Wisconsin entered play Tuesday afternoon as winners of eight consecutive games and certainly had multiple opportunities to stretch the streak to nine, but came up short in the late innings and lost 5-4 to Cedar Rapids.
The Timber Rattlers fell behind early when Kevin Shackelford allowed five runs (including a pair of home runs) over four innings. Shackelford was starting in place of Drew Gagnon, who is having his turn in the rotation skipped this time around. Two relievers combined to pitch five scoreless innings, though, allowing Wisconsin to get back in the game.
"Our bullpen did a nice job of keeping us in the ball game, giving us opportunities," Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson said. "We did a nice job of crawling back into it, and those last three innings are going to leave a bad taste in my mouth until we can get back on the field again."
Wisconsin battled back to tie the game in the third on infielder Brandon Macias's second home run in as many days and reduced the Kernels' lead to one at 5-4 in the sixth when outfielder Ben McMahan drove home Greg Hopkins with an RBI triple. McMahan was later stranded on third, though, one of seven runners Wisconsin failed to drive home in the final four innings. They went 3-for-15 with runners in scoring position in the game.
"We've taken advantage of a lot of those situations in the last week but sometimes it doesn't work out," Erickson said. "We had a lot of opportunities to win that game and didn't take advantage of it today."
Wisconsin lost today despite a solid outing from center fielder Chadwin Stang, who went 2-for-2 with three walks and scored a run. Stang had been struggling a bit lately, and said he felt better now that he's getting past some recent struggles.
"Today I was just really focusing on going out there, having good at bats, seeing some pitches, working the count. I feel like I did a good job of that and I feel a lot better today," Stang said. "The big thing is I've been striking out a bit too much. and walks definitely have to be part of my game, or just getting into that situation where I'm able to walk. So I'm definitely improving on that front. The big thing for me is having good at bats and cutting down on strikeouts. The rest will take care of itself."
Stang's three walks today gave him 14 on the season. That's already tied for the most he's ever had in a year as a professional.
The Timber Rattlers also got a solid outing today from left-handed reliever Mike Strong, who pitched three shutout innings and allowed just one hit in his Midwest League debut. He walked three and struck out two in the game.
"It's always good to be the new guy and get your innings out of the way but in the first inning I needed to establish the strike zone better than I did," Strong said. "It was a productive first outing for me, all three pitches were working for me. I probably had some jitters, that's why I was falling so deep. But I felt good."
Two of Strong's walks came in his final inning of work. His 2012 season got off to a late start because of back spasms, and he said fatigue and nerves might have been a part of his struggles late in the outing.
"Yeah, it was probably a little of both, mostly fatigue, I just got back from back spasms so working my way up and everything," Strong said. "Three innings is the most I went down in Arizona League too, so probably a little of both."
Follow the jump for more on Mike Strong, a story on Chad Thompson and Mark Williams's combined no-hitter from Friday and a look at today's rare event: pitcher batting practice. We've also got audio from all of today's interviews at the bottom of the post.
Sharing A No-hitter
Wisconsin entered today as winners of eight in a row, but one of those wins sticks out from the others. On Friday night in Clinton pitchers Chad Thompson and Mark Williams combined on a no-hitter, just the fourth in Timber Rattlers history and the first since Jake Odorizzi and Adrian Rosario pitched one in 2010.
Thompson pitched the first five innings of the game, but Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson said he did not consider leaving him in to chase history. "Pretty much a no-brainer," Erickson said. "He was built up in Arizona but with the tandems we've got going we wanted to get about 70-75 pitches out of Thompson, that was the plan going in, and I think he was right at 70-71 pitches after the fifth. He put himself in a good situation, our team in a good situation to win the ballgame and we thought that was good enough for the evening knowing we had Williams coming in to back him."
Thompson also didn't fight the decision. "No, because I knew I'm in a tandem right now and I knew we were going to split it so I kind of figured that I was going five, maybe six innings at the most," Thompson said.
That left the final twelve outs in the hands of Mark Williams, who at first didn't realize the significance of the game. "I actually didn't know there was a no-hitter until the seventh inning, I looked at the scoreboard and was like 'oh crap,'" Williams said. "But you just try to go out there and pitch like he did, go to the same gameplan, it seemed to work for the first five innings. So I just trusted (Wisconsin catcher Rafael) Neda, I didn't shake him off and I really give it up to Neda because he called the right pitches at the right time."
Erickson noted that solid defense also played a role, but not in the usual way. " That particular day, usually on no-hitters you have multiple pretty nice plays defensively but we made all the routine plays that day and that's one of the strengths of this team," Erickson said. "Defensively, we've been taking care of the baseball and I think that breeds confidence in our pitchers too so they can go up on the mound and pound the strike zone and get every kind of outs, which obviously helps."
Thompson, who was making his first appearance for Wisconsin on Friday, is scheduled to start again Wednesday. I asked him what he plans to do for an encore. "Just go out and try to repeat the same thing I did my first outing: ground balls, fly balls, get the defense to make good plays, throw strikes and throw off-speed," Thompson said.
Some rare swings
The Midwest League uses a DH in all games, so I was surprised when I arrived this morning to see the cage out on the field and pitchers taking batting practice. Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson said they'll let the pitchers get some swings as a reward for good performances.
"Every now and then you throw the pitchers a bone there," Erickson said. "We threw a no-hitter last week and we've had a couple of shutouts here. When you go nine innings and you don't give any runs up, that's a pretty good day at the yard. And a lot of times we try to reward our pitchers with a little bit of fun."
Mark Williams was one of the pitchers to get into the cage today, and hit a couple of home runs to left. "I took batting practice at Washington quite a bit last year so I kinda have a bit of a swing down but Seth Harvey was the big guy today, he hit four out to right," Williams said, "But I just try to go out there and have fun, I don't take anything too serious."
This was the first time the pitchers have taken BP in 2012. "Today just happened to be a good day, a day game, our position players do a lot of work on the field we weren't going to do anything on the field today with them. It's a nice day, the wind was blowing out a little bit so we took advantage of it," Erickson said.
"We've been pitching well as a staff, a complete staff, really, and coach Erickson decided to throw us a bone," Williams said. "And it was a good time, a good way to relax on an early morning."
A Strong Start
We were also here today for the Wisconsin debut of 2011 tenth round pick Mike Strong, a relief pitcher from Oklahoma State. Strong joined Wisconsin on their last road trip, but has yet to appear in a game for the Timber Rattlers. He made 15 appearances for Helena in his first professional season, and last spring at this time he was pitching for Oklahoma State.
"It's not too much different," Strong said. "In college we're playing at most five times at tops a week, but here it's every day so you've got to be ready and experienced for that but other than that it's not much of a change other than you're playing every day."
Strong gives Wisconsin two lefties in their bullpen. Here's what he told me about his arsenal: "I've got a fastball, curveball, changeup. I like my fastball, I pitch off of that. And I like both my curveball and my changeup, I'll throw them both and don't really have a favorite of the two."
This is Strong's first time in Appleton, and he said his new teammates have told him good things about the environment. "They just said it's a beautiful park. It's a lot different from Helena, you've got the Jumbotron, you've got 3-4,000 every night, it's just an awesome experience," Strong said. "I'm a pitcher so we like to go golf on our off days, so I've heard about that."
Strong said he hasn't had a chance to hit the links yet in Appleton, but is hoping to get out there after today's day game. In the meantime, he's just hoping to fit in and help the team win. "If they need me as a reliever hopefully I can go in there and do my role. And if they need me as a starter or both, just want to fulfill their needs," Strong said.
Audio from today's interviews:
- Matt Erickson pregame (3:35)
- Pitcher Mike Strong pregame (1:30)
- Pitcher Chad Thompson pregame (1:08)
- Pitcher Mark Williams on the no-hitter (1:13)
- Mark Williams on pitchers taking batting practice (0:41)
- Outfielder Chadwin Stang (0:48)
- Pitcher Mike Strong postgame (1:15)
- Matt Erickson postgame (3:12)