Life in the Minors
Finding fun in a blowout
Perhaps the worst part of our lopsided loss at the hands of the Florence Freedom last night was having to actually watch it happen.
With the Frontier League schedule-makers putting us on the road for 15 of our first 21 games this season, the going has been tough thus far. While we have racked up more bus miles than I'm accustomed to at the start of a season, we have been able to play some decent baseball, holding a game-and-a-half lead in the West Division over the River City Rascals.
But Florence has been getting the best of us so far this year. After watching my Windy City Thunderbolts take all six of our meetings with the Freedom last season, it has been especially difficult for me to see us lose five of our six against the same team.
Last night's 18-6 drubbing was, for lack of a better term, a train wreck. I could see the actual crash developing in slow motion, as if the world started spinning a little slower, just so I could see every painful detail.
Four runs in the second, three more in the third, then another five, two and four more runs. It seemed as though every ball they hit found a hole. Sure, there were a few liners up the middle, but many other flares and five hoppers snuck through the seams of our defense.
At first there was frustration. Then came delusion and then, after about seven innings, we finally had a reason for elation.
Trailing by a cool 16 runs after the seventh inning, there was a ray of light amid the storm, a reason to smile after seven innings of witnessing a bloodbath of a game for any Evansville Otter fan.
With the game well out of hand pretty early on and our club just three games into a stretch of 27 games over 27 consecutive days, we needed to do everything we could not to deplete our bullpen for the long haul. At this juncture, we had three choices: Either find a pitcher to "wear" the brunt of the innings in such a blow-out, use up the pen and hope for a rainout tomorrow, or bring out the bomb squad.
We opted for the latter, providing us with our only highlight that evening. Standing beside our manager, Jason Verdugo, at the top step of the dugout, the subject of pitching for the remainder of the game came up during the seventh. The decision was made to bring our third baseman in to close out the game.
Now in high school, one of two things cause coaches to turn a kid into a pitcher -- either he has a really good arm or he's left-handed. Neither condition applied to our choice of pitchers for the bottom of the eighth. We kind of felt Ryan Bethel would be a good choice to finish the game for very different reasons.
We both knew he did actually pitch as a college freshman at Grand Canyon University before establishing himself as a shortstop. Although he spent the next three seasons of college strictly as an infielder, and then two after that playing infield in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, we figured Ryan could still at least throw strikes.
Besides, Ryan is a college coach during the offseason and we thought he'd be calm and experienced enough not to try to blow smoke from the mound in his professional pitching debut.
We were wrong. Ryan was so excited that during the top half of the inning, he was able to sprint down to our bullpen in left field, warm up on the mound, and sprint back down to the dugout just in time to launch a two-run homer to left-center against a real pitcher.
By the time the inning ended, we were now down 12 runs. When the dust settled and the teams traded sides, it was a scene right out of Williamsport. As Verdugo noted, it was just like in Little League, where the best hitter is usually his team's ace pitcher.
There Ryan was, toeing the rubber like a pro as he kicked into his first warm-up pitch, with his uniform still covered in dirt from a diving attempt he made at a ground-ball base hit earlier in the game.
Despite orders from our manager and myself to Ryan to just lay the ball in there and let the hitters put the ball in play, Ryan was determined to make his pro mound debut a good one. So pitch after pitch, Ryan rocked and fired. Luckily for him, his maximum effort deliveries gave the hitters the impression that a hard fastball was coming. By the time they got their bats around, they realized too late that his 82 mph fastballs were missing their barrels. One by one, they popped the ball up in the infield.
The actual high point of the night came when Florence manager Jamie Keefe sent up Nick Dunning for a pinch-hit. Nick had just started on the mound against us the previous night and was now making his first professional plate appearance. As the coaches and players in both dugouts grinned ear-to-ear, the matchup of the season went down.
The actual confrontation didn't last too long as Nick came out his shoes for the first pitch he saw and lifted an infield pop-up. Ryan completed the inning and did not allow a run. The only baserunner to reach did so on a dropped pop-up by the first hitter of the inning. He even recorded a strikeout.
It was nice to have a little levity at the end of such a difficult game. It was get-away night for us last night, as we returned home after the game, watching Ryan's display surely made the ride home a little shorter. The light moment also reminded our players that this was just one loss. With 21 games completed and 75 to go, we just have to keep it all in perspective. We are almost done with our brutal stretch of road games, we overcame the loss of our starting third baseman and one of our starting pitcher to injury, and through it all, we were still holding on to the division lead.
I'm hoping the next time we have a little fun it will be with us on the winning end.