Results tagged ‘ Rafael Valenzuela ’
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.
Friday night’s doubleheader was Farm & Agriculture Night at “The Joe,” with the NYS Farm Bureau and Cabot Creamery educating fans about local producers. The Dairy Princess, Marilyn Lamb, threw out a strike with one of our ceremonial first pitches and was escorted to the pitchers mound by Dean Casey, the president of the Rensselaer County Farm Bureau.
A select number of fans also received a 10th Anniversary canvas print as they entered the ballpark. This commemorative giveaway was made from a picture of pre-game ceremonies at “The Joe.”
Saturday night’s game has been postponed due to rain, and will be made up in a doubleheader at Vermont, as the Lake Monsters do not return to “The Joe” this year. Tickets for tonight’s game can be exchanged for any remaining regular-season home game.
All season long, the ValleyCats have struggled to get clutch hits. The ‘Cats have watched opponents execute better in the late innings, suffering an unlucky 4-10 record in close games despite playing nearly even in blowouts. On Friday night, that all changed, led by one of the newest members of the team.
Rafael Valenzuela joined the ValleyCats in Jamestown on Tuesday, the first of three position players assigned to Tri-City this week. Friday marked his first game at Joe Bruno Stadium, and it was a good day to debut – a pleasant evening in front of a sellout crowd of 5,267 fans.
After several fruitless opportunities in the earlier innings, Valenzuela strode to the plate with two on in the eighth inning to face NYPL saves leader Tanner Peters. He swing at a 3-1 fastball and flicked a high line drive the opposite way, slicing into left-center for a clean double. Justin Gominsky scored and Valenzuela replaced him on second, listening to his first ovation from the hometown crowd.
“I was nervous,” Valenzuela said of playing at Joe Bruno Stadium for the first time. “All the guys were talking about how great the atmosphere is and how great the fans are, and I was just happy I was able to give them a big hit tonight.”
Valenzuela was tentatively expected to open the season in Troy after playing at Rookie League Greeneville last season, but he broke his hamate bone in June and missed the first month. The infielder played four games in the Gulf Coast league on a rehab assignment and was happy to get the call-up to Tri-City this week.
“I spent most of my time with these guys during Spring Training, so being back with my friends here was really nice,” he said.
Drew Muren was intentionally walked to load the bases and Chris Epps struck out, preserving the tie game for Ryan McCurdy. With two outs, McCurdy took a strike and then turned on a fastball, driving a hard grounder two feet to the fair side of the third-base bag for a two-run, game-winning hit.
Manager Stubby Clapp was happy to see his team come through in the clutch. “That’s huge,” he said. “It’s good timing, if it’s going to start now.”
Don’t overlook the work of center fielder Justin Gominsky, who led off the inning with a hard single that bounced off pitcher Drew Bailey. Gominsky also singled to open the sixth inning, staying with a tough curveball on an 0-2 count and driving it up the middle, but was stranded at third.
A scout was in the press box before the game during last week’s homestand when the Michael Bourn trade went down. The scout, who covered the Midwest and saw some of Gominsky in college, said he thought Bourn could be a close comparison for Gominsky’s ceiling – great arm, good speed, little power but a good hit tool.
Also, make sure not to overlook another ValleyCat with an even stronger arm: reliever Dayan Diaz. He came on for Juri Perez with a man on and no outs in the seventh inning, and completed it with this sequence: 94 mph fastball past Jordan Tripp; 94-mph fastball up the ladder chased by Xavier Mackliln; fastball on the inside corner to freeze Jacob Tanis.
He got another strikeout to open the eighth inning, allowed a single, induced a ground ball but got the wrong end of a bang-bang call on the back end of the double play and allowed a soft roller with eyes through the 3-4 hole, giving the Lake Monsters some life. But Diaz got two strikes and reached back for a 95-mph fastball, and Chad Lewis had no chance.
Diaz, despite working out of the bullpen, has now earned five victories, tied for the NYPL lead.
The ValleyCats pulled to within five games of the division-leading Lake Monsters, exactly where they were through 47 games last season. Though they have three teams to catch, the ‘Cats can still dream of a comeback.
Adding to the excitement is the fact that all four teams have played at about the same level this season. Although five games separate the top and bottom of the division, every team has a run differential within 12 runs of the others:
Though they have struggled to win close games this season, the ‘Cats hope that last night may have been a turning point.
“It’s important to get the ball rolling at home,” McCurdy said. “We’ve got a couple games here, then we go on the road for a couple and a big homestand. It’s always fun to play at home, and over the last month or so, we really have to get going.”
Meanwhile, Valenzuela says he wouldn’t mind a playoff push – after missing the first half of the season, he wants to be a part of as many games as possible.
“I would like to play a lot of baseball still,” he said. “I really want us to get hot and keep playing a lot of games.”