Saturday, August 13, 2011

Starting Nine: PawSox-Braves pregame tidbits

1. Upon taking the mound at Coolray Field Saturday evening, Kyle Weiland will seek his first winning decision at any level since he and the PawSox surpassed the host Rochester Red Wings, 6-3, on Independence Day. Since then, Weiland has endured a cumulative two losses and three no-decisions between a two-start promotion to Boston and his return to Triple-A late last month.

2. Weiland previously lost to Gwinnett, 2-0, on May 11. His line that evening consisted of 6.0 innings-pitched, two hits, two earned-runs, four walks and a strikeout. A third-inning walk, a double and a single in unanswered succession proved the fatal blemish for Pawtucket.

3. Weiland enters this start with a team-best 3.23 ERA, also good for No. 8 on the International League leaderboard. His Gwinnett counterpart, Todd Redmond, is No. 3 under that heading with a 2.91 average. Weiland and Redmond are also two of only seven I.L. hurlers with at least 110 strikeouts on the year.

4. Somewhat eclipsed by Che-Hsuan Lin and the rest of the eleventh-hour, ninth-inning offense Friday night was the way reliever Jason Rice earned credit for his third win in a span of 11 days. Although he finished his night with a newfangled 3-2 deficit glowering upon his team, Rice retired seven of 10 challengers in 2.1 innings-pitched. In addition, he charged up three strikeouts for the second time in as many relief outings.

5. Lin will seek to build upon his Friday night heroics and continue to thaw out the recently chilled, somewhat idled bat of his. Lin’s game-winning single amounted to his first RBI since July 28, ending a drought in that department that spanned 41 straight at-bats and 55 plate-appearances (14 walks). Lin has hit safely once in each of his last three games and in four of his last six.

6. Other aspiring streak-stokers include Lars Anderson, who has hit in each of his last nine games-played and Hector Luna, whose 4-4 performance on Friday prolonged a five-game streak.

7. Conversely, Ryan Lavarnway is vying to unshackle his fetters. After whiffing twice and going 0-for-5 in his first encounter with Gwinnett’s stingy pitching staff, the once-otherworldly slugger is suddenly batting 4-for-29 with nine strikeouts in the month of August.

8. Similarly, Brett Carroll has just rounded out his first week in Pawtucket’s clubhouse, seeing action in seven games. He made a sound first impression with a walkoff hit in his first outing and went a respectable 4-for-13 over his first three games. But since then, he has gone 0-for-12 with one RBI by virtue of a sacrifice at Charlotte Thursday night.

9. Outfielder Ronald Bermudez, demoted to Double-A Portland primarily to make room for Ryan Kalish, is hitting 5-for-12 as of three starts with the SeaDogs. He had his first hitless outing on Friday versus Erie, going 0-for-3, but did reach base by drawing a walk.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

First-place PawSox hope to pilfer more from stingy G-Braves pitching

Shortly after this Friday’s national anthem at Coolray Field, Gwinnett’s Julio Teheran will all but pick up the PawSox-Braves season series from where it left off at McCoy Stadium. In the finale of a four-game set on May 12, the ace threw an impressive 120 pitches over 7.2 innings and allowed a mere two runs on three hits.

The long-since-promoted Josh Reddick accounted for Pawtucket’s only hit off Teheran after their two-run second inning that evening and the Sox ultimately fell from ahead en route to a 4-2, 15-inning loss.

Teheran presently leads the International League with 12 wins and a 2.16 ERA over 20 starts. In his most recent outing on Sunday, Teheran sustained only his second losing decision in a 7-4 setback versus Charlotte. He had won each of his previous eight decisions dating back to early June.

Gwinnett’s Saturday starter, Todd Redmond, also figures to exercise some durability. He is one of only five men in the league to have thrown multiple complete games in 2011. That’s two more complete games than anybody wearing Pawtucket attire has sealed this year.

If it’s any consolation to PawSox rooters, it should get technically and ostensibly easier from Friday onward as the I.L.’s two best overall pitching staffs engage in a four-game set bearing dense wild card and playoff implications.

As a staff, the G-Braves and PawSox pitchers are Nos. 1 and 2 in terms of ERA at 3.11 and 3.58, respectively. They are the only teams yet to crack four figures on their hits tab, with Pawtucket allowing a league-low 935.

Individually speaking, Teheran and Redmond are first and third under the league ERA heading with Redmond permitting a mere 2.91 runs per nine innings. In addition, Teheran and Redmond are two of only 11 International League hurlers to have tossed at least 100 strikeouts on the year. Redmond has benched 111 challengers, Teheran 104.

But the PawSox themselves have a pair of representatives in that group, both of whom will have a turn engaging the Braves batting brigade this weekend. Kyle Weiland (110 strikeouts) will counter Redmond on Saturday while Matt Fox (106) is slated to toe the rubber Sunday afternoon.

For Pawtucket pitchers, this series combines an opportunity to kick a little dirt in the face of a fellow postseason racehorse while also getting even on the pitching landscape. Weiland endured a tough 2-0 losing decision May 11 at home, wasting nine strikeouts over six innings that saw Gwinnett mooch only two hits off of him.

On May 10, Fox did not factor into the decision as he was lifted with two away in the fifth after confining the Braves to one run on five hits. Friday’s schedule starter, Tony Pena, Jr., filled in for Fox and ultimately took the albatross as his lone earned run in 2.1 innings-pitched spelled the difference in a 5-1 loss.

The rest of the slated starters in this series―Pawtucket’s Brandon Duckworth (Monday) and Gwinnett’s Yohan Flande (Sunday) and Erik Cordier (Monday)―will each have their first look at their opposition this season.

Perhaps more intriguingly, though, a multitude of leaned-on PawSox hitters will arguably face their ultimate Triple-A measuring pole this weekend, especially against Teheran and Redmond.

Che-Hsuan Lin and Ryan Lavarnway were both in Portland when the G-Braves visited McCoy. The newly acquired Brett Carroll was still in the Pacific Coast League. And the newly-activated Ryan Kalish was three weeks removed from sustaining a shoulder and neck ailment that sidelined him until this road trip.

But if the PawSox can get the better of the G-Braves on both sides of the ball―i.e. enough to claim at least three out of four and thus square the season series―they could send the playoff hopes of both teams in inverse directions.

Thursday night’s 3-2 win at Charlotte nudged Pawtucket to a one-game lead over Lehigh Valley for first in the Northern Division.

Overall, the Sox are 1.5 games ahead of Gwinnett entering Friday’s confrontation. That means a series victory at Coolray Field would augment the differential to 3.5.

In that event, whether the PawSox are still tops in their division when they head home or if they are tied with the IronPigs for tops in the divisional and wild card leaderboard would matter just a little less.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

P-Bruins Commentary: How to enhance the atmosphere at The Dunk

Let’s be clear right off the draw. As a staff, the off-ice personnel at the Dunkin Donuts Center have to be doing something right in their efforts to make the Providence Bruins an enticing entertainment product.

How else could this team have seen an increase in average nightly attendance in each of the last two seasons, despite being back-to-back Calder Cup playoff no-shows? How else could the P-Bruins have steadily ascended the AHL’s attendance leaderboard even as the league has expanded the last three seasons?

On the whole, the experience of taking in a P-Bruins game is always worth the full price. That said, there is always room for improvement and even in winning causes, there are always magnets for critique. (Just as the parent club, who discharged Tomas Kaberle with little hesitation so soon after he partook in their run to the Stanley Cup this past spring.)

When it comes to building up the environment on game night at The Dunk, in this author’s view, there are four key strategies the P-Bruins must take up for improvement this coming season.

1. Straighten out the pregame introductions
Regulars at The Dunk are dared to do a comprehensive YouTube search of intro videos for other AHL teams and face a disheartening revelation. Apart from opening night, the P-Bruins are practically the only pro hockey team on the continent that does not rev up its fans for a game by darkening the building and flashing a highlight video.

To add insult to injury, you sometimes wonder if they’re even trying behind the scenes, especially when the players’ emergence for the first period coincides with the announcement of the starting lineup.

For the love of Charles F. Adams, get it together. These guys are one step away from The Show. Act like you give a sizzling slap shot and are actually interested in creating a professional atmosphere.

Get with the program and have a three-to-four minute music/highlight video immediately before anyone steps on the ice. Maybe emulate your Boston counterparts and have the video culminate with the Spoked-P destroying the visitor’s emblem and/or stock footage of a growling bear.

And then, either introduce the six starters before they step out or wait to carry out that task until everyone has come out and skated a few laps around their respective zones.

2. Make more use of the video screen
To a not-so-negligible extent, it’s good for a minor league team to just be its own team, even one who chose the nickname of their NHL affiliate specifically to woo local fans. In that respect, certain distinctions at The Dunk, such as playing “Rock and Roll Part II” for goals rather than the parent club’s “Kernkraft 400,” are best left alone.

That said, there is one key way the P-Bruins could Xerox the Garden HDX playbook and generate more entertainment and energy when the home team lights the lamp. Before the goal is replayed on the jumbo screen at center ice, there ought to be a stock clip of celebratory dancing.

For local flavor, try any number of reasonably tasteful Family Guy dance numbers. And, of course, you’ve got to bring out shots of retired traffic cop Tony Lepore once in a while.

3. Adopt an unofficial theme song
The most energized TV timeouts at TD Garden tend to be when “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” is broadcast over the PA system. Surely, the Baby Bs could find a specific tune to play once each game while the game is halted for a minute and a half and the ice-level crew shovels snow.

Yes, you are already pretty sure to hear Billy Idol’s rendition of “Mony Mony” and Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” at these points. But there has to be something newer, higher-tempo and just plain better for the game and this team.

Might this author suggest “Meant To Live” by Switchfoot? If played correctly, this song can have just enough time to run through its first verse and chorus, and then roll into the second verse. At that point, the recording can briefly stop after “Dreaming about…” and allow the crowd to shout the lyric “Providence!”

Then, if there’s time, top that off by letting Jon Foreman continue with “and wondering whether mice or men have second tries.” Then, if need be, top off the break with the evening’s umpteenth chant of “Let’s go Bruins.”

4. Give Sam Boni a more visible role
It’s been years since the P-Bruins mascot ever set foot on the ice surface prior to a game or during intermissions, a common occurrence during the team’s first decade-plus of existence.

More recently, Sam Boni has been inexplicably relegated to lingering around the concourse for most of the night, making cameo appearances in the seating area between periods. And apparently, the game day crew’s most logical plan to reach out to grade-school-aged fans in lieu of the mascot is to play the “SpongeBob Squarepants” theme late in the third period.

Come on. You’re better than that. Get your mascot off the pine and get back to stoking kids’ interests in the game the honest and relevant way.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Minus Millwood, a tougher road lies ahead for PawSox

Eight days after a near-export of cleanup hitter Lars Anderson threatened to complicate their hustle in the playoff derby, the PawSox reluctantly released prized pitcher Kevin Millwood Sunday morning.

With the abrupt exit of their eldest rostered player in the 2011 season, the rest of Arnie Beyeler’s pupils are left to prove they are big enough to make it against fellow International League playoff contenders, top dog pitching and bus legs. All of the aforementioned elements are a closer than merely on the horizon.

A member of the Red Sox organization for all of 67 days, each of them spent in Beyeler’s clubhouse, Millwood was granted his request to seek more fertile grounds as his odds of restoring his Major League presence in Boston were next to nonexistent. The traffic congestion all but hit its maximum limit when general manager Theo Epstein sought the services of Oakland hurler Rich Harden, for whom Anderson would have been compensation, then reeled in Erik Bedard from Seattle.

Of course, the dignified Major League veteran’s gain is nothing but Pawtucket’s loss in its ongoing drive to secure an International League playoff passport. At the time of Millwood’s departure, which preceded the rain-induced cancellation of Sunday’s home bout with Buffalo, the PawSox held a 1.5 game lead over Gwinnett for the wild card. Sunday’s rainout denied them an opportunity to pole-vault Lehigh Valley into first place in the Northern Division.

If not for the Sunday’s two slices of unwanted news for the McCoy Stadium masses, the Sox would have finished their series with the besieged Bisons and then ventured south for the next eight days. Millwood would have been taking the hill in Charlotte this Wednesday, vying to build upon his 5-1 record in 13 starts with Pawtucket.

Odds are he then would have started the finale of an all-important four-game visit to Gwinnett, the top development team of his old friends in Atlanta. The side story concerning Millwood’s reception at Coolray Field would have been mere sprinkles on the sundae as his latest squad engages the league’s best pitching staff and tries to pull farther away from the G-Braves on the wild-card leaderboard.

With Kyle Weiland’s start abolished on Sunday, the order of the PawSox rotation is all the more uncertain. Felix Doubront, who pitched a pair of 1-2-3 innings for Single-A Lowell on Saturday, should be returning to the equation in the near future.

But when Doubront is back, he is now merely filling the void left by Millwood rather than adding a welcome extra layer. In turn, Beyeler is all but deprived of the choice between keeping Tony Pena, Jr., Saturday night’s winner at McCoy, in a deep six-man rotation or returning him to the bullpen, where Pena is equally if not more effective.

The presumptive quintet of Weiland, Pena, Doubront, Matt Fox and another seasoned Major Leaguer in Brandon Duckworth should still be fairly irreproachable. They should still constitute one of the I.L.’s top pitching staffs and put forth an entertaining series against Gwinnett’s regal staff.

With that being said, one needn’t be much of a stats scholar to conclude that Millwood’s presence would have improved Pawtucket’s odds of earning a “great” rather than “good” pitching label when the final report cards come out around Labor Day. Pawtucket won each of his first 10 starts, helping him garner credit for five of those wins, and the two more recent losing causes ended in a one-run differential.

Furthermore, Millwood deserved better than the L-shaped albatross that inevitably fell upon his neck in what proved his penultimate PawSox game and his last decision. On the night that everyone thought Anderson was on his way to the opposite coast, Millwood struck out a season-high 10 challengers from the Louisville Bats.

And he could have left with two outs in the sixth inning and a 2-2 tie intact. But on the heels of two straight Ks, Millwood yielded three straight singles, the last of which constituted the go-ahead run. Beyeler had simply left him on the hill one or two batters too many and Millwood’s offensive mates were no help in stranding 10 baserunners on the night.

Regardless, in the coming two weeks, the PawSox will test their new post-Millwood pitching staff and their off-and-on offense, possibly bolstered by the signing of free agent Brett Carroll.

And by the looks of the slate, it could be a torture test.

After Charlotte, the likes of Carroll, Ryan Lavarnway and Che-Hsuan Lin, none of whom were with the team when the G-Braves visited McCoy in May, will face the ultimate barometer in Georgia.

And once that series and road trip is completed, the Sox will face the most taxing travel day back home. At nearly 900 miles, Gwinnett constitutes the most geographically distant opponent away from McCoy.

Less than 24 hours after the series finale at Coolray Field next Monday, the PawSox will have to make the hasty turnaround back home. Waiting for them to commence a four-game set will be none other than the Columbus Clippers, the runaway league-leaders with a 72-42 record entering Sunday’s action.