Down three runs early, Hickory Crawdads starting pitcher Jean Casanova settled down and his teammates fought back to take a 4-3 win over the Rome (Ga.) Braves Saturday night at L.P. Frans Stadium.
The win for the Crawdads (12-20) in the series opener with the Braves was the third in four games of the current homestand. Despite the loss, Rome (21-14) remained in a tie for first the Southern Division of the South Atlantic League.
Hickory scored the decisive run in the eighth after two were out. With Austin O’Banion on first, Ryan Dorow put up his third single of the game. Cristian Inoa then hit a grounder that got past second baseman Derian Cruz and allowed O’Banion to score from second.
It looked as if the Crawdads would be run out of the stadium. Facing Jean Casanova, Braves center fielder Drew Waters hit the second pitch of the game out of the ballpark. Two outs later, William Contreras, Kurt Hoekstra and Jean Carlos Encarnacion hit consecutive doubles and suddenly Rome held a 3-0 lead.
The Crawdads pecked away at the lead, starting in the second with Tyreque Reed’s second home run of the season. In the third, Cristian Inoa and Bubba Thompson steered back-to-back doubles just inside the bag at third to get Hickory within 3-2.
Tyler Ratliff worked an eight-pitch at bat into a walk in the fourth. He stole second with two outs and came home when Ryan Dorow lifted a soft liner into right center.
After giving up the homer and five doubles into the third, Casanova settled down and retired 12 straight before he walked Encarnacion to start the seventh.
Sal Mendez (2-2) got out of the inning and worked around an error with two outs in the ninth to seal the win.
Casanova and Huff Work Plan B:
Simply put, the Braves were pounding the fastball of Casanova early. So Casanova, pitching coach Jose Jaimes and catcher Sam Huff decided to alter the attack against an aggressive Braves lineup that had six extra-base hits through the first 11 hitters. After Riley Delgado doubled on a first-pitch fastball in the third, Casanova started the next nine hitters with an offspeed pitch. The right-hander retired the next 12 hitters, striking out four.
Huff and Casanova talked about the change of strategy and what went into the decision to use plan B.
It didn’t look like there wasn’t much of a fastball at the start and they were hitting it. You guys made the decision to go offspeed. I think I had one time where you went through the whole order and started everybody offspeed. How did that decision come about?
Huff: Before pregame, we were talking about the hitters. A lot of them, their percentages were they’re early swingers. They’re going to swing at first-pitch fastballs no matter what. Their two-hole shortstop (Riley Delgado), he is ten-percent on striking out, so he’s putting the bat on the ball. The first inning, we kind of got an idea and we got on the same page and we just started working it. I knew he had a good curveball, slider and changeup and we started mixing those in and then just get guys thinking and uncomfortable.
They hit you and hit you hard early. There were five doubles and a homer over the first three innings. What was your part in this decision to make a change in what you were going to throw?
Casanova: The first inning, that came from my head. I was like, “I’m not going to give up. I’m still going to attack the zone.” We all went over to the side with our pitching coach (Jose) Jaimes and we talked about, “Let’s start over and use the offspeed, curveball. Then, when the guy’s got two strikes on them, throw the slider because the slider is way faster than your curveball.” Then we started with the changeup and then the fastball and it started working. So, we just kept doing that throughout the rest of the game after the first inning. That helped a lot.
Is there are a macho thing where guys will say, “I’m going to throw my fastball, come hell or high water” and you overuse it?
Casanova: As a pitcher, I like to be aggressive with my fastball. Tonight, after they were hitting my fastball, I just worked with whatever was working earlier in the bullpen, which was my curveball and the slider and the changeup looked pretty good. So, I mixed those up. Then, a couple of times I threw a fastball when they were waiting for a breaking pitch and that’s when my fastball started playing.
At what point are you watching him and saying, “Okay, this is what we need to do.”? They’re hitting the fastball and you have your pregame stuff and you see what is actually taking place. At what point do you make a decision to call it this way?
Huff: First thing, once I saw them being aggressive throughout the at bat, I was just like, “We’ve got to go curveballs now. We’ve got to switch it up and we’ve got to get them out on their front foot and get them uncomfortable.”
We were talking about going in and they were sitting there. So, we started going away and then hard away and then soft away. I mean, we tried to get them uncomfortable and thinking.
Four guys I knew for sure were like, “he’s throwing a curveball right there” and we’d throw a fastball the first pitch. And then, he’s pretty much already given up on his at bat and then we’d throw two sliders inside.
I have to read hitters, too, and know which guys are going to be swinging no matter what it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fastball or a curveball or a changeup or slider, they’re swinging. And then the guys that are more picky and will take – because the guys that take, they take a curveball right down the pike and, okay, it’s strike one. Here comes another curveball, fouls it off and they’re 0-2. Alright, you can go fastball, curveball, changeup or slider. It just depends on what he wants.
We were pretty much on the same page. He shook me off maybe two or three times and we executed it. We took what we wanted from the first inning and built off of it. We’re taking that as a learning experience and the next time that we play them, maybe not go straight fastballs, but more working counts and getting guys uncomfortable.
Have you ever thrown that many offspeed pitches in a row to start a hitter?
Casanova: No, that was the first time where I had to start with my curveball or my slider or my changeup.
Huff: He’s a big fastball guy. This is the total opposite of what he does. He looked the part. He showed you that he can pitch both ways and still carve. You don’t need to just to just trust your fastball. You can use other things. Seeing that, I was really happy to see that from him. For him to hold and get out of that first inning and then come in and go back out there and just say, “You know what, hit it. Try and hit this.” It was really cool to see.
Casanova: It was special to me because he is the catcher that knows me the most. We’ve been together for like three years now. We got onto the same page and everything. After the first inning, I put it away and throw it in the garbage. This is a new inning and I’m going to try and compete and stay in the game as long as I can. That’s what I tried to do and it worked out.
In a game like this, you had the golden sombrero tonight and I know you’re not happy about that, but you had to take a lot of pleasure in working in that way. That was more important win wise than what you did at the plate?
Huff: As a team, we want to win. If it means I go 0-for-4, it means I go 0-for-4, but if I’m helping my pitchers and my whole staff and my team to win a ballgame behind the plate, then I’ll take it every day of my life. I love to win. I want to win.
Ratliff’s battle rewarded
It seemed innocuous at the time, but Ratliff’s at bat in the fourth played a big part in getting the Crawdads the tying run. An eight-pitch plate appearance turned into a walk and began the process of running up the pitch count of Odalvi Javier, who had thrown 42 pitches one out into the fourth.
“The first at bat, I was kind of late on his fastball and I got a hit off his changeup or slider,” said Ratliff about his approach for the key AB. “I actually got into an advantage count to 2-1. I fouled it off and got back even with a 3-2 count. He just kept throwing fastballs, fastballs. He kept trying to get me to chase the fastball up, which I couldn’t lay off of. They weren’t quite up enough to take. He just kept aggressively throwing the fastball up, up, up. I was sitting fastball and then the last pitch was kind of a spiked changeup. It was nice to get rewarded for a long 3-2.”
After hitting .167/.254/.250 in April, Ratliff has come around in May and is now at .371/.421/.486 for the month. He has multi-hit games in six of his last nine contests.
:I was working with Chase Lambin (Crawdad hitting coach) and Josue (Perez), our hitting coordinator, and (coach) Turtle (Thomas) and (manager) Matt (Hagen). They were all like, ‘You just have to go back to you, which is not chasing pitches up.’ I was trying to do too much, like I said. I was trying to go for the big home run. I’m not that type of player. I’m the type of player that’s going to hit balls in the gap, and hit doubles, and make hard contact and grind out at bats.”
Rome roaming out of runs:
The Braves baserunning cost them a couple of scoring opportunities. In the second, Isranel Wilson hit a liner to deep right. Through right fielder Justin Jacobs quickly retrieved and relayed the ball back in, Wilson hustled and reached second well ahead of the throw. However, he slid well past the bag, even avoiding the tag of Inao at short. Inao was able to snare Wilson in the ensuing rundown.
The more perplexing play happened in the seventh. After Encarnacion walked, Drew Lugbauer hit a swinging bunt in front of the plate. Mendez hopped down the mound and quickly got the out at first. Meanwhile, Encarnacion sped around second and made tracks to third. First baseman Tyreque Reed’s strong throw to the waiting Ratliff at third was well ahead of Encarnacion’s slide.
Tyreque Reed’s blast:
Check out Dan Victor’s (@slydanno70) video of Reed’s blast.