Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Marquee Match Up That Wasn't



tripletonline.com photo 
  It promised to be one of the top pitching match ups of the minor league season between two of the minors' top pitching prospects:  The Red Sox Henry Owens up against the Blue Jays Daniel Norris, as Pawtucket took on Buffalo, two teams locked in a battle for the International League's wild card playoff spot.
   In the end, it proved to be anything but for a guy and his dad who drove for 2 1/2 hours to watch the game, Buffalo's final regular season home contest of the year.

   Norris' ascendancy through the Jays minor league system has been well-documented.  He was dominant in two months of High A action in the Florida State League, which prompted a promotion to AA New Hampshire in early June.  His results at AA were a bit mixed, but he has been dominant in three AAA starts since his early August promotion.  Norris had struck out 157 hitters in 117 innings prior to last night's start.
    Owens is the top pitching prospect in a deep Red Sox system.  He was named Best Pitching Prospect in the AA Eastern League by Baseball America earlier this month, and also was labelled as having the best change up and best breaking ball in the loop.  The 2011 sandwich pick was promoted to AAA at the end of July, after posting a 14-4, 2.60 record with Portland, striking out 126 batters in 120 innings, while allowing only 89 hits, and walking 47.
   Owens was the starting pitcher for the US team in the Futures Game, and was relieved by Norris in the 2nd.  The two may have their careers intertwined if they continue to pitch for their current organizations.

  Norris, making his last start of the season, had a tidy 1-2-3 inning, while the Bisons barrelled up several balls hard off of Owen in the game's first inning.  Dalton Pompey led off Buffalo's half of the first with a perfect push bunt on the first base side past Owens (the Bisons pushed a couple of bunts past him in the game; Owens falls off toward 3rd with his delivery, and had great difficulty getting his 6'6" frame over toward first), and Buffalo sent 7 men to the plate as they scored three runs, although Owens only thew 17 pitches in the inning.
   Back out for the 2nd, Norris simply wasn't the same pitcher that he was in the first.  He struggled greatly with his command, missing high in the strike zone several times, a likely indicator of fatigue, which isn't all that surprising given how much he has pitched this year.  Ahead of every hitter in the first inning, Norris was consistently behind almost every batter in the second, working several 3 ball counts. It was the Paw Sox turn to barrel up Norris, as he gave up a pair of ground rule doubles and a hard-hit double down the 3rd base line as Pawtucket evened the score.  We don't know if the Coca-Cola Field gun is accurate or not, but Norris' velocity peaked at 93 in this inning - down from the 96 he had touched in previous starts.  He also had difficulty commanding his slider, and the Red Sox hitters sat back and waited for his fastball.
   Norris struggled again in the third, but seemed to put things back together in the fourth, but was still having trouble getting ahead in the count.  Owens, after his rocky first, settled down.  He did allow base runners in every inning for the rest of his outing, was able to get critical outs when he needed them, with his fastball sitting between 90 and 92.  He snuffed out a mini Buffalo rally in the 5th when he picked off a leaning Anthony Gose at first.
   By the fifth, Norris was clearly on the ropes, with his fastball down to 89.  He lasted only three batters, and got none of them out.  The telling blast was a laser beam of a home run by Bryce Brentz, which would have skipped the left field wall and bounced out onto the interstate and may have rolled all the way across the Peace Bridge to Fort Erie, if not for the protective netting behind the left field fence.  Outfielders Mastroianni and Pompey barely moved after the ball left Brentz's bat.
   Pawtucket added three more in the 7th to take the game 9-3, giving them a 1.5 game lead in the wild card race.  Owens lasted into the seventh, giving up 8 hits and 3 runs (all earned), walking four and striking out 8.  Not a dominant performance, but enough to get the Win on a night when Norris had nowhere near the kind of command and velocity he had in his three previous starts.  Norris officially lasted 4 innings, giving up 8 hits, 6 runs (all earned), walked three and struck out as many.  Owens threw 105 pitches, 61 for strikes, while Norris threw 91-52.

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  It was painful to watch a pair of struggling former big leaguers scuffle in relief for Buffalo.  Steve Delabar started the 6th inning, and had great difficulty commanding the strike zone.  Milb.com says he threw 20 of his 30 pitches for strikes - our scorecard had him at 17-13.  The former MLB all star really seemed to struggle with his release point; he really had no clue where any of his pitchers were going. Delabar missed high, he missed outside, and his breaking pitches were mostly in the dirt.  One promising sign was that his velocity was consistently 92-93.
   Delabar was followed by Kyle Drabek, back from a recent brief stint with the big club.  Drabek actually got a pair of  quick outs by getting ahead in the count, but then started falling behind hitters, and gave up five straight line drive hits as he caught too much of the plate.  For his inning, Drabek gave up three runs.

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   The evening was made complete on the drive home, as we listened to the Blue Jays tie the Red Sox on Jose Bautista's home run, only to have Sergio Santos meltdown in extra innings.  Driving on Highway 407, we think we may have seen Mike Napoil's fifth-deck shot in and amongst the arriving and departing aircraft at Pearson.

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  Coca-Cola Field has been called a gem of a minor league field, and except for the Interstate just beyond the outfield, it is.  It was packed (18 025) on Fan Appreciation Night, and the concourses were very full and difficult to move around in - obviously, the park is not this full most nights.  Reaching the park from Canada is quite easy.  Fearing a border crossing line up, we crossed the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls before the game, and it was actually a bit of a drive after that.  We took I-190 to the Peace Bridge and crossed at Fort Erie on the way home, and it was a much quicker and easier drive.
   The park itself is easy to find, literally right off of I-190, and there is ample parking around it.  Parking rates vary, but we found a lot that was charging only $5 a block away.  There are many restaurants and bars in the area.  We were a little pressed for time, so we ate at Washington Square, a bar and grill steps from Coca-Cola Field's entrance.  The food was standard fare, but it was cheap and filling.  Our waitress was a rookie, but she was enthusiastic and polite, so we left her a good tip, which paid off moments later, when she chased us down near the park gates to return my favourite hoodie which I had left behind.

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   I would not want to be a border crossing guard.  I would imagine that the work is pressure filled, and it's not exactly the most stimulating of careers.  Just the same, I can't understand why US border officials almost all seem to have anger management and customer service issues.  Our guard was curt, to be polite, and was very condescending to my senior citizen dad, who is becoming hard of hearing.  Sitting in the passenger seat, he was unable to hear the guard, who sat up at a high angle on his stool in his booth.  Dad took a second to respond when he was asked his country of citizenship, whereupon the guard asked in a sarcastic tone, "You speak English, sir?".  One look at the names on the passports would have confirmed this, but he really didn't need to ask in that manner.  When he asked if we had anything to declare, I garbled my reply, with the season's first sore throat making its growing presence known in my mouth.  "Answer YES or NO, SIR!!" was the guard's response.  Not necessary.  I would imagine that they have difficult jobs, but two white men, one middle aged-ish and another a senior in a new compact Ford with Ontario plates couldn't possibly be all that high on the list of  national security threats.
   The Canadian border guard on the way home just looked bored.

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   Maybe most of the fans in the attendance on this evening were Bisons fans, as opposed to baseball fans, but we couldn't believe the steady up-and-down parade of people to the concessions during the game.
Having sat in every section of the Rogers Centre many times over the past quarter century, we know that each section has its quirks:  the field level chairs tend to be a mix of dedicated season ticket holders, who make maybe one trip up the concourse during the game, and people who received their tickets from a friend.  The latter type are up and down multiple times, rarely waiting until the end of an inning to make their trip.
The 200s tend to have a lot of families, who are understandably up and down like yo-yos, and we rarely sit in that level, except for the outfield seats.  The 500s seem to have the truest fans - people who can only afford to sit there, but like to watch the game.  The angle is steeper, so shorter fans don't have to spend the game craning for views of the action around taller ones seated in front of them.
   After this game, we won't complain about field level fans at Blue Jays games again.  There was a steady procession of fans from our section, just past first base down the right field line, to the concessions.  Maybe the prices were cheaper than the Rogers Centre (we didn't buy anything), but fans seem to be purchasing huge meals on multiple occasions. We felt like we didn't get to see a whole lot of the game.

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   This was our first live look at Dalton Pompey, and we came away impressed.  He wasn't that busy in the outfield, expect for trying to track down some rockets that he had no chance on.  His speed was what caught us by surprise.  His push bunt past Owens was a thing of beauty.  Several pitches later, he easily went from first to third on a base hit to right by Gose.
  If Pompey was to match up against Gose in a sprint across the outfield, it's hard to say who would win, but Pompey is definitely faster around the bases.  That Gose was caught leaning by Owens, who is very deliberate and does not have a good move to first, shows that he still has plenty to learn about reading pitchers and stealing bases.  Gose did uncork a beautiful throw to home to nail a runner in the 2nd.  Pompey appears to have gap power that will only improve as he matures, and he looked like he may become a true table-setting leadoff hitter in the future.
   We think Pompey still needs more development time, but we are starting to think that he projects as an everyday centrefielder.

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  At 122 innings for the year, Norris is just beyond the recommended limit for the season, which for young pitchers is no more than 30 IP than the season before.  Having struck out 32 batters in his previous three starts, Norris has thrown a lot of maximum effort pitches this month, and he likely was running on fumes in this one.  His previous start was supposed to be his last before being sent to the bullpen in what was possibly an effort to groom him for a relief role with the big club in September, but the organization decided to give him one more.  His lower velocity was troubling, but he has pitched more this year than he ever has, and he's bound to be fatigued.  Watching Norris warm up in the right field bullpen just below our seats before the game, I reflected on just how far he has come in about 15 months.  After a rough pro debut season in 2012, he was getting lit up through his first several starts last year, and there were some who were calling the 2nd round pick from 2011 a bust.  He has been lights out since that time, and has rocketed through the minors.

   This start shows that he still may some distance away, but at the same time, we think that Norris' progress shows that the development of prospects, especially pitchers, takes time, and is not always an even, linear process.  The same could be said for Pompey, who started to break through toward the end of his fourth minor league season, and has broken through this year in his fifth.  There might also be more scrutiny on a prospect who was labelled the best prep southpaw in his draft year, and a 16th round pick from a Canadian high school.
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