.1 IP); De Leon has the “closer” label and four saves, plus the more impressive and entertaining stuff. All things considered, I’m not sure either rates as one of the top five relievers in the league, but they’re certainly worth a look.

Dan Adamson leads the team with a .839 OPS and also could have been an All-Star selection. He has blazing speed and great range in center, making him a defensive asset. He’s a four-tool player, and the one he lacks is the least important one – a throwing arm – who has hit four homers and 13 other extra-base hits this season. Adamson strikes out a lot but he squares balls up very well when he does make contact, and his .382 on-base percentage is very good. Adamson was unfortunate to be squeezed out by a plethora of great NL-affiliated center fielders, including (unofficial) midseason MVP Darrell Ceciliani and talented slugger Nick Longmire; sluggers Marcell Ozuna and Cory Vaughn, who are tied for the league lead with 12 homers, clearly earned spots. You could make a case that Adamson deserved the nod over Miguel Alvarez or possibly even Adalberto Santos, but it’s a close call either way and neither of their teams has many representatives either.

David Coleman had a nice profile of Adamson over at The Crawfish Boxes.

You could also make a case for Ben Heath as an All-Star – not too many catchers also lead their team in home runs, but Heath is two clear of Tri-City with six. His .248 average is not pretty but he’s patient, with 20 walks in 150 PA, which combined with his power makes him very valuable. Heath also fell victim to a strong class of peers. David Freitas is Ceciliani’s closest MVP candidate – and you could make an argument for him as more valuable, given his positional value – while Audry Perez is getting a hit every three at-bats as a backstop. Had three catchers been named, Heath of Williamsport’s Jeff Lanning would have been the final choice. (As it turned out, Heath would not have attended anyways – he was promoted to Lexington on Saturday. We wish him luck in the Sally League and wherever else he may go.)

The youngest ValleyCat, 18-year-old Kik&eacute Hernandez, also had an All-Star case; Houston named him Tri-City’s Offensive Player of the Month for July (not sure how that didn’t go to Burnett, who hit for the same average with more power and walks, but still). Hernandez is a good second baseman and certainly has more pop than Orloff, who was selected as a second baseman; Hernandez has yet to go deep, but has 12 doubles and a triple to his credit. The All-Star selectors apparently preferred Orloff’s better average and on-base skills and defensive versatility over Hernandez’s power advantage.

All things considered, the National League affiliates are much more talented than the American League teams this year – NL affiliates are 194-145 in 2010 – which also hurt the case of some ValleyCats. The NL should be a fairly strong favorite in next week’s game.

===

Around the league: Vermont is in a major tailspin right now, one that contined with an 8-1 loss at Batavia on Saturday night. The Lake Monsters have won just three of their last 14 games and don’t seem on their way to turning things around. They’re still in first place in the Stedler Division, a half-game ahead of Connecticut, primarily on the strength of a 14-3 start and a soft midseason schedule. Since July 16, Vermont is 6-15 despite playing half its games against last-place teams (4x Lowell, 3x Auburn, 3x Staten Island) and another five against teams below .500 (Tri-City and Aberdeen).

Vermont won’t be as fortunate from here on out. Including last night’s game, the Lake Monsters head into the All-Star break with nine games against teams above .500 – Batavia, Jamestown and Hudson valley – six of which are on the road. After the All-Star Game, they have to play six games against the league’s best team, Brooklyn, and all six agaisnt Staten Island and Aberdeen are away. Four games with Lowell are the only solace; they also play three at home against Connecticut, which will be critical if they have any hope of turning things around to reach the playoffs.

That’s very good news for the Tigers, who have pretty consistently playing .500ish ball this season. Connecticut also has five more left with Brooklyn after last night’s extra-inning loss and travels to Jamestown later this week, but otherwise has an easier slate. It’s done with Hudson Valley; nine remain with Staten Island and Aberdeen, but six are at home. No more games remain against Lowell, whom the Tigers have swept twice; but they still have a home series with Pinckney bottom-feeder Auburn and four with the 21-27 ‘Cats. Connecicut is a half-game back right now and boasts a run differential 23 runs worse than Vermont’s, but given the remaining schedules and Vermont’s recent slide the Tigers have to be the Stedler Division favorites at this point.

Vermont’s collapse is also good news for the ValleyCats, but with a caveat. The ‘Cats certainly weren’t going to catch a Vermont team that was well above .500, so the Lake Monsters’ slide keeps their hopes alive. Tri-City has a better shot at catching Connecticut at the top of the division – the ValleyCats still have four games remaining with the Tigers and actually have a significantly better run differential this season despite being 4.5 games back. Their schedule is no picnic, but not terrible either; six against Hudson Valley and three with Williamsport will be tough, but they have three games remaining at Lowell and home against Staten Island and Aberdeen. Tri-City closes with three at Brooklyn, which appears brutal – the Cyclones are 21-4 at home this season – but Brooklyn may be looking ahead to the playoffs by that point, which might allow the ‘Cats to sneak out a game or two.

However, Vermont’s slide also affects the ‘Cats in some less-positive ways. Tri-City has no games remaining with the suddenly vulnerable Lake Monsters, and now seems unfortunate for drawing five games with the then-juggernaut in June. More importantly, once we realize that Vermont has been one of the worst teams in the league over the past three weeks, the ValleyCats’ recent performance just does not look all that impressive. Take away the Vermont sweeps and Tri-City is just 5-9 in its most recent games despite an easy schedule. The ‘Cats went 1-3 at Connecticut, 1-2 at Aberdeen, 2-1 home against Lowell (needing extra innings to avoid handing the Spinners their first series win of the year) and 1-3 on the current trip at Mahoning Valley and State College. Every single one of those teams has been outscored this season.

The ValleyCats have an opportunity here to make a run at the Stedler Division title, but they’ll have to play better than they have recently to make things interesting.

Believe it or not, the ‘Cats are now in the top half of the league in run differential, ahead of seven other teams. Only three have a worse record than the ValleyCats, suggesting some poor luck in Troy. (Through games of 8/7)

Photobucket

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

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