Clinton, Iowa's ballpark is a vintage stadium. Built in the mid-1930s, the behind-the-plate seating is all protected by mesh netting. The first few rows are a bit more expensive than the rest, but everything else is general admission. As we wanted decent seats, my dad and I made sure to get to the game early. We were reasonably close, but the intriguing part of where we sat was that we were next to the mother of the home plate umpire for the first few innings. July 4 was his last night in the Midwest League, before he started a step up in Florida. As much as we make of players getting called up, the same happens to the umpires as well.
I sometimes give some verbal grief to the umps (within reason), but I needn't have worried, as the ball/strike calls were consistent all night long. He seemed to be calling the inside corner for lefty batters more than for right-handed hitters, but the pitchers weren't put off by it at all. One hitter walked all night in the 2-1 Kane County win. I don't usually check names on the umpires, but if Robbie Aaron and the Daytona Cubs announcers mention Matt Winter in the umpires section of the game, I think he'll acquit himself rather well.
Juan Paniagua started for Kane County, and as someone else has mentioned here, he is a hard thrower. He sits mid-90s, which matches Duane Underwood on the velocity-check. However, I think Underwood has more pitch movement. I saw Paniagua pitch on the night the Matt Garza -to-Texas trade went official, and he is much better now. He is a much more deliberate pitcher than most Cougars starters, but he isn't in the Steve Trachsel category. As opposed to Underwood, who is the first one out of the dugout when pitching, Paniagua isn't. Not so much an issue, just something I've noticed.
As to the game, Jake Hannemann was serving the first game of his "contact with an umpire" suspension, so he wasn't in the lineup. The game had only 11 base hits all night, and four of them were from Clinton LumberKings (Mariners) left fielder Chantz Mack. The Clinton starting pitcher was a funky lefty named Blake Holevach. Holevach loved Winter's strike zone, fanning Carlos Penalver and Kyle Schwarber looking in the first. As hitting the arm-side corner was Holevach's goal all night, Cael Brockmeyer slapped one into the Cougars right-field bullpen for an RBI triple in the second, driving home Jacob Rogers, who had sliced a liner over the shortstop before him.
When I was finally able to see the velocity on Holevach's pitches, his off-speed stuff was sitting in the 70s as often as not, and not on the higher end. He's the type that will dominate at a lower level, but often see the trends reverse a level or two up. In his next two chances against Schwarber, the hitter won. Schwarber roped a single, and added a 'double' that was poorly played by the right fielder in the very important sixth inning.
I'll jump there now, as it was important for a number of reasons, to include the fourth and final part of this series. Shawon Dunston, Jr. walked to lead off the sixth, with the Cougars still up a run. I'm as not a fan of bunting in most situations as anyone, but this situation screamed bunt. Not the typical sacrifice, necessarily, but bunt nonetheless.
The minor leagues are about development. As much as the fan would like "grip it and rip it" from the lead-off man here, Trey Martin is not usually a top-of-the-order hitter. He's going to have to be good at moving runners up to advance through the system, as he isn't a guy that's going to OPS .890+ in Tennessee. He's a very good defender, but he'll have to move runners up as needed to be a major league player. With a tall lefty on the mound, he pushed a bunt toward the second baseman, which is a skill that plays well for guys like Martin. He almost beat it out, but got the runner to second with one out. If you make a bunt where the defense has to make a really good play to record the out, I'm good with that. As long as it fits the situation, which it did.
Penalver grounded to short, with Dunston moving to third. I noted that Schwarber was up with a lefty on the mound. A right-handed hitter in Ben Carhart was due next. Carhart is a solid hitter at this level, and holds the platoon advantage over Holevach. Nonetheless, this had 'intentional walk' written all over it. Holevach faced Schwarber. The Cougars lead bulged to two.
In the last of the sixth, Paniagua walked a hitter with two outs. After a single to center, the game hinged on the next play. A looping liner to center field was spotted right between center fielder Martin and left fielder Schwarber. Martin laid out to try to make the play, but came up short. The run scored, but the runner tried to go first to third with two outs. Schwarber caught the ball on the bounce, coolly turned to third, and earned himself an assist.
Nobody is ever likely going to say Kyle Schwarber is a really good defender. He isn't going to win any Gold Gloves anywhere. But he knows the game. He positions himself well, has adequate enough range, and makes the routine play. He's not a Dave Kingman-type in left. If he's in a position to make he play, he probably will. My defensive comp for him (which almost always seems to dredge up guys from the seventies) is a young Greg Luzinski. Luzinski had trouble with defense as he aged, but early on, he was an entirely capable left fielder who could consistently hit 30+ homers in a season.
In the eighth, to emphasize my point, Clinton had a rally going off of reliever Michael Wagner. With an out and a runner on, DH Martin Peguero singled in front of Schwarber in left. The runner on first really wanted to get to third, and he rounded the bag aggressively. Schwarber threw behind the runner, and almost had a second assist.
Schwarber will be able to play left field, especially if the other outfielders have good range. He was being shifted about the outfield, depending on the count and the hitter. Once, he was almost in center. He will, on those outlier occasions, give up a triple to left when someone goes "against the scheme." This will annoy fans, but it's how it will be occasionally. His bat will play, and by the time he is unable to play left or catch, the DH might be in play. Schwarber will be a better hitter than Dan Vogelbach.
Michael Wagner fanned the last hitter in the ninth, hitting the spot that had been a strike all night long. Matt Winter was off to Florida, and I had a decision to make. More on that in the fourth and final part of my vacation review.