With their division rivals in town and the possibility of seeing Manny Ramirez and Yoenis Cespedes, the series opener against the Fresno Grizzlies promised to be an exciting one.
In front of a solid Tuesday crowd of 8,729, Ramirez didn’t play (finished 10-game rehab stint), but it didn’t matter as the River Cats beat the division-leading Triple-A team of the San Francisco Giants 4-2 on great pitching and a walk-off home run by Brandon Hicks.
It was relatively quiet until the bottom of the second inning when Cats first baseman Chris Carter led off with a walk. After he stole second, Anthony Recker, who was optioned back to Sacramento yesterday, ripped a line shot into left field that plated Carter for the first runs on the scoreboard.
With two outs, Hicks was hit by a pitch to extend the inning, and when he stole second, it put runners on the corners.
That was all the Cats could muster in the frame as second baseman Luke Hughes struck out on the sixth pitch from Fresno starter Eric Hacker.
Yoenis Cespedes, who is on a rehab assignment, singled to start a rally in the third. Michael Taylor was up next and grounded a single into right field that allowed Cespedes to get to third.
Carter then strode to the plate and skied to second pitch into left field for a sacrifice fly that scored Cespedes. Then it was Recker’s turn. He promptly torched the first pitch he saw into right to put two on with two outs. Cats catcher Derek Norris who flied out to end the threat.
After three full, the River Cats held a 2-0 lead.
As the Cats bats were coming through when needed, Sacramento starting pitcher A.J. Griffin was having his best start of the year. After allowing two base runners in the opening frame, Griffin tightened up the screws and only let one more over the second, third and fourth innings combined.
Griffin has been consistent all year. The only knock on him may be that opponents are figuring out his stuff as the game goes into the latter innings.
“The more they see you, each time through the lineup, the more they are going to be able to recognize your pitches”, said 24-year-old Griffin. “At the same time, I’m out there throwing strikes and putting the ball in the zone.”
Manager Darren Bush said he saw a different and better Griffin out on the mound in this game.
“He’s thrown the ball well, but today he threw the ball with conviction and confidence, and it looked really good from the side,” he said.
A horrible call was made after Cespedes torched a clean double into right field that rolled to the wall. When the play was over, Hacker told the umpire he wanted to appeal the play, saying Cespedes didn’t touch first base on his way to second. He did, and the first base umpire Chris Segal called Cespedes out.
Upon seeing the replay, it was obvious that he easily hit the front corner of the bag with his heel. A horrible call cost the Cats a one-out scoring opportunity.
Fresno started off the sixth with a base on balls by Nick Noonan. Noonan got to third on a strange play. Roger Kieschnick hit one straight up the middle that nicked the top of Cats pitcher Griffin’s glove and towards a running Hicks. As the ball continued its path, he was able to get in front of the ball but fanned on it as it went right by his open glove into centerfield for a fielder’s choice that kept the inning alive.
The next batter, Charlie Culberson, singled on the first pitch he saw from Griffin for the Grizzlies first run of the game.
Bush decided that was enough for Griffin and brought in Sean Doolittle, who was just called up from the Midland Rockhounds.
Doolittle is an amazing story. The guy was a pitcher in college, but once drafted, the A’s liked his frame and thought if he just put on enough muscle, he would be a great power guy and be able to play first base. And he did for the River Cats back in 2009.
After tearing a tendon in his knee and having two knee surgeries, Doolittle then tore a tendon in his wrist. If he had the surgery to repair, he would have missed most of 2012. He realized the only way to stay in the league was to convert back into a pitcher.
In only 21.1 innings of work, he had a 0.84 ERA and 40 strikeouts in Single-A Stockton and Double-A Midland combined. Oh, by the way, he’s a lefty and can toss it 96 mph.
“It’s very mind-boggling,” Doolittle said. “It’s incredibly humbling, and I take none of it for granted. I’m so thankful to not only have a second chance but to make the most of it. Driving up the ballpark today was very surreal. Like, wow! Not only did get all the way back here, but I’m back as a pitcher. To make the most of a second chance, so far, it’s been awesome!”
After getting Todd Linden to strike out, Doolittle gave up a run scoring single to Juan Ciriaco that tied the game at 2-2.
That was all she wrote for the Grizzlies as the Cats bullpen threw zeros onto the scoreboard for the rest of the game behind the arms of Doolittle, Pedro Figueroa and Evan Scribner.
With Dan Otero on the mound, who relieved Hacker in the seventh, the Cats led off the ninth with a first pitch line shot to left by Stephen Parker. It was Parker’s third single of the day as he went 3-for-4 on the day.
Otero must have been rattled as the next pitch he threw was lofted over the wall into left field by Brandon Hicks, his sixth on the season.
Hicks had struggled in a couple of at-bats in the game as Hacker was pounding the fastball in tight and it kept Hicks from making good contact.
But on the first pitch from Otero, everything changed.
“It’s always fun to hit a walk-off at home in front of your home crowd”, Hicks said. “Especially against a team like Fresno, who we’re battling against for first place.”
GAME NOTES: With the win, the River Cats go to 33-20 on the season . . . Recker went 3-for-4 in his first game back with Sacramento . . . Scribner is now 2-0 and has a team-leading four saves . . . Fresno left 19 men on base as the Cats arms were tough when it mattered most . . . Ramirez is expected to stay in Sacramento and probably play Wednesday