The Undercards: Justin O’Conner Caps Breakout Year With Homer
By Robbie Knopf
It was the last game of the season for all but two of the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor league affiliates, and it did not end particularly well. Only the Durham Bulls, who are heading to the International League playoffs anyway, managed to win. The good news, though, was that aside from Nick Franklin and the heroes for the Bulls, other players like Justin O’Conner managed to end their seasons in impressive ways.
Triple-A International League: Durham Bulls 5, Norfolk Tides (BAL) 1
The Bulls clinched their division a while ago now, but it is always nice to head into the postseason with some momentum, and that’s exactly what they did in this game. Doug Mathis started for the Bulls in his first appearance since August 15th and did relatively well, going 3 innings allowing 1 run on 5 hits, striking out 2 while walking 1. Jake Thompson followed with a strong outing to finish the regular season, going 3 shutout innings allowing 3 hits and a walk while striking out 2. His groundout to flyout ratio was a perfect 5-0. Thompson’s transition to the bullpen for this season was quite successful as he managed a 2.79 ERA and a 44-15 strikeout to walk ratio in 34 appearances and 51.2 innings pitched between Durham and Montgomery. It would have been nice if he had looked a little more overpowering, but he is still on track to eventually get an opportunity to be a big league middle reliever. Cory Burns then finished the game, going 3 innings allowing no runs on 3 hits, striking out 1 while walking none. His groundout to flyout ratio was 5-2. Burns is currently the least known member of the Rays’ 40-man roster, and it will be interesting to see where his ultimate role will be with the team.
Nick Franklin ended the IL regular season on a short-lived tear, and he was able to make his one hit count in this game, drilling a 2-run single and also scoring a run. Justin Christian was the real hero in the game, going 2 for 4 with a homer, a double, a stolen base, 2 RBI, and 2 runs scored. Christian is 34 years old and wound up in a system flush with outfielders, but he put together a strong season, hitting to a .271/.344/.434 line with 37 doubles, 10 homers, and 16 stolen bases. Christian hasn’t played in the big leagues since 2012, but his solid season at least provides him with a glimmer of hope that he can get back.
Double-A Southern League: Jackson Generals (SEA) 13, Montgomery Biscuits 6
This game was sad as the Biscuits led 5-1 before their pitching staff completely came apart. Victor Mateo went from allowing only 1 run through 5 innings and 2 through 7 to allowing 7 runs, 6 earned, on 14 hits in 6.1 IP. Kevin Brandt and Santiago Garrido also had disaster outings, although Braulio Lara did strike out both hitters he faced. The good news about this game, though, was how well several Montgomery Biscuits hitters finished their 2014 seasons.
Justin O’Conner especially had a nice game, going 3 for 4 with a 2-run homer and 2 runs scored. He finished with a .685 OPS and 20 strikeouts against just 1 walk in his time in Montgomery, but his final game at least provides hope that next season will see him find better results. Richie Shaffer finished his season-ending hot streak with another strong game, going 2 for 4 with a double, a walk, an RBI, and a run scored. In what looked like a disaster season through and through, Shaffer somehow finished with a .759 OPS. The Rays obviously wish he did better, but that counts for something.
Also managing multiple hits were Jake Hager, Taylor Motter, and Hector Guevara. Hager held his own as a player 3.5 years below the Southern League’s average age and did make some subtle improvements, but he still has plenty of work to do after he managed a .271/.316/.376 line on the season. He seems like he will return to Montgomery to begin next season. Motter, meanwhile, managed 16 homers for Montgomery after putting up just 13 in his first 820 professional plate appearances. Next season at Triple-A will be interesting to see if Motter can keep that up.
Low-A Midwest League: Fort Wayne TinCaps (SDP) 4, Bowling Green Hot Rods 0
Ben Griset ended his 2014 in outstanding fashion, but unfortunately, his teammates were already thinking about their offseason plans. Griset went 5 innings allowing just 2 hits and no walks while striking out 6. He also forced a 6-0 groundout to flyout ratio. Griset stands out for his low-90’s fastball and downer curveball, and he had both pitches working on Monday. Stone Speer, though, allowed 3 runs in 2 innings of relief before Brian Miller allowed another run on 3 hits in his 2 innings of work. Miller did strike out 2 while walking none and force a 3-0 groundout to flyout ratio. Miller was certainly disappointing after moving from Hudson Valley to Bowling Green, managing a 6.75 ERA as he allowed a crazy 15 hits in 8 innings pitched. On the positive side, he did still strike out 8 while walking 1. Miller remains an advanced college reliever with the ability to zoom to the major leagues, but his stint with the Hot Rods reminded everyone that he has work to do before he can get on the fast-track. Sean Smedley went 2 for 3 in the loss for Bowling Green while Alexander Simon went 1 for 3 to finish with a .281 average for the season.
Short Season-A New York-Penn League: Aberdeen IronBirds (BAL) 10, Hudson Valley Renegades 6
In their regular season finale, the Renegades blew a 6-4 lead and will finish with the third-best record in the New York-Penn League entering the circuit’s playoffs. Jose Alonzo began the game with 3 shutout innings before allowing 4 runs in the fourth inning. Gerardo Reyes and Edwin Fierro had rough outings before the game was through to seal the loss. Eli Echarry and Ryan Pennell did look very good, though, with Echarry tossing a perfect inning with a pair of groundouts while Pennell worked around a hit with 2 strikeouts in a shutout inning.
On the offensive side, Leopoldo Correa had his second three-hit game in four days, going 3 for 4 with 2 RBI. Unfortunately for him, he hasn’t done much else this season. Braxton Lee had quite the dynamic performance, going 2 for 4 with a walk, a stolen base, and a run scored. He also chipped in an outfield assist. Patience and basestealing will be focuses for Lee next season, and it was nice to see him showing signs of both of those in this game. Casey Gillaspie and Jace Conrad had an RBI each for the Renegades in the loss.
Advanced Rookie Appalachian League Postseason: Danville Braves 8, Princeton Rays 5 (Danville wins series 2-0)
It was excited when the P-Rays clinched their first playoff berth since 1998, but just like that, it’s over. Hyrum Formo had a rough start, allowing 5 runs, 4 earned, in 3 innings pitched. The Princeton pitching did look somewhat better from there, but it is awfully hard to win when you give up 8 runs. Ruben Paredes finished the game with 2 shutout innings working around a hit and a walk while striking out 3.
The Princeton offense did come to life in the last game of their season, with a former second rounder and a highly-regarded international free agent leading the way. Riley Unroe had a big game, going 1 for 3 with a double, 2 walks, and 2 RBI. Unroe has work to do hitting the ball with authority more consistently, but his patience, speed, and defense at both shortstop at second base make him an interesting prospect. Moreno, meanwhile, went 2 for 3 with a walk and an outfield assist. The Rays would love to see many more walks from him–he managed just 3 against 52 strikeouts this season–but it’s hard to argue with a 17 year old who has five-tool potential. In addition, Jose Paez and Enmauel Paulino both went 2 for 4 with a run scored while Nic Wilson and Nick Ciuffo each drilled an RBI double. Paulino possesses quite possibly the most commonly misspelled name in the system (notice that it’s “Enmanuel,” not “Emmanuel”) and will have to improve upon his .530 OPS this season to change that. For Ciuffo, meanwhile, his plate approach looked better this season, and he also threw out 48% of attempted basestealers, but the former first rounder still has a long way to go. At least he has a 3-for-8 performance against Danville to hang his hat upon.