3,036 fans paid to see tonight's home opener at the newly renovated Time Warner Cable Field at Fox Cities Stadium and saw the Timber Rattlers drop a rout as Cedar Rapids scored six runs in the first two innings en route to a 10-2 win.
2012 eleventh round pick Preston Gainey struggled as the starting pitcher tonight, allowing the aforementioned six runs on four hits and four walks over just three innings. That early scoring created a deficit Wisconsin could not overcome, as they managed just four hits against three Cedar Rapids pitchers.
One of those four hits was a big one, though, as Clint Coulter drove in a pair of runs with his first Midwest League home run in the fourth inning. Coulter now has six homers in just 52 professional games between the 2012 Arizona Summer League and his new team in Wisconsin.
"I think it was a fastball, not entirely sure but that's usually the ones you hit good, you don't know," Coulter said. "You just see the ball, hit the ball."
A year ago at this time Coulter was playing in high school, and after that he spent a few months in the sparsely-attended Arizona Summer League, so catching in front of larger crowds is something new for him. He said tonight's 3000+ fans were probably the largest crowd that's ever watched him play baseball. He did, however, perform in front of some larger crowds as a high school wrestler.
"I've played in some pretty big events in wrestling," Coulter said. "We did some huge coliseums and the state tournament, there's thousands of people there. So after doing that, this was not too bad coming into it."
"Usually they're not cheering for me, either, so that (tonight) was nice."
Manager Matt Erickson had another reminder that Coulter, while very talented, still doesn't have a lot of baseball experience.
"Every day that kid steps on the field is going to be a learning experience for him," Erickson said. "He's pretty raw, at the moment. But some physical tools, no doubt about it. So it was good for him to get some success here tonight."
The second pitcher to the mound tonight was Oak Creek native and UW-Milwaukee alum Eric Semmelhack, who pitched 4.2 innings and allowed four runs, but only one was earned. He walked three and struck out three in the outing, and Erickson credited him with preventing the game from getting out of hand.
"I thought we created some pretty good tempo in the middle of the game with Semmelhack as he came in and got ahead of hitters and got some ground balls," Erickson said. "We had some nice flow there."
"The main goal at that point is to keep it where it is and give your team a chance to get back in it as quick as possible," Semmelhack said. "So I don't think it's anything mentally different, you just turn it up a notch to keep it there so you have a chance to win the game at the end."
Semmelhack had family in attendance tonight for his first appearance of the 2013 season.
"It's obviously a blessing to have them that close. Hopefully they can come out to some more games and we can win a few games," Semmelhack said.
Semmelhack is one of seven returning members of the 2012 Wisconsin team that won the Midwest League championship, so in his second professional season he's actually one of the players on this team with the most experience at this level.
"I know the daily routines, so I'm trying to get the other guys accustomed to the daily routines," Semmelhack said. "I'm still learning it myself, I wasn't here that long. But we're just trying to get everybody into the routine to go out and play our best."
At the end of the day the home opener loss is disappointing, but Erickson pointed out that the real goal for this team is to continue to improve, no matter the score.
"We talk about it in spring training, this is player development," Erickson said. "You have some wild games in spring training with the score, big leads. But each opportunity and each inning is a chance for them to get better. So we try to preach that from the getgo and no matter if we're up by ten, down by ten or it's a close game, don't miss an opportunity to get better."
Tonight's loss dropped the Timber Rattlers to 2-3 on the season, but they'll get another chance to get back to .500 tomorrow.
"They're disappointed, but they'll bounce back. They're young people, they''ll forget about it here in about 40 minutes, probably," Erickson said. "We just talked about the first five games in our meeting. The first three we had some pretty good starting pitching. We didn't allow a lot of free bases. Today we had way too many walks, and they scored three runs in three different innings."
A new season, a new team for Erickson
Tonight is Wisconsin's first home game, but their fifth game of the season following a 2-2 road trip to Peoria. That road trip gave manager Matt Erickson a chance to get to know his young team, which features just seven players who appeared for the Midwest League champions a year ago.
"I think it's pretty much what I've expected thus far," Erickson said. "We're a young team, we make some mistakes, there's no doubt about it. But there's good energy. What I liked about our team is that we played three one-run ball games. We had a lot of game situations, we grew up a little bit."
Last year Erickson led a veteran group of somewhat less heralded prospects to a championship, but this year's team has a very different dynamic. Many of the regular players on this roster are under 20 years old, and several of them are top prospects in the Brewer organization.
"We're a young team and a talented team but we're very much learning how to be professional baseball players," Erickson said. "Hopefully over time we'll have a consistent ballclub when it's all said and done."
Erickson is up for the challenge of attempting to repeat last season's success with this roster.
"I think anytime you're able to win a half or win a division or have the best overall record in your division, and then win the championship out of 16 teams, it's a pretty good accomplishment no matter what you think of your team going into it, and that'd be the same for this team," Erickson said. "I don't know if the overall ceiling of last year's club was as high as it is this year, but at this stage of the game, in development, last year's team had much more experience, there's no doubt about it."
Before he can worry about another championship in 2013, though, Erickson has to guide his team through the tough conditions of the Midwest League in April. The grass hasn't had much time to grow in Appleton since the snow melted about a week ago, and rains this morning mean there's water on the warning tracks. Erickson said he's confident the field is safe for play, though.
"I have great trust in Eddie, our grounds crew guy, and he's done an amazing job the five years that I've been here, and if something's going to happen and guys are going to get hurt they're going to get hurt," Erickson said. "You don't necessarily do anything different. If the conditions were disadvantageous or we thought somebody was going to be at risk on either team, we wouldn't play the game. But we were just out there, we hit some balls on the field and walked around and it's in pretty good shape."