Wisconsin's magic number to clinch their first Midwest League playoff spot since 2005 remains at six tonight as they fell 2-1 to Clinton in just their tenth home loss of 2012.
The Timber Rattlers were able to scratch out an early run in the first inning tonight as Jason Rogers walked, advanced to third on Nick Ramirez's single and scored on a throwing error on the play. Unfortunately, that was the end of their scoring. Ramirez finished the game with two of their three hits.
"I'm trying to tighten things up and stop trying to pull the ball and just stay down the middle," Ramirez said. "I missed a couple of pitches I should have hit in my first at bat and still got a good pitch to hit, and the second at bat I jumped on a first pitch fastball."
After the fourth inning Wisconsin hit just one ball out of the infield, a sixth inning flyout for Max Walla, and had just two baserunners.
"Obviously their pitchers did a nice job of keeping us off balance," Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson said. "Their reliever (winning pitcher Andrew Kittredge, who entered in the sixth) came in, we didn't know much about him but he got some off speed stuff early in the count over the plate and got ahead and was able to basically do whatever he wanted with our hitters. We were just unable to do anything to put pressure on their defense today. They had the mistake in the first inning when we scored on the error but we were unable to get anything going offensively."
Wisconsin pitchers, however, almost made that 1-0 lead stand up. They got five scoreless innings tonight from starter Will West despite the fact that he had runners in scoring position in the first, third and fifth. Jacob Barnes followed him to the mound and allowed two runs on a seventh inning solo home run and a pair of singles and a stolen base in the eighth. Clinton baserunners stole five bases and advanced on a balk in the game.
"I think our pitchers did well enough to win tonight, obviously only two runs on the board," Erickson said. "But not a real good job controlling the running game, that's something we've struggled with a little bit but we've got to get better or we're going to have some problems in that area."
Tommy Toledo pitched a scoreless ninth tonight for Wisconsin, and still hasn't allowed a run over his last 21 innings, a streak that dates back to April 15.
"I didn't know the exact date but obviously he's done a really good job and I have to find ways to get him more innings," Erickson said. "It's tough right now with the three tandems we have, maybe some things will shake out here at the halfway point to where we can adjust his role maybe a little more, get him some more innings but he's done a great job every time we've asked him in whatever role we put him in, he's throwing the ball really well."
Wisconsin is now 37-23 on the season, two games up on Beloit in the Midwest League's West Division with ten games to play in the first half. Wisconsin will clinch a playoff spot if they finish the half in one of the top two spots, and they're currently five games up on third place Kane County.
Follow the jump for stories on Wisconsin's pending stadium renovation project and two of their seven 2012 Midwest League All Stars, second baseman Greg Hopkins and closer Seth Harvey.
Today's big news in Appleton has little to do with the game on the field tonight: Earlier today the Timber Rattlers held a press conference to announce a $5+ million renovation project for Fox Cities Stadium to take place this winter. The most notable addition to the ballpark will be a club level above the existing press box and suites, which will allow the team to add 250 seats and six luxury suites to the park.
Renovations will also expand and improve the ballpark restrooms, team store, concession stand, offices, home clubhouse and storage. The team is working with Pendulum Studios, who also worked on Midwest League ballparks in Dayton, Quad Cities and Clinton, on the design. Boldt Construction, who built Fox Cities Stadium in 1995, will perform the renovations.
Wisconsin president Rob Zerjav called the announcement "an exciting day."
"For the Timber Rattlers the customer experience is extremely important, what the fans experience when they come out to the ballpark,"Zerjav said. "So we've received a lot of customer feedback throughout the years, we've tried to put a lot of that feedback into our renovation. We've taken a lot of tours of other ballparks, looking at industry trends and hopefully we've captured the good things that everybody's done at other ballparks."
The $5.5-6 million renovation will be privately financed through the Fox Cities Amateur Sports Authority, who owns the ballpark. The team has also applied for a $400,000 tourism grant through the Fox Cities Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
Brewers Business Manager of Player Development and Minor League Operations Scott Martens was in attendance for the press conference today and called the renovations exciting from a player development standpoint.
"It's obviously exciting for us from the Brewers' perspective. It shows a great deal of support from the Fox Cities area," Martens said. "They support minor league baseball and it shows a serious amount of commitment from the Fox Cities area to keep minor league baseball here for a long time."
Martens said improvements to the 18-year-old facility will help respond to the way usage of the park has changed over time.
"Our players used to get here at 3 o'clock, and then you're here for the game. Players are now here, staff is here at noon," Martens said. "So when you figure they're spending 10, 11, 12 hours at the ballpark now, as much as you can make it nicer for them...this is their home, literally their home away from home because they spend so much time here."
Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson has seen changes in the minor leagues over the last couple of decades first-hand. He played for the Kane County Cougars in the Midwest League in 1998.
"There's been an overall change of minor league baseball and A-ball in particular," Erickson said. "We kind of make a joke about peanut butter and jelly being the steak of A-ball, but they're turning some of these facilities into multi-million dollar deals and offering more than just baseball. It's pretty impressive and I'm excited for the community."
Renovations to the park will begin immediately following the 2012 season, and should be completed by mid-March of 2013. The current seating arrangement will not change, with rows of box seats surrounding the field followed by several more rows of metal bleachers. Zerjav said the team considered replacing the bleachers with seats, but decided to keep the current situation.
"There are pros and cons to both but we like how we offer a different variety of seats as opposed to going box seats around the entire ballpark, because then it's hard to differentiate pricing," Zerjav said. "Do you all of a sudden make all your box seats the same price? Then you're losing that middle price tier, which then hurts some of the groups coming out and trying to get a better bargain."
Hopkins making most of his second chance
Wisconsin will send seven players to the Midwest League All Star Game on June 19, and will have one starting position player: Greg Hopkins will get the honor at second base. He's leading all Midwest League batters with a .329 batting average in 2012 and is coming off a torrid month of May where he hit .373/.368/.618 with six of his seven home runs. He said he's just trying to be more consistent as the season goes along.
"I'm just getting my work in every day, trying to do the same thing every day to keep the routine and just trust the process and get out there and let the rest of it take care of itself," Hopkins said.
Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson credited Hopkins with adjusting his approach at the plate in his second year with the Timber Rattlers.
"Greg Hopkins, last year played really well defensively but didn't swing the bat particularly well consistently and this year he's been on a tear for the last month, he's really looked comfortable at the plate, using all fields," Erickson said. "He wasn't real good at going the other way last year and now anything away he's free and easy. He's willing to go the other way as well as having some power to his pull side. So he's really a tough out right now and he's still a good defensive player."
Defensive versatility has also been a big part of Hopkins' game. He's played first, second and third base and made brief appearances in left field for Wisconsin.
"I like playing second, but I like playing third too and I like playing first as well," Hopkins said. "Really, wherever I can get in the lineup and be productive. It doesn't really matter to me. I like that I can be a utility guy and kind of play wherever coach puts me and be effective."
Hopkins said he's honored to be one of seven Timber Rattlers playing in the All Star Game.
"I'm real fired up," Hopkins said. "It's going to be a good experience and I'm glad we have seven Timber Rattlers going so we're definitely represented pretty well. And I know everyone's excited to go over there. It's definitely an honor for all of us."
Harvey and the closer's mentality
Another of Wisconsin's seven All Stars is closer Seth Harvey. He's second in the Midwest League with 13 saves in his first full professional season pitching the ninth inning, and says there is something different about recording the final three outs.
"I'd say it takes quite a bit of focus and the ability to handle some adversity going into those type of situations," Harvey said. "There is a lot of pressure and that's kind of where the mental aspect of the game comes into play. Being able to control yourself, control your breathing, and living in the present moment. So it is tough, but I really enjoy pitching in that kind of situation."
Harvey has struck out over 12 batters per nine innings in 53 professional appearances over the last three years, but allowed just two home runs in 78.1 innings.
"I think I just try to live at the bottom of the zone, I try to minimize my mistakes and really focus on executing every pitch I do," Harvey said. "I don't think I can take a pitch off. I know a couple of times I've given up some really close, off-the-wall shots when I haven't been as focused as I need to be."
Harvey was drafted out of Washington State in 2010, and said he's been in touch with all five current Cougars who were drafted in 2012.
"I've talked to almost all of them and I couldn't be more thrilled for those guys going through the program," Harvey said. "I think all of them were there for 3-4 years so they've put in the time and to me they deserve everything they've gotten yesterday or the day before when they were picked up. I've talked to them and wished them nothing but the best.
"I just tell them to play their game, to enjoy it first and foremost. It's a huge privilege to play pro ball and to start making the steps toward the big leagues. I told them to enjoy it and just play their game because that's what got them drafted and that's what will get them, hopefully to the show in a few."
The other five Timber Rattlers headed to the All Star game are are first baseman Jason Rogers, shortstop Yadiel Rivera and pitchers Tommy Toledo, Drew Gagnon and Mark Williams.