Summer Collegiate : : Blog
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Superior Pitching Leads Wareham To Top of Pack

Allan Simpson        



EDITOR’S NOTE: PG Crosschecker’s Allan Simpson is spending five days in the Cape Cod League and will check in daily with some of his observations from the nation’s premier summer college league. Among other things he has seen was Thursday night’s Cape League all-star game at Boston’s Fenway Park.

Call the Wareham Gatemen the Cape Cod League’s version of the Hitless Wonders. Despite their anemic .206 team batting average (last in the league), the Gatemen took over sole possession of first place in the Western Division Friday night by scratching out two ninth-inning runs in a key 2-1 road win over Orleans.

The victory gives the Gatemen a two-point advantage over Bourne, which had its scheduled doubleheader against Brewster postponed because of unplayable field conditions, and Cotuit, which lost 3-2 to Harwich. Wareham and Cotuit square off in a key doubleheader today.

That Wareham holds first place this deep into the season is a tribute to the team’s pitching staff—undoubtedly the most prospect-laden staff in the league. Three of the team’s elite arms were prominently on display Thursday night at Fenway Park, where righthanders Brandon Workman (Texas) and Jack Armstrong (Vanderbilt), and lefthander Eric Pfisterer (Duke) worked the first three innings for the West in the team’s 3-0, rain-shortened win over the East. Between them, they allowed one hit and struck out four.

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Workman (1-0, 1.54), an unsigned third-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2007 who led the Cape in strikeouts a year ago with 67 in 55 innings, was designated as the winning pitcher in the game after he retired the side in order in the first inning. His fastball was clocked at 94-95 mph in his brief outing, and he was promptly upstaged by the 6-foot-7, 215-pound Armstrong (4-0, 1.98), who peaked at 97. Pfisterer’s velocity paled in comparison, topping out at only 90, but he merely leads the Gatemen staff in strikeouts this season with 34 in 33 innings, while posting a 3-0, 2.16 record.

These are no ordinary arms as Workman is targeted for the first round in the 2010 draft, while Armstrong, the son of ex-big league all-star righthander Jack Armstrong, is rapidly positioning himself as a potential first-rounder in 2011. Pfisterer should also be an early-round selection in the 2011 draft after being an unsigned 15th-round pick out of high school.

Obviously, none of the talented trio was available to pitch Friday against Orleans, and Gateman coach Cooper Farris indicated he will not pitch any one of then today in Wareham’s twinbill against Cotuit, giving them all an additional day of rest.

So deep is the talent on Wareham’s pitching staff though, that it may hardly matter. Farris went with righthander Brett Eibner (Arkansas) Friday against Orleans, and planned to utilize righthanders Cole Green (Texas) and Josh Mueller (Eastern Illinois) against Cotuit. All three of those pitchers are significant prospects, and expected to be drafted in the top three rounds in next year’s draft. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Eibner, whose fastball has been clocked as high as 94, is given an outside chance of going in the first round.

Eibner, a well-rounded talent who participated in the Home Run Derby Thursday at the all-star game, was an unsigned fourth-round pick in the 2007 draft. He worked two hitless innings against Orleans before being lifted for precautionary reasons because he felt a slight twinge in his elbow after facing two batters in the third inning.

For eight innings, Eibner stood to be the losing pitcher in Friday’s game as the only base runner he allowed, the result of a leadoff walk in the third, came around to score on a sacrifice fly by outfielder Gary Brown (Cal State Fullerton). Orleans led 1-0 entering the ninth, despite managing only two hits. But for one of the few times this season, the Gatemen hit when it counted most in what proved to be a very eventful ninth inning.

Even with a botched squeeze play canceling out one potential run, Wareham strung together singles by Jordan Swagerty (Arizona State), Chris Hannick (Cal State Northridge) and Connor Rowe (Texas), and a bloop double by third baseman Shea Vucinich (Washington State) to score two unlikely runs in the top of the ninth off hard-throwing Orleans reliever Brett Weibley (Kent State), to go ahead 2-1.

How unlikely? Weibley had allowed only one previous run in 16 innings this summer while the four successful Wareham hitters were batting a combined .173.

Wareham then sent out its own nearly-flawless reliever, righthander Josh Slaats (Hawaii), to close out the game in the bottom of the ninth, and he did—though not without difficulty. Slaats, who had given up only one unearned run in 14 innings, surrendered a leadoff single to Kevin Muno (San Diego) and promptly balked him to second. Rowe, ranging over from center field, then made a diving catch on a ball driven to the left-center gap and hauled in another hard-hit ball for the second out. After Muno stole third, Brown, possibly the fastest player in the league, narrowly failed to beat out a slow roller to shortstop to end the game.

For a game that moved along relatively quickly and uneventfully for eight innings, the ninth inning produced more than its share of drama, if not quirky plays.

Not only was there a balk and failed squeeze play, but Orleans manager Kelly Nicholson showed a flair for the unconventional when, with one out and Wareham runners on first and third, he took Muno, his left fielder, and stationed him just inside the first-base line, about 60 feet from the plate, to help ward off Wareham’s obvious threat of a squeeze, while regular first baseman Riccio Torrez (Arizona State) held the secondary base runner close to the bag. The strategy worked as Wareham shortstop Derek Dietrich (Georgia Tech) tried to angle his bunted ball away from Muno and ended up hitting it hard back to Weibley, who make a quick throw to the plate and easily engaged the runner coming down the line from third in a run down. The Gatemen, however, still managed to push over the winning run as Vucinich dropped a flare into right field that fell for a double.

“We’ve really struggled this season to get hits, especially in key situations,” Farris said. “It kind of came together for us tonight, just at the right time.”

Wareham’s stellar pitching made the win possible, though. Righthander Bruce Kern (St. John’s), who was signed by the Gatemen as a temporary player, threw four scoreless innings in relief of Eibner with a fastball that reached 92, while Matt Barnes (Connecticut) worked a scoreless seventh before giving way to Slaats with one out in the eighth. While Barnes, a rising sophomore, gave up a walk and a hit, and struggled in his brief appearance, he was nonetheless extremely impressive with a fastball that topped out at 96 mph—just another hard thrower on a staff filled with hard throwers.

“As a group, this is the best velocity on any pitching staff that I’ve had,” said Farris, in his ninth season with Wareham. “We’ve had some pretty hard throwers play for the Gatemen through the years, like Daniel Bard and Justin Masterson (both now with the Boston Red Sox, and among the hardest throwers in the big leagues), but never so many on one staff.”

Green and Mueller, who are scheduled to pitch today, have been clocked as high as 92 and 91 mph, respectively, this summer. Also, Swagerty, who doubles as a pitcher and catcher for the Gatemen, has topped at 94 in brief appearances.

To think, the Wareham staff could have been even more formidable had talented Texas righthander Taylor Jungman, possibly the top college arm in the 2011 draft class, played for the Gatemen this summer, as projected. After going 11-3, 2.00 and leading Texas to a second-place finish in the College World Series as a freshman, the 6-foot-6, 195-pound Jungmann opted to shut it down for the summer after a 95-inning workload.

He was so impressive in his first year at Texas that he effectively replaced the talented but inconsistent Workman (3-5, 3.49) in the Texas rotation, and Jungmann’s projected spot in the Wareham rotation was essentially filled by the vastly-improved Armstrong, who has blossomed into one of the elite pitchers on the Cape this summer.

Little was expected of Armstrong after he experienced a disappointing senior year at a Florida high school in 2008, which caused him to slip to the 26th round in the 2008 draft, and after pitching in only eight innings this spring on a deep Vanderbilt pitching staff.

“He had a couple of bad outings there early in the spring, and didn’t get used much after that,” Farris said. “The coaches there just told him to be patient, that his time will come. He gets a little excited still when he pitches and tends to overthrow at times, but his fastball has been a steady 96-97 all summer, and has even touched 98. His secondary stuff is getting better with almost every outing as he repeats his delivery more consistently. No question, he’s really helped himself this summer.”

After winning Cape Cod League championships in 2001-02, in Farris’ first two seasons at the helm of the club, the pitching-rich Gatemen are ripe for another title. Even if they may be the Hitless Wonders.

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