A season-ending injury to top hitting prospect Nick Senzel should have been the final straw to break the backs of the Louisville Bats in 2018.
Senzel, who missed time early in the season battling vertigo, had returned with a flourish of line drives — but broke his right index finger June 22 and underwent surgery in New York to reduce the fracture.
Left with little hitting, undependable starting pitching and a firmly established spot in the basement of the International League’s West Division, the Bats would seem to have little cause for cheer.
So what’s a team to do?
Send up the fireworks!
And not just a light barrage, but a full-shell Fourth of July display — actually on Tuesday, July 3 — to celebrate the nation’s 242nd birthday. And the 134th year of professional baseball in Louisville.
“Fireworks and baseball — I don’t know why, but the two just go together, especially on the Fourth of July,” says Bats General Manager Greg Galiette.
The team offers more modest aerial displays each Friday night of the season, but it pulls out the stops for baseball’s three summer holidays — Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day.
“And we go biggest for the Fourth,” says the Bats GM.
Louisville has an interesting arrangement with International League rival Indianapolis to celebrate the big holiday. The clubs split the Independence Day’s best two dates.
This season, Louisville hosts Indianapolis at Slugger Field on July 2 and 3, with the Indians taking July 4 and 5 at Victory Field. That way each gets a holiday home date and a chance to shoot off a fireworks display. The dates switch each season.
“It’s an International League thing,” says Galiette. “All 14 teams in the league are paired with a nearby rival for the holidays. We’re with Indianapolis, and also in our division Toledo and Columbus are paired.”
Teams in the Carolinas, and clubs in the Northeast are similarly partnered.
The apple — or baseball — doesn’t fall from the tree
The West Division of the IL is a good illustration of the way major league clubs try to be geographically close to their Class AAA affiliates. Louisville’s parent club is the nearby Cincinnati Reds, Columbus is with the Cleveland Indians, Indianapolis with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Toledo is the longtime top farm club of the Detroit Tigers.
Which is just peachy — except the fortunes of AAA clubs often reflect those of their major league parents. Good and bad.
The Louisville Redbirds set all-time attendance records in the 1980s and ’90s as a part of the rich St. Louis Cardinals farm system. In the 21st century, Louisville prospered on the field with previous management in Cincinnati.
But the Bats have suffered with a different management team in Cincinnati in recent years. The Reds have recorded four straight losing seasons, and the Bats skid now stands at six — with both teams losing again this year.
But hope springs eternal.
The Reds have suddenly glowed red hot, and looked solid doing it. Good pitching and a flurry of grand slam home runs. The Bats haven’t been hot, but they have been competitive.
Louisville is 6-4 in its last 10 games and is riding a very modest (but welcome) two-game winning streak. The Bats banged out 13 hits, including a game-winning grand slam by Dilson Herrera, in a 13-9 triumph at Toledo before returning home on Monday, July 2.
“Obviously, we’re not going to be in the playoffs,” says Galiette. “Our goal will be playing as well as we can and getting back as close as we can to playing at the .500 level.”
That would be an excellent goal to attain. With Louisville currently 14 games below .500 (32-46), it would have to win bunch of games through July and August to finish even.
The consensus of most observers is the Bats, if a bit outmanned, do play hard.
And they’re entertaining. Where else, for example, will you get to see an 8-3-2 double play?
The old 8-3-2 double play
In baseball notation, all the position players have a number, with the pitcher 1, catcher 2, first baseman 3, and so on. Eight is the center fielder. A common double play is shortstop to second to first, noted in the score book as: 6-4-3.
But this double play, turned by Norfolk against the Bats, went from the Tides center fielder — to the first baseman — to the catcher.
And it happened like this:
In the fifth inning, Louisville’s first two batters reached base. Nick Longhi walked, and Dilson Herrera got on by beating out a bunt. Then both batters moved up on throwing error.
Anyhow, it looked good for the home team. Runners on second and third — nobody out.
The next Bats batter, Gabe Guerrero, hit a fly ball to center field, caught by the Norfolk center fielder — 8. Out No. 1. Not too deep, but maybe deep enough to score Longhi.
Or maybe not. Longhi couldn’t seem to decide.
At first he tagged up at third and broke for home after the catch. But then he suddenly stopped halfway home as the throw came in from the center fielder to the “cutoff man,” the first baseman (3), who had moved into the center of the diamond. He could either let the throw go on home to the catcher, or cut it off to make a play at another base if the catcher called for that. Which he did.
Meanwhile, seeing Longhi break for the plate, Herrera had taken off for third. But when Longhi went back, Herrera had to go back, too. But the first baseman had the ball looking right at Herrera, an obvious dead duck.
But Longhi, perhaps sensing guilt for how he had gotten his teammate Herrera into trouble, re-broke for the plate.
The first baseman, still with the ball, turned and threw home to the catcher, who easily tagged out Longhi. Out No. 2.
Herrera scampered back to second as fast as his feet could fly — to keep the Tides from turning a triple play. But the double play was enough. The next Louisville batter made an out, and a big Bats chance had gone by the wayside on an 8-3-2 double play. You don’t see that often.
But it was entertaining.
Missing the ‘senzational’ Senzel
Other times, though, the Bats do things well, and that is also entertaining. It should be noted that Louisville won that game 5-1, thanks largely to homers by center fielder Mason Williams and third baseman D.J. Peterson.
In this game against Norfolk, the ball got a fast jump on Peterson, when the first batter hit a screamer that Peterson stopped — with his body. He picked up the ball and threw the guy out. Peterson is built for such things, and has some heft in his bat. He’s hitting .275, with nine home runs. Guerrero is hitting .287, with Herrera at .299.
All OK, but the Bats definitely miss Senzel — though not half as much, one imagines, as Senzel must miss baseball.
Senzel, 22, was the Reds’ No. 1 draft choice in 2016 — and the second choice by all teams in that draft. He starred at University of Tennessee, and one summer was the MVP of the Cape Cod League — a wood bat league for top-level amateurs with a chance at the pros.
Senzel rose quickly through the farm system, hitting .329 at Dayton, .305 at Daytona Beach (A), and .340 at Pensacola, before being assigned Louisville this season, where he was hitting .310, with a promotion inevitable sometime to Cincinnati.
At least that was the plan.
Manager Dick Schofield says Senzel wasn’t really in the groove as the season got underway, just picking up hits when he could find them. Senzel was batting around .270 when he was sidelined with vertigo in May. It’s a problem in the inner ear that affects balance. Obviously a serious problem for a ballplayer.
But after missing more than 20 games from May into June, Senzel returned to his leadoff spot at the top of the Louisville lineup three weeks ago — and in his groove. Whacking the ball almost every time up. Three-for-four nights, games with two-homes, Senzel was back in a big way. He led off games with line drives that sizzled past the pitchers head. An announcement.
But then he hurt his finger while throwing at his second base position. The good news for Louisville fans is Senzel is expected to be back with Louisville in 2019. Of course, he might not be here long.
The guy can hit.
Interestingly, the Bats’ two best players might be late-inning relief pitchers Tanner Rainey and Kevin Quackenbush.
Rainey, 25, has a 1.57 Earned Run Average, while Quackenbush, a 29-year-old former big leaguer, checks in with a microscopic 0.36 ERA. Opponents don’t get many runs when those guys are on the mound. Rainey and Quackenbush have been named to the International League all-star team, which will face the AAA stars of Pacific Coast League during the All-Star Break, July 11, in Columbus.
The problem is “closers” aren’t a great help to a team like Louisville, with not much starting pitching. By the time it’s time for Rainey or Quackenbush to come in to put out the fire, the henhouse may have already burned down.
Or the Reds might send down Brandon Finnegan for a rehab assignment — as he was most recently “to work on his pitching mechanics.”
Three innings and 10 runs later, Finnegan finally left the mound.
“Ready to go back up,” one wag in the stands proclaimed. “Thanks.”
Louisville Mashers return
Saturday, July 7, is another Louisville Mashers event, following a very successful bourbon night here earlier this season. The Louisville Bats change their name for one game to the Louisville Mashers, with special Mashers uniforms, and various whiskey tastings and giveaways.
The Bats are generally home for the next two weeks, through July 15, with the exception of games Wednesday and Thursday this week in Indianapolis, and baseball’s All-Star Break, July 9-12.