Despite being only the second day of the 2014 Alaska Baseball League season, Monday night’s game at Mulcahy Stadium hosted the third meeting between Anchorage’s two teams, The Glacier Pilots and the Bucs. The previous day featured a doubleheader of two abbreviated, seven inning games, ending with each team being a game up and a game down.
Monday night, the teams would battle it out over a full nine innings for the first time this year. One would earn the brief luxury of going to bed with a one game advantage.
Between the June 8 opening day and the final regular season day on July 28, the crosstown rivals will face each other a total of 11 times. Every win is big in summer league play.
The weekend’s two games hinted at an offensive imbalance favoring the Pilots, who outscored the Bucs 10-4 behind solid pitching and bats eager to get season play underway. With a few Pilots players yet to arrive in the 49th state — notably catchers Riley Adams and Tyler Moore, outfielder Greg Allen, and pitcher Trevor Megill (all of whom were selected in the MLB First-Year Players Draft) — that imbalance is likely to weight a lot heavier against the Bucs in the near future. Monday offered a critical opportunity to get a leg up while they still could.
Much needed rain soak the municipality during the day and into the afternoon, but as the 7 p.m. start time approached, so did a part in the clouds. The cold was still abrasive to many players, who predominately hail from the south or west coast. One Bucs player was visible in the dugout, wrapped in the blanket. While snapping photos just feet away from the Pilots, I heard one player say, “If it gets any colder, I’m going home.”
The parking lot slowly witnessed a healthy trickling in of the city’s union members, as the first night game of the season was “Solidarity Night” at Mulcahy.
Mayor Dan Sullivan was on hand to throw out the first pitch.
It was Ed Flanagan, the sponsor of this year’s ballot initiative to increase the minimum wage. Flanagan tossed a floater to the plate, and the game was on.
Pilots second baseman Justin Protacio led the game off with a single off Bucs pitcher, Trevor Lacosse. Lacosse is a southpaw coming off his third solid season pitching for Bryant University, where he boasts a career 2.53 ERA. Protacio would advance to second after the next batter, shortstop Alex Maloney, flied out to deep right field. But Lacosse, with a hard fastball that’s been known to reach 99, struck out the next batter, and battled back from a 3-0 count to goad designated hitter Trevor Podratz into a sharp ground ball, ending the third inning.
The Bucs took advantage of the good start, facing another lefty in Johnny York, an East Bay, California native getting some extra playing time in between his freshman and sophomore years at St. Mary’s College (in my hometown of Lafayette, CA). York excelled in high school at Acalanes (go Dons!) with a 10-2 record, 0.82 ERA, and 90 strikeouts his senior year, and went on to pitch at Diablo Valley College before being swooped up by the Gaels.
York got off to a rocky start, hitting the first two batters, Andrew Copeland and Cade Reiten. The third batter, center fielder Andy Crowley, hit a slow hit ground ball that left Pilots third baseman Kevin Viers with only the play at first. Both runners advanced. York struck out the next batter. With runners at second and third, Bucs catcher Gage West hit a fly ball into the outfield, caught for the second out, but scoring Copeland. York caught the next batter looking to end the inning.
York would pitch only two innings and ring up three, but still allowed the only Bucs run of the game — despite not giving up a single hit.
The rest of the night belonged to the Pilots.
Lacosse continued to be impressive, going on to pitch four shutout innings with six strikeouts, one walk, and just two hits allowed. But a pair of two-run smacks from the Pilots provided the offense that would cover the margin of victory.
In the fifth inning, West Virginia University sophomore Ray Guerrini hit a two-run shot off of Bucs pitcher Spencer Wright. The following inning, Wright would afford right fielder Nikko Saenz the same feat.
The Pilots’ hitting prowess was dwarfed only by their pitching staff. Cameron Pongs took over for York in the third inning and pitched four shutout innings, which came requisite with three strikeouts and no walks. Pongs is coming off his junior year at Long Beach State, no doubt trying to use his time in Alaska to improve upon a high 5.73 ERA in 2014 (though a small sample size of 11 innings pitched over a 15 game period).
Whatever version of Pongs was giving up runs in the Big West Conference earlier this year was not the same Pongs that strutted onto the field at Mulcahy Monday night. His confidence was more of a swagger, and his dominant pitching backed it up. The lefty featured a fastball that has been known to top out at 97, with off-speed stuff that — while location was questionable half of the time — left batters clueless the other half. The three-quarters delivery displayed echoes of Madison Bumgarner throughout his four innings pitched.
After Pongs came Taylor Kaczmarek. The University of San Diego junior pitched a solid two innings, giving up just one hit while striking out two. Fresno State freshman Fred Schlichtholz (say that three times fast — or even once, even really slow…) came in to earn the save, giving up one hit and striking out two in a shutdown performance.
The Bucs have yet to find a groove, either offensively or defensively. But the season is still young, especially given the “Real World: Baseball” nature of summer league play, banding together a lot of strangers and expecting them to gel instantly. That said, the Pilots seem to have already adjusted to their new roomies very quickly. At the outset of the season, they’re looking ridiculously impressive.