Results tagged ‘ notebook ’

Notebook: Little expectations, big numbers

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.

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Opening Day

Last year, the ValleyCats opened their season in highlight-reel fashion: with a walk-off hit in the ninth capping a well-played victory on a perfect summer evening.

Suffice to say, tonight’s game isn’t likely to appear on any highlight reels.

Vermont beat the ‘Cats, 9-3, despite racking up the same number of hits (seven) and fewer for extra bases. The ugly numbers, in ascending order: three hit batters, four wild pitches, five errors and six walks issued by Tri-City pitchers.

“That was the story of the game,” manager Stubby Clapp said after the game. “First-game jitters, whatever it may be for the guys. It’s done, it’s over with, we’ll come back tomorrow.”

The plays didn’t seem indicative of a bad defensive team, necessarily – three of the errors were committed by pitchers, while another was Miles Hamblin’s error trying to throw behind a double steal – it was just a rough night. Things weren’t much prettier at the plate, for either side – the Lake Monsters drove in just four of their nine runs, only one on a well-struck ball, while the ‘Cats drove in just one of three (the others scored on a wild pitch and a GIDP).

Afterwards, Clapp talked about the different “speed of the game,” compared to college ball – something that players have told me about often as the biggest difference. He pointed to one play in particular – in the eighth inning, second baseman John Hinson sat back on a two-hop chopper as the runner came in front of him to second, and leadoff hitter Chad Oberacker beat Hinson’s throw to first for an infield single. Clapp said Hinson had to adjust not only to quicker batters and baserunners, but also to the different speed of the ball off the wood bat – the two-hopper doesn’t get to you as quickly as it does from aluminum.

Keeping in mind that we’re only 1.28% of the way through the season – Clapp even said after the game, “It’s way too early right now to see anything” – a couple notes from the night:

-There were a couple highlight-reel-worthy plays in the game. In the second inning, right fielder Drew Muren went back over the wrong shoulder, turned at the warning track and leaped to catch a deep line drive, crashing into the wall one step after making the grab. It was especially nice for Muren, who played mostly center in college and isn’t as used to the tricky angles and spins that right field provides. Justin Gominsky made a great play in the seventh inning, racing in to snare a sinking liner in shallow center field. (Lake Monsters third baseman Chad Lewis may have topped them both in the fifth, diving to his left to rob Matt Duffy of a single in the hole and completing the throw.)

One game is certainly not indicative of anything, but I do think the outfield defense has a chance to be very good this year. Meredith is not the fleetest of foot in left, though he wasn’t tested today, but Muren and Gominsky looked like good defenders, and Kellen Kiilsgaard and Muren both have great arms.

Starting pitcher Juri Perez looked great at times – such as the first inning, when he fanned the first two batters with a great changeup and a fastball at the knees. But, while the word “inconsistent” is overused in sports analysis, it applies to his outing tonight. He just lost his command at a few points – including both times he reached the bottom of the lineup – walking four batters in four-plus innings and hitting another.

“I was really happy with the way he came out,” Clapp said of his starter. “He’s really aggressive to the zone, aggressive to the hitters, and it looked like he just sort of ran out of gas.”

-Nobody went deep on Friday, or even really hit any flyballs to the warning track – a rarity at homer-friendly Joe Bruno=- Stadium. First baseman Zach Johnson, however, did pull a no-doubter over the left-field wall in the fifth inning; the umpire ruled it foul, but it couldn’t have missed by more than a foot, based on where it landed.

-Vermont shortstop Chih Fang Pan had one of the weaker three-RBI, two-run games you’ll see…he drove in two when he fisted a ball over first base for a single, plated another with a broken-bat grounder that was too slow to turn two on and reached and eventually scored when Joan Belliard threw away a potential double-play grounder. Second baseman Michael Fabiaschi had a line you don’t usually see from a ninth hitter, reaching base on two walks, a hit by pitch and a single.

I have some other notes written down, but it’s really late and we have 77 more of these to learn from.

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Home Finale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updated odds through games of 9/3:

Tri-City: 27%

Vermont: 0%

Connecticut: 73%

Kevin Whitaker

Four-homer Notebook

Four ValleyCats homered last night: Dan Adamson, Frank Almonte, Mike Kvasnicka and Tyler Burnett. The four homers were the most the ValleyCats have hit in a game since July 24, 2004*, when they hit six in a 10-2 victory at Oneonta. (That doesn’t look like a record that will fall anytime soon – nobody in the league has surpassed six homers in a game since 2004, and it has only been matched twice. Hunter Pence contributed two of the six homers.)

*If that date looks somewhat familiar…the last time we had to find a historic event, two triples and two homers, it happened two days earlier that same week. Next time the ValleyCats do something that hasn’t happened in a long time, I’m looking for it in that week first, and going from there.

I noted earlier that Williamsport is the best fielding team in the NYPL…but that doesn’t do a whole lot of good when four balls leave the park. And when Carlos Quevedo is pitching, runs will be at a premium.

Quevedo had his eighth quality start in eleven tries last night, continuing to dominate the league. His command again seemed to get better as the game progressed, throwing 13 of 14 pitches for strikes to retire the side in order in the fifth. His lone strikeout came that inning as well, going up the ladder to send Drew Rundle down swinging.

And, of course, the control was there: he didn’t walk a single hitter, and went to three balls only once. He’s now allowed just three walks in 62.2 innings, which is just unfathomable. Quevedo also did not allow a homer last night – his biggest weakness to this point – and gave up just one earned run in six frames.

The one batter who worked a three-ball count also caused the most trouble, as Edgar Duran pulled a 3-2 pitch down the right-field line for a triple. Adam Bailey was shaded way towards center field, which was the only reason Duran was able to reach third (where he would score on a groundout). Quevedo only gave up four more hits – two liners, two grounders – but allowed a few other hard-hit balls that could have snuck through.

He was helped out by some very good fielding – the ‘Cats, not the Crosscutters, looked like the better defensive team in last night’s game. After a double play erased a Carlos Alonso single, third baseman Ben Orloff dove to his right to snare a Cesar Hernandez grounder, getting up in plenty of time to retire the speedy second baseman. Quevedo also helped himself out, picking Hernandez off second in the first inning and snaring a Duran comebacker behind his back to lead off the fourth. (Williamsport reliever Jake Borup saw Quevedo’s play and raised him one inning later, barehanding a Dan Adamson comebacker on one hop.)

Adamson hit the game’s first home run, taking a fly ball roughly 380 feet to left field beyond the bullpen. Burnett said of Adamson after the game, “I can’t explain how much juice he has in that bat.”

Burnett, of course, hit the final blast, a fly ball over the second fence in right field. The homer extended his on-base streak to a remarkable 36 games (he was 0-for-3 entering the at-bat), longest in the NYPL this year by 10 games.

Williamsport starter Lisalberto Bonilla opened the game throwing hard, but lost a little steam in the second inning. His lack of a go-to secondary pitch got him into trouble, as the ‘Cats timed up his fastball for two homers and a double. He started forcing his pitches and walked Ryan McCurdy and Ben Orloff, and a Kik&eacute Hernandez single ended Bonilla’s night.

Fun with scorecards: the ValleyCats went down in order in the sixth, grounding out 4-3 each time.

More fun with scorecards: Frank Almonte was stranded in the third inning after grounding into a fielder’s choice. He was the 13th runner to reach base, but amazingly was the first left there – seven scored, three were forced out, one picked off and one caught stealing.

Kevin Whitaker

Cooperstown Notebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some pictures from today’s memorable game:

Pankovits hits some grounders during warm-ups:

warmups

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

chimmy

Ben Orloff signs an autograph for a lucky fan:

Orloff autograph

Things got kind of cramped in the small dugouts:

TCdugout

CTdugout

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

CTstands

Kvasnicka at bat:

Kvasnicka batting

Buck Afenir is congratulated after his game-tying double:

Afenir celebration

scoreboard

The Tigers celebrate the walk-off victory:

celebration

Doubleday Field

Kevin Whitaker

Notebook: Kvasnicka catches

The ValleyCats went with a different defensive alignment than usual yesterday. Ben Orloff played his first game at shortstop since July 8, 2009, and handled the position very well. Orloff had only two chances yesterday but made the most of them. He handled a soft grounder in the first inning, but the highlight-reel play came in the fourth, when he reached a grounder up the middle and flipped it to Kiké Hernandez, who barehanded it and relayed to first while falling backwards, getting Brett Anderson by a step for a double play*.

Evan also nominated that as the best play at The Joe this season. I’m sorry, but that honor still belongs to Chad Mozingo, for his catch diving backwards on the warning track that turned into a double play. We’ll all be extremely lucky if that one gets topped this year.

As a senior at UC-Irvine in 2009, Orloff won the Brooks Wallace Award, given to the nation’s best collegiate shortstop, so it was nice to see him play well back at his old position. If you’re looking for some man-love for Orloff, Evan gave you plenty of it this afternoon. Orloff is a very good defender and one of the nicest people on the team. Let’s just say I don’t think he’ll still be leading the team in batting average at the end of the season.

But the defensive assignment that will get more notoriety is the fact that Mike Kvasnicka started at catcher for the first time as a professional. Kvasnicka was seen by many teams as a catcher entering the draft and he played there at times in college, but the Astros announced him as a third baseman, and he’s spent his time at third and in right this year. They still want to have him catch once in a while to stay fresh; he’s been catching bullpen sessions and he was behind the plate in a game situation for the first time last night.

It was only one game, but Kvasnicka looked more comfortable behind the plate than he has anywhere else this year. Connecticut didn’t test him much early on – they put Anderson in motion in the second, but PJ Polk put the ball in play – and the pitchers also made it easy on him, for the most part.

Things finally got interesting for Kvasnicka in the seventh, when the speedy Polk stole second and third. Both bags were stolen more off pitcher Brandt Walker than off Kvasnicka, though. In particular, his release and throw to second base was terrific; Polk had a great jump and I was expecting him to have the base easy, but Kvasnicka made it a close play. He was more to blame for the steal of third, as he had trouble transferring a pitch low and away (to a RHB) into his hand and didn’t make a throw, but given Polk’s jump and the pitch location I’m not sure he had a play anyways.

I can only remember one ball in the dirt from the first seven innings, a relatively harmless one right into Kvasnicka’s glove. However, the rookie did make a really nice play to block an 0-0 pitch from Andrew Robinson with a man on in the eighth; the ball bounced in the left-handed batter’s box and kicked up high, but Kvasnicka moved well to get his body in front of it. (He then got crossed up on the next pitch, expecting fastball and getting curve, but the pitch was down the middle and he was able to catch it before talking to Robinson.)

Overall, a very strong first outing behind the plate. If the Astros decide they want him behind the plate – or if, a year down the road, another team wants him there badly enough to trade for him – I saw nothing yesterday that would dissuade them.

Buchanan didn’t have a bad outing last night, allowing three runs in 4.2 innings. He was sitting 88-91 mph with his fastball all night, although the Tigers tagged it for a few hits. He hit Josh Ashenbrenner with a 1-2 pitch and it came back to hurt him, as James Robbins hit a ground-ball single off the glove of a diving Hernandez. His curve was very sharp, as he racked up three strikeouts in the first three innings on 76-77 mph curveballs.

The second-inning run came on a bit of a fluke, as Les Smith hit a grounder that took a bad hop and jumped over Tyler Burnett’s head at first, going for a double. Anderson immediately jumped on a first-pitch fastball for a single to bring home the run, but Buchanan settled down after that. He finished with six strikeouts on the night, getting two more later in the start by climbing the ladder with fastballs.

Buchanan also displayed Houston’s “organizational philosophy”, throwing first-pitch strikes to the first 11 batters he faced (17/20 overall).

The fifth-inning run was anything but lucky, as Londell Taylor took a 3-2 pitch well over the fence in left field. The Tri-City pitchers have generally been excellent this season, but they have been susceptible to the long ball, allowing 11 homers (tied with Hudson Valley for most in they NYPL). Murillo Gouvea has been the worst offender, allowing a league-high four homers.

On the other side, Brennan Smith was starting for the first time after opening the season in the bullpen, but you wouldn’t have known it from watching him. The righty made a seamless transition to the rotation, throwing four scoreless innings.

The ValleyCats had more success against the Tiger bullpen. Tyler Clark, with a herky-jerky delivery and a 69-71 mph curveball, allowed three hits and three walks in two innings, but escaped with only two runs. He could have gotten out of the fifth unscathed when Hernandez hit a possible double-play grounder with the bases loaded, but the relay throw pulled the first baseman off the bag.

Adam Champion didn’t have his best outing. The southpaw entered with two out in the fifth and gave up a bases-empty double to lefty Josh Ashenbrenner, but got out of that inning without further trouble. He fell behind the first four batters he faced in the sixth, however, and it cost him; he pegged James Robbins with his first pitch, and Robbins came around to score on Anderson’s two-out single.

Oscar Figueroa went 2-for-4 with a pair of RBIs, including the big hit in the sixth inning: a ground-ball single up the middle that may have went off Clark’s bare hand, scoring Bailey.

Patience fueled the ‘Cats’ late inning rallies. Ben Orloff led off the seventh with a 10-pitch walk (though he admitted afterwards that he fouled off a couple pitches he should have hit), Heath’s critical grounder that Anderson booted came after seven pitches, and Burnett drew a seven-pitch, bases-loaded walk (technically, Tyler White only threw six pitches, as the second ball was called because he went to his mouth on the pitching mound).

Dan Adamson led off the eighth with a triple to center, also on a full count. Adamson’s blast short-hopped the wall in the deepest part of the ballpark, and would have been gone most anywhere else on the field. Oscar Figueroa brought him home with a double, but stayed at second when Wilton Infante popped up a bunt.

Then came the game’s deciding play – Ben Orloff grounded through the right side, Taylor picked up the ball in shallow right field as Figueroa was rounding third, and manager Jim Pankovits waived him home. The throw was good enough to beat Figueroa, who slid past the tag and base, and was finally tagged out in a cat-and-mouse game behind home plate.

The ball, as mentioned, was picked up in shallow right field, and Taylor had plenty of time to throw Figueroa out. But I have no problem with Pankovits’ decision. First off, as he mentioned after the game, it’s not exactly like the ‘Cats have been good recently at bringing runners home – this was probably their best shot. And although outfielders should probably make that play on a shallow ground ball, they don’t always succeed – I’ve seen basically that same play at the plate four times this season, and Figueroa was only the second runner to be thrown out (Kvasnicka gunned down the other in last week’s 11-inning contest).

Walker had a long inning, even though he faced only five hitters and didn’t allow a hit. He walked Polk, who stole two bases and scored, and then walked Julio Rodriguez. But his stuff is clearly there, starting with a 94-95 fastball with good sink. He threw a 77-mph curve to freeze Ashenbrenner for his first strikeout, then threw an 83 changeup to set up a fastball that he blew by Robbins to end the inning. Walker needed 26 pitches to get through the five batters.

Nine runners scored last night. Six of them reached base on either a walk or hit by pitch.

The ‘Cats continue to have absolutely no success at bringing runners home – they’re 4-for-25 with RISP in two games this series, stranding 11 runners each game. I remain mystified by their inability to drive in runs. It would make sense that they would struggle to move guys along if they struck out a lot…but they don’t (only 3 K’s last night). I guess it could be partly due to lineup construction – this early in the season, it’s hard to know who your best hitters are, so it’s more difficult to cluster them together, making it more likely that guys who get on base will be left there…but I don’t really think that can explain more than a small part of it. I remain hopeful that this is just bad luck, and the team will start to convert more hits into runs soon.

Kevin Whitaker


Notebook: 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: Toaster trouble

As fans were filing into Joe Bruno Stadium about an hour before Sunday’s game, there was an awful stench coming from the concourse. It did not take long to locate the source of the chaos: someone in the home clubhouse had left a piece of bread burning in the toaster.

Apparently, this is not the first time that the ValleyCats have struggled with a toaster. Earlier this season, corner infielder Tyler Burnett had a similar toaster-related mishap in the players’ dorms at RPI, setting off the fire alarms in the wee hours of the morning.

As much trouble as the ValleyCats have had figuring out kitchen appliances, it pales in comparison to the difficulty they have had figuring out Lowell pitchers. Aside from the unbelievably wild Randy Consuegra, the Spinners pitchers have had tremendous success against Tri-City.

The line so far for Lowell pitchers, sans Consuegra, against the ValleyCats:

34.2 IP, 19 H, 35 SO, 14 BB, 3 ER, 0.78 ERA, .156 BAA

Right from the start, it was clear that yesterday would be tough for the Tri-City offense. Lefty Hunter Cervenka dialed it up as high as 94 mph and hit every one of his spots early on. He was perfect with five strikeouts through the first two innings, needing only 23 pitches to make the home team hitters look foolish. Cervenka got a little looser with his command in the third and the ‘Cats made him pay, taking advantage of a walk, a hit batsman and an error to tie the game at 1-1, but still could not hit balls hard.

Cervenka took a no-hitter into the fifth inning, when veteran first baseman Nick Stanley broke up the bid with a one-out single after fighting through an eight-pitch at-bat. Stanley’s safety was not particularly well-hit – a Texas Leaguer to the opposite field – but it fell in the right place. The hard-throwing lefty was then removed from the game, as he had already reached surpassed his limit with 72 pitches.

“[Cervenka's] command was real good,” Ben Heath said. “He pitched against us over at Lowell, and he was also really good there.”

“I don’t know what it is with that kid, but we didn’t swing the bats well against him over there,” manager Jim Pankovits said of Cervenka. “Lowell is kind of a strange team – [tonight it was] a different team than you saw last night, that’s for sure.”

Reliever Stephen Fox was just as effective. The righty only reached the high 80s with his fastball, but went to his 75-77 curveball early and often, keeping Tri-City hitters off-balance. Fox retired the first ten hitters he faced, and the first hit he allowed was similarly soft: Dan Adamson hit a grounder to first and beat the pitcher to the bag for an infield single.

The only well-struck base hit the ValleyCats had all game came in the ninth inning, when Heath lined an 0-1 slider over the Tri-City bullpen in left. The catcher leads the team with a pair of longballs, both ninth-inning blasts.

Lost in the shuffle was the fact that Tri-City starter Jake Buchanan threw very well. Pankovits said after the game that Buchanan isn’t yet where he’d like to be, and that’s undoubtedly true in terms of stamina – he was pulled after three innings and 50 pitches. But I was very impressed with the righty’s performance last night.

Buchanan was sitting 88-89 with his fastball, but hitters were still swinging late often, possibly out of respect for his changeup and curveball. He had good run to the arm side as well; shortstop Oscar Figueroa was the main beneficiary of this, picking up three 6-3 assists in the first two innings.

The eighth-round draft pick out of NC State did walk two hitters, but it wasn’t as if he showed a complete lack of control – he issued a bases-empty walk to Kolbrin Vitek in the first on a full count, and Nick Robinson worked an 11-pitch walk in the third inning. Robinson’s would prove more critical when Felix Sanchez followed with a line drive single up the middle – the first hit of the game – and Buchanan hit Jose Garcia on a 2-2 couint, loading the bases. Vitek hit into a fielder’s choice at short, but it was too slow to complete the double play and Robinson scored.

Chris Blazek came on for the fourth, and was brilliant as usual, consistently at 88 mph with his fastball. He did allow his second hit of the season, but it was a lazy fly ball to left that could have been caught if Renzo Tello had made a better read on it. Blazek retired the next two hitters in order, throwing a dirty 79-mph changeup to send David Renfroe down swinging. His season line: 4.2 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 10 SO.

Blazek is too good for this level. But don’t tell that to anyone in the Houston front office, because I really enjoy watching him pitch.

It was the other Tri-City relievers who uncharacteristically struggled. David Martinez came into the game with a perfect ERA in 6.2 innings, but the Lowell ofefnse woke against him immediately. Felix Sanchez reached on a one-out bunt single – his second of the two-game series – and stole second base; Jose Garcia advanced him 90 feet with a line drive to left. Martinez got Kolbrin Vitek to fly out to shallow right field and could have been out of the inning, but while Adam Bailey’s throw was in plenty of time to catch the speedy Sanchez, it was too far up the third-base line for Heath to make the tag. Two more line-drive hits, the last a shot to the center-field wall by Brandon Jacobs, and the Spinners had a 4-1 lead.

Martinez had a strong second inning, but the meat of the Lowell lineup feasted on Brendan Stines. Garcia hit a line drive into the Lowell bullpen, and Vitek and Miles Head followed with base hits, tacking on two more runs.

Brandt Walker came on to finish the game. His line wasn’t pretty – five hits and a run in two innings – but I would not worry much about the five hits – they were all singles and each one was a grounder that found a hole. The four outs in play off Walker were also ground balls. When you can hit 92-93 like Walker can (and he flashed a nice curve to fan Garcia) with that kind of sink, you’re usually going to have success as a pitcher. Walker did issue a four-pitch walk to Vitek and a five-pitch free pass to Robinson, each of which loaded the bases.

The box score shows a poor game for Heath defensively, as he fielded the bunt single and allowed stolen bases to Sanchez and Vitek. But although I’ve been critical of Heath’s defense before, that wasn’t the problem last night: Sanchez is fast as hell, his bunt was perfectly placed, Vitek stole on a breaking ball and both runners got good jumps off the pitcher. I’ll continue to keep an eye on him behind the plate as the season progresses, but I have no complaints from last night.

I got a chance yesterday to talk with Heath about making the transition to pro ball as a catcher:

Anytime you have a new staff, it’s an adjustment. But it’s also exciting to catch guys who have really good stuff. A lot of guys here throw heavy sinkers – a lot of times, you see a guy throwing 88-90 and think it’s not huge velocity, but if he has sink on the ball, you can’t really tell from the side. It’s definitely a different level than college. But we have a great pitching staff, and it’s fun to catch.

A couple other news items from the weekend:

The 19th overall draft pick, Mike Foltynewicz, made his debut for the Greenville Astros on Saturday. He threw one inning, allowing a hit but erasing the runner with a pickoff. He will be in rookie ball all season, according to reports, so he will not be a ValleyCat in 2010.

And we have reports that third-round pick Austin Wates will sign with Houston soon. Houston will reportedly try Wates out at second base. Given the similarities between Wates and Mike Kvasnicka – advanced bats with positional questions – I would have to think there’s a good chance he comes to Troy. If he does, Wates could be an impact bat for the ValleyCats right away – something it looks like this team could use.

(Update: apparently that report was false.)

Kevin Whitaker

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