Patience, Discipline Give Big Train Offensive Edge over Redbirds

Drew Strotman (St. Mary's Calif.) twirled a dandy (7IP, 1ER) last night, inducing weak contact and quick outs from the free-swinging Redbirds hitters all night long. Image Credit: Lisa A. Kammerman/BigTrainPhotos

Note that this is a feature article about the different offensive strategies and skillsets of the Big Train and Redbirds this season that were conspicuous throughout yesterday's double-header sweep. This is NOT a recap. To read Danny Kobren’s recap of yesterday’s double-header, click on this link: http://bigtrain.org/news/?article_id=419

 

As the sun rose over Shirley Povich Field yesterday morning, Bethesda Big Train players, coaches, and fans knew that the biggest day of the regular season was upon them. The Baltimore Redbirds were in town and sat at 23-7, two games ahead of the Big Train, 22-10, for overall top dog in the Cal Ripken League. The Redbirds, as we all know, have defeated the Big Train for the League Championship the past four seasons in a row and were 1-0 in the 2016 season series, copping a 5-4 victory on June 10th at Calvert Hall.

But as the star-studded Redbirds, with a grand total of twenty-four Power 5 conference (ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac 12) players on their roster and a team batting average of .308, slowly but surely crumbled against the Big Train (five Power 5 players, .268 team batting average) Friday afternoon and then late Friday night, the two teams were tied for the best record in the league, the Big Train had the 2-1 head-to-head advantage, and it was pandemonium at Povich Field, the games having the feel of a League Championship Series, particularly with that thrilling walk-off win in the nightcap just before midnight on the East Coast.

While no doubt what everyone will remember most about last night’s pair of victories is former Big Train reliever turned Redbirds All-Star Mike Rescigno (Maryland) uncorking that wild pitch in the bottom of the eleventh and his Maryland teammate Justin Morris taking off from third base and sliding into home with the winning run, it is important to remember how the Big Train got to that position in the first place: grinding out at bats.

Heading into Friday’s games, the Redbirds had scored one more run than the Big Train on the summer, the top two offenses in the league. The two powerhouses score their runs in different ways with different offensive strategies. Let’s look into each, using stats from pointstreak.com:

Enter the Redbirds, chock full of hitters with batting averages over .300. The Redbirds are aggressive in the batter’s box, swing early in the count, do not take many pitches, and rank a mere sixth out of ten teams in walks drawn. However, because the Redbirds are such skilled hitters, they are able to rack up enough hits, baserunners, and runs as a result. For those who tuned into ESPN broadcasts of MLB games throughout the 2000s, this is the way Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan likes it.

Enter the Big Train, with a .268 team batting average, as stated earlier, and only two hitters batting over .300. They score their runs a different way. Unlike the Redbirds, the Big Train hitters demonstrate superb patience and plate discipline, work the count, see a lot of pitches, and rank first in the Cal Ripken League in walks, 17 more than the next-highest team. For those who read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball or saw the 2011 best picture nominee, this is the way Oakland Athletics executive Billy Beane likes it.

Which offensive strategy, swinging early or taking pitches, ultimately won out? Which two of the four All-Star starters we saw in the Friday double header had a more difficult time recording outs?

Redbirds Game 1 starter Cole Aker (North Carolina) had to labor all afternoon, as the patient Big Train hitters forced him to throw more pitches and made his job harder. Aker threw 22 pitches in the fifth inning and 20 more in the sixth, walking two batters in the process and setting up a monstrous bottom of the 7th for Bethesda, an inning that saw Aker throw 30 more pitches en route to giving up two more walks and hitting a batter to load the bases with two outs for Cody Brown (Mississippi State), who delivered a two-run hit, followed by Justin Morris (Maryland) who did the same, giving the Big Train a 5-1 lead. In the eighth, relief pitcher Mark Curtis (Shippensburg) threw 20 more pitches and walked a hitter, for an ugly total of 92 pitches in a mere four innings from Redbirds pitching in Game 1. The result? Four Big Train runs scored.

For the fifth inning of Game 1, the Big Train turned to southpaw Johnny York (St. Mary’s Calif.), who does an exceptional job commanding all of his pitches and entered the game having walked just one batter in 27 innings pitched. York threw a glistening five innings and pitched to contact. He only struck out one batter but a mere three of the nineteen batters he faced saw more than five pitches in their plate appearance. The Redbirds could not work any walks off York, who scattered four hits and averaged just over twelve pitches per inning, never tossing more than 16 in a single frame. The result? Zero Redbirds runs scored.

Lefty Tyler Blohm (Maryland) started the nightcap for Baltimore, and, though he did manage a Quality Start (at least 6 innings pitched and 3 earned runs or fewer), Blohm was not nearly as sterling as Bethesda’s Game 2 starter, righty Drew Strotman (St. Mary’s Calif.).

Strotman averaged just over 12 pitches per inning en route to a seven inning, one earned run gem that saw him walk none and give up a mere four hits while striking out four Redbirds. In the second inning and then again in the seventh, Strotman needed just seven pitches to retire the side in order. He finished with 86 pitches on the night and gave manager Sal Colangelo the privilege of not having to go to the bullpen until the eighth inning against the top run scoring team in the league. To top it off, only three of Strotman’s 21 batters faced saw more than five pitches in the plate appearance.

For the Redbirds, Blohm threw 41 pitches through the first two innings and walked three in that span, one of which came around to score on Vinny Esposito’s (Sacramento State) two-run single in the bottom of the first. After a good third inning by the Maryland freshman, Blohm struggled again in the fourth, as four of the five batters he faced in the frame saw at least five pitches en route to a 24-pitch inning that brought his total to 74 pitches four innings into his start. Morris doubled on a full count, Logan Farrar (Virginia Commonwealth) worked a five pitch walk, Blohm’s fourth of the game, and Clayton Daniel (Jacksonville State) knocked in a run on a single, the fifth pitch of that at bat. That inning could have been worse for Blohm, who was bailed out by a Farrar baserunning miscue to end the frame.

Blohm settled down for the next two innings, retiring six straight, but still had to throw 30 pitches in the process, bringing his total to 104 (exceedingly high for a college summer game start) and forcing manager Larry Sheets to call to the bullpen for the seventh, after what, on paper, looked like a solid outing for Blohm: six innings, two earned runs.

With each starter having exited the game, it became a battle of the bullpens beginning in the bottom of the seventh inning. Matt Marsili (James Madison), who tossed three relief innings of one-run ball, bent but did not break in the top of the ninth, and as the game went into extra innings, it was ultimately the Redbirds bullpen that blinked first.

Of course, all of that detail regarding pitcher performance and the ability of the hitter to make the pitcher’s job harder is not as exhilarating as the thrill of an extra inning walk-off victory to complete a double header sweep of your rivals and tie the league’s best record, but it is important to note that the Big Train and Redbirds, the two most powerful offenses, get their runs in remarkably different fashions with contrasting hitting strategies. The Big Train won both games despite only outhitting the Redbirds by one between the two games, 15-14. However, Bethesda got on base more, saw more pitches, out-walked the Redbirds 13-2 on the day, and fatigued the Baltimore pitching staff, making them prone to mistake pitches and giving way to timely hitting by Bethesda hitters.

When you go up against the best pitchers in the league, grind out at bats. The Big Train did it yesterday against the Redbirds’ best arms and came out on top. The Redbirds came out free swinging against the Big Train’s best and could not get the bases and runs they needed to win. The Cal Ripken League’s top two teams now are tied for the best record after yesterday’s sweep that had a playoff feel to it, likely because it was as important and implicative as an actual playoff series. And as the Big Train interns rallied the always-loyal hometown crowd when the game went into extra innings and the men in green came out on top, Big Train President and General Manager David Schneider put it afterwards, “This place was electric, and I’m glad we were able to pull away with a victory.”

 

Note that this is a feature article about the different offensive strategies and skillsets of the Big Train and Redbirds this season that were conspicuous throughout yesterday's double-header sweep. This is NOT a recap. To read Danny Kobren’s recap of yesterday’s double-header, click on this link: http://bigtrain.org/news/?article_id=419

 

Link to the spreadsheet of Big Train and Redbirds team stats and individual pitch counts from yesterday:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1dQpr4zo3GySEd5UzE5XzBQNGM/view?usp=sharing



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