Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Biscuits Lose - How It Happened


With just three outs between the Biscuits and their first championship in a decade, fans were crushed to hear as the Montgomery squad was defeated by the Lookouts in the final inning of the last game.

For the Lookouts, it was a storybook finish. A walkoff homerun in front of the hometown fans to win the pennant. For the Biscuits it was a painful snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory.


Here is how it happened:

Relief pitcher Ian Gibeaut took the hill for the save, nursing a one-run lead.

The leadoff hitter singled with a grounder off the glove of Biscuits shortstop Jake Cronenworth. Though the fielder was able to get to the ball but didnt manage a throw, it was an infield hit all the way.

Then Jonathon Rodriguez dispatched Ian Gibeaut's first pitch over the left field fence for a two run homerun, sending the Biscuits to defeat.

And that was it.


CIUFFO CALLS IT
"When we win, I have smart fingers. But when we lose, I have really dumb ones!" Nick Ciuffo told me earlier this season.

Before the Biscuits left for Chattanooga, I had a chance to chat with Skitz catcher Nick Ciuffo about how he handles pitchers and opposing hitters.

We talked briefly about pitch selection and he told me that he tries to call for pitches that mix up hitters, changing speeds and location, based on what he felt a hitter was unable to handle.

Ciuffo also told me that experience was a big factor in what pitch he signals for. "The more I see a guy, you know, the better I know what he can and can't get to."

However, he made mention of one Biscuit pitcher by name in the conversation. "When you have a guy like Gibeaut, someone who throws like, a hundred miles an hour... there just isn't a lot that needs to go into pitch selection. Just throw it until they show they can hit it."



YOU JUST KNEW IT
If you have been watching Biscuits baseball for the past season or three, you knew the Lookouts were a tough opponent.

You also knew that Ian Gibeaut was probably going to throw a hundred mile an hour heater. You also probably knew that Jonathon Rodriguez knew it too.

And you probably weren't that surprised when the Lookouts stormed the field and celebrated winning the 2017 Southern League Co-Championship.




SUMMARY
For the Biscuits as a team though, its nearly a total win, lacking only a pennant. Fans may not see it right away, but it can't be anything else.

Third straight postseason appearance.

Got deeper into the playoffs than any Biscuits team since 2007.

Scared the HELL out of Lookouts fans, who went into the series expecting a three game sweep.

Thrilled Montgomery fans who went into the series expecting a three game sweep.

 Came within three outs of shocking the league and proved to be more than anyone expected.



BEST PART IMO
There is no blame to assign. It's not Ian Gibeaut's fault, or Nick Ciuffo, or Brady Williams or Bill Buckner. No bad calls, no missed opportunities or men left on base.

 The Lookouts won it honorably, beating perhaps the hardest thrower on the staff in a real mano-a-mano faceoff. Serious baseball for all the marbles and no crying when its over. We threw our best pitch and they hit it.

Good game, Lookouts.



GOT NO BIZNESS BEING THERE...
BUT THERE THEY ARE
Sometimes you just grab it
This team fought its way into relevance when it had absolutely no business playing for a pennant.

They didn't win the division in either half. If they played in the South Division, they wouldn't have won there either. They didn't have the best home record, they didn't have the best road record.

The few top prospects on the team were quickly promoted. The star centerfielder was traded mid-season. Only one hitter reached double digits in homers. Only one pitcher topped 100 innings pitched.

The team struggled to hit home runs, giving up nearly twice as many as they hit.

Also, the team changed owners during the season, providing off field distractions. There were many reasons to expect the Biscuits would not even make the playoffs, much less threaten to steal the pennant from the 90-win Lookouts.

Yet there they were, carrying a one run lead into the last inning of the last game of the year.



NO QUIT IN BISCUITS
What they didn't have was QUIT in their vocabulary.
Refusing the be turned away, the Biscuits vanquished every other foe in the division and forced a rematch with their nemesis Lookouts. That the final inning didn't include a double-play and a popup resulting in a Biscuits championship is the only blemish on a stellar season.


BRADY ASKED
"How does this team compare to the other teams in Montgomery history?" Biscuits manager Brady Williams asked me at the final homestand.

Best team in ten years, at least. Maybe more.


AROUND THE HORN
A few notes I picked up....

Reliever Kyle Winkler indicated he might not play next year.  The Texas righty has spent six seasons in the minors and while his fastball is fantastic, the thought of another summer of bus trips and locker room antics might appeal to him just a little less than having "Wink Day" every day with his beautiful wife and equally beautiful daughter. Voted "Cutest Couple" (by me, of course) the Winkler family was one of my favorite experiences this summer, catching occasional glimpses of people being real is always a treat. Best of luck to them, no matter they decide to do.


Catcher Mac James and reliever Jordan Harrison are not convinced the stories of 1909 Detroit Tigers catcher Charley "Boss" Schmidt are true. When they heard about Boss driving nails into the floor and pinning a circus bear in a wrestling match, James asked me "Ever hear of Paul Bunyan?"

Yes, Mac, I have. But even Paul Bunyan didn't manage to beat Ty Cobb to a pulp.



Gary Redus
REDUS LIKELY TO RETURN
Coach Gary Redus told me he expects to return to the Biscuits next season. Redus lives in Alabama and enjoyed being close to home, as well has getting a chance to take in the area golf courses.

I found Redus to be a brilliant defensive strategist, his positioning of Biscuits outfielders was a mostly unnoticed strength of the team. He got along well with the fans and brought big league respectability to the coaching staff. 

Also expected to return is radio announcer Chris Adams-Wall. Chris has provided a steady, reliable voice to the team broadcast and has built a nice rapport with fans. Chris has praised my defensive ability, which shows he does still have much to learn about baseball, but is a great broadcaster nonetheless.


HAIR STYLIN

Jonny Venters is jealous of the flow.

Jonny Venters
I learned this at the last homestand, during a quiet night game while hanging around the bullpen. As we sat there watching the middle innings unfold with little action, the relievers started talking. Partly with me and partly among themselves.

One of them asked how long I had been growing my prodigious mane, and I gave my stock answer which comes in the form of a question.

pitcher "When's the last time you cut your hair?"
me "What year were you born?"
pitcher "1995"
me "It was before that."

This launched the players into a conversation about their own hair, what product they used, who had the longest hair and who left it laying in the shower. Real manly stuff.

Ian Gibeaut and his flow
Veteran hurler Jonny Venters quickly judged Ian Gibeaut as the longest hair and started razzing him about ponytails and hair clips. The rookie was quiet against the verbal ribbing from his mlb-AllStar teammate but as I am a long time longhair I spoke up.

"Don't listen to him, he's bald as a cue ball. Dude is just jealous of a good flow."

A hush fell over the bullpen and I tried to decide if it was because five of the seven guys were shaved bald or if it was that I had just backtalked the big leaguer.

Venters broke the silence with a laugh, saying "Well, yeah, you bet I am!"




Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Biscuits-Lookouts Playoff Preview


The 2017 Biscuits are one of the better teams to don Montgomery raiment since the franchise arrived in 2004. The three-peat of postseason appearances matches the 1970s-era Rebels teams, though those Rebs brought home more pennants.

Dalton Kelly & Nathan Lukes
This squad is one I am very fond of, these guys are a good group of young men learning their craft and doing a really fine job of it.

As individuals, its tough to not like the Biscuits players and coaches. They are honest, hard working blue collar guys. Combined they have shown a steady upward learning curve that has culminated in a chance to force their way into a pennant.


And force it they must, if they are to have it at all.



NOTES AND QUOTES
After being swept at the Lookouts park, where four of the five possible playoff games would be played in the first round, Montgomery fans can only hope the team was pulling its punches ahead of the playoffs. However its doubtful that was the case.


Asking Brady Williams what would happen in those five games, he made no indication of pulling punches or making plans to hide any surprises. "We are just going up there and play some baseball," he told me.



Biscuits radio announcer Chris Adams-Wall had his own opinion about it when I talked with him as the team headed off to Chattanooga. "A five game staring contest before the playoffs? Its gonna be weird!" he said.

And weird it was indeed.
Last week I called the five game series meaningless and was shown incorrect when the Biscuits played well enough to stay relevant through the first game against the Lookouts.

In that first game the Skitz were soundly eliminated with a lopsided 11-2 drubbing. After that both sides seemed to take it a little easier, coasting to the finish line in routine ballgames.

If there was true meaning to this five game series, it was to allow each team to be as familiar as two teams ever were before playing important playoff games.


"...and those who are not enthused."


THE BRIGHT SIDE
If there are silver linings to being swept, it is that the Lookouts will probably not be able to sweep Montgomery again in another series. Montgomery has lost seven straight games to Chattanooga dating back to August 1st. Giving up ten in a row is pretty unlikely.

Also, other than the one game that mattered, three of the games in the last series were decided by just one run. The Biscuits play well in close games, though they have a losing record when trailing late.



 WHO'S THE MAN?
Who will be "The Man" for the Biscuits in the playoffs? Someone will have to put this team on their back and carry it past Chattanooga.

Be it Mojo McCarthy, Justin "J-Dub" Williams, Grant Kay, Cade Gotta or one of the more recent arrivals, this club has shared the load but desperately needs a leader to emerge in the last two weeks of the year.

In each of the Biscuits League Championship teams there was a guy who refused to be beaten and provided the offensive lift the team needed. '07 Postseason MVP Chris Nowak and of course, Evan Longoria in 06 were those guys. If these Biscuits want to advance, someone has to lead the charge.

Otherwise, the Biscuits will need to resort to *other* means to score runs.




SLDS SERIES NOTES
As familiar as these two teams are, it could be a short series. The Lookouts have been the dominant team in the league and have had little trouble with the Skitz this summer.

A five game series would favor the Biscuits and if Montgomery can get past Chattanooga they should be the favorite in the Championship Series.

The Lookouts have been terrific on the road at 25w-10L and were nearly identical at home at 24-11. Montgomery posted 16w-19L in away games in the second half.

Lookouts shortstop Nick Gordon is a strong candidate for Southern League MVP.




HELP US OBI WAN KENOBI STARTING PITCHER
Montgomery's hope is largely in pitching, both starting and relief. Getting great starts from Mujica, Cabrera and either Anthony Miz or Moss is essential to advancement.

With Jose Mujica in game one, the team really needs him to pitch deep into the game and keep runs off the board to set the tone for the series. Mujica is the team leader in Innings Pitched at 154 in 25 starts, no one else reached a hundred innings.

GOT TO HAVE 'PEN
The Biscuits also need their bullpen to succeed as a team. Recently promoted Jonny Venters will be missed if the playoff roster is without him. Kyle Bird will need to step up and share the lefty reliever role with Jordan Harrison.

Obviously, Gibeaut and Winkler will have to shut the door when called upon, with little room for error. No pressure, right?



BRING THE BATS!

Montgomery has been streaky at times, scoring runs in bunches and then going dry. Using the lumber is paramount to winning, the Skitz will need to score runs against the team with the lowest ERA in the league.


Croneneworth explains what "foul ball" means
Jake Croneneworth has emerged as the teams leadoff hitter and has handled the job well batting .285 since his arrival.

Brandon Lowe could be a difference maker in the postseason, the FSL MVP has a chance to force the Rays to consider starting him at Durham next spring with a monster finish in the playoffs. He has been a regular at second base and often is batting second for the Biscuits.

Joe McCarthy often bats third in the lineup and plays left field or designated hitter. Mojo has struggled a little in recent weeks but still has a stout .292 BA when batting third. McCarthy has an excellent .285BA in extra innings.

Grant Kay should play third base and occupy the cleanup spot for the Biscuits in the postseason. He has spent most of the season in that spot in spite of hitting just .228 when batting fourth. Brady is probably keeping him there due to his .268 average with runners in scoring position. Also, Kay is excellent when leading off an inning, posting .275BA and 20 doubles as the first hitter in a frame.

Where will C/DH Sullivan hit in the order?
Dalton Kelly is likely the fifth hitter in the batting order and has played a steady first base since his arrival at the end of June. His .325BA and 35RBI in the 5th spot has provided much needed run support for the team.


Several spots in the batting order don't appear fully set, Brady likes to juggle the names at the top and bottom of the lineup card. Cade Gotta either hits second, or sixth. Wherever he isn't, Justin Williams is. Usually Brady Williams writes in catcher Ciuffo to bat 8th, but sometimes its outfielder Nate Lukes.

This juggling act is one of the ways a manager can win an extra ballgame for his club. Or three. Thats "Brady Ball" for ya!




STATS BREAKDOWN

Often I rely on numbers to give an indication of what we might see in any given series, but this one doesn't take much math. The Lookouts are simply the best team in the league and have had the Biscuits number for years. The Biscuits have five games to find a way to be David to the Lookouts Goliath.

For this series, the only number that matters is three - three wins to advance. Putting more runs on the board than Chattanooga is a very tough task in one game, to say nothing of three. The Skitz won't go unbeaten, and forcing a game five would give them the upper hand in the series.

Montgomery goes into the series as the underdogs and its tough to see the Biscuits knocking off the Lookouts. If I were Brady, I would look to split the first two games, win at home and then the team just needs one win in the last two at Chattanooga to advance to the championship round.

I would also buy some rum and fried chicken for Jobu, just to cover all the bases.







Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Biscuits Clinch, Best Tricks


On Monday the Biscuits clinched a postseason berth with a victory over Mobile. Its the third straight season Montgomery has earned a playoff spot, though we are promised just a single game due to the Lookouts winning the North Division in both halves of the season.

The on-field celebration was cheerful but a bit muted, as a second place team that earns a wildcard spot should be. High fives and hugs behind the mound were quick and classy, but you can be sure that the champagne was flowing in the clubhouse afterwards.

While Brady Williams has skippered the Skitz into three straight Septembers, can he overcome yet another juggernaut opponent in the division series? The Biscuits have been "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride" in the postseason since their back to back championships ten years ago.

2006 Biscuits celebrate playoff clinch on Longoria homer
YOU'RE ASKIN ME?
"What are the numbers for the Biscuits in the playoffs?" one Montgomery reliever asked me.


They ain't good lately, man. We have been pretty much shut down in each of our playoff appearances dating back to 2012. Even our one victory last year was a walk-off, Biscuits needing every inch of every inning to squeak out a single W.
Biscuits celebrate playoff walkoff Sept 2016

The Lookouts were our playoff opponent two years ago, handling us easily. Last year it was the Generals who were able to work around our lone win to advance. Now we face those Lookouts again, in what could be a deja-vu game for Skitz fans.

However, the players optimism has rubbed off on me a little. Montgomery may not be the team the Lookouts are expecting to see. It is almost an entirely different squad than the one that was swept at home by Chattanooga in June, knocking Montgomery out of playoff contention in the first half of this year.

That being said, both the Biscuits and Lookouts will be intimate with each others players and abilities when the SLDS starts. The two teams will play five meaningless games to finish the regular season before facing off in games that matter. I am hoping for a few rainouts in that series, so Brady Williams can save his best tricks and maybe hide the Biscuits strengths until playoff time.


BEST TRICKS
And what are our best tricks?
Pitching, hitting and more pitching.

Pitching.
Anthony 'Sciev - pronounced "shev"
The starting rotation has been boosted with the arrival of fresh arms over the past two months. Guys like Benton Moss and 'Sciev (note the new nickname!) have been stealthy aces for Montgomery. Sunday's 1-0 shutout victory was a masterpiece of mound twirling by the lefty Anthony 'Sciev. (How did he toss a shutout with only two strikeouts? Pitching to contact like a boss!)

But its not just him, every Biscuits starter has looked better of late, turning up the heat just in time for the pennant race.

Each of the pitchers in the rotation Mujica, Cabrera, Moss, Sciev and Darnell have been hitting on all cylinders, giving the team a chance to win by pitching deep into games. They work fast, pitch to contact when needed, field their position well and have excellent stuff to work with.


And hitting.
Brandon "Sweet&" Lowe
Mojo and Kay have been here most of the year, piling up historic stats. But the bats around them have kept the pressure on opposing pitchers, there isn't much of a weak spot in the batting order this year.

Even the "B" team bench guys are better than most league regulars for other teams, simply put - Montgomery is stacked with bats.

A couple guys are setting franchise records, one guy is the MVP of a league he hasn't played in for three weeks, mid-season and postseason All Stars abound on a lineup that really knows how to share the load.



And more pitching.
Oh, that bullpen. Some teams have that guy who you want to see come in and five "oh not that guy again". This year the Biscuit bullpen has been up to the task more often than not and has a whole list of reliable moundsmen. We have so many good pitchers we have to keep shuffling the roster to get them all regular work. Its been impossible to keep up with, but great for the W-L record.

Relievers have saved this team, holding late leads and keeping the score close even when trailing. Not to mention the 20+ starts relievers have made this season for Montgomery. 
MLB AllStar Johnny Venters brings veteran leadership and big league calm to the Biscuits bullpen


PART OF THE DEBATE
The Biscuits will try to host their final regular season game Wednesday evening, weather permitting. Its been one of the strongest campaigns waged by the Montgomery squad, regardless of the final outcome when fans start debating which Biscuits team was best this 2017 club will have to be part of the conversation.


And kudos to the Tampa Rays for building a winner in Montgomery for the second half. I complain a lot about roster moves and promotions to Durham that hurt the Biscuits chances, but in the last couple months we have seen a nice flow of good players arrive to help the team.


HOW MANY WILL SEE IT?
Catcher Nick Ciuffo said he hoped the fans really turn out and asked me what I thought the crowd size would be for playoffs.
"I hope its packed out" he told me, but I tried to temper expectations.

"We aren't playing on Saturday, so thats a bonus" I replied, "but we still are up against high school football, so it could be a smallish crowd."

I followed up by telling him "Fans have seen us bounced from the first round two straight years, so get us past the Lookouts and then we might see a nice crowd."



Crowds in Montgomery like to support a winner but its just tough to draw fans to Biscuits games once football starts. Hopefully area fans turn out, because this could be the team that finally breaks through to the Championship Round. Its been ten years since Montgomery hosted the Southern League Championship Series (SLCS) so who knows how big it will be?





DR.MIRACULOUS PLAYOFF PREVIEW 
COMING NEXT WEEK!