Lake Elsinore, Calif. — The first inning wasn’t pretty, and the final frame was downright ugly, but in between, the Storm did enough to pull out an 8-6 win over Inland Empire. With the victory over the Angels’ affiliate, they stay in the midst of a lackluster playoff chase in a division where all four teams are under .500 and bunched within one game.
Starter Reggie Lawson, who dominated early in the year, struggled to find feel with any of his pitches Friday. The 20-year-old righty opened the game by walking the first two batters he faced. After a single plated a run, he got two shallow flies to right, but then walked another hitter before escaping further damage with his only strikeout of the night.
Lawson needed 35 pitches – only 16 strikes – to get through the first inning. His fastball was 92-94 in that frame, but was all over the place, and he only mixed in four breaking balls along the way. He ramped up velocity a bit in the second and third, hitting 95 several times, but then took a bit off later in his final two frames, sitting more 89-91, but with better placement. He didn’t throw a change-up until the third when he had two back-to-back against lefty prospect Brandon Marsh, but used it only once or twice more.
“He lacked command of his fastball, his offspeed pitches weren’t working,” said Storm manager Edwin Rodriguez. “But he battled. And he gave us five innings and got the win.”
Lawson did settle down in the fourth when the only runner was on an infield single that could have easily been an out. He opened the fifth by inducing groundouts from the Angels’ top two position prospects Jo Adell and Marsh, but then walked third-time Cal-Leaguer Roberto Baldoquin before getting out of the inning.
Just as Lawson found his stride, so did the Storm offense against ‘Sixers starter Erik Manoah, who fed them a steady diet of high-80s fastballs and a variety of off-speed stuff. With one out in the fourth, Manoah hit Luis Torrens and gave up a double to Hudson Potts. Brad Zunica followed by jumping a 1-0 fastball for a moonshot over the right field fence.
The blast was the fifth of the year for the big first baseman, but perhaps as impressive were his two walks and second straight game without a strikeout. Zunica had used a big leg kick through his first three years in the system, but has reworked his swing this year.
“It’s still kind of a work in progress,” said Zunica. “It was kind of me being stubborn and not wanting to change what had worked in the past. It kind of finally clicked. Everybody kept telling me how much power I had, but I like to see just how far I can hit a ball. And yeah, when I do all that, it goes farther. But I don’t have as much success. There’s a lot more swing and miss.”
Zunica has continued to strike out at a high rate this year, but the underlying reason for the Ks right now is more about swing decisions, something that the left-handed slugger has been improving. He’s hit in eight of nine games and has fanned just seven times in that stretch.
The club added two more runs in the fifth when Eguy Rosario rocketed a double down the left field line to plate Chris Baker, who had singled, and Buddy Reed. Reed, coming off rare back-to-back hitless games, finished the night 1-for-3 on a beautifully executed bunt for a hit and a walk. After walking just seven times in his first 41 games, he’s drawn six in his last nine contests.
The Storm hit plenty of balls hard all night. Potts finished with two doubles and barely missed a homer on a booming fly out to center. Seven of his last ten hits have been for extra-bases. Edward Olivares finished the night 0-for-4 but smoked a liner to left in the first and had a loud fly to center as well.
After Lawson gave way on the mound, Emmanuel Ramirez worked one bumpy inning, giving up a long home run to Inland DH Richie Fecteau, who came into the night with a .282 slugging percentage. While the righty has been able to get plenty of strikeouts with a slurvy breaking ball and a fastball that shows some nice late life, he’s given up six homers in just 27 Cal League innings. Storm opponents actually own a lower average against him than batters in Fort Wayne did,
Righties Colby Blueberg – now back in the Cal League for a third straight year – and David Bednar each worked a clean inning. Bednar showed both a curve and a slider, and sequenced Marsh nicely to get a three-pitch strikeout on a called strike with the curve, foul back on a change, and a fastball swung on to finish.
Dauris Valdez came on with a four-run lead in the ninth, but as has frequently been the case this year, struggled with both command and control. The massive righty used a steady stream of fastballs that ranged from 95-98 but came in without the plane you’d expect from a pitcher who might be more than his listed 6-foot-8. He opened by walking Jones and then surrendered a booming triple to Adell. He uncorked a wild pitch to plate the final run, but then escaped after allowing one more walk. He needed 28 pitches, just 13 of which went for strikes. He’s issued 17 walks in 22 frames.
Notes: Outfielder Jorge Ona went on the disabled list on Friday, two days after a freak play that turns out to have fractured his cheek bone. The outfielder was going back on a line drive home run in Rancho on Tuesday when the ball hit off the foul pole and came back and caught him flush in the face. His timeline for return is unclear at this point. … Catcher Marcus Greene will be activated from the temporarily inactive list Saturday (he had a death in the family), but will then immediately serve a two-game suspension for his role in last Friday’s dust-up with San Jose. … Luis Torrens continues to have real issues behind the plate. After spending all of last year on the big league roster as a Rule 5 pick, he’s pacing the Cal League with 10 errors and 12 passed balls. While he’s caught a league-best 38.5% of would-be base stealers, he also looked pretty lost behind the plate Friday, half-heartedly swiping at a few balls in the dirt and being slow enough to retrieve a wild pitch that the runner took two bases. … Inland’s trio of Jahmai Jones, Adell and Marsh are as dynamic a trio of position players as any this side of the second-generation terrors in New Hampshire. They reached base in seven of 15 trips to the plate and each swiped a bag. While Adell’s average has lagged since joining Inland 10 games ago, six of his eight hits have gone for extra-bases. Pro scouts for potential selling teams will undoubtedly be spending a lot of time following Inland over the next two months.