Results tagged ‘ Travis Blankenship ’

Notebook: Late-game drama

With 9-3 and 10-0 decisions in the first two games of the season, the one thing lacking was late-game drama, and it appeared the trend would continue when Vermont took a four-run lead into the eighth inning on Sunday. But the the ValleyCats rallied for three runs on three hits, bringing up John Hinson in the highest-leverage situation of the short season: down one, first and third, two outs.

Hinson drove the ball hard to the opposite field – just as he had done in the previous two at-bats, for a double and a single – and Ryan McCurdy, leading off first, said that he thought it would be a game-tying hit. But shortstop Sam Roberts stepped to his backhand, jumped softly and snared the line drive to end the inning.

Matt Duffy singled with two outs in the ninth but advanced no further, and Vermont took the game and the series, 6-5.

Now, the ‘Cats go away from home for the first time this season. The rookies have taken road trips before in college, but manager Stubby Clapp commented on some differences that they will have to adjust to.

“They’ve been on the bus rides, but they’ll need to get used to the system, the organization we use on the road,” he said. “We don’t have our own facilities, we have to deal with the opposing team’s schedule and go from there.”

As I write this, the ‘Cats seem to be handling the change of scenery just fine, taking a large lead at Connecticut in the opener of the three-game series.

Abbreviated notebook:

-Drew Muren and Duffy have been in the 3-4 slots all three games so far, and if they keep playing like this, they’ll hold that position all year. Muren drew three walks last night while Duffy had three hits. Muren was caught stealing for the first time in three attempts when Vermont guessed right and pitched out on 0-2; it worked out okay for the ‘Cats, as with a new count in the second  inning, Duffy smacked a first-pitch double and eventually scored.

-Muren had the defensive play of the night in the ninth inning, preventing a potentially key insurance run by gunning out Xavier Macklin at the plate on a single. Muren had to range to his right and was not able to come in very far to field it, but he threw a dart to home plate, beating a surprised Macklin by 10 feet.

-The first eight balls in play off Euris Quezada were all on the ground, none hit all that hard; two went for hits, but both were slow rollers back through the box and over second base for singles. The Lake Monsters finally elevated a couple balls the second time through, though only two of the five fourth-inning hits were struck very hard. After three runs scored, he bounced back nicely, striking out Michael Fabiaschi with the bases loaded and inducing a soft grounder from Chad Oberacker to end the inning.

Quezada didn’t throw all that hard, topping out around 88, but had a strange release point and hitters seemed to have trouble picking up his breaking stuff in particular. He certainly seems to have potential to pick up more velocity – he got a late start to his pro career (signed out of the Dominican Republic and debuted at 20, two years ago) so his mechanics are probably not a finished product, and at 6’6”, 240 lbs., he seems to have more strength to tap.

-Travis Blankenship last night: 23 pitches, 12 strikes, no runs. Having seen a lot of the lefty last year, I can tell you that was a very Blankenship-like outing. He fell behind the first four hitters but got two out, then retired Jordan Tripp on a harmless fly ball to right.

-You don’t see this often: catcher Beau Taylor assisted three of Vermont’s first five outs – two whiffs were put out 2-3 and Muren’s CS.

-For the third straight game, Vermont’s starter went up there in pitches – J.C. Menna threw 87, which would be on the high side for an August game and is certainly a lot for an Opening Weekend contest at this level.

-If the people I met and worked with this weekend are any indication, the Oakland A’s are a classy organization, and the NY-Penn League is lucky to have them.

-13,965 fans turned out to “The Joe” this weekend, putting us ahead of last year’s record-setting pace despite some bad weather on Friday. Thanks to everybody who came to the ballpark, and we’ll see you later this week!

Stubby on his first weekend at Joe Bruno Stadium: “It was fun. I love being here, and I know the guys love being here.”

Kevin Whitaker

2011 Roster released

Today’s big news was the announcement the 2011 ValleyCats roster. Here’s the press release, and the full list of players.

The construction of the roster is a bit different than last year’s. In 2010, the only American-born players with experience in the Houston organization had played in Tri-City the previous year. This year, five American players join the team after spending last season in Greeneville (or, in one case, the Gulf Coast League). They come largely at the expense of international players – whereas 11 foreign-born players suited up on Opening Day a year ago, only six are on this year’s roster.

The two youngest members of the team will be two of the most interesting pitchers to watch. Fifth-round draft pick Nick Tropeano and Venezuelan righty Juri Perez are the only 20-year-olds on the roster, and each currently seems likely to claim a spot in the starting rotation. Perez is not a prototypical pitching prospect, standing at just 5’11”, but 60 strikeouts in 51.2 innings as an 18-year-old at Greeneville in 2009 earned some attention. Perez missed most of 2010 due to Tommy John surgery, so it remains to be seen whether or not he can come back at full strength. Tropeano also does not fit the standard model – his fastball tops out around 90 mph from the right side – but he has excelled at Stony Brook and the Cape Cod League, thanks to advanced secondary pitches and command that could serve him well in the NY-Penn League.

Sixth-round pick Brandon Meredith headlines a group of experienced position players that includes just one foreign-born, infielder Hector Rodriguez. Meredith and first baseman Zach Johnson had two of the better bats in college, while tall center fielder Andrew Muren was throwing darts to home plate last night. Outfielder Kellen Killsgard, formerly a two-sport athlete at Stanford and once one of the nation’s top QB recruits, returns to action after missing the 2010 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

I was a little surprised that reliever Travis Blankenship was assigned to Tri-City for a second season. Blankenship posted the second-lowest ERA for the ValleyCats last year in 30.2 innings of relief, and while he certainly doesn’t have the most powerful stuff, I’ve always thought he profiled well as a situational lefty – he throws from a low arm slot and relies heavily on offspeed stuff that breaks to the glove side. He had some command problems last season, but hitters did not make good contact off him, and I would have expected him to get a shot to test himself against tougher hitters. He could be one of the first players to be called up from Troy if an opening appears in the Lexington bullpen.

Joan Belliard and Adam Champion join Blankenship as returning players to the Tri-City pitching staff. Belliard always felt like a shaky option in relief – five homers in 36.1 innings will do that – but his performance was actually strong – a 3.72 ERA and a strikeout per inning. Though he had a rough July, allowing at least one run in every appearance, he gave up just two runs (one earned) in 17.2 innings in all other games. Belliard logged more innings than any other Tri-City reliever in 2010, just as he did at Greeneville in 2009.

Jacke Healey and Ryan McCurdy are the returning position players. McCurdy appears to be returning to a third-string catcher role behind Miles Hamblin and Bubby Williams, while Healey will see time as a powerful shortstop in a versatile infield.

Ebert Rosario, who will start his first full season on the mound, has taken the long road to Tri-City. Rosario was a third baseman in the Astros’ system for four and a half seasons but was converted to the bullpen in the middle of 2010. He struck out 12 batters against only two walks in 10.2 innings in the Gulf Coast League. Last year, the ValleyCats saw a similar project – converted shortstop Jorge De Leon – succeed in the bullpen. De Leon saved six games and led Tri-City with a 0.64 ERA; he is having success this year in Lexington, with seven saves, a 2.81 ERA and a reduced walk rate.

The ‘Cats arrived in Troy last night, and had their first workout at Joe Bruno Stadium. They will meet the press at Media Day tomorrow afternoon, and on Friday, the 78-game season begins against the Vermont Lake Monsters.

Fielding practice

Kevin Whitaker

Sweeps Notebook

The ValleyCats pretty much knocked Connecticut out of the playoff race, taking all four games from the Tigers in a one-week span. Even after defeating Vermont last night to pull within two games, Connecticut’s odds of reaching the playoffs are still in the 2-3% range. Usually, I find claims of “must-win” games this far out to be hyperbole, but Connecticut probably can’t make the playoffs unless it takes the next two to sweep the Lake Monsters.

Bobby Doran was coming off five spectacular outings (29 IP, 5 ER combined), but didn’t have his best stuff on Tuesday. He uncharacteristically left his fastball up and in hittable places often. Back when he was throwing low-90s early in the year, he might have been able to get away with that command, but last night he was 87-89 (and lower for the first couple batters, though that could have been a radar gun issue) and gave up nine hits. Three doubles in the fourth inning led to two runs, tying the game at 3-3.

Doran went to his curveball often and early in counts, getting a pair of strikeouts on hooks in the third inning. As usual, Doran didn’t walk anybody; he has allowed only seven unintentional free passes this year, for the second-best walk rate in the league (behind only teammate Carlos Quevedo).

Second baseman Alex Nunez made a pair of terrific plays in the early innings. He robbed Ben Orloff of a base hit, diving fully extended to his left and just barely snaring a grounder. He also made a great play coming in on a grounder off the pitcher’s foot making a quick throw while falling to get Mike Kvasnicka on a bang-bang play.

Dan Adamson continued to demonstrate his ridiculous power, getting a 1-2 curveball in the first inning and absolutely crushing it to left field. The blast landed right underneath the scoreboard, some 410 feet from home plate.

Travis Blankenship came on for Doran in the fifth with two outs and two runners in scoring position, and needed just one pitch to get out of the jam. Blankenship fanned lefty Eric Roof in the next inning with three curveballs away and continues to look very strong out of the bullpen.

Scary moment in the fifth: Austin Wates was hit on the right wrist by a 3-2 pitch by Josue Carreno. Wates went down quickly and stayed there for a couple minutes, eventually leaving the game. Things worked out pretty well, however. Pinch-runner Wilton Infante stole second and eventually scored on an infield single by birthday boy Kik&eacute Hernandez, while X-rays on Wates were negative.

Wates, who has a reputation as a terrific hitter, has been performing as advertised since joining the ValleyCats. We watched his first round of BP and it was not pretty – he was slicing balls around the cage, nearly hitting the visitors’ clubhouse a few times, and only squared up one or two well – but he needed no time to adjust, getting five hits in ten at-bats before leaving Tuesday’s game. He sat last night and I don’t know when he will rejoin the lineup, but this does not look like a serious setback.

Carreno came out after the fifth inning and had already thrown 90 pitches. I believe that’s the most we’ve seen from a starter at JBS this year.

Blankenship wasn’t the only reliever to have success on Tuesday. Brandt Walker wasn’t throwing quite as hard as usual – 92-93 instead of 95-ish – but got three strikeouts in 1.2 perfect innings. Meanwhile, Alex Sogard was consistently throwing 92 mph, as hard as I’ve seen all year. Sogard fanned the first four hitters he faced and then got four ground balls; two went through the left side for hits, but the next one was a tailor-made double play ball to escape the 10th.

The ValleyCats stranded seven runners between the 7th and 9th innings, any of which would have won the game. They loaded the bases in the ninth on a two-out rally that did not involve a hit; Ramon Lebron, consistently at 95-96 mph, walked Kik&eacute to load the bases but got Adamson to swing through a fastball up in the zone to force extras. Lebron struck out the side in the tenth inning and got two quick outs in the eleventh. But a walk to Ben Orloff sparked another two-out rally that again did not involve a hit; Hernandez reached base on a throwing error by shortstop Brett Anderson, and Burnett’s grounder went off Anderson’s glove into left field (his fourth error of the game) to bring home Orloff with the winning run.

Kevin Whitaker

All-Star Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photobucket

Kevin Whitaker

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

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:

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

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Ben Orloff signs an autograph for a lucky fan:

Orloff autograph

Things got kind of cramped in the small dugouts:

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

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Kvasnicka at bat:

Kvasnicka batting

Buck Afenir is congratulated after his game-tying double:

Afenir celebration

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The Tigers celebrate the walk-off victory:

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Doubleday Field

Kevin Whitaker

Game 1 and VCN Behind the Scenes

Well, yesterday’s season opener was great: we got a 4-3 thriller, capped by a walk-off double off the bat of Oscar Figueroa. The game moved along quickly (2:30), it was close and exciting the whole way, and we had a sellout crowd of 5,370.

You can read my gamer here. After sleeping on it for a night, I’m wondering if I kinda buried most important story: the ValleyCats’ pitching performance. Pitching is usually ahead of hitting at the beginning of the season, but the Tri-City stat line from yesterday was ridiculous: 15 strikeouts, 0 walks.

Honestly, the walk-off victory is great for fans and for those of us who cover the game, but given how each team played, yesterday’s game shouldn’t have been that close. Connecticut only got seven runners on base and managed to bring home three of them – teams aren’t usually that efficient at driving runners in. The ValleyCats, on the other hand, smacked 12 hits and added a walk, but only got four runs out of it. If both teams hit as well today as they did yesterday, I’d expect something more like a 5-2 ‘Cats win.

And even those seven baserunners understate the pitching performance yesterday. Enos’s first double was a lazy, 300-foot fly ball that just happened to land right on the line, where Bailey couldn’t get to it. If that ball goes in pretty much any other direction, it’s an easy out. His second one was struck much better, but even that one hung up in the air for a very long time; if Infante’s playing a step or two farther back (and he was positioned very shallow for most of the game), he runs that one down too. Stanley got his glove on two more hits – if he’s another step to the line or even leaning that way, he probably makes those plays. Connecticut really only had two or three clean, no-doubt hits.

Carlos Quevedo’s stuff was absolutely electric. The top of Connecticut’s order couldn’t touch anything he had – they were swinging through high fastballs all night. His approach is dangerous, as working up in the zone results in fly balls that can become extra-base hits – like Enos’s two moonshots – or eventually homers, but it sure worked last night. He only lasted 4.1 innings – presumably, he was on a 70-ish pitch count (69 when he came out), as he was still effective, coming off a strikeout and just about to face three batters who he had fanned twice apiece – but that’s a great sign for the ValleyCats looking forward. Blazek will be on very low pitch counts and we probably won’t see him for more than an inning at a time as he returns from surgery, but he’ll be a great asset in the bullpen. And for three other relievers to come in and be practially untouchable – th eonly hit after the sixth was a line-drive double off Blankenship – is a great sign for Tri-City.

We at the ValleyCats Network felt that our opening day went about as well as the players’.  The production was very smooth, and the fans seemed to enjoy our show.  Here are some behind-the-scenes photos of VCN’s opening night:

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Chris, Evan and Gino work on setting up the live broadcast

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Jason and Elliot in the production room

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Elliot gets some video during batting practice

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Jason hard at work before the game…

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…controlling what shows up on this.

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Evan starts his pregame radio show

And a few more random pictures from the night:
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Kevin Whitaker

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