A Weekend in Portland

Two weeks ago, I bought tickets to see the Portland Sea Dogs’ Friday night contest against the Trenton Thunder. My forecast of the rotation placed Henry Owens, Red Sox uber-prospect, on the mound that night.

I did not predict the forecast, however. A rain-out and postponed game meant that the other Sea Dogs lefty Mickey Pena took the hill on a frigid, 37-degree night. At the ballpark with my family, we sat in arctic conditions and watched the polar opposite of a pitcher’s duel.

A final score of 14-10, with more than 30 hits, saw the Sea Dogs blow a late lead and give up six runs between the eighth and ninth.

I was happy, kind of. My whole family had gone, so that was fun, and my spectacular sister Sarah played the cute, young girl baseball fan card and snagged us a Mookie Betts-signed baseball.

But, as we drove home on I-95, I grumbled that if Henry Owens was on the mound it would’ve been quick up-and-down innings.

Owens is heralded as the next great Pitcher for the Boston Red Sox – Portland’s parent club. He tossed a six-inning, rain-shortened no hitter on Portland’s first night in action.

I woke up Saturday morning feeling slightly dissatisfied. That feeling persisted all throughout the day. I called friends, but they were either working or planning on spending our last day of April break working on a Chemistry lab.

I decided I was going to drive to Portland and buy game-day tickets anyway. I ended up even convincing my Dad to come with me.

To someone that lives in Miami or Cincinnati or San Diego, game-day purchases of tickets may seem the height of normal, but around these here parts – Red Sox Nation – driving somewhere to buy tickets sans a plan was a guaranteed waste of gas money – unless, of course, you don’t mind getting gouged by ticket hawkers.

By the time Dad and I got to the ticket booth, it was 15 minutes prior to the 1 o’clock game. I approached the window and asked for the best seats they had, expecting little. I had looked the night before as a guess and saw that the best two seats they had together were about 30 rows back in the bleachers behind the plate.

The attendant handed me two tickets for “Row B” – one row behind home plate. Directly behind the dish. For $20. I could yell at someone and they would hear me.

So many reasons to love minor league baseball.

The tall, lanky kid from California warmed up for the top of the first and my anticipation grew. Shouts from around the stadium, “Let’s get ‘em Owens!” were interspersed with conversational buzz about what we’d see from him today. He was facing a decent lineup from Trenton, including First Baseman Kyle Roller, who had hit two home runs off the lefty Pena on the Friday before when I was there.

Playing in the game that day were three Red Sox prospects I have written about before that could be on their way to the major league club and impact performance: Owens, Second Baseman Mookie Betts, and Catcher Blake Swihart.

So I was all settled in, ready to be dazzled by Henry Owens brilliance. One thing I didn’t account for: the weather (gloomy clouds) was reflected upon the diamond.

Owens got shellacked. He gave up three runs in the first on 31 excruciating pitches. His fastball hovered around 89-90 miles per hour (mph), but he occasionally hit 92 on the gun. His 77 mph change-up kept hitters off-balance and a devastating 69 mph curveball produced swings and misses…eventually.

Owens didn’t get his first swing-and-miss until the third inning – by the time he had given up five runs. The command of his off-speed stuff was incredible, locating extremely well, but his fastball was less sure. He threw 57 strikes over 90 pitches. But, when Owens missed, he missed badly up in the zone. He paid dearly. Trenton’s top player – the New York Yankees top prospect – Catcher Gary Sanchez drove in three, including a homer off Owens over the Mini-Monster in left. It wasn’t as if they were bloop singles and the occasional solid contact, all of the hits Owens gave up came off ringing cracks of the bat.

The positive is that Owens’ pace is quick. He could throw three accurate pitches before Daisuke Matsuzaka could toss in one ill-aimed gyroball.

In five innings, Owens gave up six runs on nine hits and three walks, striking out just four. He was saddled with his first loss of the season.

As it ended up, Owens wasn’t the story of the day. Mookie Betts impressed on both sides of the ball. He reached base for his 54th straight contest. He went 1-for-5 Sunday, but the lone hit was a wall-ball double that drove in one. He is batting .405 on the season.

Watching him at the plate, he has so much patience. On Friday he battled in the late innings in a tie ballgame with a Thunder Reliever and, on the 11th pitch of the at bat, he produced an RBI single up the middle. He has a quick bat and in the eleven at bats I saw him in, he didn’t get fooled on one pitch. Not only on offense, but on defense he impressed as well. In the top of the 8th, in a one-run game with a runner on first, Trenton DH Robert Refsnyder connected solidly on an offer from Portland Pitcher Jose Valdez.

It appeared to be sailing towards the gap in right-center when a glove rose into the frame. Leaping up to snare the liner was Mookie Betts. As soon as he secured the out, he withdrew the ball from his glove and rifled to first. Before his feet touched the ground, the ball skipped on the dirt and was snared by Travis Shaw, the Portland first basemen and doubled off the runner.

Mookie bounced up from the crumpled heap assumed his position at second base; he did not react to his incredible play or the partial standing ovation he received. That is the most athletic play I have ever seen in person. Mookie Betts will be special. If the Sox can find a spot for him – second is currently filled by Dustin Pedroia, who has a 7-year contract – he can contribute at the big league level.

As for Blake Swihart, he turned in a mixed performance. He swung at his first offering of the afternoon, grounding weakly to short. The next two at-bats he went deep (five and seven pitches, respectively) grounding out in the first and smacking a hard-hit single to right in the latter. However, for his last AB of the day he went down on three pitches with two very off-balance swings at off-speed stuff.

The one thing I did not predict was Trenton Thunder Closer Branden Pinder.

To give you some perspective: the hardest anyone threw that weekend was 93, and it was one pitch uncorked by Portland Reliever Jose Valdez.

This guy hit 95 with ease. He had a devastating slider at 85 mph and a slippery change-up that looked like a fastball, but slowed to 83 mph. He attacked the zone (10 strikes on 12 pitches) and blew away the best Portland had to offer. He reduced Mookie Betts to cookie crumbles for the final out of the game. His low arm slot could be a problem as he throws across his body a bit, but the Yankees could be more aggressive since he’s a reliever.

So while Friday night didn’t go the way I expected, I was glad that Owens didn’t pitch. It brought me back a second day to watch even more baseball at a great venue for an incredible price. Looking at numbers and drawing conclusions from analytics is a fine part of baseball – one that may overwhelm the casual observer. But from those numbers and abbreviations, nothing stands to the eye-test. Sitting in a park and watching a pitcher work or seeing a hitter work a count.

Even if you’re not into analyzing baseball and like watching a game because it’s entertaining, there’s nothing quite like getting into the ballpark and sitting down, ready for the game to begin.

And even if the prize prospect you’re going to watch doesn’t have the best game, you may be pleasantly surprised by someone else. I’m watching you guys, Mookie Betts and Branden Pinder.

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2 thoughts on “A Weekend in Portland

  1. Pingback: The Curse of the Well-Meaning Fan |

  2. Pingback: Red Sox Rapid Reactions | Purely For Sport

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