Thursday Notes – Big Games Looming

As of Thursday afternoon, the PawSox have 12 games remaining in the regular season.  Eight of those 12 will be against teams they are directly battling for one of two available playoff spots (North Division title, wild card winner).  Pawtucket plays four games at Buffalo beginning Saturday night, then hosts Syracuse and Rochester for a pair each over Labor Day weekend.

Syracuse, winners of 12 of 16 since August 4th, currently holds a 3.0 game advantage over the second-place PawSox for the division lead.  Rochester and Buffalo are each 3.0 games behind Pawtucket in the wild card race.  All four teams are very much alive in the postseason chase, which should make for an a fun finish to the campaign.

After being swept in a four-game series by Scranton/Wilkes-Barre the PawSox have bounced back and shut out Lehigh Valley in back-to-back games the last two nights by a combined 16-0.  Perhaps the RailRiders just had Pawtucket’s number – Scranton went 7-1 at McCoy Stadium this year and 11-5 overall against Kevin Boles’ squad.  Things have certainly turned around now that the IronPigs have come to town.

Here are some noteworthy items to check out before game seven of the current homestand on Thursday night:

-Chalk up another fantastic start for Matt Barnes on Wednesday against Lehigh Valley (6.1 IP, 2H, 0R, 3BB, 7K) .  Barnes retired 17 of the first 18 batters he faced and looked completely dominant against the helpless IronPigs.  In his last two starts at home, Barnes has tossed 13.1 scoreless innings and allowed just two hits!  He has now allowed only seven runs in six starts since the All-Star break (38.2 IP).

-The PawSox are using their 130th unique batting lineup Thursday (spots 1-9, regardless of defensive position) in the team’s 133 games played.  Kevin Boles has not repeated any lineup since June 12th, a span of 64 straight with a different order.  Pretty wild I think.

-Ryan Lavarnway left Wednesday night’s game with concussion-like symptoms.  It was especially a shame for Lavarnway, who has had a fantastic offensive homestand.  In five games played during the stand, he is 7-for-11 with seven walks, three runs scored and an RBI.  Lavarnway reached base in nine straight plate appearances three hits, six walks) from Monday night through the fourth inning of Wednesday’s contest.

Speaking of Lavarnway, below is an interview I did with the 27-year-old earlier this week in which he discussed the challenges of coming back from surgery to repair a broken hamate bone.

-Steven Wright, optioned back from Boson on Tuesday, is now slated to start for the PawSox in the homestand finale Friday night against Lehigh Valley.  Wright is 0-2 with a 4.18 ERA in his last four starts with Pawtucket (23.3 IP, 26H, 15R, 11ER).  It will be a big help to the rotation to have the knuckleballer return to his dominating form of earlier this season.

-Jackie Bradley Jr. is in the leadoff spot and playing centerfield for the fourth straight night Thursday since being optioned to Pawtucket on Monday afternoon.  Through his first three games with the PawSox Bradley Jr. is 2-for-15 with six punchouts.

-Anthony Ranaudo has to be the favorite to win the International League’s Most Valuable Pitcher award.  The right-hander, who earned his league-best 14th win of the season on Tuesday by blanking Lehigh Valley for six innings, is second in the IL in ERA (2.46), third in WHIP (1.18) and first in opponent batting average (.218).  He has only made two starts with Pawtucket since July 26th because of his two Major League call-ups.

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Henry Owens is 1-1 over his first three starts with Pawtucket

Thursday night’s game begins at 7:05 with super-prospect Henry Owens making his fourth start at Triple-A.  After shutting out Columbus for 6 2/3 innings in his spectacular debut, Owens has allowed four runs in each of his last two outings.  The southpaw will look to regain his top form against a Lehigh Valley squad that hasn’t scored a run in 18 innings of the series.

Thanks for checking in, I look forward to seeing you at McCoy or talking to you on the radio!

Josh M

The Final Countdown…Two Weeks To Go!

After a tough weekend against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in which the squad dropped three straight, the PawSox are down to their final 15 games of the regular season.  Two weeks from Monday will be game #144 against Rochester at McCoy!  Time sure does fly.

The PawSox have had an interesting month of August, going 7-1 on the road and 1-7 at home.  The RailRiders in particular have given Pawtucket fits this season, having won the last five meetings between the squads and gone 6-1 at McCoy.  Scranton will go for a four-game series sweep on Monday night.

It’s been a frustrating series for the PawSox, who blew a 5-1 lead in the ninth on Sunday to drop a third-straight contest.  Pawtucket is just 2-for-22 batting with runners in scoring position during the first three games of the series and has stranded a total of 28 men on base.

Here are some notes for your reading pleasure as the penultimate week of the season gets set to begin Monday night:

-Garin Cecchini is now on a season-high eight-game hitting streak. He is 13-for-33 (.394) during those eight contests with two homers, four doubles and 12 RBI.

Cecchini has also made a great transition to the outfield over the past month and a half. The converted third-baseman has started 24 of his last 38 games in left and at times has looked even more comfortable as a corner outfielder than as a corner infielder. This catch on Saturday night was one of the outfield highlights for the Lake Charles, LA native.

-Congrats to Steven Wright for making his first MLB appearance in 2014 on Sunday, pitching four strong innings at Fenway against Houston (4.0 IP, 4H, 1R, 4K).  Wright was recalled only hours before the contest as Corey Brown was designated for assignment.

-INF/OF Allen Craig is reportedly set to join the PawSox Monday to begin a rehab assignment from a left foot injury suffered right after Boston acquired him in the deadline deal with St. Louis.  That same ProJo article reports that C David Ross is set to be activated from the Boston DL early this week.  That could spell a return to Pawtucket for Dan Butler.

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Allen Craig came over from the Cardinals in the John Lackey deal on July 31st

-The Portland Sea Dogs swept Richmond in a weekend series at Hadlock Field to inch closer to clinching a playoff berth in the Eastern League (magic number is now 1).  The team’s 78 victories are the most for any Portland squad since the franchise became the Red Sox Double-A affiliate in 2003.  Many of the players who helped build that record are now up in Pawtucket (Mookie Betts, Henry Owens, Blake Swihart, Derrik Gibson, etc).

-It’s been great to have Bryce Brentz back in the lineup.  Brentz has gone deep in back-to-back games (Saturday night and Sunday afternoon) and has now smashed four homers and driven in 13 runs in his 12 games since returning from the disabled list earlier this month.  Brentz has batted in the three-hole of the lineup in his last eight starts.

-Last week I sat down with Red Sox Executive Vice President and General Manager Ben Cherington while the PawSox were in Gwinnett for a lengthy conversation about some of the organization’s top prospects.  Here it is in full, as heard on this weekend’s PawSox Insider show.

Monday night is “Halloween Night” at McCoy, so if you come to the game bring a costume!  First pitch is at 7:05pm as the PawSox try and avoid being swept in the four-game series by the RailRiders.  Hope to see you at the park or speak to you on the radio!

Josh M

Monday Notes: Mookie Returns, PawSox Sweep

Well, the PawSox seem to have weathered the storm from all the roster turmoil at the beginning of the month.  After losing four of five to begin August amidst nearly 30 percent of the roster turning over, things calmed down this weekend and Pawtucket swept Charlotte in a four-game road series.

So what changed at the beginning of this road trip?  For starters, Mookie Betts was optioned back again from Boston.  And maybe it is that simple.  Here’s a remarkable stat – Pawtucket has won 17 of its last 19 games when Mookie is in the lineup (beginning 6/23 and carrying through his two MLB call-ups.)  The only two losses during that stretch came in back-to-back contests at Scranton on 7/27 and 7/28.

Overall the PawSox are 27-11 in games that Betts plays in while only 41-43 when he has not been on the field.  What a terrific epitomization of how special a player Mookie is – without him Pawtucket has been about a .500 team, but with him arguably the best club in the International League.  Amazing!

Betts went 6-for-17 (.353) with three walks, three doubles, three RBI and three runs scored in the four games at Charlotte.  He did have plenty of help in the PawSox series sweep, as a pair of relative newcomers delivered game-winning hits in the ninth inning on Saturday and again on Sunday.

Bryce Brentz, just back last week from a 72-game absence on the DL, clubbed a tiebreaking two-run homer in the ninth on Saturday night.  In six games since returning to Pawtucket, Brentz is 8-for-27 (.296) with two home runs, two doubles and five RBI.

Blake Swihart brought the PawSox from 4-3 behind into a 5-4 lead with a two-run triple off the right field fence on Sunday.  Swihart, who has started five of six games since being promoted from Portland last Monday, was serving as the designated hitter for the first time with Pawtucket.  The fact that Ryan Lavarnway is on MLB rehab and Matt Spring is still active as another backstop allows manager Kevin Boles to use Swihart as a DH on days he doesn’t catch.

The weekend sweep was the second in a four-game series this season for Pawtuckdet, which has swept four of its seven series played since the All-Star break (after not sweeping any of its 26 series beforehand.)  The PawSox (68-54) are now a season-high 14 games above .500 and 2.5 games ahead of Rochester in the IL wildcard race heading into a four-game set at Gwinnett.

Monday night’s originally scheduled starter Edwin Escobar was recalled to Boston on Sunday, so Pawtucket will throw Chris Hernandez in a spot start for the third time in the last two weeks.  He pitched a gem against the G-Braves back in late-May and will try and beat them for the second time this season.

Here are a few other noteworthy items to get you started on a Monday morning:

-Matt Barnes has looked like a different pitcher since the All-Star break.  Barnes outing on Saturday in Charlotte began with a gift inside-the-park home run to the first batter he faced (when Mookie Betts slipped on a line drive to center.)  He then settled down and held the Knights to only two runs in six sharp innings.

Since the break, Barnes has made four starts and gone 1-1 with a 2.21 ERA (24.1 IP, 11 H, 6 R).  That includes his epic seven-inning no-hit performance on August 2nd against Columbus.  In 15 outings before the mid-summer break, the 24-year-old UConn product went 4-7 with a 5.06 ERA.

-Alex Hassan has found a new home in the batting order, having hit second for the last ten consecutive games.  Prior to this stretch he hadn’t batted second in the lineup since May 22nd.

Hassan’s bat has responded to moving up in the order; in his last six games he is batting .375 (9-for-24) with two doubles, four runs scored and three RBI.   Since being optioned back from Boston on June 10th, Hassan has hit .335 (62-for-185) in 51 games played.  That is the 6th-best average in the IL during that time period.  He leads the team in RBI and runs scored this season.

-Utilityman Justin Henry returned to the lineup during the last homestand from a nearly month-long DL stint and has provided a huge offensive boost to the club.  In his eight games since coming back, Henry has batted .321 (9-for-28) with five walks, five runs scored and three RBI.  He drove home a pair of runs from the nine-hole in the order during the comeback win in Charlotte on Sunday.

-Maybe the PawSox have found a new closer with Tommy Layne now in the big leagues.  Lefty reliever Ryan Verdugo, acquired in a trade from Kansas City last month, picked up two saves in the Charlotte series by closing out victories on Thursday and Saturday night.  For a man who had been a starter all season in the Royals organziation, those were his first two saves since 2010 and just the fourth and fifth of his MiLB career.

Verdugo has not allowed a run in 10.0 relief innings pitched over five outings with the PawSox.  He did permit three runs in 3.2 innings during a spot start last week against Columbus to take his only loss since being acquired by the Red Sox.

-Quietly, 2B/CF Derrik Gibson has hit for some serious pop at the bottom of the PawSox order after he was promoted from Portland at the beginning of the month.  Gibson is 5-for-22 (.227) in his six games played this month but four of his five hits have gone for extra-bases (two homers, one double, one triple.)  He has driven in five runs out of the nine-hole in those six games.

Gibson’s slugging percentage for the Sea Dogs was .395 in 85 games this season, but in eight contests with Pawtucket it is a robust .586.  Maybe he just needed to face some Triple-A pitching to find his power stroke!

-I sat down for an interview with Blake Swihart in Charlotte to talk about his season and recent promotion to Triple-A.  Below you can hear the entire conversation from the weekend’s PawSox Insider show:

As of Monday there are only three weeks left in the regular season.  We’ve really hit the homestretch!  Looking forward to some more fun games as the PawSox playoff push continues.  Talk to you on the radio from Gwinnett.

Josh M

Keeping Up With the Changes

When the big league team completely overhauled its roster last week, the ripple effects were certainly felt down on the farm.  As the PawSox head on the road Thursday for eight games the team’s roster looks very different than when the most recent homestand began last week.  After Corey Brown and Heath Hembree got the call to join Boston on Tuesday, nine players have been promoted from Pawtucket to the majors over the last five days.

The team’s offense is now without its leading home run hitter (Brown), starting catcher (Dan Butler) and third-baseman (Will Middlebrooks).  Oh yea, and you can also subtract one of the top offensive players in all of Minor League Baseball Mookie Betts, who struck for a walk-off home run in his final at-bat before going back up to Boston.

The Boston brass did add some big pieces to the PawSox lineup to help replace some of that thump.  Catcher Blake Swihart, one of the top 30 prospects in baseball according to MLB.com, joined the club from Portland as did utilityman Derrik Gibson.  Gibson homered in back-to-back games on Sunday and Monday.

Bryce Brentz returned from a 72-game absence over the weekend after having been on the DL from May 16th through August 1st with a hamstring injury.  Brentz, the team leader in RBIs in April and May, showed no ill-effects from his long layoff by going 5-for-9 with a home run and a double in his first two games back on Saturday and Monday.

Lost to the major leagues from the PawSox pitching staff were two starters (Allen Webster and Brandon Workman) and two closers (Tommy Layne and Hembree).  Three other hurlers also went up to Boston for its series against the Yankees but have since been optioned back.  Anthony Ranaudo made his big-league debut a memorable one on Friday by defeating New York but returned to Pawtucket the next day.  Alex Wilson and Steven Wright joined the BoSox bullpen over the weekend but were each sent back to Triple-A.

Two top-notch left-handed starters – Henry Owens and Edwin Escobar – have replaced Webster and Workman in the PawSox rotation.  Owens, ranked by MiLB.com as the 24th-best prospect in all of baseball, has been arguably the best lefty pitcher in the minors this season.  As you’ve certainly heard by now, Owens dazzled Columbus in his Triple-A debut on Monday.

Escobar, who came back from San Francisco in the Jake Peavy trade, was rated as the 2nd-best prospect in the Giants system entering this season.  After putting up rather pedestrian numbers with Triple-A Fresno this season, the 22-year-old looked impressive in his first two starts with the PawSox by allowing just one run over six innings in each outing.

Pawtucket’s bullpen got righties Jose Valdez and Brayan Villarreal back from lengthy DL stints this week (Villarreal had not pitched since Mid-April because of shoulder problems).  The PawSox also received righty Mike McCarthy from Portland on Friday.  He made his Triple-A debut on Friday night against Syracuse and limited the Chiefs to just one run in 3.2 innings of work.

McCarthy, a 14th-round pick in 2011 from Cal State Bakersfield, won nine games this season for the Sea Dogs.  He is also a special correspondent for his hometown newspaper in Bakersfield, writing about life in the minors intermittently throughout the season.  Here is a link to his article penned Saturday about to getting promoted to Triple-A.  Pretty cool that he does that as a side job!

Now that the dust seems to have settled, we’ll see if the PawSox can once again find their winning touch.  The team went 1-4 after the plethora of roster moves last Friday and just dropped three of four in its home series against Columbus.  It was only Pawtucket’s second four-game series loss at home all season (Scranton won 3 of 4 in mid-May) and second series loss of any kind in the last two months (spanning 17 total series).

It may take a few more days for the team to gel.  Hopefully the upcoming trip to Charlotte and Gwinnett will be a good way to get things back to a sense of normalcy.  The PawSox are currently tied with Rochester for the IL wild card lead and are 1.5 games behind Syracuse for the North Division lead (pending the Red Wings and Chiefs results on Tuesday night.)

Here are a few quick links for you to peruse before the road trip begins:

-The PawSox have announced that playoff tickets will go on sale Wednesday at 10:00am.  The first round of the IL playoffs begins on Wednesday, Sept. 3rd.  If the team qualifies, it would extend the already franchise-record playoff streak to four straight years.

-Off topic, but check out this story about independent league outfielder Neil Medchill, who is putting his season and potentially his career in jeopardy to donate bone marrow to a man he has never met.  I got to know Neil when he played in the Yankees system and am not surprised by his courage, yet I am still blown away by this selfless act.  We need more people like Neil Medchill in our society!

-Congrats to former PawSox reliever Rich Hill, who had his contract purchased by the Yankees on Tuesday from Scranton and will join the big-league bullpen in New York.  Hill had earlier left Pawtucket for a Major League deal with the Angels on July 1st.  Best of luck to Rich!

-Below is my interview with PawSox manager Kevin Boles from this past weekend in which we discussed the team’s major roster overhaul and how he’s tried to weather the storm.  Boles has done a great job this season of striking a balance between player development and winning ballgames.

After the final scheduled off-day of the regular season on Wednesday, the team will fly out to North Carolina on Thursday morning.  Looking forward to seeing new BB&T Ballpark in Uptown Charlotte for the first time.

bbt ballpark

BB&T Ballpark is right the heart of Uptown Charlotte

Game one of the series against the Knights is scheduled for Thursday night at 7:05, with Anthony Ranaudo (12-4, 2.41) slated to start for the first time since making his big-league debut last week.  I’ll talk to you on the radio then, have a great middle of your week!

Josh M

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