WEEKEND ROADIE: LAKE ELSINORE AT VISALIA

A short trip south on Saturday brought me to Visalia to see Archie Bradley make his 4th start at the hiA level against the Lake Elsinore Storm. Good California League action was on tap with National League West parent clubs facing each other in Visalia (Diamondbacks) and Lake Elsinore (Padres).

Visalia’s as good as it gets for minor league baseball. A perfect marriage of an intimate ballpark with a supportive community makes every game there a wonderful experience. At the advanced level of “A” ball, prospects are getting to the point of their careers that they have gone past the entry level of pro baseball and scouts know a lot more about what they can do. It’s always a great family atmosphere but baseball junkies get to see some serious prospects and good baseball.

The homestanding Visalia Rawhide had won the first two games of this four-game series and looked to tilt the scales even further in their favor with Bradley, the #7 overall pick of the 2011 draft, taking the mound. Lake Elsinore countered with RHP Colin Rea and it turned out to be a tense matchup. Bradley wasn’t as sharp on this night as he was in his first three outings this year and the Storm batters made a lot of good contact off of him. But the 20-year old battled his way through 6 innings allowing 2 ER on 8 hits and 1 walk while striking out 8.

Unofficially, Bradley threw 103 pitches, 70 for strikes. The blazing fastball was on display but location was a problem, as well as some shaky fielding behind him. A first inning run came partly due to a popup being misplayed in shallow left field. SS Sean Jamieson and LF Matt Helm had it surrounded, but between the blinding sun and maybe some miscommunication, the ball dropped and Lake Elsinore 2B Cory Spangenberg ended up on second. Shortly thereafter, 1B Lee Orr drove him home with a single and the Storm was up 1-0.

Bradley bore down and eventually picked off Orr to end the inning. Then, after the Rawhide evened things up in the bottom of the first, he had a quick 2nd inning by putting the Storm down on 11 pitches, including 2 K’s.

But the 3rd and the 4th innings saw Lake Elsinore put up single runs, including a long homerun to CF by Orr. If Archie Bradley is the “next big thing” in baseball, Lee Orr isn’t worried about it. He went 3-for-3 off of the Diamondbacks’ #3 organizational prospect (Baseball America)  and helped lead his club to a 3-1 lead that they held when Bradley was removed from the game after 6 innings. Give Storm manager Shawn Wooten a tip of the cap for inserting Orr into the cleanup spot after having him buried in the #9 hole for most of the season. It was money tonight.

Ultimately, the game was decided with some late-inning excitement as the Rawhide struck for 2 runs in the 7th and the go-ahead run in the 8th. Kaleb Fleck made it stand up with a pretty interesting 9th inning that saw the Rawhide choke off a 2-hit rally for the victory.

The Storm’s first two hitters in the top of the 9th got on base and were both sacrificed into scoring positions by Spangenberg. Jamieson then made the play of the night at SS by snagging a hard ground ball hit to his left by Yeison Asencio and whirling around to throw out Jace Peterson at the plate. Then, an out away from a Rawhide victory, who came to the plate with the tying run in scoring position? Lee Orr, of course.

But for all his mastery of Bradley on this night, Orr couldn’t get past Fleck to be the hero. He grounded out to Jamieson as the whole game seemed to come full circle.

Jamieson was charged with an error on the misplayed popup in the first inning that led to a run. And the Rawhide SS was also involved in a similar play later that ended up with a Storm batter reaching base, when Bradley probably should have recorded an out.

But at crunch time, it was Jamieson who gunned down the tying run at home and then sealed it with an assist for the final out.

Visalia’s Conrad Flynn got the win with 2 scoreless innings in relief of Bradley. Rea allowed just 1 Visalia hit and 1 run over 5 IP, but he walked 7 while striking out 6. Matt Lollis took the loss for Lake Elsinore after Jairo Gomez let the Rawhide pull even in the 7th.

As mentioned earlier, you can’t go wrong taking in a minor league baseball game in Visalia. But this one was better than your average night there. From Bradley pitching with a throng of scouts pointing their radar guns from behind home plate, to the late-inning rally that yanked a victory for the home team from the jaws of defeat, all 1,987 fans got their money’s worth tonight.

And here’s one more endorsement for the ballpark experience in Visalia. Every Saturday night they have a promotion where you can purchase a boot-shaped Rawhide mug (or bring one you have bought previously) and have it filled with beer or soda for half the regular price. I read that as “half-price beer night” and about 1,000 other places and venues I can think of that would mean….trouble. Not so on this Saturday evening. Cheap beer in Visalia doesn’t set off a WWE Royal Rumble atmosphere. Nope. You get baseball, country music, goofy contests, T-shirts sling-shotted into the crowd and everybody goes home happy. And maybe a horse like Archie Bradley gives up 2 ER over 6 innings and strikes out 8 and people like me say he wasn’t sharp.