Results tagged ‘ Neiko Johnson ’
According to simple math, an average team should sweep about one of every four doubleheaders. Entering last night, the ValleyCats – admittedly not quite an average team for most of their history – had played 19 doubleheaders in the last six years and swept exactly none of them. But that all changed on Friday, as the ‘Cats dominated Hudson Valley in the opener and eked out a 2-1 win in game two for their first sweep of a doubleheader since the Pence/Zobrist days of 2004.
At the center of it, of course, was Rafael Valenzuela. The infielder singled in the first inning of game one and added three more hits – all doubles – throughout the night. Valenzuela – who will start in right field tonight, his first professional appearance in the outfield – drove two balls to the center-field wall and took an 0-1 pitch the opposite way into the left-field corner, scoring three runs and breaking open the first game, which the ‘Cats ultimately won 9-2.
Since August 2, when he joined the team after making a short rehab appearance in the GCL, Valenzuela leads the NY-Penn League with ten extra-base hits. He ranks second in slugging (.762), tied for second in RBIs (10) and tied for third in batting average (.429).
“Having someone like him in the lineup not only makes everybody else better, but it makes the clubhouse better,” manager Stubby Clapp said. “When he got hurt in extended [spring training], we knew it was going to be a bit of a blow to us, and having him back has been important.”
Valenzuela, who said he has no idea what his numbers are (do they ever say they keep track of that?), does not have the pedigree of a player expected to have such success – he was signed as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Arizona last summer. In a way, that makes him right at home on this team.
The ‘Cats had three undrafted free agents in the lineup in the first game (and will do so again tonight), and all three made a rather large impact. Four innings before Valenzuela’s bases-clearing double, catcher Ryan McCurdy pulled a low grounder to the same spot for a three-RBI hit of his own, capping a five-run first inning that gave the ‘Cats the lead for good.
Valenzuela and McCurdy are joined by Neiko Johnson, who has cemented a spot in the everyday lineup with a .424 on-base percentage, fourth-best among NYPL qualifiers. Listed at a generous 5’9”, Johnson has a small strike zone, and he knows how to use it. Despite seeing limited playing time in the first third of the season, the utility player has drawn 33 walks, third-best in the league. And this is no fluke – going back to his college days, Johnson routinely walked in 20 percent or more of his plate appearances.
Add in Johnson’s versatility – he has started games at five different positions this year – and the fact that he has been one of the only ValleyCats to add real value with his basestealing ability (16 of 19 on steal attempts for a team that has been caught more often than any other), and he’s clearly been one of the key parts of the Cats’ late-season charge.
In fact, this marks one of the biggest distinctions between the 2011 ValleyCats and last year’s NYPL champions: the 2010 team’s everyday lineup was comprised almost entirely of first- and second-day draft selections. In addition to Johnson, Valenzuela and McCurdy, Chris Epps – a recently-promoted outfielder and the walk-off hero from earlier this week – was a 45th-round selection, while Chase Davidson (who tore up Greeneville and was just added to the roster) was also taken late on day three.
A fourth undrafted free agent, Andrew Walter, made his second start with the ValleyCats and had an interesting evening. The righty pegged three batters, walked two others and threw a few pitches to the backstop, but he allowed only one hit and would have held the Renegades scoreless if not for a two-out passed ball in the second.
Walter struck out five batters, all swinging, going up the ladder with fastballs to get the first three and then fanning lefties Juniel Querecuto and Jeff Malm in order with inside curveballs.
“Walter was a little bit shaky, but he was good enough to keep us close and keep them off-balance,” Clapp said. The ‘Cats have won both games started by the young righty.
Travis Blankenship – a former third-day draft pick himself – replaced Walter after the righty hit Kyle Holloway for the second time and pitched much more conventionally. Blankenship needed only 33 pitches, 25 of them strikes, to record nine outs and preserve a one-run lead. Ryan Cole – dubbed “Cardiac Cole” after the game by Clapp – allowed two hits in the ninth but held on for his eighth save of the season.
Lost in the offensive outburst of the first game was a terrific pitching performance from Adam Champion. The southpaw, making just his third pro start, threw 80 pitches over six innings, striking out five and allowing only one hit over his final five frames.
“It was an easy game for McCurdy to call,” he said. “It was basically, sinker away and let them hit it, and they just kept beating it into the ground. It’s easy baseball when you just throw to a spot and keep pitching.”
Champion worked as a reliever for last year’s championship team and started 2011 in the ‘pen, even returning there after making a spot start against Staten Island. But with two great outings in August, he may force his way into a suddenly crowded rotation even as the hectic schedule settles down after the All-Star break.
“I’ve been a starter my whole life,” Champion said. “It’s pretty easy to go from relief to starter. I just go back to my roots, and basically do what I have done in the past, and keep the routine.”
The ‘Cats, winners of seven of their last ten games, look to keep it rolling against the Renegades tonight. The broadcast will probably have started by the time you read this; as always, if you can’t make the game, listen live online.
Entering last night, the ValleyCats had scored eight runs in their last five games. Five games, spanning 135 outs. On Thursday, they matched that total with only one out, as the first eight runners reached base and scored.
Entering last night, it had been more than a week since a ValleyCat drove in a teammate with a base hit. On Thursday, three ‘Cats did so in the first inning, and Matt Duffy did it again with one out in the second.
So, what happened? Why the offense?
Beyond the usual explanations of baseball being a funny game, you can look to the opposing starter for some clues. Stetson Allie entered the season as arguably the best major-league prospect in the NYPL, but he hasn’t shown it this year. The righty, who has thrown 100 mph in the past, was only around 91-93 last night, reportedly in line with his other outings this season.
Allie paired his diminished stuff with horrible command, not a good combination for a pitcher. After he got ahead 0-2 on John Hinson, Allie threw only six of his final 19 pitches for strikes, allowing a clean double to Hinson on a full count and eventually hitting consecutive batters with the bases loaded. With the ‘Cats up 2-1 and the bases loaded, Allie left the game without an out to his credit.
Manager Stubby Clapp said after the game that Allie’s wildness helped the hosts’ hitters beyond the results in the box score.
“He wasn’t really around the zone, and it gave our guys a chance to settle in and see some pitches before they needed to hit,” he said. “When pitchers attack the zone real quick, it puts the guys in swing mode, and sometimes they’re not swinging at good pitches.”
A lineup that has struggled to bring teammates home this season had no such trouble in that first inning, as the bottom of the order greeted Vince Payne with four consecutive singles. Duffy, a first-pitch line drive into left to plate two; Drew Muren, a perfectly-placed bunt single dropped down the line; Kellen Kiilsgaard, a clean line drive into left field that scored two, his first hit in nearly two weeks; and Neiko Johnson, a soft flare off the end of his bat that found green behind the first baseman, scoring Muren. Hinson, batting a second time, capped the rally with a sacrifice fly, the first of 24 outs that the Spikes needed.
Duffy floated a double into the right-field corner with one out in the second inning, scoring Brandon Meredith all the way from first with the Cats’ ninth and final run.
Will this break the ‘Cats out of their slump? Stubby wasn’t sure. “We’ll find out tomorrow,” he said. “One day’s good; let’s see if we can get it two days in a row.”
Some other notes:
-Neiko Johnson was 2-for-4 with a stolen base – he’s 11-for-13 in that department, incidentally, the only ValleyCat to steal many bases at a high rate – but may have been more impressive in the field. Playing shortstop for the first time in three weeks, Johnson was not only errorless in five chances, he made two highlight-reel plays. With two on and nobody out in the second inning, Kirk Singer hit a hard smash up the middle; Johnson dove to his left, snared the ball and flipped with his glove to Hinson, a spectacular force that nearly became a double play (pictured below). He went to the dirt for another ball to his left in the sixth inning, helping Travis Smink get out of a jam.
“It was a pretty tough play…it kind of skidded off the mound,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think I was going to get there, but I did, and I just made a good flip to Hinson.”
Johnson is penciled back into the lineup at shortstop tonight. Jacke Healey had a Web Gem on Wednesday, getting a good jump on a grounder up the middle, diving to his left and adjusting to a rough hop on the fly before throwing the runner out at first.
-Jonas Dufek had another sharp outing on Wednesday, getting hung with a tough loss. He struck out a season-high five batters, throwing his curveball more often than usual to go with his usually sharp two-seamer. Both runs came in the second inning on a walk, two seeing-eye grounders and a wild pitch.
-Dayan Diaz was electric as always on Thursday, picking up Quezada in the second inning and pitching into the sixth. He was 93-94 with his fastball, blowing it by several hitters and getting a couple of his seven strikeouts with the occasional secondary pitch. Diaz is now tied for second in the league with four wins and has fanned 37 batters in 26 innings, the third-best K rate among relievers.
We hope to be back at it tonight for the rubber match; the forecast is not ideal but the tarp is off now and there’s a spot of sunlight. As always, listen live on tcvalleycats.com and follow us on Twitter for updates throughout the game.
If you quickly saw the final score of yesterday’s game, and saw that Connecticut won 15-9, you might assume that there wasn’t a whole lot of drama. And boy, you would be wrong. Let’s try to make some sense of what happened…
-Even as of the third inning, this was a pretty remarkable game. The ValleyCats, breaking a recent trend, jumped out to a first-inning lead and kept hitting the ball well, eventually racking up 10 hits in their first two times through the order. Jacke Healey, who came into the game with two hits in 45 at-bats, matched that total in the first three innings with a homer and a double in his first two times up. But the ‘Cats scored only five runs, leaving the maximum six in scoring position (seven total).
Also in the third inning, Bubby Williams did this to our press box window:
Allow me to describe what we were thinking: “Oh, hey, he fouled that ball right towards us.” *thud* “Oh, wow, that hit the window.” [one second passes] “Oh, crap, the window’s falling.” The ball didn’t shatter the window – it bounced back onto the concourse – but it did dislodge it from the frame, sending the pane down right above my usual seat. I was standing on the other side of the room at the time – marking down a pitching change on the whiteboard (see later), because Connecticut went to the bullpen after only two innings – or else it would have come down right on my head.
This could not have happened on any other day. During games, we always open the press box windows to get a better feel for the sounds on the field. If the window had been open, the pane would have been blocked and could not have fallen into the press box. But because yesterday’s start was during the middle of the day, and because it was a sweltering 96 degrees outside, we kept the windows closed to preserve a bit of cool air in the press box. And of course, it was the one day a foul ball came up.
-That might not have even been the weirdest play of the game. In the sixth inning, some poor ValleyCats baserunning turned a single into a 4-5-2-6-5-2-1 double play – and the pitcher made both putouts.
With Matt Duffy on second base, John Hinson hit a grounder well to the second baseman’s left. Colin Kaline (yes, the grandson of the famous one) gloved the ball but could not get it out in time to retire Hinson at first. But Duffy took a very wide turn at third base and then lost his footing a bit; Kaline threw over to third and the runner was hung up.
Duffy – not the most nimble runner on the ValleyCats – stayed alive long enough to force five throws as Hinson rounded the bases. Pitcher Rayni Guichardo eventually tagged Duffy out going back to third, looked up and saw John Hinson about 30 feet from the bag, trying to advance during the rundown. Guichardo never broke stride, ran over and tagged out Hinson for a double play that I am sure I’ll never see again.
-Compared to that play, the fact that the ‘Cats ran themselves out of the 11th inning with a 1-3-2-5 caught stealing was trivial. A two-out rally put men on the corners, with the game-winning run on third, but submarine righty Daniel Bennett used a third-to-first move to pick off the runner at first and start the wild play. Making things even more interesting, both runners were Johnsons (Neiko at third, Zach at first).
-There was a sellout crowd of 4,686 fans on Wednesday – quite an attendance, given the 11 a.m. start. But the vast majority of the fans were camp groups on a fixed schedule, which had to leave by the time the game went to extra innings. The oppressive heat, as high as 96 degrees, understandably drove some other fans away, so by the time the 12th inning rolled around, there were only a handful of spectators in the park. Jeff Holm – who did not start and only entered the game as a defensive replacement in the 11th inning as part of a double-switch – naturally took the first strike he saw well over the left-field fence, giving the Tigers their first runs in five innings and a 9-7 lead.
Matt Duffy and Brandon Meredith reached base to lead off the Cats’ half of the inning, but after two quick outs, it looked like the game would finally end. Drew Muren worked a 2-2 count and fouled two pitches off. With absolutely no energy in the ballpark – it felt more like the late innings of a blowout amateur game – Muren capped a four-hit night with a line drive double to right field, tying the game.
-And, of course, the final score looked more like a blowout, as Kristian Bueno allowed four walks, three hits and a grand slam in a six-run, 44-pitch 13th inning.
-The game took a total of four hours and 40 minutes, which we believe is a ValleyCats franchise record. It was the longest game played in the New York-Penn League in more than a year, going back to a 4:48 15-inning Williamsport-Vermont contest on July 6, 2010.
-Entering the game, the Tigers and ‘Cats ranked 11th and 13th in the league, respectively, in batting average. So naturally, they each racked up 19 hits on Wednesday. (Connecticut jumped over five teams with yesterday’s outburst.) It was a season high for both teams, and the most for the ValleyCats since reaching 20 in a 17-9 victory over Hudson Valley on 7/31/08. And I probably don’t have to tell you that it was the most hits ever for the ‘Cats in a loss.
-Miles Hamblin, a left-handed hitter, pinch-hit in the 12th for Kellen Kiilsgaard, a left-handed hitter who pinch-hit for designated hitter Hector Rodriguez in the ninth. If you’re counting, that’s three players who occupied the DH slot.
-Through nine innings, the ValleyCats drew three walks. All three were earned by Neiko Johnson. Johnson, who added two singles in the game, only batted leadoff because Justin Gominsky was scratched about a half-hour before game time. His walk rate is through the roof – 17 BBs in 88 plate appearances – and if you look at his college numbers from Kentucky, this is no fluke.
-Meanwhile, the ‘Cats issued 11 walks of their own, blowing by their previous season high of eight. Tri-City entered the game allowing just 3.46 walks per nine innings, the fourth-best rate in the league. 10 percent of the ValleyCats’ walks so far this season came last night.
-The ValleyCats sent 65 hitters to the plate, Connecticut 69.
-Today was the first time in more than four years that the ValleyCats allowed 15 runs in a game (7/16/07 at Mahoning Valley).
-Williams had four singles and reached scoring position three times, but he never scored. The ‘Cats stranded 17 runners for the game – 12 in scoring position – and had three others killed on the bases. (Connecticut left 15 on base.)
“Too many walks and not enough clutch hitting. That’s what lost it for us,” Muren said.
And the best part is: after playing nearly eight hours of baseball in a 21-hour span, the ‘Cats and Tigers get to do it all again, traveling to Norwich for a doubleheader today before finishing the season series on Friday.
Still, they may be playing for less time in today’s doubleheader than they did in a single game yesterday. Williams, who caught all 13 innings and 253 pitches for the ValleyCats, said that he lost seven pounds of water weight during the game.
“It was warm back there behind the plate. A couple of those innings got long,” Williams said. “But I guess I’m just used to it…I live in Kansas City, and in August, it’s 110 degrees all the time there.”
“There’s worse places [to play], trust me,” Muren said. “Down in Florida…I’ve heard nothing but horrors from down there. You drink a lot of water and Gatorade, and you’ll be fine.”
Both bullpens will be taxed during tonight’s twin bill. The two sides used a combined 13 pitchers on Wednesday, adding to seven lineup changes that created a complicated scorecard:
A couple other notes from the series:
-One of the most interesting revelations of the first 31 games is Brandon Meredith’s speed. He doesn’t look like a fast guy – 6-2, 225 lbs. is not a sprinter’s frame – but he covers the gaps really well and can turn it on from first to third. Meredith tripled again on Tuesday (his fourth of the season, tied for third in the league) and scored from first on Muren’s double last night.
Meredith said he’s aware that people don’t peg him as a speedster. “I love it. That’s why I always go for triples,” he said. “When it’s in the gap, I’m going for three for sure.”
-Ryan McCurdy was hit by a pitch on consecutive at-bats on Tuesday. If that were to happen to anybody, of course it would be McCurdy, who was pegged three times in 27 plate appearances in 2010.
Two games in Connecticut tonight, starting at 6:05 p.m. Listen to Erik and Matt on the broadcast on tcvalleycats.com, with a chance of hearing Erik descend into madness if one goes deep into extra innings.