Outside of a terrible third inning which saw the best-fielding infield in the Midwest League post four errors and allow four earned runs (six total in the frame), the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers played a pretty good game Friday evening.
It was a departure of sorts from my usual coverage of the Milwaukee Brewers, but the opportunity arose to actually report on the game up in Appleton, WI Friday night between the Timber Rattlers (Class-A affiliate of the Brewers) and the Peoria Chiefs (Class-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs).
The final score ended up at 8-7 in the home team’s favor, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
A run in the first inning and a five-run fourth negated a third inning outburst from the Chiefs.
Timber Rattlers’ starting pitcher David Goforth battled through that third inning which saw the entire infield struggle to record outs (his own throwing error costing him some runs). Manager Matt Erickson, after the game, said that “the third inning was uncharacteristic of our game” and that “all six of the guys in the infield…all had a mental or physical error in that one inning and when you do that obviously you’re going to give up a big inning.”
Ironically, in talking to the previous game’s starting pitcher and friend of the podcast Chad Pierce before Friday’s game, Pierce lauded the play of what he rightfully called the infield “by far the best in the Midwest (League)”. To their credit, SS Yadiel Rivera and 2B Carlos George each had plays where they ranged far up the middle and converted hits into outs.
Before the game among other questions I asked first baseman Nick Ramirez, another friend of the podcast, about the infield play and how the quality of the field helps them make plays.
“This is one of the better fields I’ve played on in my professional career. We drag it every three innings and no one really knows how much that takes effect on your mentality. (Having a) fresh drag (means) I’m not going to get a bad hop. They take of this field, they keep it looking nice, and it’s really level.”
In my conversation with Chad Pierce he also had high praise for the Rattlers’ outfield which saw a tremendous diving play from Ben McMahan in LF late in the game Friday night to save a couple of runs for relief pitcher Stephen Peterson.
I asked Friday night’s starting center fielder, and yes…friend of the podcast, Mitch Haniger about the play of himself and his fellow outfielders. Haniger said that the right-center gap (405 feet to the wall) is always in the back of his mind and that the wind changes from day to day but that having speedy outfielders in all three spots really helps.
“All five of the outfielders on this team are real fast. I didn’t think that I was going to get to a ball last night in the gap and I just hear Lance (Roenicke) saying ‘I got it. I got it.’ and just pulled up right next to him and back him up. So it’s been great having guys by your side that if you can’t get to balls, they’re going to be there.”
Goforth pitched well otherwise including a six-pitch fourth inning which no doubt helped his offense out by limiting Chiefs starter Michael Jensen’s downtime between frames. Erickson praised Goforth after the game for his ability to bear down and get through three additional frames after the long third.
The Timber Rattlers got back in the box quickly and struck hard in their half of the fourth resulting in a 28-pitch fourth for Jensen where he let the Rattlers right back into the game by surrendering a pair of two-run home runs and another run. That tied the game up at six after four innings.
The game remained tied until the seventh though a lead-off triple in the sixth inning by Cubs uber-prospect Javier Baez looked to put the Chiefs back on top first. Goforth pitched around it however and completed six full innings in front of a short bullpen on this night.
Goforth’s final line: 6.0 IP, 7 H, 6 R (2 ER), 0 BB, 4 K, 99 pitches (70 strikes)
Stephen Peterson took over in the 7th and walked a pair of batters around two outs. The lead runner stole third and then scored on a wild pitch from Peterson, before the reliever got out of the jam. That run would not prove the game-winner, however, as the Rattlers had yet another rally in them.
Peterson pitched a scoreless 8th inning, thanks in large part to that aforementioned tremendous diving catch in left field by McMahan. 1B Nick Ramirez then tied the game back up in the bottom half of the frame with a mammoth home run just fair inside the RF foul pole and “exactly” 398 feet away from home plate. That came off of Chiefs reliever Yao-Lin Wang who started the eighth inning for Peoria.
Current closer Tommy Toledo entered for the 9th and kept the Chiefs off the board. But Wang countered with a scoreless bottom half to send it to extra innings.
Following a second perfect frame in the 10th inning from Toledo, the Chiefs called upon Luis Liria to handle Greg Hopkins, eighth-inning hero Ramirez, and McMahan, he of the earlier two-run home run back in the big 4th inning.
Hopkins led off the frame with a single back through the box. Ramirez struck out after Hopkins advanced to second on a wild pitch. They intentionally walked McMahan to pitch to SS Yadiel Rivera who worked a walk to load the bases after being down in the count 1-2.
Up stepped Rafael Neda who earlier in that same big fourth inning had hit the first home run of his professional career. Neda was nearly hit by a pitch early in the at-bat, but ended up singling through the left side of a partly drawn in infield for the game winner!
After the game, Neda said that not only getting his first home run but also being able to walk-off in extra innings was the biggest moment of his career to this point other than his first professional hit but it wouldn’t have been possible without the earlier rally. I asked Neda to describe how it happened and he said that “One hit started leading to another one. We just wanted to help our pitcher because there were four errors in the inning. As a catcher I wanted to help him a little more and we luckily came back in that inning.”
So despite the one rough inning, the Timber Rattlers played a very solid game all around. Most importantly, the win brought the team back to even on the second half of the year at 4-4. It was the fourth consecutive Win for the T-Rats.
This of course comes after a first-half which saw Wisconsin finish with the best record in their division. This assures them of a playoff spot but several key pieces to the success in the first half were promoted up the organizational ladder.
Therein lies the dynamic of managing at the Minor League level. I asked Erickson about that dichotomy of not only wanting to win but needing to get his players better and to move them along. His answer was perfect.
Said Erickson, “It’s player development until the first pitch of the game. Then we’re trying to beat somebody’s ass.”
Friday night, that ass belonged to Michael Jensen and the rest of his Peoria Chiefs teammates.
Your Brewer Nation Timber Rattler of the game was Rafael Neda. 2-for-5, 1 R, 3 RBI, including his first professional home run and the walk-off single in the 10th inning.
(FULL AUDIO OF OUR INTERVIEWS FROM FRIDAY NIGHT WILL BE MADE AVAILABLE SOON FOR DOWNLOAD. I WILL UPDATE THIS SPACE WHEN THAT HAPPENS.)
Until then, here are the highlights from last night’s 8-7 Timber Rattlers victory: