Shortstop Chris Diaz hit his first professional home run, starter Clay Holmes pitched five scoreless innings, and the State College Spikes scored two runs on three wild pitches in the top of the 10th inning to escape with a 4-2 win over the Batavia Muckdogs Tuesday night at Batavia’s Dwyer Stadium.
“It’s a good win,” State College manager Dave Turgeon said. “We needed it. The worm was kind of turning at home. We won a couple close ones at home and we lost a couple close ones at home. The bats started coming alive tonight. And obviously, we got some good starting pitching from Holmesy again. He always gives you a chance and he gives you energy there. The guys didn’t bend. They just kept grinding. They broke, we didn’t. That was one of those good ones. It was a good win.”
Here are some observations and player notes about State College (26-23).
Holmes pitched five scoreless innings Tuesday as he lowered his league-leading ERA to 0.83 over nine starts and 43.1 innings. He was extremely efficient, needing just 58 pitches to get through five innings. The 6-foot-5 right-hander was generally pleased with his effort, but noted that there were obvious areas for improvement.
“I was using my fastball a lot,” Holmes said. “I had pretty good command of it tonight. I was getting outs with it, just throwing it in there and letting them hit it. I could’ve pitched in better tonight. That’s one of the things I need to work on down the road. I am going to have to pitch in. That’s the main thing I took from tonight.”
On the surface, Holmes’ start Tuesday against Batavia was impressive, but his coaches were quick to point out his shortcomings. Turgeon noted that Holmes has a tendency to lose his aggressive edge, stating that Holmes needs to continue to trust his stuff.
“I thought the results were actually better than he pitched,” State College pitching coach Justin Meccage said. “It was just OK for me tonight. His fastball, when it’s downhill, it’s very good, and I thought there were just a few times of that tonight. The conviction on his secondary stuff, especially his breaking ball, wasn’t very good. One of the things we are trying to get Clay to do is have that killer instinct to put guys away with two strikes. That’s kind of what he needs for the next step, the next level. He didn’t go a good job of that tonight.”
Jacob Stallings, the 23-year-old catcher from the University of North Carolina, offers effusive praise for his 19-year-old teammate, especially for Holmes’ growth this season. Stallings notices a bond forming between himself and the 6-foot-5 Holmes.
“I think I have caught him every single start this year,” Stallings said. “I think we have really good chemistry together. We have pretty much gotten on the same page, knowing what he wants to throw in what situations, so he doesn’t have to shake me off all that much. Whenever he is struggling, it is usually because he is not being aggressive enough and getting a little tentative. I just go out there and try to calm him down first and tell him to stay through the zone.”
With a slew of injuries, Jacob Stallings has found himself in the State College lineup nearly every game for the past weeks. As a catcher, this can be extremely taxing. But Stallings has thrived with the extra work and extra playing time.
The recent draftee, a 2012 seventh-rounder out of North Carolina, provides stellar defense. This includes an instance Tuesday where he threw out Batavia’s Breyvic Valera at second base. Stallings prevented Batavia’s fastest runner from stealing second after he handled a tough pitch from Holmes and fired a strike to second baseman Jordaneli Carvajal. His offense has also started to come along. He hit .318 with 15 RBIs in July.
“He is the backbone and he is a calming influence on the young arms,” Turgeon said. “He has intellect and he brings offensive pop when he is in the box. He is very, very dependable. You can’t underestimate stability behind home plate.”
“He’s unbelievable,” Meccage added. “He’s our quarterback. It’s like having a pitching coach out there. He’s learning and he’s gotten so much better at game-calling. That’s what he needed to get better at. He’s learning that part of the game.”
Stallings, the son of Vanderbilt men’s basketball coach, Kevin Stallings, said he is utilizing the extra playing time to hone his approach at the plate.
“Knock on wood, there has only been one time this season I have gotten really tired,” Stallings said. “I think it affected my play. It’s been nice that it’s only been one time. Offensively, I had a really good July and I am having a pretty good August. I think what has helped me is that I started striking out less and I’ve been more aggressive and started to walk more. I’ve just gotten more comfortable with the whole atmosphere.”
Tyler Gaffney was the Pirates’ 24th Round pick in the most recent draft. And for a guy who hit just .245 during his junior season at Stanford, you would expect him to struggle initially in his transition into professional baseball. Actually, the opposite has been true.
Gaffney has transitioned seamlessly to State College. His defense in center field has been outstanding, especially in place of the injured Barrett Barnes. But more than anything, Gaffney has provided a spark at the top of the Spikes’ lineup. Through 27 games, Gaffney is hitting .299 with a .500 on-base percentage (thanks to a patient approach and the fact that he has been hit by 16 pitches).
“He brings aggression,” Turgeon said. “He is an on-base machine. I like the aggression in center field. I know when a ball goes up in the air, it is out. He’s got some swagger and he brings that to the clubhouse as well.”
More than one of his teammates stated Gaffney plays baseball like a football player. That’s not all that surprising considering that Gaffney was a three-year standout on the Stanford football team. As a running back last season, he scored seven touchdowns as the Cardinal were one of the strongest teams in the country. Some might be surprised that Gaffney is playing baseball professionally at all, since he still had one year of football eligibility remaining.
“It was a chance at a dream,” Gaffney said. “This isn’t an everyday opportunity that you get. I really thought about what I wanted to do. I took the money situation out of it, whether it was a lot of money or nothing. I want a chance at this, and I went with it. We will see where it goes.”
Gaffney is now devoting all of his focus to professional baseball.
“I won’t go back (to Stanford to play football),” he said. “I would have to be cut from here, from baseball, to go back and try out football. They already started fall camp there. I talked to some of the guys there. They are ready to go.”
And when Gaffney is out on the field, he plays all-out, something that clearly rubs off on his teammates.
“Whether it is playing like a football player or playing all out, I’ve got one speed: it’s full-go,” Gaffney said. “Sometimes they tell me to relax a little bit, but it’s just how I play and I try to bleed that off to other guys. When we win, I try to get everybody hyped up. A win is a big deal, it’s not just another day at work. It’s the icing on top and I want that.”
That “full-go” approach transfers to batter’s box for Gaffney.
“If you are going to throw it in on me, I am not going to move,” Gaffney said. “If it’s gonna hit me, it’s gonna hit me. I am not getting out of the way. I’ve been hit by a couple linebackers and safeties over the middle. A little baseball isn’t going to do much.”