Attendance was a little sparse to start the game at the neo-retro gem of a ballpark known as Canal Park in downtown Akron. Whether it was the pockets of gray clouds overhead or the Italian-American festival outside that was siphoning fans away, there were plenty of good seats available.
Those in attendance were able to witness Gerrit Cole in his first start after his appearance at the Futures Game on Sunday in Kansas City. His mound opponent, at least for the first inning, was Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Rafael Perez on a rehab stint. Robbie Grossman, Brock Holt, and Oscar Tejeda faced the Major League lefty and had 2 groundouts and 1 flyout in that order.
As for Gerrit Cole, the bottom of the 1st was a representation of his labored start tonight. The first pitch from Cole was well-struck to CF, but Grossman tracked it down and made a running catch before the warning track. After giving up a single to the 2nd batter, Cole exploded Nick Weglarz’s bat on an inside fastball, but the micro-bloop fell in front of 3B Stefan Welch who couldn’t make the running throw to get Weglarz. Cole got out of the inning by striking out one-time prospect Thomas Neal and getting a grounder to 3B, but he needed 18 pitches in the first inning.
Even with his rough start tonight, it was evident that Cole’s changeup had the Aero batters completely baffled from the start of the game. However, the remainder of his offspeed pitches were spotty at best and his fastball command was touch and go.
The top of the 2nd inning had a fairly unusual play occur. With runners on 2nd and 3rd, a medium-long flyball to left center field was caught by the Aero CF. Matt Curry tagged up from 3rd and crossed the plate, but not before the CF (Tyler Holt) threw Adalberto Santos out at 3rd base as he also tried to tag from 2nd to 3rd. This kept the game scoreless.
In the 2nd inning, Cole needed even more pitches (24) to get through the inning. He was consistently falling behind batters in this inning, but wriggled out of the inning with no damage. Again, his changeup was very effective, but he was throwing it early in the count and not much when he had 2 strikes on batters.
For the bottom of the 3rd, Cole came out with a much more aggressive approach and appeared to right his ship with an efficient 9 pitch outing. That gave him 51 pitches through 3 innings.
The scoring action started for the Curve in the 4th inning. Matt Curry drew his 2nd walk to leadoff. Santos followed with a shot up the middle to put runners on 1st and 2nd again, as in the 2nd inning. Instead of bunting like in the 2nd, Stefan Welch was swinging away this time. Welch grounded to the 2B and reached on a fielder’s choice, putting runners on 1st and 3rd. On a ball hit to the SS by Jarek Cunningham, the SS came home with the throw and threw out Curry who went on contact. Cabrera walked to load the bases for Latimore. Aeros pitcher Brett Brach had real problems against LH batters in the game, continuing his season long skewed splits between LH/RH batters (he has more walks than strikeouts versus LH). Latimore made him pay with a double in the gap to right center field, scoring Welch and Cunningham. Grossman struck out to end the inning. The 2-0 lead that the Curve gained would not last long.
In the bottom of the 4th, the leadoff hitter Neal doubled to the base of the left-center wall on a 3-2 fastball. The next batter, Juan Diaz, (after trying to go to 1B on ball 3) hit a towering home run shot over the gigantic batter’s eye in CF. The next batter followed with a flare double down the right field line. Cole continued to give up hits with a sharp shot off the glove of Brock Holt, putting runners on 1st and 3rd, still with no outs. Holt made an unassisted DP, which scored the runner from 3rd to give the Aeros a 3-2 lead, but cleaned up the mess. Cole struck out the next batter to escape after 30 pitches. That would be his final inning of work on the evening. Cole’s final line was 4 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, and 1 titanic HR allowed.
Hunter Strickland came in to relieve Cole in the 5th inning. Hunter struck out the first 2 batters he faced on 7 pitches and got the 3rd to pop out to CF on the 9th and final pitch of the inning. Strickland’s 2nd inning of work in the 6th was also clean and efficient.
Quincy Latimore got drilled by a pitch to leadoff the 7th. On a pop-up down the line by Grossman, neither Latimore nor Grossman made an effort to run it out. It landed just fair and both had to hustle to arrive safely. After Holt and Tejeda both struck out, Matt Curry came to the plate, having reached base his first 3 times up. However, Curry struck out also to end the inning.
In the 7th inning, Strickland’s burly frame absorbed a line drive shot back to the mound. He stayed in the game and got the 3rd out on the next batter.
The Curve had a chance to tie the game in the top of the 8th. Santos walked and advanced to 2nd on a wild pitch. Welch grounded to 2nd, moving Santos over to 3rd. Cunningham struck out again on a low and away pitch. Oddly, the game was interrupted in the top of the 8th with 2 outs and a runner on 3rd so that the Italian-American festival could set off their fireworks display over the right-center field wall. The game continued with fireworks blasting away, which had to be unnerving for Ramon Cabrera at the plate and the new Aero pitcher (Rob Byrson) on the mound. He walked Cabrera on 4 pitches. Latimore lined out to right-center to end the Altoona threat.
Victor Black came on in the bottom of the 8th inning. He has a very unusual quirk in his delivery where he winds up, takes the ball out of his glove in his windup, puts it back in briefly, then takes it back out to deliver the pitch. This adds a nice amount of deception to his delivery. Black was very wild to the 1st batter he faced (with fireworks still going off over his left shoulder), as he twice sailed pitches over the batter’s head, eventually resulting in a walk. After the leadoff batter stole 2nd base, Black plunked the next Aero batter in the hand, putting runners on 1st and 2nd with no outs. After a groundout to Cunningham, there were runners on 1st and 3rd with one out. A well-struck liner to Welch at 3B handcuffed him and he awkwardly threw low to 2nd base and the Curve could not get even one out. That play gave the Aeros an insurance run and put them up 4-2. Black struck out Juan Diaz on what appeared to be a nasty slider. The last batter for the Aeros in the 8th was completely lost against Black, as he struck out on 3 pitches.
The Curve had one last chance to make some noise in the 9th (perhaps not as much as the fireworks display). Grossman walked to leadoff the frame and advanced to 2nd base on a balk by Bryson. After working the count to 3-2, Brock Holt smashed a line drive triple into the right-center gap to make the score 4-3 and put himself on 3rd with no out. Tejeda and Curry both struck out, leaving the game up to Adalberto Santos to keep it alive. However, Santos fell victim to the strikeout epidemic spreading through the Curve lineup in the top of the 9th to end the game.
And for those that say that Pittsburgh loves its fireworks, let it be known that after the game the Aeros set off their own batch of fireworks, just in case the fireworks one inning before weren’t enough for the fans.
Welch has an open stance and a deep knee bend at the plate. His front foot is on the forward-most line of the box. His swing has some moving parts to it, as well.
Curry stands very close to plate and has a very upright stance. The toe of his back foot practically touches the inner line of the batters box. He drew 2 walks in his first two plate appearances, then had a two-out single in the 5th inning to reach base for the 3rd time. However, he was thrown out trying to steal 2nd base in the 5th inning for the 3rd out. He struck out in his final 2 at-bats.
Grossman has very good range in CF. He tracked down a sharply hit line drive in the 1st and made a nice running catch. His arm was not really tested at all during the game, however.
Much has been made of Cunningham’s defense. While he may never be confused with Joe Morgan at 2nd, he did range to his left and throw back to 2nd base on a fielder’s choice in the 8th inning to preserve the double play possibility during the next batter.
The Akron Aeros, in honor of the Italian-American street party outside the stadium, wore their Italian flag uniforms tonight. The main body was red, the right sleeve was green, and the left sleeve was white. It was a nice touch for a one-time event.