Last Friday, I made my annual trek to Sacramento for a River Cats game. I head up to Northern California once a year to see my friend Sean, and we used to go to San Francisco or Oakland for a game. With the new park and new team in Sacramento, we've been dropping by Raley Field for the last two years.
The River Cats were taking on the Dodgers' Quadruple-A affiliate, the Las Vegas 51s. OK, that's a cheap shot, but their roster reads like a list of NRIs for the last ten years: Scott Pose, Mike Kinkade, Chris Clapinski, and Mike Johnson started, while Jeff Branson and Ricky Bones made appearances. There are a couple of prospects on the team, like Chin-Feng Chen and Joe Thurston, along with some disappointments who have reached Triple-A–as much due to the Peter Principle as anything else–in Bubba Crosby and Luke Allen.
The River Cats had a few more guys worth watching, with top prospects Eric Byrnes, Esteban German, and Chad Harville on the roster. They too, though, had a lot of minor-league vets, particularly on the pitching staff.
All this illustrates something that's become increasingly true over the past 15 years: the real prospects play in Double-A. Triple-A has become a holding ground for major-league extras, an extension of 40-man rosters and disabled lists where MLB teams stick the excess bodies needed to get through a season. I would be interested to know if minor-league experts like John Sickels or Alan Schwarz have observed the same thing, and if they believe this has any impact on player development.
Anyway, even with a lot of familiar faces on the field, last Friday's game was most notable for a bizarre sixth- and seventh-inning sequence. Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the sixth, the River Cats' Rob Ryan hit a bomb down the right-field line, called fair for a home run. From my admittedly lousy angle, the ball looked foul, but it was definitely hit above the foul pole and a difficult call for first-base umpire Pat Riley. After some discussion with home-plate umpire Jimmy Horton, Riley upheld his call and the home run stood.
Seconds later, 51s starter Mike Johnson hit Carlos Mendez in the hip with a fastball. It was clearly intentional, a gesture of frustration over what he felt was a bad call, and wildly inappropriate. I though Johnson could have been ejected, but he wasn't, nor was there any warning given. Why you hit a batter in retaliation for an umpire's bad call remains unexplained.
In the top of the seventh, with the game still tied, River Cats reliever Frank Lankford threw his first pitch at the feet of 51s leadoff man Scott Pose, missing him. As with Johnson, I thought Lankford could have been ejected at this point, because there was no doubt about his intent. He threw his second pitch in the exact same spot, plunking Pose on the foot and finally getting tossed for his trouble.
Now, I understand that Lankford may not have been acting on his own, but how stupid is it to intentionally hit the leadoff man in the seventh inning of a tie ballgame? Isn't that sending the message that winning the game is less important than being macho? Whoever made this call blew it; Micah Bowie came in and allowed a walk and two singles, giving the 51s a 3-1 lead in what would be an eventual 5-1 win.
The River Cats didn't play real well. In addition to the meltdown in the seventh, they were charged with three errors (and should have had four, as Mike Kinkade was given a gift single on one Luis Lopez misplay). More worrisome was their decisionmaking at the plate–not just the two walks on the game, but some questionable swings that let the air out of a second inning rally.
With first and third and no one out in the second, Mike Johnson hit Luis Lopez with a pitch to load the bases. Rob Ryan stepped to the plate and swung at the first pitch, popping it to left field. Another soft fly ball later, Jose Flores worked the count to 3-0 with two outs and the bases still loaded, then swung at the 3-0 pitch, fouling out to first base. It was surprising to see an A's affiliate make such bad decisions at the plate, given how strongly they emphasize plate discipline in their player-development program.
- 51s second-base prospect Joe Thurston was being treated well by the fans. He attended Sacramento City College, being drafted out of there in the fourth round in 1999.
- Scoring a minor-league game isn't much easier than scoring a spring-training one. The 51s put on a full-fledged shift defensively in the sixth inning, one I was left to discern on my own. Additionally, scoring decisions (hit/error, wild pitch/passed ball) weren't announced.
- River Cats starter Aaron Harang threw five decent innings, but looked awkward. He's a big right-hander who lands on a stiff left leg, and seems to have a very short stride. I wouldn't be surprised to see him have knee, hip, or back problems in the near future.
There were two impressive double plays in the game. In the third inning, Luke Allen caught a fly ball by a rehabbing Jermaine Dye and gunned down Mike Warner at the plate. 51s catcher David Ross made a nifty swipe tag to complete the play.
Later, Carlos Mendez got the River Cats out of the seventh inning by making both putouts in a 1-2-4-2 double play that ended a first-and-third, one-out situation. He executed two rundowns to absolute perfection, making plays on both the runner coming home and the runner on first trying to sneak to third base.
- Dye, by the way, had no real opportunity to run in what was his last rehab appearance. He struck out, flied out twice, and grounded to third base, all while DHing.
- The player who looked best to me was 51s left-handed reliever Shane Nance. Just 5'8", Nance threw two shutout innings, allowing two singles and striking out one. He showed a good fastball and curve, and it wouldn't surprise me to see him in the Dodgers bullpen in the next two months. He's almost certainly a better pitcher than Terry Mulholland right now.
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