Saturday, September 3, 2011

Post-game pop-ups: PawSox 12, Yankees 7

Swift summation
Ryan Lavarnway had failed to put a ball into play over his first four plate-appearances Saturday night. The PawSox as a whole had failed to break a single Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees reliever all night.

That all changed in the bottom of the eighth when the breakthrough catcher/DH homered to left field, instantaneously morphing a 7-5 deficit into an 8-7 lead.

Subsequent two-out, two-RBI hits by Jose Iglesias and Joey Gathright, who had filled in for Drew Sutton as a pinch-runner in the exact same inning, raised the upper hand to 12-7.

Veteran Randy Williams turned that to stone with an elusive 1-2-3 inning in the ninth, striking out Jorge Vazquez to shut the door on the team’s first International League North Division title since 2003.

This game was one that Peter Gammons likely would have described as “won and lost a dozen times” the same way he famously did when he chronicled Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. The PawSox took both of their leads in bunches, bookending an excruciating interlude of aridness.

It didn’t take time for Tony Pena, Jr. and his offensive colleagues to set the tone in their rematch with Scranton starter Manny Banuelos, who shut the PawSox out five days prior on one hit and four baserunners.

For the second consecutive night, the Sox let the Pinstripes nab a 1-0 edge in the top of the first, only to surmount that deficit in the bottom half. Mike Lamb homered to right for the game’s first run, but Banuelos let a multitude of walks haunt him without hesitation when he took to the mound.

With two men on the corners and two out, Daniel Nava blooped Pawtucket’s first hit in the form of a single to center to score Sutton and draw a 1-1 knot.

After Hector Luna drew a full-count walk, recent call-up Will Middlebrooks busted that tie with his first dinger at the Triple-A level. He lobbed the team’s seventh grand slam of the season to the bullpen in right field for a 5-1 lead.

Banuelos was no better in the second inning. He once again loaded the bases on a two-out walk, at which point he was forked out in favor of George Kontos. His line for the night contained five walks, five earned runs and five hits with only 26 of 57 pitches going for strikes in 1.2 stanzas.

Pena involuntarily emulated Banuelos in the third, allowing back-to-back singles and hitting Lamb to load the bases with no outs. In turn, Jorge Vazquez and Austin Romine hit into back-to-back fielder’s choices to score Kevin Russo and Ramiro Pena, respectively, and saw the four-run difference to 5-3.

Kontos allowed no hits through his first 2.1 innings, but the PawSox squandered three walks and a hit-batsman to strand two apiece in the third and fourth. Meanwhile, in the fifth, Kevin Russo whittled Pawtucket’s lead down to 5-4 when he led off with a single, stole second and hustled home on Ramiro Pena’s single.

In the sixth, Doug Bernier thrust reliever Junichi Tazawa’s payoff pitch down the right field line for a double to score Jordan Parraz and Golson and usurp a 6-5 lead. Parraz added a swift dose of insurance in the eighth, leading off with a triple off the left-center wall and scoring on Golson’s subsequent single to shallow left.

But after six scoreless innings, the Sox reprised their fruitful first inning, batting around and wresting away a substantial lead.

PawSox pluses
Luis Exposito, who has not seen much action of late, had a solid night on the offensive front. Facing a different pitcher in each plate-appearance, he logged a single in the first, a leadoff double in the fifth and a four-pitch walk in the seventh.

Luna walked three times and, despite stranding four teammates between two other at-bats, put all of the salsa he could on the ball. As Kontos’ first challenger in the second with the bases loaded, he barely missed serving up seconds of salami as Golson caught his fly on the left-center warning track. He flied out to the same player in the same position with Anderson on third to end the sixth. If that weren’t the third out, Anderson doubtlessly would have tagged for an easy equalizer.

When the getting was tough for the offense, Lars Anderson pilfered an extra-base hit off of stingy Scranton reliever Hector Noesi in the sixth and cashed in on a passed ball to reach third base. In the eighth, feeding off of Lavarnway’s decisive homer, the cleanup man started up the second ripple of the inning with a single.

One day after coming off the disabled list, Royce Ring earned his first winning decision with the PawSox, needing only 11 pitches to put out Trever Miller’s fire in the eighth.

Sox stains
Considering he had allowed only two runs while receiving no offensive support whatsoever in each of two previous bouts with the Yankees, one would think Pena’s performance would have conveyed more appreciation than it did Saturday.

Not so. Pena alternated between shoddy and shiny innings, with the former outnumbering the latter by one. His final line for the night included four earned runs on six hits, along with a wild pitch, in five innings. Tazawa may have dropped Pena’s shot at a winning decision, but the starter hardly handed things over to him so smoothly.

Immediately after Russo cut the deficit down to 5-4, Luna committed a cardiac error that let Mike Lamb on board with still nobody out in the fifth.

Unlike Luna, the way Sutton let prospective RBIs evaporate was more reprehensible. He grounded to second to strand two in the third and stranded Exposito in scoring position in the sixth, so soon after the Yankees had pulled ahead.

Yankees notes
Russo and Parraz each picked up two hits and two runs-scored. Russo also struck out once against three different PawSox pitchers.

Two different Scranton relievers threw a wild pitch in the eight. First, Eric Wordekemper let Che-Hsuan Lin take third base after the leadoff man had been hit and stole second. Four plays later (and with still no outs) Kevin Whelan let Anderson and Nava both reach scoring position before walking Luna to load the bases.

Whalen struck out three batters in his lone inning of work, but was also charged with a costly five runs on five hits.

Noesi and Wordekemper were both credited with a hold. Both Pawtucket’s Tazawa and Scranton’s Whelan were tagged with a blown save.

Sunday’s game versus Rochester will be the season finale for Cox Sports Television.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Sutton’s second chance for championship imminent

Between various injuries and promotions to the parent Boston Red Sox, infielder Drew Sutton has all but reduced his 2011 game log with the PawSox to a sprinkling of cameos.

Reactivated for Friday’s 4-3 win over the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, Sutton put in his first appearance at either level in nearly four weeks after sitting on the disabled list with a right finger contusion.

When he approached the plate as Pawtucket’s designated hitter, he had officially played only his sixth game at the Triple-A level in a span of four calendar months, dating all the way back to May 15.

But in the midst of helping the PawSox shrivel their magic number to clinch the International League North from two to one, Sutton showed that he can consistently contribute, no matter how consistently he is available.

The No.-2 slotted Sutton grounded out in his first at-bat since August 4, but then walked in the third inning and scored all the way from first ahead of Ryan Lavarnway’s double to grant Pawtucket a 3-1 edge. He later singled in the fifth, ultimately finishing the night 1-for-3 with a run-scored.

Since May 15, Sutton has now hit safely in nine of his last 10 games with the PawSox, going 11-for-31 overall in that span. He began and ended Friday night’s outing with a .306 batting average, which still leads all active Pawtucket batters.

Perhaps even more tellingly, Sutton’s last 10 games at the Triple-A level have included eight battles with reckonable playoff contenders. Friday night and May 15 were both against a Scranton team that was only recently evaporated from the playoff picture.

Elsewhere, Sutton went 3-for-7 over three games and hit his most recent PawSox home run against the I.L.-best Columbus Clippers in May. Between June and July, he sandwiched a call-up to Boston with three games against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, hitting once in all three to go a respectable 3-for-10 overall.

And now, with one more win for the PawSox or one more Lehigh Valley loss, Sutton can look forward to his second consecutive trip to the I.L. playoffs. And, although his recent injury might hamper this, there is still the chance of another promotion to Boston, where he has accumulated 17 hits in 54 at-bats over 31 games-played.

Either way, he should have at least one, if not two chances to challenge for a postseason championship, something that a Pyrrhic sort of twist barely denied him last year.

Sutton began the 2010 season with Cincinnati, spending the better part of the year with the Louisville Bats. He was a late-season acquisition by the in-state rival Cleveland Indians and wound up finishing the minor-league campaign with the Columbus Clippers.

The Clippers entered the postseason as the wild-card entry and faced the North champion Yankees in the opening round. Sutton hit safely once in each of four games, going 6-for-18 overall with two runs-scored and three RBIs in the clinching game as Columbus pulled a 3-1 upset in the best-of-five series.

He was subsequently promoted to the parent Indians, where he saw action in 11 Major League games while the Clippers moved on to face the top-dog Durham Bulls in the Governor’s Cup championship.

The tradeoff Sutton made was playing in The Show for a go-nowhere, 69-93 Cleveland team while missing out on the rest of the Clippers’ fulfilling playoff run. Columbus ran down the Bulls in four games for the I.L. pennant, and then beat the Tacoma Rainiers, 12-6, in the Triple-A National Championship game.

That had to sting somewhat, no matter how much of Sutton may divulge. But this weekend practically constitutes Take 2 in the title department.

In this Saturday’s bout, Sutton can pick up where he left off by helping the PawSox to another win over the Jr. Pinstripes, one that would seal up their playoff bid and home-field advantage for at least the first round.

From there, the prospect of confronting the reigning champion Clippers in the I.L. title round remains a possibility. Think Sutton wouldn’t at least have to struggle to conceal his human giddiness at the idea of usurping the crown from the very organization that won it without him?

And from there, or even earlier, he could get one more call-up to a team that continues to jockey for the American League East title and juggernaut its way to another Commissioner’s Trophy.

Post-game pop-ups: PawSox 4, Yankees 3

Swift summation
As they pushed themselves to the precipice of a playoff passport, nearly all of the most leaned-on members of the PawSox active roster did something to show they are ready for higher-stakes hardball.

Matt Fox was credited with a team-leading 10th win of the season in a 4-3 triumph over the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees on Friday. His offensive colleagues held up their end of the bargain as the top six constituents of the batting order pitched in at least one hit, one run-scored, one RBI or a variety pack.

The PawSox, who once upon a time were consistently out of first place from April 19 to August 8, can now wrap up their first divisional crown since 2003 with another win or Lehigh Valley loss on Saturday.

Fox entered the game with a 3-0 record against Scranton. He was riding an identical 3-0 winning streak, wherein he had allowed no more than two hits per night and one run altogether in a span of 20 innings-pitched.

Before PawSox leadoff man Che-Hsuan Lin had his first turn at bat on Friday, Fox’s tab already had a run and two extra-base hits on it. Kevin Russo led off with a home run, belting a payoff pitch over the left-center wall. Two plays later, Mike Lamb doubled to the same location.

Fox ultimately maxed out his virtual pitch limit (92) after an even five innings, but did not allow any further damage in the run column.

Lars Anderson quickly recompensed Fox’s only run in the bottom half of the first, doubling Lin home from second whilst nudging Ryan Lavarnway to third. In turn, Lavarnway scored on Daniel Nava’s sacrifice grounder for a 2-1 lead.

Lavarnway raised the upper hand to 3-1 in the third inning. With Drew Sutton aboard with a one-out walk, Lavarnway doubled to deep center, scoring Sutton directly from first base.

Hector Luna homered in the sixth to augment the lead to 4-1.

The Yankees pulled back to within a run in the eighth on PawSox reliever Scott Atchison’s watch. Atchison inherited a runner in Lamb from Tommy Hottovy with one out and allowed three singles out of four challengers.

First, Jorge Vazquez placed himself and Lamb on the corners. Lamb scored on Jordan Parraz’s two-out deposit in right-center and Vazquez hustled home from second ahead of Raymond Kruml’s base hit to shallow center.

Lin alertly retrieved the remnants of Kruml’s connection to throw Parraz out at third to salvage the 4-3 lead.

And in the ninth, Atchison shut the door by striking out Greg Golson, walking Doug Bernier, then getting Russo to ground into a game-ending 4-6-3 double-play.

PawSox pluses
As Fox’s first reliever, Hideki Okajima briefly juggled with torches but got through unscathed in the most assertive fashion. With one out and two men on board, he struck out Jordan Parraz and Raymond Kruml back-to-back, thus preserving what was then a 3-1 lead and extending his shutout streak to four relief appearances and eight full innings.

Okajima was the only one of four PawSox pitchers not to allow a run on Friday.

Anderson and Luna each had a multi-hit game and also did their part on the right side of the infield. Anderson carried out an unassisted double-play and collaborated with the second baseman Luna on two others.

Sox stains
Granted, Lavarnway had a fairly irreproachable night on both sides of the plate, but there were a few plays that could have gone better. In the second, the catcher was charged with his first Triple-A error when he failed to foil Golson’s stealing attempt, ultimately allowing the Scranton centerfielder to take another bag at third.

In the bottom of the third, one play after he had batted in Pawtucket’s third run, Lavarnway paid for lack of patience as he was thrown out by left fielder Raymond Kruml while trying to score from second on Anderson’s base hit.

Similarly, for all he did, Anderson could have done much more. But in the seventh, at which point he was batting 2-for-3 and had the bases loaded, he worked up a 3-0 count, only to ground into an inning-ending double play.

Offensively speaking, Will Middlebrooks is still not exactly acclimated to the Triple-A level. He struck out three times, including looking at an 0-2 pitch in the eighth with Nava and Luna on board.

Yankees notes
In relief of starter Adam Warren, Andrew Brackman and Logan Kensing pitched one inning apiece and combined for five walks, but each allowed no runs and no hits.

Golson and Kruml stole a bag in the second and fourth, respectively, while Bernier took a free pass to second in the second on Fox’s wild pitch. But in the fifth, Russo was caught in his attempt to swipe a spot in scoring position as Lavarnway collaborated with PawSox shortstop Jose Iglesias.

The No. 9-slotted Bernier had only one official at-bat as he drew three walks, one apiece against Fox, Hottovy and Atchison.

Joey Gathright, acquired and assigned by Boston on Thursday, began his second stint with the PawSox when he replaced Nate Spears in right field to commence the eighth inning. In his first at-bat in the bottom half, he ran quickly enough to avert a double play and thus place himself and Nava at the corners with two out.

Tony Pena, Jr. can join Fox as Pawtucket’s only two 10-game winners this season as he figures to toe the rubber on Saturday.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

PawSox commentary: This playoff picture will not take a straight shape

The International League has four-plus days left in a compelling playoff race still featuring four teams with a shot at grabbing one of three available spots.

Unfortunately, a stingy system with a nasty habit of precluding makeup games after a rainout presages a finish to a race without grace. No matter who (Pawtucket, Lehigh Valley, Durham, Gwinnett) comes out with what (division title, wild card, diddlysquat), there will be cause for complaint because at least two horses will not have run the full length of the track.

The Sox were one of 14 I.L. teams who started the 2011 season anticipating 144 games ahead. They are now one of many who will have played fewer than that because one or more rainouts could not be made up.

As it stands right now, the PawSox are steadily maintaining a two-game edge on the suddenly floundering IronPigs. If that were to hold up through sundown on Labor Day, then Pawtucket will have won the I.L. North by a virtual margin of two games and after having played two games fewer than Lehigh Valley.

And that would be just enough cause for griping in Allentown. Logically, in any kind of playoff push in any sport, all teams that are still trying to reach a certain position have the comfort in knowing that they still have games to work with.

By the same token, whoever is holding a coveted spot in the standings needs to remember that they still have an opportunity to mess up their own cause.

In a just world, the PawSox would currently have two games in hand on their immediate trailers with the long weekend short-stacks against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Rochester, followed by a makeup with Norfolk and Buffalo.

Accordingly, they would have two extra chances to squander their brittle lead in the division. They might make good to salvage their lead, they might not. But either way, fair is fair.

On the flip side, there is still time for both parties to switch positions over their remaining four games. The Sox have not cemented anything yet. So what happens if they crash and burn out of the playoff picture after having played two fewer games than the tournament-bound IronPigs?

Well, then you’re looking at a legitimate uproar from the McCoy masses. In the event of a hypothetical collapse that has the PawSox finishing one or two games out of the division and wild card, that too will be impossible to swallow.

After all, barring anymore washouts across the slate, Pawtucket is looking at a 142-game schedule for this year while Lehigh Valley and Gwinnett will have each maxed out its 144-game allotment. Why then, shouldn’t the PawSox have had an equal opportunity to prove themselves worthy of a postseason passport?

Yes, it’s impractical to supplement rainouts at this level compared to the Major Leagues, where the regal travel budget grants easier and more abundant make-up opportunities.

But still, there ought to be ways to guarantee a perfectly fair pennant race even in the bus leagues. There ought to be ways to assertively stave off the “due to circumstances beyond our control” and “sorry for the inconvenience” statement that threatens to hit Lehigh Valley and its fan base and could still pound Pawtucket into anguish.

Two prospective solutions would be to either begin or end the season a week later, but the parent clubs would not spring for that. They don’t want to wait any longer to set their own Opening Day rosters or to commence September call-ups.

A slightly more realistic, but still not necessarily savory, option is trimming down the regular-season schedule to, say, 136 games.

One week’s worth of games with a remainder of one would likely make no uproarious difference to the men in uniform. But from a business standpoint, convincing any minor-league front office to sacrifice four openings at their park is like persuading a billionaire Republican to pay 0.5 percent more in taxes.

Then again, it’s not as if you don’t need a certain degree of good fortune to ensure you get those 72 dates in. Only half of the I.L. populace still has a chance to reach 144 games this season.

Meanwhile, Rochester and Syracuse have already permanently sacrificed four games and could still lose more over the weekend. All four of the Chiefs cancellations would have been home games, two versus Durham May 15-16 and a pair with Scranton Aug. 14-15.

Translation: The Jr. Pinstripes were also forced to concede two of their games and effectively ran out of chances to stay in the pennant race earlier than they should have. Meanwhile, the I.L. South-leading Bulls are in the exact same position as the PawSox, looking at the prospect of finishing a tight race ahead of the G-Braves, who will have played two more games than Durham.

So in the end, nobody’s happy except for those who luck out. And something will have to give if the I.L. wants all future pennant races to be mathematically fair and square.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

PawSox should have a second wind after storm leaves region

Their active three-game winning streak is a sufficient redress on its own after the PawSox previously dropped four out of five bouts with the sinking Syracuse Chiefs. That recovery alone gave them the right to proclaim themselves a whole new team as they restored their regal position in the competitive International League North.

But there’s more to come in that department. In a disguised blessing, the threat of Hurricane Irene has granted the Sox two days off this weekend.

Naturally, one wishes the outside circumstances could have been less frightful. But for any Triple-A team, let alone one that is in the final phases of a playoff race, two straight off-days is akin to a hospital-ridden child actually seeing a wary promise fulfilled when his Major League idol belts two dingers in a single game.

When play resumes throughout the northeastern U.S. on Monday, the Sox will again be a new team for the better. They will utilize as many as four vital additions or returns to the team roster, two of whom had been out of service since before the team hit the road last Wednesday.

Before Friday’s twin killing of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, Pawtucket reactivated key pitcher Matt Fox from the disabled list. In part due to his being shelved for the previous 12 days and in part due to the seven-inning length of Game 1, Fox lasted a mere 5.0 frames on Friday. But logic says he should enter his next start in that much better condition and raring to build upon a three-game winning streak and 15-inning shutout run.

As another added bonus, veteran outfielder J.D. Drew is primed to commence his rehab stint at the Triple-A level in the coming week.

On top of that, the parent Boston Red Sox exchanged Scott Atchison for Michael Bowden in a recall/reassignment and generously handed back catcher/DH Ryan Lavarnway on Saturday.

Despite starting the current month at an abysmal 5-for-44 with 13 strikeouts, Lavarnway moved up to The Show for a little more than a week and appeared in seven games. During that stint with the BoSox, the aggressive slugger whiffed another six times, but also batted a respectable 7-for-23 with three runs-scored, three batted in and four walks.

Paradoxically, the elevation might prove to be what the once-otherworldly breakthrough needs to pilot the PawSox through the final week of the regular season and beyond.

And at this hour, the “beyond” appendage has been painted thoroughly on the wall and merely needs a moment to dry. Only an unforeseen, thoroughly metaphorical type of wind-and-water storm can ruin the picture at this point.

With Friday’s doubleheader sweep, the first-place PawSox are 7.5 games ahead of the Yankees with eight games left on each team’s schedule. That final push for both teams begins on Monday with another doubleheader at PNC Field. And it will have the luxury of one more off-day Sept. 1 sandwiched by four games apiece.

One more win for Pawtucket means Scranton will no longer be a bother in the race for the Northern Division laurel. Another sweep on Monday would simultaneously rule the Junior Pinstripes out of the playoff derby altogether and bring the PawSox to within at least tasting distance of their own spot.

Entering their Sunday afternoon affair with Norfolk, the Gwinnett Braves were precisely three games behind Pawtucket on the I.L.’s entire 14-team leaderboard. So long as the Sox keep winning, they will enter next weekend’s season-ending four-game homestand with at least a 2.5-game edge over the G-Braves.

And only the Yankees and Braves need to be formally dumped out of the equation before the four presumptive candidates stamp their playoff passports. For Gwinnett, that could happen as early as Wednesday if they do not keep a sufficient pace behind Durham in their division and/or Lehigh Valley in the wild card.

Realistically speaking, if not yet technically or mathematically, the Yanks are already as good as done. But for the Sox faithful, taking responsibility for the knockout punch would bring about a free sample of satisfaction given that Scranton terminated Pawtucket’s previous playoff run in the first round of the 2008 I.L. tournament.

That sentimental aspect will not have much bearing on the men in uniform, seeing as the third base clubhouse McCoy Stadium does not have any holdover from so much as two, let alone three years ago.

But come what may, the perennially noncommittal first-year skipper Arnie Beyeler is running out of time to excuse himself from discussing the playoffs. The present 10-day forecast on the I.L.’s Diamond Doppler calls for a high-stakes date with the rival IronPigs after Labor Day.