At a game that begin with the temperature at 50 degrees and the wind gusting in the neighborhood of 20 mph, starting pitchers Reid Anderson of the Hickory Crawdads and Andres Sotillet of the Lexington Legends did everyone a favor. They threw strikes.
Hickory scored two in the third and made them stand up for a 2-1 win in a game that lasted two-hours, 15 minutes at L.P. Frans Stadium Monday night.
Anderson, a native of New Egypt, N.J. had no issues with the frigid temperatures that dropped into the upper 30s by game’s end with light snow flurries swirling as fans left the ballpark.
“I’m used to Northeast baseball,” said Anderson. “I love pitching in this. It makes hitters a lot more tentative, so I just attacked them.”
Attack he did, as Anderson put together arguably his best start over the two seasons of his Crawdads career. The right-hander was the story for much of the game as he retired the first 15 hitters on his way to the longest outing of the season to date for a Crawdads starter. Lasting 6.1 innings, Anderson gave up one run on three hits and struck out six.
“He looked really strong and was rested,” said Crawdads manager Matt Hagen. “His tempo was tremendous. He was like, ‘Give me the ball’, throw a strike, ‘Give me the ball’, throw a strike, which is something that we preach. When you see a guy go out there and create tempo, it’s fun to watch.”
Working quickly, Anderson, who had just two three-ball counts, used a fastball/ changeup mix with an occasional curve thrown in. The game plan was keep the hitters back on their heels.
Said Anderson, who threw 86 pitches (58 strikes) “We had a plan to go in and just not trying to nitpick pitches but going right at them.”
With only 56 pitches tossed over the first five innings, it was a curious question as to just how long Anderson would be allowed to take a stab at a perfect-game bid if it developed deeper. As the game approached the middle innings, the thought of that rare accomplishment began to creep into Anderson’s mind.
“It’s hard to not think about it,” he said. “It’s always in the back of your head, but you’ve got to push that away and focus on the next batter at hand.”
Although the Crawdads committed three errors for the game, the Crawdads play in the field had much to do with Anderson’s success.
The first challenge to Anderson’s perfect-game came on back-to-back plays in the fourth. Marten Gasparini lifted a high fly ball that carried to the track in straight-away center. Fighting the wind, Pedro Gonzalez cruised back, turned his body twice before twisting against himself to make an over-the shoulder, basket catch. With the Crawdads shifted to the right side, the next batter, Nick Pratto sliced a pitch into left that Eric Jenkins sprinted to and made a diving catch.
“Jenkins almost overran the ball,“ Hagen said. “The wind pushed it back so much. Give those guys credit, it was not an easy night to be an outfielder.”
On the infield, third baseman Tyler Ratliff handled a bad hop on the backhand and threw to first. Later, Justin Jacobs had a mini-bad hop as he went to field a grounder and step on first.
“Those guys did a great job, said Anderson. “They had my back all night and they made incredible plays behind me. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Lexington countered with Sotillet, who was nearly Anderson’s equal. The right-hander pounded the strike zone to the tune of 49 strikes out of 63 pitches. On the way to striking out six, he threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 20 hitters.
“Their starter did a great job, too,” Anderson said of the pitching duel. “That definitely helps you focus in and it helps you really bear down because you know you don’t have much room to work with. I think everyone would prefer having a big lead and pitching in that, but tight games really help you lock in.”
The only troublesome inning for Sotillet came in the third with the help of an odd defensive play. With one out, Yonny Hernandez was hit by a pitch. Jenkins lifted a ball into shallow center that Gasparini charged and then attempted a diving catch. The umpire immediately ruled the ball in play, but thinking he had made the catch, he fired to first for a double play attempt and thereby missing a chance to catch the lead runner Hernandez at second for a force play. Miguel Aparicio hit a seeing-eye single to right that scored Hernandez and Jenkins scored when right fielder Seuly Matias’s throw home went to the backstop.
The Legends opened the sixth with their first base runner, a single to left by Oliver Nunez. Sebastian Rivero blooped a single to right and a wild pitch moved both up. One out later, a contact play resulted in Nunez getting caught in a rundown trying to score. Anderson got out of trouble with a groundout by Gasparini.
Lexington’s only run came in the seventh when Matias doubled. A wild pitch bumped him to third and Matias scored on MJ Melendez’s sac fly.
The Legends threatened in the eighth and ninth innings. Facing DeMarcus Evans in the eighth, Rivero got a four-pitch walk and went to third when Evans fielded Ricky Aracena’s sac bunt and threw wildly past first. Cal Jones struck out and then Gasparini flew out to Jenkins in shallow left with Jenkins easily throwing out Rivero at home trying to score.
The suspense built again in the ninth when with one out Matias reached second on an infield hit and a throwing error. Alex Speas struck out Melendez, but a wild pitch put runners on the corners. Speas gathered himself and fanned both Guzman and Nunez to end the game.
***The fastball from Alex Speas has been as advertised. We don’t yet have a speed-gun reading available at the ballpark, but judging by the swings from the hitters during the two outings I’ve seen him it has life and it gets there in a hurry. However last night, it was the breaking ball that did a lot of the dirty work among the nine missed bats in his inning. It appeared to have that falling-off-the-table sink, one of which Melendez flailed at and catcher Melvin Novoa had to chase down near the Crawdads dugout.
He didn’t panic with a runner at third and one out but continued to throw the pitch and trusted Novoa to make plays if needed. Speas then set up Nunez for a fastball on the inside corner for a called third-strike that ended the game.
Said Hagen of Speas: “You take the error away and then the wild pitch that got away from Melvin, it was a tremendous inning. Either way he ended up with four strikeouts. Watching him from last year to this year, and to see the progress and the maturation has been really fun to watch. To go from where he was at as a starter to coming in as a reliever and hoping for a good result to coming in as a reliever and knowing that you’re going to get really good results coming into the game.”
*** This is a game Anderson likely loses in 2017. He would have games like this where he would dominate for several innings but a quirky inning or a bad pitch would get away and cost him the game. In a preseason interview, pitching coach Jose Jaimes said Anderson is better prepared this season to go deep into games. Anderson agrees and talked about his mindset on the mound this season.
Anderson said, “Mainly it’s just not trying to think ahead. Last year, I would go out there I would be in the first inning and I’d already be thinking about the sixth. This time, I’m just focusing batter to batter, pitch to pitch and not trying to get ahead of myself.”