Worth the Wates: Zephyrs pound I-Cubs

Austin Wates cleared the bases with a three-RBI double and Scott Sizemore clubbed his first home run of the season in a six-run first inning as the Zephyrs beat Iowa 9-2 on Thursday afternoon.

Wates also collected an RBI single and his four RBI were a season-high for any Zephyr, surpassing Vinny Rottino’s three, accomplished on Wednesday. The left fielder saw his batting average jump from .222 to .290 with a 3-for-4 line with a walk and a run scored.

Sizemore took Cubs starter Jeffry Antigua deep to left-center to cap the six-run outburst in the top of the first for his first extra-base hit of the season. The third baseman went 1-for-3 with a pair of walks in the game.

Miguel Rojas extended his team-best hitting streak to 10 games with two hits and Cole Gillespie, Justin Bour and Rottino each knocked in runs in support of Pat Misch (1-0), who was making his first appearance since July 2013, when he pitched for Triple-A Toledo.

The 33-year-old lefty allowed just two hits over five scoreless innings, with five strikeouts and no walks. He threw 44 of 67 pitches for strikes and faced just two over the minimum and got his first victory at the Triple-A level since June 28, 2013 while pitching in the Tigers’ farm system.

Fabian Williamson allowed a two-run home run to Chris Valaika in the eighth inning to spoil the shuout, but lowered his ERA from 11.25 to 9.45 with 2.2 innings completed. Salvador Sanchez finished up for the Z’s, getting the final four outs.

The win pushed the Zephyrs’ road record to 4-3 and leveled the season series against the I-Cubs at 3-3. It’s also the first time this season New Orleans has won back-to-back games.

The nine runs scored and seven-run margin of victory were season-highs for the Zephyrs (6-8) and the team connected on a season-best four doubles in the game.

Right-hander Andre Rienzo will take the ball on Friday night as the Z’s look to cap an eight-game road trip with a third straight victory in Iowa. Rienzo lasted just 4.2 innings against Omaha in his first start of the trip and is 0-1 with a 3.72 ERA this season. The Cubs will send Barret Loux (0-1, 3.12) to oppose Rienzo at 7:08 p.m. CT.

Z’s downed in first game of series in Iowa

Despite getting a pair of runs in the ninth inning to cut the gap, the Zephyrs fell to Iowa 6-4 Monday night in the first of a four-game set. Brady Shoemaker and Derek Dietrich each knocked in runs in the with one out in the ninth against Blake Cooper, but the Iowa closer got Miguel Rojas to strike out and Scott Sizemore to line out to first to seal it.

Shoemaker went 2-for-5 to up his team-best batting average to .355 and Dietrich was 2-for-3 with his first RBI in 12 chances with a runner in scoring position all season. Jhonatan Solano and Cole Gillespie picked up the other New Orleans (4-8) RBIs in support of starter Jake Esch, who allowed nine hits and three runs in 5.1 innings.

The right-hander struck out seven – a new high for any Zephyrs pitcher this season – and walked one, while throwing 58 of 90 pitches for strikes. His seven strikeouts were the most since an eight-strikeout performance for Class-A Jupiter against Tampa last May 20.

Grant Dayton got five outs in succession before Salvador Sanchez allowed four hits and three runs in the eighth inning. The reliever has allowed five runs (four earned) on seven hits in 1.1 innings over his last three appearances, after yielding just one hit in 3.2 scoreless frames to open the season.

Taylor Teagarden gave Iowa (6-6) the lead in the fourth with a two-run home run and the catcher doubled home and insurance run in the eighth for the Cubs. Donn Roach turned in his second strong start against the Zephyrs in as many tries, limiting the New Orleans bats to just five hits and a run over six innings. Roach held the Zephyrs to just one hit on April 15, but New Orleans would rally against the Cubs bullpen for a 3-2 victory in 10 innings.

Lefty Adam Conley (1-1, 5.25 ERA) takes the hill on Wednesday afternoon for the Zephyrs, looking to build on his first win of the season in his last start. Conley defeated Omaha on April 17. The Cubs will send southpaw Tsuyoshi Wada (0-1, 1.93 ERA) to the mound. First pitch is scheduled for just after noon CT.

Zephyrs take series finale from Omaha

Behind a dominant performance from starter Justin Nicolino and a little pop from Brady Shoemaker, the Zephyrs edged Omaha 4-3 Monday night to split the four-game weekend wraparound series.

Nicolino earned his first Triple-A victory, going six innings and scattering three hits and just one unearned run, while getting just enough offensive support.

Jhonatan Solano led off the fifth inning with his first home run of the season, and Shoemaker followed suit in the sixth, giving the Zephyrs five home runs that have led off an inning so far this season.

Shoemaker also picked up an RBI single in the first as New Orleans improved to 4-1 when it hits at least one home run. The left fielder is now hitting a team-best .346 this season and has a pair of multi-hit games in six contests against Omaha.

Despite leaving 10 more runners on base and going 2-9 with runners in scoring position, the Zephyrs got a boost from Nicolino, who fired 55 of 85 pitches for strikes and registered five strikeouts and just one walk to match his longest start of the season. The southpaw induced a pair of double-plays and faced just two over the minimum before handing the ball to a recently-potent Zephyrs bullpen.

Pat Urckfitz allowed just one hit in two scoreless frames before Nick Wittgren worked an eventful ninth inning. The right-handed flamethrower yielded a two-run home run to Brett Eibner but struck out the side to earn his first Triple-A save.

The Zephyrs continue their eight-game road trip with the first of four in Iowa against the Cubs on Tuesday night. Right-hander Jake Esch will take the hill for his second Triple-A start for New Orleans against Donn Roach.

Wittgren factors big in Z’s comeback win

Nick Wittgren struck out the side and earned the win in his Triple-A debut on Wednesday. Photo by: Parker Waters/New Orleans Zephyrs

Nick Wittgren struck out the side and earned the win in his Triple-A debut on Wednesday. Photo by: Parker Waters/New Orleans Zephyrs

It’s been quite a whirlwind week for pitcher Nick Wittgren. On Tuesday, the 23-year-old was called up from Double-A Jacksonville to fill a role in the Zephyrs’ pitching staff, but about an hour after he arrived at the ballpark, the scheduled game was called due to rain.

Fast-forward about 15 hours and Wittgren found himself in the middle of a Zephyrs comeback victory.

The hard-throwing righty entered a tie game in the top of the 10th inning and promptly struck out the side on 13 pitches, including punchouts of top-prospects Addison Russell and Kris Bryant.

“I don’t really worry about who I’m facing,” Wittgren said. “I’m just focusing on facing a hitter and getting them out.”

With an over-powering fastball and well-placed breaking ball, Wittgren set John Andreoli with ease and then went to work on Russell. Wittgren mowed the short stop down on three pitches then blew away Bryant – Baseball America’s top prospect – on five pitches.

“I was just coming in wanting to throw strikes. Get ahead and let the off-speed stuff play. Go in and out, up and down, so I executed pitches and those are great hitters, everyone knows they are, and I just got away with a few pitches,” he said.

But his day wasn’t over after leaving the mound, and after a Jhonatan Solano lead-off double, Wittgren was forced to handle the bat in a key moment. After a quick meeting with manager Andy Haines down the third base line, Wittgren got the bunt down, but it was too hard and right back to pitcher Drake Britton, who easily nabbed Solano going to third.

“I got the bunt down, which I wanted to do, but it didn’t go where I wanted it to. So I was on first and I was like, ‘I haven’t done this since freshman year of junior college,’ so let’s see how this goes,” he said.

Jordany Valdespin singled and Austin Wates walked to get Wittgren to third, where Haines delivered a very simple message.

“I got to third and [he] told me ‘fly ball, make sure you tag. Do not leave early.’ So I made sure I didn’t leave early and I just tried to make sure I didn’t get picked off or thrown out,” Wittgren said.

On the first pitch, Vinny Rottino – who had entered the game for Justin Bour as a pinch runner in the 9th inning – laced a fly ball to center field, deep enough for Wittgren to score easily and snap a three-game Zephyrs’ losing streak.

“Everyone picked it up the last few innings and a win’s a win,” he said. “Did what we needed to do in the 10th to win a ballgame.”

Z’s rally, win on Rottino’s walk-off in 10th

Austin Wates robs Iowa's Rubi Silva of extra bases in the ninth inning on Wednesday. Photo by: Parker Waters/New Orleans Zephyrs

Austin Wates robs Iowa’s Rubi Silva of extra bases in the ninth inning on Wednesday. Photo by: Parker Waters/New Orleans Zephyrs

In the midst of a three-game losing skid and being held to just one hit through seven innings, the New Orleans Zephyrs woke up at just the right time.

Buoyed by a Derek Dietrich solo home run in the eighth to get the offense going, the Zephyrs battled back to score single runs in each of the final three innings – including the decisive 10th frame – to edge the Iowa Cubs 3-2 in the second game of a four-game series.

Vinny Rottino, who had come into the game to run for Justin Bour in the bottom of the ninth, laced a game-winning sacrifice fly on the first pitch from Drake Britton (0-1) over a five-man, drawn-in infield, scoring winning-pitcher Nick Wittgren from third without a play.

“I was kind of looking for the first pitch. I know the bases are loaded and the guy was struggling to find his command and I figured he would try and get ahead with his fastball,” Rottino said. “It was up enough and I took a hack at it.”

The Zephyrs came roaring back against the Iowa bullpen after being held down by starter Donn Roach over the game’s first six innings. The right-hander allowed just a lead-off double by Cole Gillespie in the fifth inning, while striking out three and keeping the Z’s bats silent.

But Blake Cooper and Blake Parker couldn’t hold the 2-0 lead provided by a pair of RBI singles in the seventh and eighth innings. Dietrich’s second home run of the season led off the eighth against Cooper and Parker yielded Scott Sizemore’s sacrifice fly with the bases loaded in the ninth to knot the score and set the stage for Wittgren.

The hard-throwing righty, called up from Double-A Jacksonville on Tuesday, struck out the side in the top of the tenth, including punch-outs of Addison Russell and Kris Bryant, two of baseball’s top three prospects.

Jhonatan Solano led off the home tenth with a double into the left field corner, but Wittgren’s bunt attempt went right back to Britton at the mound and the southpaw nabbed Solano at third. After a single by Jordany Valdespin and a walk to Austin Wates, Rottino delivered to give his struggling club a boost.

“We were pressing as a team a little bit and other pitchers can feel that and they get comfortable and make better pitches on us,” he said. “We were battling and some of our hits started falling and when that happens, everyone starts to hit. Hopefully that’ll continue after this one today.”

Starter Justin Nicolino appeared sharper than he did on opening night, firing six innings of shutout ball, allowing just five hits and two walks, while striking out four. Fabian Williamson and Ryan Chafee each allowed a run in relief and Nick Masset worked a perfect ninth inning for the Z’s.

The teams will conclude the four-game series with a double-header on Thursday, beginning at 5 p.m. The second game will follow roughly 30 minutes after the conclusion of the opener.

Haines sticks up for Capps on Opening Night

Zephyrs manager Andy Haines speaks with Carter Capps after umpires declared an illegal pitch. Photo by: Parker Waters/New Orleans Zephyrs

Zephyrs manager Andy Haines speaks with Carter Capps after umpires declared an illegal pitch. Photo by: Parker Waters/New Orleans Zephyrs

In the 10th inning on Thursday night, New Orleans manager Andy Haines called on Carter Capps. The hard-throwing righty took his warm-up tosses and threw his first offering to Orlando Calixte, but it was deemed Capps was throwing an “illegal pitch.” Haines charged out of the first-base dugout and spoke to the umpires, and returned following a brief meeting on the mound with the 25-year-old.

What followed was bizarre.

Capps offered his second pitch to Calixte, but it was quickly dismissed as another illegal ball, prompting Haines to get ejected by first base umpire Tom Woodring while sticking up for his reliever.

Capps finished throwing to Calixte – two balls in a less-than-comfortable motion – before being replaced by Grant Dayton. Omaha went on to score four times in the inning to take a 10-6 victory.

“It’s unfortunate for the people that paid to watch the game,” Haines said. “It was a great game that was back-and-forth, ends up in the 10th inning, and you never want to sit here and say that decided the game, because there are so many things that happened prior to that. But at the same time, it was a major influence on the game.”

“For a leadoff walk, to just hand him first base. For it to happen on Opening Night of a very important season for a kid like Carter Capps, there’s nothing OK with it.”

Capps, who has 88 games of major league experience under his belt, was charged with the loss in the game, although he only threw four pitches.

“I’ve got a lot of hard feelings on it, I think it’s wrong,” Haines said. “Carter Capps is a big-time pitcher with a big-time arm, so he’ll find a way to make an adjustment, if we have to, but this goes above all of us. This should be MLB and there are a lot of different variables involved, where it’s just not good for anybody.” “If I was on the Omaha side, I wouldn’t have liked it either. I don’t want the game decided that way. I want it decided between the lines with two teams battling it out, after they’ve fought back-and-forth for three-and-a-half hours.”

Nicolino, Urena ready for Triple-A debuts

Like in any profession, rising through the ranks is easier when you have a friend along for the ride. Over the past three seasons, Justin Nicolino and Jose Urena have formed a bond, not only on the mound, but in the clubhouse and beginning this weekend, in the first two games of the New Orleans Zephyrs season, the duo will once again be together, like they have been for nearly all of the past three years.

Nicolino, who has captured top pitching honors each of the past three seasons and won the Most Outstanding Pitcher award in the Southern League in 2014, is expected to be on the hill Thursday night as the Zephyrs open the 2015 campaign against Omaha.

He and Urena headlined the Double-A Jacksonville Suns championship season a year ago, combining for 27 regular season wins and three more in the postseason. Now they’re both in the Zephyrs rotation, continuing their climb through the Marlins’ organization.

“The biggest thing is that we’ve fed off each other the last three years. In 2013 we were getting a feel for each other and to be honest, he might not speak the best English, but he is one of my closest buddies on this team,” Nicolino said. “We talk to each other and I pick his brain a lot and everyday I ask him how he feels and that’s how we are. The biggest thing last year is that we were two of the only guys that were there [Jacksonville] the whole season, and we worked off of each other.”

The 23-year-old southpaw led the Southern League in 2014, posting a 2.85 ERA to go along with a 14-4 record over 170.1 innings. He also led the league in WHIP (1.07) and opponents’ average (.249). It’ll be his second Opening Day assignment in three seasons in the Marlins’ organization after being acquired in the blockbuster, 12-player trade with the Toronto Blue Jays following the 2012 campaign.

The second-best prospect in the Marlins organization heading into this season, according to MLB.com, Nicolino will be reunited with skipper Andy Haines, two seasons after the manager led Single-A (Advanced) Jupiter to a 68-69 mark before taking over in New Orleans prior to last year.

“In 2013, being my first year with the Marlins, I was a little bit too excited on Opening Day,” Nicolino said. “But now I know Andy and [pitching coach John] Duffy and all the guys on the team, so it is kind of easier to go out there and relax. My adrenaline and emotions are going to be going 100 miles a minute, but I have better control on it as I’ve gotten older.”

Urena, a 23-year-old flame-thrower from the Dominican Republic, has plenty of practice following Nicolino in the rotation, as he did 14 times last season. But the soft-spoken righty – ranked No. 7 in the Marlins organization heading into the season – who led the Southern League in strikeouts (121) and won 13 games across 162.0 innings, is only a “No. 2″ to start the year.

“Jose is deserving to start the opener too, and he goes a little bit under the radar because Nicolino has been Pitcher of the Year two years in a row, but he doesn’t come in second place to too many people in my eyes,” Haines said. “He’s one of my favorite guys I’ve ever had. And after the first time through the rotation, you want everybody to feel like they’re your No. 1.”

The Pacific Coast League has been a notoriously tough league for pitchers to thrive in, but Haines knows that he has two front-line starters capable of bucking that trend this season.

“They’re both very tough-minded kids and they’re very competitive,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt it’s going to be a challenge for them. The league, if it’s like it was last year, is going to be very impressive to get through it. But these are two guys that are up for that challenge. It’s a different animal and these are two guys that I’m very excited to see how they respond to this challenge. They’re both on their way, if they stay healthy.”

The bond that the two starters have formed over the past three seasons is a special one, and Urena says that he pays close attention to Nicolino when the lefty is on the mound.

“When he’s pitching or when I’m pitching, we both pay attention to what we’re both doing and how we attack the hitters and get them out. We try to be on the same page together and work with one another in that way,” Urena said.

The Storm Chasers have won back-to-back National Championships, but Nicolino was quick to point out he and Urena have some experience in winning themselves.

“You have to tip your cap to a team that’s won two championships in a row, but at the same time, a few of us are coming off a championship season as well,” he said. “So we know that feeling and I’m really excited about pitching against them.”

2014 Courier News All-Area Boys Lacrosse Team

The 2014 Courier News Boys Lacrosse 1st Team All-Area performers. Photo by: Kathy Johnson

The 2014 Courier News Boys Lacrosse 1st Team All-Area performers. Photo by: Kathy Johnson

2014 ALL-AREA BOYS LACROSSE

Specialist — Paul Rasimowicz, Immaculata, Jr.

Rasimowicz, a faceoff ace, helped win possession for Immaculata game after game, as the Spartans raced to the Non-Public B title.

Attack — Ryan Cunningham, Watchung Hills, Jr.

Cunningham, the unquestioned leader of Watchung Hills’ offense, scored 46 goals and was recognized as an All-American.

Attack— Logan LeBlond, Somerville, Sr.

LeBlond, an All-American himself, finished eighth in the state in points with 110, scoring 45 goals and adding 65 assists for the South Group II champs.

Attack — JT Palladino, Ridge, Sr.

An All-American who netted 40 goals and 34 assists, Palladino will play collegiately at Harvard after a standout career for the Red Devils.

Attack — Luke Prybylski, Westfield, Jr.

In guiding Westfield to the North Group IV title, Prybylski scored 48 goals, with 12 of those goals coming in the postseason. The junior is also an All-American.

Midfield — Jack Harvey, New Providence, Jr.

Harvey, the fifth-leading scorer in the state, posted 122 points to break the New Providence record. He’s already the school’s all-time leading scorer with a season to go.

Midfield — Evan Key, Pingry, Sr.

Key led Pingry with a stellar season, posting 31 goals and 24 assists to earn All-American honors, as the Big Blue went 14-5 one season after a 2-13 mark.

Midfield — Tom Smith, Rutgers Prep, Jr.

Smith scored his 100th career goal and went over 200 career points this season, totaling 64 goals and 102 points for the Argonauts.

Midfield — Chandler Vanderbeek, Immaculata, Sr.

The heartbeat of Immaculata, Vanderbeek earned the Courier News’ Player of the Year honors by scoring 47 goals and adding 12 assists, while playing at an All-American level.

Defense — Sal Fama, Immaculata, Sr.

A true shutdown defender, Fama took on the challenge of covering the opponent’s top-scorer game after game, helping the Spartans allow just 6.75 goals per game.

Defense — Brian Heath, Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Sr.

Heath, the Kimber Division’s Defensive Player of the Year, backboned a Scotch Plains-Fanwood defense to a 16-4 record.

Defense — Jackson Simcox, Westfield, Jr.

Just a junior, Simcox was instrumental in Westfield’s turnaround, as the Blue Devils won their first sectional title since 1987.

Goalie — Christian Klipstein, Rutgers Prep, Jr.

Klipstein posted a save percentage of 68.5 and consistently dominated for Rutgers Prep, making a name for himself in the process.

Goalie — Owen Molloy, Ridge, Sr.

Molloy, an All-American, was superb in the Somerset County Tournament final, making 12 saves to earn MVP honors, as Ridge repeated.

Boys Lacrosse Player of the Year: Immaculata’s Chandler Vanderbeek

Immaculata's Chandler Vanderbeek, the 2014 Courier News Boys Lacrosse Player of the Year. Photo by: Kathy Johnson

Immaculata’s Chandler Vanderbeek, the 2014 Courier News Boys Lacrosse Player of the Year. Photo by: Kathy Johnson

You could say that playing lacrosse at Immaculata High School is something that Chandler Vanderbeek was born to do, even if he got to high school thinking he would be a football player primarily. But four years, 96 goals and 125 points later, Vanderbeek will be remembered as one of the very best players to wear the Spartans’ jersey, just like his older brother Taylor before him.

Chandler, along with his twin brother Connor and younger brother Griffin, helped lead Immaculata to the Non-Public B sectional title this season in his final year before embarking on another journey of family and lacrosse with Connor — the two will play at High Point University next year, rooming together in the dorms along the way.

But Chandler said that it wasn’t his original goal four seasons ago to turn himself into a lacrosse star.

“I was more football-minded coming into high school, and then I really fell in love with the sport of lacrosse. I enjoyed it so much, especially my freshman year, coming in with Taylor being a senior,” he said. “I knew I would put together a pretty good career, but I knew I would have to work very hard for it.”

Chandler is the Courier News Player of the Year.

With 47 goals and 59 points this season, Chandler elevated himself into Immaculata’s elite category, according to head coach Tom Mott, who’s been with the program since its inception in the late 1990s.

“The athleticism was very apparent as a 9th grader, when he and his brother came into the program,” Mott said. “You could see early on they were going to be special and Chandler would grab a long-stick and play man-down if we needed him to; we played him at attack and proved he would do whatever it took to win for us. There were games where he scored just once and we won, which speaks to that.”

Chandler credits Connor and Taylor, who is a rising senior captain at Hobart College, along with Griffin, a rising junior for Immaculata who scored a team-best 48 goals this spring, with his development as a lacrosse player.

“There’s nothing better than playing with them on the field; it’s awesome to have your brother out there with you, especially one that’s exactly like you. You’re the same and you’re just as talented and you know what they’re capable of and it’s a great experience to have played with Connor and Griffin and one year with Taylor,” he said. “They make me better, because sometimes you have that competition. Sometimes Connor will score three goals and I’ll hear, ‘Oh, he scored three, he’s your twin brother, what are you going to do now?’ ”

For all of the memories that Chandler and his brothers and teammates have accumulated over the past four seasons, he said that one will always stand out more than the rest, if only because it was relatively unexpected from the outside.

Immaculata hosted national-power St. Anthony’s (N.Y.) — team that finished the season ranked No. 15 nationally — on March 29 of this season and fell behind by four goals at the half. But Chandler netted a hat trick, Connor added a pair and Griffin had his coming out party with four goals, as the Spartans tied the score and forced overtime. In the extra period, Chandler scored the game-winning goal, eventually ending up at the bottom of a dog-pile he said he’ll never forget.

But the joy of winning always pushed Chandler to succeed, saying there “is nothing I hate more than losing.”

Girls Lacrosse Coach of the Year: Ridge’s Barbara Erickson

In a time when lacrosse is blowing up to a point where high schoolers are playing it year-round, Ridge High School head coach Barbara Erickson knew she had a challenge on her hands with the Red Devils this season. Not only was Erickson returning from a one year away from the girls lacrosse program, but she was dealing with a talented group of players that needed a bit of guidance to play as one, with team goals at the forefront.

“My main goal this year, with these kids playing club lactose and putting so much focus on the sport year-round, was to get everyone on the same page and playing together,” Erickson said. “The kids are looking to play in college, so they are showcasing themselves outside of school, so I had to bring them back in and get them on the same page. If you can’t do that, you don’t go very far.”

Ridge, with Erickson leading the way, went very far, winning the North Group IV title, went unbeaten in Somerset County contests and won its third straight county title, all while compiling a 19-4 record.

Erickson is the Courier News Coach of the Year.

“I didn’t know what to expect in my first year back,” Erickson said. “There’s a lot of talent on this squad and I tried to make the non-conference games tough for us so we would be prepared for the end of the season. It gave us confidence that we could play with the elite teams like that.”

The Red Devils, led by a host of juniors including four Courier News first-team performers, defeated Ridgewood for the North Group IV crown and Bridgewater-Raritan for the SCT title. They also knocked off rival North Hunterdon three times in 2014.

“Most of our juniors have been playing together on the varsity level for a few years now and moving forward to net year, they’re hungry to win. Sometimes they fade towards the end of the season, but this season, they were pushing themselves,” Erickson said. “They wanted to get better and they wanted to win.”

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