After the top of the second, my first thought was, “Again?”
For those that don’t know the Hickory Crawdads recent history against local colleges, it hasn’t been a good run. With a team that had Andrew McCutchen and Steven Pearce in 2006, the Crawdads needed a 7th-inning rally to defeat Lenoir-Rhyne College, as the school was known as then.
One year later, LRC and Hickory tied and then the series was put on hold until 2015.
Now known as Lenoir-Rhyne University, the Bears used a big game by future LA Dodgers draftee Ivan Vieitez to defeat the Crawdads – a team that won the 2015 South Atlantic League title – 4-3.
One year later, LRU got a ninth-inning homer to defeat the Crawdads 7-4. The game was rained out last year.
This year, the Crawdads scheduled a game with Catawba Valley Community College, one of the better Division II JUCO programs.
The Red Hawks entered the game 24-9 and after an inning-and-a-half they held a 2-0 lead and were the aggressors.
So, you understand my thinking: “Again?” But then the roof caved in and Hickory scored in seven-straight innings to rout CVCC 12-2.
“They’re there because of who they are and our guys are trying to get to that level,” said CVCC head coach Paul Rozelle after the game. “So, it was nice to come out early and put some hits together and get a lead there early.
“That was a positive for us, but they’re pretty good and we just didn’t have enough for them coming down the stretch. That’s a credit to them and how good they are, but what an unbelievable experience for our guys to come out here and get this valuable lesson during the midweek. There’s no team we’re going to play this year that are going to look better than them.”
Red Hawks starter Matthew Dailey used a good mix of pitches and speeds to frustrate the Crawdads lineup early, fanning four of the first seven hitters.
Meanwhile, CVCC scored what turned out to be its only two runs in the second. After Crawdads starter Alex Eubanks needed only nine pitches to get through the first, Graham Mitchell lined a high fastball to left. David Graves sent right fielder Miguel Aparicio sprinting to the wall in right to retrieve a double. Aparicio retraced his same path for the next batter Kyran Russ, whose double scored both runners.
After a walk, Eubanks settled down to strike out the next two and then escaped further damage by getting Cory Watt to ground to second.
The game turned on a basic play in bottom of the second. With two outs and a runner at first, Kole Enright hit a slow, rolling comebacker to the box. Dailey mishandled the grounder for an error and he paid for it when Yonny Hernandez knocked a ball off the wall in left for a two-run triple.
The Crawdads then put together four straight hits in the third and scored them all on Yohel Pozo’s singled and Melvin Novoa’s three-run homer.
“They had a good pitcher,” said Crawdads manager Matt Hagen of Dailey. “He kept the ball down and changed speeds. He’s got a breaking ball and a changeup that he can throw for a strike or throw below the zone if he needs to. It took us a while to figure him out and get him timed up, so give our guys credit.”
Aparicio added a two-run shot in the fourth and the rout was on.
Sam Huff added a mammoth blast in the sixth and Eric Jenkins cleared the 32-foot-high fence in right during the eighth for the Crawdads fourth homer and final run.
The Crawdads sent eight pitchers to the mound – with only the starter Eubanks going two innings -and retired 24 of the last 26 they faced. Together, they struck out 12 and gave up just the three hits in the second. AJ Alexy and Demarcus Evans each fanned two in their lone inning of work.
“We showed everything we’ve got in the bullpen tonight, except for a couple of guys, Hagen said. “We’ve got some good fastballs coming out of the bullpen. That’s the formula for success, get a lead and have those guys throw strikes.”
**The Crawdads starting lineup was the following: Jenkins-7, Aparicio-9, Pedro Gonzalez-8, Pozo-3, Novoa-2, Tyler Ratliff-5, Chad Smith-D, Enright-4, Hernandez-6.
When asked if that would be the general lineup, Hagen responded, “What we threw out there tonight is close to what our starting lineup is going to look like, with the exception of a couple of guys that will rotate in. We’ve got good depth.”
**Rozelle said the difference for his starter Dailey was the inability to adjust to the hitters the second and especially the third time through the order.
“You saw Dailey come out and have success early and punched out a bunch of different guys and changed speeds and his locations were good,” said Rozelle. “But that second and third time through the lineup, they’ve now seen him and now we’ve got to execute even more. We left a couple of pitches up in the zone and good hitters hit them out.”
**Hagen was especially in awe of Huff’s solo homer in the sixth, a towering blast to left center that left the Red Hawks outfielders flat-footed.
“Huff hit a ball that half the stadium couldn’t find,” he said. “It was halfway up the lights in left center.”
**Rozelle was impressed with the run of arms the Crawdads marched to the mound. He said the experience will be valuable for his hitters as they continue through the college season.
“For our hitters, they’re not going to see much like that. In our league, we’re going to see one or two arms a weekend that are going to look like that. It’s understanding how to compete in those at bats and how to grind out and understand which pitches to swing at. They did a great job of getting strike one, and now they’re in control and they can dictate the at bat and we expand the zone, swinging at balls in the dirt because we’re put in the defensive position.”
Arms: Hard to really get a read on the Crawdads pitchers facing an overmatched lineup. They did throw pitches for strikes and, as Rozelle stated, controlled the zone for the ballgame. Eubanks was fantastic in the first, then left pitches up in the second that were spanked. Speas appeared to have the more electric fastball – there was no one in the stands with the speed gun – but control at times was spotty. But in all, those two, along with Noah Bremer, Alexy, Speas, Evans, Jean Casanova, Joe Barlow and Grant Zawadzki were never really extended. Only Eubanks second inning (22 pitches) went past 15 pitches in a single inning.
Bats: As mentioned above, the Crawdads group had trouble with the young, lefty starter at first, then adjusted as Dailey started getting pitches up. However, in what is admittedly inferior competition, the players seemed to go to the plate with a plan, rather than flail-and-bail if it’s close.
What will make Hickory more interesting on offense than the 2017 version are the wheels. They ran the bases well this evening, especially a play in which Hernandez read a play that turned into a diving catch that allowed him to go second to third and eventually score on a wild pitch. It’s not the total team-speed of the 2016 squad, but they’ll make things uncomfortable for opposing pitchers while on the bases, leading to hittable mistakes.
CVCC: There’s a reason they are 24-9 in its classification. They do a lot well on the field and know where to be. CF Cory Watt made a highlight-reel play on an over-the-shoulder diving play. They get the ball in quickly and appear to communicate well.
Dailey looks like a pitcher to watch at higher levels. He did mix speeds well and used the breaking ball to miss bats and until his error was in control of the hitters.