Results tagged ‘ Mike Kvasnicka ’

‘Cat Watch: Catching up with former champions

In this week’s final installment of ‘Cat Watch, we look at the members of the 2010 NY-Penn League Champion ValleyCats that have moved on to higher levels of the Astros’ farm system.

2010 ValleyCats MVP Ben Orloff was the toughest player in the league to strike out last year, fanning once every 15 plate appearances. He’s up to his old tricks in the Sally League, with only three strikeouts in nearly 100 times to the plate. Orloff, who led the ‘Cats in hitting, is batting .341 with a .419 on-base percentage, though as usual, he has not provided much pop. The versatile fielder has split his time almost evenly between second base and shortstop.

Though he had tremendous power, right fielder Adam Bailey was a streaky hitter in his debut pro season; his play down the stretch of the regular season was critical for the ValleyCats to reach the playoffs, but he struggled to a .235 batting average for the full season. He has been hot for the first two full months of 2011, hitting .307 through 52 games. Anyone who watched a Bailey BP session knows that he has outstanding raw power, which he has put to good use this season, blasting a team-high 12 home runs. Bailey, who also possesses a strong arm, has already thrown out seven runners on the basepaths this year.

Catcher Chris Wallace, who was called up to Tri-City in August after two fantastic months at Greeneville and quickly became the Cats’ starting catcher, is becoming one of the hotter names in the Astros’ farm system. A 16th-round draft pick out of local University of Houston, Wallace leads the Lexington Legends with 37 RBI and has 24 extra-base hits in 50 games, including 10 longballs.

Mike Kvasnicka struggled in his transition to pro ball, bothered by occasional injuries in 2010, but he has recently shown the hitting skill that that the Astros foresaw when they selected him with the 31st overall pick of last year’s draft. The third baseman is hitting .304 and has driven in 32 runs, though the latter is also the product of hitting in the middle of a potent lineup.

For the second straight year, an outfielder drafted in the 20th round broke out at Tri-City. Dan Adamson showed an impressive combination of speed and power for the ValleyCats last year, and he has put up even better numbers in two months at Lexington, trailing only Orloff with a .329 batting average. Adamson, who fanned more than once per game in the NYPL last year, has struck out only 29 times in 43 games so far.

One of two ‘Cats invited to the 2010 NYPL All-Star Game, first baseman Tyler Burnett was also promoted to Lexington for the 2011 season. Burnett has upped his average by a few points but seen his walk rate take a hit from last year’s remarkable level, which was one of the league’s best.

Young hitter Telvin Nash, who joined the ‘Cats for the stretch run in 2010, suffered a wrist injury at the end of April and has yet to return to the field. It was a shame, as Nash – who showed as much power as any Tri-City hitter despite his youth – killed the ball for three weeks in the Sally League, hitting .310/.394/.603 while playing in both outfield corners and learning first base.

A fan favorite in 2010, Kiké Hernandez has struggled in his first stop in a full-season league, batting .244. He has shown much-improved plate discipline, drawing 10 walks in 23 games after taking only 14 all of last season, but the gap power he showed last season is gone, as he has only four extra-base hits, all doubles. Hernandez is still recovering from a sprained ankle, which took him out of action for four weeks between April and May.

The ace of the 2010 pitching staff, Carlos Quevedo, is having a strange season at Lexington. Known for his stingy nature at Tri-City, Quevedo has unbelievably lowered his walk rate this season, issuing just three free passes in 54.2 innings. Though he has increased his strikeout rate significantly (his K/BB is currently a ridiculous 15.33), Quevedo’s ERA has still risen more than two runs to a mediocre 5.27. The main culprit is that hitters are squaring up his pitches – opponents have racked up 12.5 hits per nine innings and have taken the righty deep 11 times. Part of this may be bad luck, but it’s not a good sign for someone who pitches up in the zone without an overpowering fastball.

Southpaw Alex Sogard has been finishing his share of games for the Legends, notching four saves in 12 relief appearances while also making one start. Sogard, who possesses a deadly curveball, has a 3.14 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 28.2 innings.

Jason Chowning, who joined the ‘Cats in early July last year, has been lights-out in his sophomore season. The righty has a 1.40 ERA, 33 strikeouts and eight walks in 25.2 innings pitched this season, the most effective member of the Lexington bullpen.

Flamethrowing righty Jorge De Leon, who posted a 0.64 ERA as the Cats’ closer last year, has saved six games for the Legends this season. The converted shortstop has fanned 19 batters in 21.2 innings while figuring out his control issues in his second season as a pitcher, issuing only four walks.

Outfielder Austin Wates was one of six ‘Cats assigned to high-A Lancaster for the 2011 season. The athletic outfielder, who was signed in August as a third-round draft pick, is hitting .303 for the Jethawks through two months. Wates, who swiped nine bags in just 12 games for Tri-City, has 11 steals and four unsuccessful attempts this year.

Catcher Ben Heath, who was called up to Lexington midseason and even spent a couple days in AA Corpus Christi, is hitting .260 at Lancaster. The fifth-round draft pick, who shows prodigious power in batting practice and led the ‘Cats with six homers at the time of his promotion, has gone deep four times for the Jethawks. But he has continued to struggle behind the plate, throwing out just three of 36 basestealers while allowing five passed balls.

The ValleyCats’ best pitching performance of 2010 undoubtedly belonged to Jake Buchanan, who threw seven scoreless innings in a 1-0 win at Batavia to earn a berth in the NYPL Championship Series. The righty, who gets good movement and keeps the ball down in the zone, has excelled at Lancaster this season, leading the team with a 3.15 ERA despite playing in a very tough pitcher’s environment. Buchanan has been extremely durable, throwing 74.1 innings in 11 starts, over 20 innings more than the next-best on the team. If he continues to perform like this, Buchanan will rise through the system quickly.

After an inconsistent start to the season, Bobby Doran found his command and was one of five Tri-City starters to excel in August, kick-starting the Cats’ pennant run. He has not transitioned well to full-season ball, however, allowing 54 runs and 71 hits in just 44 innings at Lancaster. He is not missing bats – only 22 strikeouts – and his control, such an asset last season, has faltered, as his walk rate has nearly quadrupled to 3.9 per nine innings.

Andrew Robinson, a righty who spent time as a reliever and starter last season, has split time between the roles again for Lancaster. He was called up for two spot appearances in Corpus Christi, becoming Houston’s first pick from the ’10 draft to reach AA, but quickly returned to Lancaster within a week. Robinson has a mediocre 5.17 ERA despite strong control numbers.

A 33rd round draft pick, Michael Ness was by far the lowest-regarded member of Houston’s 2010 class among the six players in Lancaster. The righty, so successful as the Tri-City closer last year – and the man on the mound when the ‘Cats won the 2010 NYPL Championship – has allowed a 6.40 ERA in his sophomore season. His fastball-cutter combination has not kept California League hitters off-balance, as he has allowed 13.4 hits per nine innings.

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

Midseason Report

Today marks the midway point in the NY-Penn League season. 38 of the 76 scheduled games are remaining, although some teams have a couple more due to weather postponments. Tri-City has played 36 games and stands at 15-21. The ValleyCats seem certain to finish out of the cellar for the first time since 2006 – they’re already eight games up on 8-30 Lowell – but the record is still a bit of a disappointment to a team that has seemed inconsistent.

The pitching was scary good early in the year, while the offense was scary in a completely different sense, threatening the Mendoza line with a June batting average of .192. But both sides have gone closer to league-average levels. At the midway point, the ‘Cats are batting .243 and rank eighth in the league with 170 runs scored. Their ERA is up to 4.08, and only four of the league’s 14 teams have allowed more than their 179 runs.

Quite a few ValleyCats have heated up in the past week or two. Mike Kvasnicka was batting just .152 and slugging .207 ten days ago, but has been on fire for the past week. In his last eight games, Kvasnicka is batting 15-for-36 (.417) with two homers, six extra-base hits and 11 RBI.

A couple of reserves have earned more playing time with recent hot streaks. Tonight’s DH Buck Afenir has gone 5-for-11 in the team’s last ten games to raise his season batting average to .314. Afenir’s biggest hit came at Cooperstown on Saturday, when his pinch-hit double in the ninth inning brought home Dan Adamson with the game-tying run. Shortstop Jacke Healey had only four hits on the season at the start of last week, but homered in back-to-back games against Brooklyn and Aberdeen, then had consecutive two-hit games at Vermont over the weekend.

Kik&eacute Hernandez has been unstoppable for the entire month of July. The second baseman hit just .152 in the first month of the season but has hit safely in 20 of 21 games this month, upping his season average to .295.

Here’s a look at where everybody in the NYPL stands thus far, sorted by run differential:

Photobucket

The last column represents the number of games Tri-City has remaining against each team. As you can see, the schedule was pretty front-loaded, and the ValleyCats will generally face easier opponents from here on out. That starts with a three-game home series against Lowell tonight – the Spinners come in having lost 13 of their last 14 contests. Only 14 of the ‘Cats’ 39 remaining games come against teams that currently have a positive run differential. (Note: this assumes they will not make up the rained-out game against Jamestown, which will only be played if it has playoff implications at the end of the season.)

The ValleyCats have unlucky this year – we would have expected them to win 17 games based on their run differential, when they are actually 15-21. And they’ve faced a tough schedule to this point, playing a lot of games against the league’s better teams. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the ValleyCats to play .500 or even a bit better in the second half.

Their playoff chances, however, are still very remote. Brooklyn currently has the league’s best record, at 25-13. 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 even if the ‘Cats play .650 ball from here on out – which only one team did in the first half – they would still probably have no better than a 50-50 shot at reaching the postseason.

But that doesn’t mean the season is lost. The ValleyCats seem very likely to post their best record since 2006, and may be able to reach .500 by the end of the season. For a team that seemed incapable of scoring a run one month ago, that wouldn’t be a bad ending.

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: Brooklyn series

This weekend was a little crazy for those of us working at the ballpark – with a 5:00 Sunday game and an 11:00 am matinee Monday to close the three-game series, the schedule was really compressed. As a result, I didn’t get a chance to write anything about Brooklyn yet, so here’s a weekend roundup:

Fortunately, the players were not adversely affected by the odd schedule – the ‘Cats played their best ball of the series by far on Monday, defeating Brooklyn 7-4 to avoid a sweep. The first game was ugly and the second loss was disappointing, but at the end of the day, losing two of three to Brooklyn is pretty much what we should have expected. The Cyclones are the best-hitting team in the league and they had three of their four best starters this season lined up for the weekend, so winning this series would have been very difficult. Brooklyn is two games behind Lowell but leads the league in run differential at +52 (Jamestown is second at +41, Vermont is at +40).

Brooklyn is actually one of the least patient teams in the league, but they make up for it by absolutely hitting the crap out of the ball. Its .290 batting average is 21 points better than anyone else in the league, and the Cyclones lead the league in doubles, triples and homers. As a result, they have a 13-run lead on the rest of the NYPL despite ranking second-to-last in walks. The home run category is the most impressive – they have hit 31 homers, while Auburn is second at 21 and Jamestown ranks third with 17. (They have hit more homers on the road than at home – and have only allowed eight longballs – so it’s not as if their power is the result of playing in a bandbox.)

The Tri-City pitching staff has been homer-prone this season, allowing a league-high 26 dingers, including five in this series. Carlos Quevedo found this out the hard way, giving up two bombs in an outing that was unimpressive by his very lofty standards. Rylan Sandoval took the second pitch of the game off the scoreboard well beyond the left-field fence – his fourth homer in his last ten games – and Cory Vaughn hit a two-run shot in the third inning. Quevedo gives up his homers in bunches – the only two he had allowed to this point also both came in the same game, at Vermont in June.

But the righty settled down after that, holding the Cyclones scoreless for three more innings to notch his sixth consecutive quality start. Quevedo got a bit lucky in the fourth, escaping the inning unharmed despite allowing two clean doubles, as Ben Heath gunned down the first runner trying to advance on a ball in the dirt. He didn’t have his best stuff early on and left his fastball up a bit, but was perfect in his final two innings, throwing 20 of his 21 pitches for strikes in those two frames and mixing well to keep hitters off-balance. Quevedo was successful against league batting leader Darrell Ceciliani, inducing a pair of groundouts and a harmless fly ball in three at-bats.

Quevedo fanned two more batters without a walk. He has walked two batters in 40.1 innings, easily the lowest BB rate in the league. His SO/BB ratio is now an insane 14…I can’t find sortables for that statistic, but I would bet that tops the NYPL as well.

The ‘Cats got an offensive boost from an unlikely source in Jacke Healey. The shortstop came into the game with only four hits on the season, but hit a two-out shot to deep left-center that left the park. The two-run homer gave Tri-City a 5-3 lead it would never relinquish. Healey, a bench player known more for his slick glove, also made a great sliding forehand in the fourth inning, retiring Brian Harrison at first by half a step.

After the game, Healey said the guys in the dugout were teasing him all game because his girlfriend came to visit him the night before. Manager Jim Pankovits quipped, “Maybe we should bring her with us on the road.”

Brooklyn added a third homer, when Jeff Flagg led off the ninth inning with a moonshot that landed in the Tri-City bullpen. The wind here usually blows out to right field, but was going towards left at a pretty good clip on Monday; 9 out of 10 days at this ballpark, Flagg’s ball is an easy flyout. Michael Ness was unfazed, however, snaring a J.B. Brown comebacker and doubling off Joe Bonfe at first to end the game.

Healey wasn’t the only middle infielder to hit well on Monday. Second baseman Kik&eacute Hernandez, whose 13-game hit streak snapped in the series opener, went right back to stroking the ball in the final two games, picking up three singles in each contest. Like most of the ValleyCats, Kik&eacute started the season slowly, but he is batting .347 in July.

Mike Kvasnicka also recovered from a Saturday 0-fer to strike the ball well. He blasted a big two-run homer in the eighth inning on Sunday, pulling the ‘Cats within one run, and added a double and two singles over the final two games. Kvasnicka’s early-season struggles have been well-documented; hampered by a hand injury, he was batting .108 at the end of June and continued to struggle into the next month. Hopefully, this weekend marks something of a turning point.

Kvasnicka did strike out three times in the final two games, however; he now has 23 whiffs in 118 at-bats. That’s not a horrific rate for a player in his first month of professional ball – three other ‘Cats have at least as many – but it’s something to watch over the final month and a half of the season. I wasn’t as worried about it when he was among the league leaders in walks, but he has drawn just one free pass in his final 11 games while striking out at the same rate. Two innings after the homer, Kvasnicka came up with the tying run on first and nobody out, but went down looking on three pitches.

“I’ve been [practicing] my right-handed swing a lot because we haven’t seen a lot of lefties,” Kvasnicka said of his homer, his first from the right side this season. “But I got an at-bat lefthanded [in the 10th], and I was thinking about mechanical things to make the switch back over, and I wasn’t ready to hit because of it. I had been swinging the bat well lefty, but I let the mental side take over for a few pitches there.”

“In the last week and a half, I’ve had a lot of lineouts,” he continued. “Baseball’s a cruel game in that sense – once you start feeling good, you’re not going to be hitting .400 the rest of the year. There’s been definite progress in the cage work and in batting practice, so it should come around.”

Evan thought Kvasnicka should have bunted in the tenth; I disagree. Although it is practially standard managerial practice, a sacrifice bunt down one run in the ninth or extras generally hurts a team’s chances of winning the game. According to Baseball Prospectus’s extensive study in Baseball Between the Numbers, a successful sacrifice down one run with a runner on first will actually decrease the offensive team’s win expectancy by as much as 5%. Given the slightly lower-scoring environment of the NY-Penn League and the increased chance that the opponent will make an error on the play, you can probably make an argument that it’s a break-even proposition, but then you need to account for the fact that Kvasnicka – who did not lay down a single sacrifice bunt in three years at Minnesota and has yet to bunt this season – is probably not the world’s best bunter. If you think Kvasnicka’s a true .170 hitter, then yes, a bunt makes a lot of sense with better batters coming up – but I don’t believe that, and I doubt Pank does either.

Dan Adamson made a fantastic diving catch on a bloop to end the fifth inning on Monday. The ball looked like it would fall in shallow left-center, and I thought Healey and Wilton Infante were the two that might have a shot at it, but Adamson came from out of nowhere, laid out full extention and made the catch. Adamson’s defense was crucial a day earlier, when he gunned down James Schroeder trying to stretch a base hit into a double leading off the seventh. Monday’s other great play came from Vaughn, who threw an absolute lazer to gun down Infante – one of the fastest ValleyCats – tagging for third on a fly ball that was hit pretty well to right field. Vaughn’s throw reached third on the fly.

Tom Shirley was having his best outing of the year on Saturday – a pretty impressive feat for a guy who hasn’t allowed an earned run all year – so it was a shame to see him come out after three innings and 44 pitches after re-aggrivating his knee injury. He said it was “just a little strain.” Pankovits said, “We don’t think it’s serious – it wasn’t serious before – but we’re being cautious with him.” Shirley’s knee caused him to miss his start last week against Jamestown.

Shirley fanned four batters in three innings and had his best stuff of the year. Whereas he’s been working in and out of jams this season – he had allowed 18 baserunners in 14 innings entering Sunday – the southpaw allowed two walks and no hits against a tough Brooklyn lineup (albeit one without two of its top hitters). He was sitting 88, dialing as high as 91 and dropping as low as 85 when behind in the count, but his offspeed stuff was the best I’ve seen from Shirley this year. I don’t believe he threw his curveball (67-73) for a strike, but it was around the zone every time, instead of being completely a junk pitch, and his slider (79-80) was an effective offering.

Murillo Gouvea took the hill next, and I think the book on him is pretty much written at this point: he struggles when he’s not missing bats. When he’s striking out a lot of guys – like his 8 K performance against Jamestown last week – he is an effective pitcher, but in every other outing he’s been hit hard. The first four batters Gouvea faced all reached base. Gouvea allowd four runs and really only pitched well enough to retire two batters; two more gave themselves up on sacrifices.

Mike Kvasnicka threw out his first runner from behind the plate on Sunday, gunning Vaughn at second in the top of the fifth. Kvasnicka has struggled with recieving at times this year, but I’m not worried about his arm. He also made a nice play to throw out a runner at first on a strikeout-wild pitch, when Andrew Robinson’s putaway pitch to Amauris Valdez was well wide but ricocheted off the backstop back towards the plate.

Robinson and Jorge De Leon both looked great on Sunday. Robinson held the Cyclones scoreless for 3.1 innings but left with two on and two out in the eighth, and pinch-hitter Darrell Ceciliani – the NYPL batting leader – singled off De Leon to plate both. Those were the only earned runs allowed by either pitcher in the game’s final 5.1 frames. De Leon flashed 97 mph and was consistently at 95-96 early in his outing, the fastest I’ve seen him sitting at all year. He was left in to throw 2.1 innings and 42 pitches, both easily season highs, which I found kind of surprising – the last time Tri-City stretched him out, he struggled by the end of his second frame. He still pitched well enough to get out of the tenth inning, were it not for a Figueroa throwing error, but he was down to 90-91 mph by the end of the night.

The bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday featured a somewhat humorous play, going down in the book as (Johan) Figuereo picking off Figueroa. The ValleyCats weren’t laughing, however, as it looked at the time to be the final blow to their chances of winning. Of course, fate intervened on behalf of Tri-City, as Figuereo threw two wild pitches – his first two of the season – with two outs and two on to tie the game.

42s were wild on Sunday, as the ValleyCats were all dressed in identical #42 jerseys to honor Jackie Robinson. This was a very nice tribute, but not particularly fun for those of us in the press box who had to figure out who everybody was. We were thankful this happened in July and not, say, a month earlier, as we generally knew each player well enough to identify him.

Saturday featured an electric game, but not in the good sense. From about the fifth inning through the eighth, lighning flashed all around the park every 20 seconds or so, creating an interesting atmosphere to play baseball in. Play continued throughout – the lightning was always in the distance past the outfield, and rain fell only briefly – but the storm sent many of the 4,365 fans scurrying for shelter. The brunt of the storm came after the game, making my drive home fairly adventurous.

The opener was pretty ugly otherwise, except for the eighth-inning triple play. I thought Luis Nieves’s line drive was a base hit off the bat, as did both baserunners, but Figueroa ranged to his left to get the ball fairly easily. I wasn’t thinking triple play at all, but Tyler Burnett called for the ball and Hernandez made the quick turn at second, getting the ball to first just in time to triple off Juan Centeno. I – and most of the people I talked to afterward – thought Centeno was safe at first, but Burnett was pretty adamant afterwards that they got the out.

A.J. Pinera just flat-out dominated the ‘Cats for six innings. Pinera struck out five, gave up only two hits, and never issued more than two balls to any hitter. He got through three different innings on eight pitches or less, and was only at 57 when he was pulled. This was only his second start, so Brooklyn was understandably loath to push him too hard, but it sure seemed like he could have kept going – he fanned four of the last five batters he faced. Naturally, Pinera’s replacement, Brian Needham, opened the seventh inning with four straight balls to Tyler Burnett.

Burnett, incidentally, has drawn 22 walks this season, tied for second in the NYPL. He and seven others are tied atop the league leaderboard with 10 doubles.

The ‘Cats run into another hot opponent this week in Aberdeen, winners of four straight. Brooklyn had posted four consecutive victories before coming to The Joe, while Tri-City met Staten Island on an eight-game streak earlier this month.

Kevin Whitaker

Videos:
Saturday
Sunday
Monday

And check out this ridiculous story about ‘Cats reliever Jason Chowning, courtesy of Astros County.

Notebook: Clutch failures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Whitaker


Notebook: Record crowd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Whitaker


Independence Day Notebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Whitaker


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: Bats bounce back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple other items…

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Whitaker


Notebook: Vermont roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other assorted notes on Tri-City pitchers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Whitaker

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

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

And from Friday:


Power Outage scenes and thoughts

At one point in yesterday’s game, I actually began to wonder if we might be able to finish the game in under two hours. It would have ben a stretch, but didn’t seem like a ridiculous proposition: the sixth inning was almost complete at 8:29, just an hour and 25 minutes after the game began. Carlos Quevedo was throwing great for Tri-City – 6 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 0 R on 65 pitches – and the Vermont pitchers also working quickly, allowing just one run and no walks. Neither side had needed more than 15 pitches to complete an inning, and with potentially only two and a half innings left to play, it seemed possible.

Then, the scoreboard went dark, the lights went off, and ominous black smoke started escaping from the roof of the generator building behind the left-center field fence. You probably know the story by now. The game was delayed for 61 minutes until all the lights finally came back on and play could resume. In the meantime, the ValleyCats gathered outside the third-base dugout, entertaining fans and themselves by throwing items into the stands. The postgame fireworks show was instead launched during the delay to keep the crowd engaged.

Eventually the game was resumed. Vermont decided that, even after the delay, it had not been at the ballpark long enough, and scored a run in the eighth to force extra innings. Each team had a runner in scoring position in the ninth and tenth, but neither could score. In the eleventh, Vermont finally broke through. Henry Jimenez – who had entered the game in the ninth as a pinch-runner for designated hitter David Freitas – led off the inning with a single through the right side, and came around to score on a two-out single by pinch-hitter Justin Miller. The ValleyCats couldn’t answer, and Vermont had a 2-1 victory.

The 61-minute delay provided some of the wildest scenes of the season.

Infielder Enrique Hernandez became an honorary member of VCN, taping Elliot’s camera to the top of his head:

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Hernandez wanted to bring the camera out with him to coach first base, but the rest of us thought that was a bad idea.

The players throw giveaway items into the stands:

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Mike Kvasnicka stole some frisbees from Southpaw to throw into the crowd:
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Fun Facts: As long as Wednesday might have been for the ValleyCats, it was even longer for John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon. Isner and Mahut began their match on Wednesday…and didn’t finish until Thursday, as Isner took the final set 70-68. Tri-City and Vermont could have almost played their game twice, complete with power delays, in the time it took the tennis pros to complete their fifth set alone (8 hours, 11 minutes).

In fact, in the 11 hours and 5 minutes it took Isner and Mahut to play their match, the ValleyCats could have…
    …put on 44 consecutive firework displays
    …waited through 11 power outage delays
    …in which they could have thrown an estimated 22,000 items into the stands
    …including 11 cardboard boxes, signed by a dozen ValleyCats.
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I think we’re all glad it didn’t come to that.

===

Some notes from the game:

The ValleyCats’ pitching staff is due for regression at some point – that 1.73 ERA is simply not sustainable for any team. But I am confident that Carlos Quevedo will continue to have a lot of success at this level. You can’t help but appreciate the righty’s pitching style. How’s this for going after hitters: In his first start, Quevedo threw first-pitch strikes to the first 12 batters he faced. Last night? 14 of the first 15. His fastball only sits around 89-91, but it gets on hitters really quickly, enabling him to challenge batters up in the zone and succeed. The stadium shadows last night helped a bit with that deception, but it was still impressive. Quevedo’s second pitch is a slow curve, which seemed to come in around 74-76 mph (though I trust the stadium gun a little less in this range, as it was showing a few curves at 61); it was very useful for him last night, although he did get some help from the umpire on a couple hooks.

Quevedo was the player affected most by the power outage: he was only at 65 pitches at the time of the delay, and would have pitched the seventh inning (although likely no more). He only allowed three hits – all singles – and now has not given up a walk in 10.1 innings this seasion. He currently ranks second in the NYPL with 10 strikeouts.

The bullpen was not as lights-out last night as it had been. The overall line is good – five innings, one earned run – but that overstates its effectiveness. The first run counted as unearned, but Tri-City pitchers were hardly blameless – Joan Belliard hit Ronnie LaBrie with one out, Travis Blankenship walked LaBrie over to third with two, and then Andrew Robinson walked the next batter to bring in the run. That was uncharacteristic of a team that has had remarkable control this season. The ‘pen held Vermont scoreless in the ninth and tenth, but didn’t make it easy, stranding a runner on second in the ninth and leaving the bases loaded in the tenth with the help of a baserunning out.

I was very impressed with the ValleyCats’ fielding. The outfielders threw out three runners on the basepaths. In the first inning, Chad Mozingo tried to stretch his leadoff single into a double, but hesitated a bit coming around first, allowing a strong throw by Renzo Tello to beat him to second base. In the tenth inning, Rick Hughes tried to score the go-ahead run on a soft single to right, but Michael Kvasnicka’s throw arrived well before Hughes and catcher Buck Afenir held onto the ball in the collision. In the eleventh, Cole Leonida tried to score an insurance run from second with two outs, but Tello again delivered a good throw to end the inning. Ben Orloff added a terrific sliding catch deep in foul territory in the fifth inning, while Oscar Figueroa, starting at third for the first time, made a nice play on a grounder in the second.

But the story, as always, is that the ‘Cats can’t hit. I already covered that theme this week, and one more game doesn’t change my opinion much. Still, Tri-City is batting just .197 on the season, which is not good.

Kvasnicka continued his hitless streak, going 0-for-1 in two plate appearances. The rookie did not start, but pinch-hit for Adam Bailey in the ninth with Burnett on first and one out. From the right side, he took a big swing through the first pitch, but eventually worked a walk. He got up again in the eleventh, this time from the left side and again with Burnett on first. The ‘Cats called a hit-and-run but got a bad pitch as Kvasnicka swung and missed at a fastball up and out of the zone, hanging Burnett out to dry between first and second and effectively ending the ‘Cats’ rally. Kvasnicka went down swinging on a ball in the dirt two pitches later.

He’s back in the lineup tonight, in the three-hole and starting at third. Let’s hope he breaks out of the slump.

Kevin Whitaker

A Weekend Of Firsts

After many days of preparation, with most of the staff
putting in 12+ hour days during the week leading up to Friday’s Opening Day,
Opening Weekend 2010 has come and gone. We had a lot of firsts this weekend and
we even made history.

There was no better way to start the season if you are a
ValleyCats fan. Scratch that, just a baseball fan in general. The ‘Cats scored
their first run of the year in their first inning of offense. Mike Kvasnicka,
the Astros first round supplemental pick (33rd overall), hit his
first professional home run on the first pitch he saw as a ValleyCat.

Tri-City also notched its first walk-off victory of the
season. With the game tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth, Enrique Hernandez led
off the inning with a single to left. ValleyCats Manager Jim Pankovits wasted
no time and put the speedy veteran Ben Orloff into the game to run (“Walk-off”
Orloff was a part of pretty much every walk-off win last year). Wilton Infante
laid a nice sac bunt down to push Ben Orloff over to second base. With one down
and a runner on second, Oscar Figeroa lined a pitch down the third-base line
that just stayed fair (I’m talking
inches here). Orloff scored all the way from second to give the ‘Cats their
first victory of the young season. The ValleyCats bench erupted, along with the
crowd of 5,380 (the first sell out of the season), exploded out of the dugout,
and mobbed Figeroa as he rounded second. It was Figeroa’s first walk-off hit.

“I was thinking and concentrating on one pitch,” said
Figueroa. “I was looking for fastball middle in. That’s what he threw me,
fastball middle in. When I hit the ball, I was thinking ‘God, please make that
ball fair.’ When the guys got to me at second base, that was really exciting. I
never in my life have been in that situation. It was awesome.”

The excitement carried over to game two the following night
as the ValleyCats organization reached a huge milestone. Heading into this season, 992,109 people had walked through the front gates
at “The Joe” since the ValleyCats debuted in 2002. Now, the total is over one million. To
celebrate, ValleyCats employees gave out more free stuff than ever before.
Ushers were armed with gift certificates, t-shirts were tossed almost every
half inning, the “Giveaway Gun” made its debut, and special prizes were given
to some lucky fans (including four tickets to Country Fest and a baseball
signed by Nationals rookie phenom Stephen Strasburg). It was day for the fans;
a big thank you from the ValleyCats front office staff for years of dedication.
But who was the millionth fan? No one will ever really know, but the front
office staff here has deemed the entire crowd in attendance on June 19 the
millionth fan (remember, we are celebrating all year round).

Other Baseball
Notes (including the first game against the Spinners):

As fellow ValleyCats Network (VCN) member Kevin Whitaker has
pointed out already, the ‘Cats bullpen this season has been exceptional. It has allowed two runs in 22 innings of work so far. Pankovits and his staff
have told me that they will be more reliant on the bullpen this year. Last year,
a lot of the starters had a predetermined pitch count. This year, Pank has more
control of the pitching staff and has said he is not afraid to pull someone
early if his stuff isn’t there. These first couple of games have been a test, a
measuring stick if you will. The ValleyCats aren’t going to send out four
relievers every game. That’s absurd, and is a quick way to exhaust your
pitchers. Pank is just seeing what talent is available to him. David Martinez
has been one of the standouts. In six innings of work so far he is 1-0, has a
perfect ERA, and has only let up two hits.

If people are worried about Mike Kvasnicka because he is 0
for his last 12 with two walks, chill out. It’s early. It generally takes
hitters longer to adjust to the wooden bats, but that isn’t always the case
(J.D. Martinez anyone?). Kvasnicka will turn it around. The guy led the team in
average at .355 this season for the Golden Gophers, with eight homers and 50
batted in (he batted .341 last season). Lowell Spinners outfielder Bryce Brentz
(team mate of ValleyCat Tyler Burnett), the Red Sox first round supplemental
pick (36 overall, just three spots later than Kvasnicka) is batting .077 so far
this season. He was considered one of the best bats in this year’s draft. Are
the Red Sox worried about him? Absolutely not.

The ValleyCats do have areas they need to fix. The defense
needs to get together. This team is 2-2. They have committed four errors in
their two losses and only one in their two wins. They have given up seven unearned
runs. Just not acceptable. I know it is early on in the season, but this trend
cannot continue. The pitching staff has been great, but the D needs to tighten
up behind them. I could see this team playing a lot of close, low scoring games
this year, and there is nothing wrong with that. Tri-City is a National League
affiliate and the NL is notorious for their “small ball.” Playing it here just
gets them more prepped for the big leagues.

All-in-all, not a bad way to start the season. There are a
few kinks to work out, but who doesn’t have that? Answer: everyone does. It’s
still early. We have not even come close to seeing this team’s potential. The
Stedler Division will be a tough battle this year. The Lake Monsters have
started the season off tied for the best record at 3-1, the Tigers always play
the ValleyCats tough, and the Spinners have a few first round picks on their
hands, and might get another one in Anthony Raunado when he finally signs after
playing a little bit in a summer league. The talent is definitely there for the
ValleyCats, and it should be interesting to see how they use it.

By Evan Valenti

Kvasnicka at 3B; weekend roundup

From a long-term perspective, the most important part of Sunday night’s loss was not the outcome of the game. Instead, it was the transition of one of the most promising young ‘Cats: Michael Kvasnicka started at third base for the first time, after playing the first two games in right field.

Although he was primarily an outfielder in college and was seen by many teams as a catcher, the Astros drafted Kvasnicka to play third base. The 33rd overall pick from the University of Minnesota has played everywhere on the diamond, but spent most of his time in the outfield and will be raw as third basemen go. He’s been taking grounders there all week, but today was the first time Kvasnicka was at the hot corner in live action.

He had plenty of chances to prove himself, too. Most notably, Alex Nunez led off the third inning by laying a bunt down the third base line, challenging the rookie’s chops at the new position. Kvasnicka picked the ball up nicely, and his throw almost pulled first baseman Tyler Burnett (moved off the hot corner to make room for Kvasnicka) off the bag, but he got the out. It wasn’t a terribly difficult play as drag bunts go, and most third basemen will get that out, but it was nice to see Kvasnicka handle himself well on it.

Kvasnicka had four other fielding chances at third, and handled them all with ease. The second batter of a game hit a slow chopper to third; Kvasnicka smartly checked off a double-play throw to second, set himself and threw to first, getting PJ Polk by a step and a half. The two other grounders Kvasnicka saw were easy – a two-hopper right at him in the fifth and a soft broken-bat grounder leading off the sixth – and he caught a high popup in foul territory; he had to come back towards the infield late to catch the ball, but he made the play.

One other ball went through Kvasnicka’s zone – a hard, one-hopper through his left side in the fifth inning off the bat of Matt Mansilla. It was a clean base hit, but he had a chance at making a great play if he made a little better read and/or moved better to his left. Not that we should be holding him to these standards yet, but I’d imagine a good percentage of big-league third basemen would have at least gotten a glove on that ball.

But overall, I think Astros fans have to be optimistic about what we saw from Kvasnicka defensively today. ValleyCat fans should be encouraged, too, as the move should strengthen the Tri-City defense. Kvasnicka right now is a downgrade at third from Burnett (who made a nice diving play in the first inning of Saturday’s game), but Burnett at first should be an upgrade over Nick Stanley, who did not technically commit an error in two days but saw three hits go off of his glove. Also, if any of the outfielders who have been DHing are average defenisvely in right, that will probably be a net plus to the ‘Cats run prevention. Kvasnicka made a fielding error trying to pick up a blooper in right in the first inning on Friday, three-hopped a throw home 20 feet up the line on Saturday and took a couple other awkward routes to balls in the outfield this weekend. That also frees up the DH spot for Stanley, should management decide they want his veteran bat in the lineup.

In fact, if you’re looking for a source of worry regarding Kvasnicka’s development, I’d take a look at his performance against lefties. The switch-hitter famously had no trouble adjusting to the speed of the professional game from the left-handed batters box, blasting an opposite-field homer and a double to the same place on the first two pitches he saw. But Connecticut turned him around in his last two at-bats yesterday and for all four today, and Kvasnicka looked shakier as a right-handed batter. From the right side, he’s 0-for-6 with three strikeouts, two popups to second base, and a weak grounder to third. He was up in a key situation in the eighth inning today with two on and two out in the bottom of the eighth, but was way behind an 87 mph fastball from Logan Hoch and then chased an offspeed pitch in the dirt for strike three. Six at-bats is obviously a tiny sample, and I’ll keep an eye on this one throughout the season.

Some other assorted notes from Opening Weekend:

I mentioned this in my gamer, but Connecticut starter Luis Sanz pulled off an interesting feat on Saturday: he allowed three batters to reach base in innings 2-5, but still faced the minimum 12 batters. Even more interesting was the way he did it. All three baserunners were retired in different ways – Renzo Tello was caught stealing, Tyler Burnett was erased on a double play and Dan Adamson was called out on a stolen base attempt due to batter interference on Tello. The call drew an angry reaction – not to mention confusion – from the crowd, but Pankovits didn’t really argue, and it looked like the right call. It was a 1-2 hit-and-run, Tello swung at a pitch way outside to protect the runner and ended up falling over the plate. Catcher Eric Roof still got a throw off and I think Adamson probably had even a good throw beat, but Tello was definitely in Roof’s path and the catcher sold the call.

Sanz had a really incredible outing, in the literal sense of the word: I was amazed at how he turned on and off his command. He threw six pitches, all strikes, to strike out Orloff, but after getting ahead of Figueroa he completely lost it. He threw only five strikes the rest of the inning, with 14 balls and three free passes mixed in. He was lucky Burnett swung first-pitch and Stanley on 2-0, each hitting into outs, because otherwise it could have taken him a long time to get out of the inning. But just as I was preparing for a long day, he found the switch again, needing only 44 pitches to finish the next four innings.

Murillo Gouvea did not have his best outing tonight. In particular, he had very little command of his pitches. In four innings, he managed to limit the damage to just two walks, but he needed 72 pitches to make it through those frames. He left stuff up in the zone all night, the main cause of the single, double and homer in the first inning, and threw quite a few curveballs that never made it below the hitters’ eyes. But the bullpen generally picked him up, and as a team, when you allow five runs you still definitely have a shot to win.

The story of tonight’s game, rather, was the fact that Tri-City hit just 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position. But while it may seem to read, “the ValleyCats offense sucks,” I don’t really agree. Let’s wait a bit longer before declaring the Tri-City bats dead in the water. For one, they weren’t really that futile today – they just picked up their hits at inopportune times. Tri-City didn’t string together two hits in an inning until the last one, and with four doubles and a triple, the ‘Cats were certainly in dangerous positions often. For another, although they didn’t do much yesterday, it was only two days ago that the ValleyCats racked up twelve hits off the Connecticut opening day starter. Finally, Guichardo is a very good pitcher: he posted a 1.73 ERA as a 17-year-old in the Gulf Coast League last year and pitched well in a start at high-A Lakeland.

The run prevention, particularly the defense, is another concern. But I don’t think the last two sloppy days are much more indicative of Tri-City’s true talent level than the opener, when they were incredibly sharp (one harmless error, 15 K, 0 BB). As shaky as some of the pitchers have looked, the ValleyCats still walked only six batters in 18 innings (not good but certainly no disaster), and that’s with 15 different players taking the mound. Eventually a rotation and a bullpen will be set, and the better pitchers will get more innings. Converted shortstop Jorge De Leon looked very good in the ninth tonight, touching 97 on the stadium gun and inducing four groundballs (the first one a single through the 3-4 hole).

I’m not sure if the ValleyCats have 17 pitchers on their roster because they needed 15 of them this weekend, or if they used 15 pitchers this weekend because they had so many that needed work. Either way, as someone tasked with scoring and covering the game, I’m kind of hoping they get rid of a few soon, just so I don’t have to deal with so many pitching changes.

Kevin Whitaker

2010 ValleyCats Roster

In case you missed the news yesterday, we have an official roster for the 2010 ValleyCats. Here’s the press release.

We’ll be providing plenty of information on each player throughout the season. In the meantime, here’s some more information on the roster:

A total of 14 college players will be making their professional debut with the ValleyCats, after being selected in last week’s amateur draft. Foremost among them is Michael Kvasnicka of Minnesota, taken with the 33rd overall pick and signed yesterday. Kvasnicka played the outfield and caught for the Gophers, but Houston sees him as a third baseman, so Tri-City fans will get to watch his transition to the hot corner firsthand. He’s also listed as a utility player, which means we’ll probably see some of him in the outfield, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he gets a few innings at second base. I wrote more about Kvasnicka after the draft.

A couple of other high draft picks will be joining Kvasnicka in Troy this week. Texas Tech pitcher Bobby Doran and Penn State catcher Ben Heath – selected in the fourth and fifth round, respectively – also were assigned to Troy. Two other pitchers taken in the first ten rounds will don ValleyCats uniforms this year: NC State righty Jake Buchanan and Xavier lefty Thomas Shirley. I also wrote about these Day 2 selections last week.

Buchanan should not be very lonely at Tri-City this year, as he joins a pair of former teammates on the ValleyCats. Left-handed pitcher Andrew Sogard was also drafted out of NC State this season in the 26th round. And first baseman Nick Stanley played for the Wolfpack before being drafted in the 25th round last season.

Eleven foreign players add an international flavor to this season’s roster. Five ValleyCats hail from Venezuela and five from the Dominican Republic, while pitcher Murilo Gouvea is from Brazil. Perhaps the most interesting of these players is Jorge De Leon. In his fourth professional season, the righty played 66 games between Tri-City and Lexington at shortstop, but batted just .206/.246/.286. This offseason, Houston decided to convert him to the mound, and he will be pitching for the ValleyCats this year. His fastball has reportedly been clocked at 97 mph this spring, making him one of the most interesting members of the pitching staff.

Five other members of this year’s roster spent time in Troy in 2009. Stanley played in 63 games for the ValleyCats in his first professional season, batting .230/.308/.354 at first base. Joining Stanley in the infield is middle infielder Ben Orloff, who batted just .165 in 97 at-bats before finishing the season at Greenville, and 1B/U Oscar Figueroa, who appeared in two games last season. Centerfielder Renzo Tello will also return to Troy after playing 45 games for Tri-City last year. The only true pitcher to return to the staff is Brendan Stines, who went 3-0 with a 4.93 ERA out of the bullpen in 2009.

Some other related links:

VCN was able to talk with Astros GM Ed Wade at Yankee Stadium last weekend, when Houston came to New York for interleague play. Here’s Wade’s take on the draft and what to expect at Tri-City in 2010:



The Hardball Times breaks down the 2010 MLB Draft. Houston split evenly between pitchers and hitters, but drafted 25 high school players, more than all but three teams.

John Sickels of Minor League Ball posted a review of Houston’s draft, with mostly positive impressions. Sickels is a big fan of one of our 2010 ValleyCats, fourth-round pick Robert Doran.

Former Astro Morgan Ensberg had an interesting piece describing what went through his head when he was drafted.

Tonight is the Rensselaer County Chamber of Commerce Baseball Challenge. The annual event lets Chamber members “be a ValleyCat for a day,” dressing in locker rooms, taking batting practice and then playing a seven-inning game at The Joe. VCN will be running a full-scale production of the game in preparation for Opening Day, so stay tuned tonight for a glimpse of the coverage we’ll be bringing you this season. (Update: Team Niagara wins, 2-0. Read about it here.)

Kevin Whitaker

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