By Shannon Heaton
For the Herald
CLINTON — Most nights, when the Clinton LumberKings hold their opposition to three runs, get 31⁄3 innings of scoreless relief and strand six runners in scoring position, they're going to win baseball games.
But the LumberKings couldn't string together enough offense after the second inning, got 0-for-12 plate production from the middle of their batting order and struck out 11 times against Beloit pitching Tuesday night at Alliant Energy Field, winding up on the short end of a 3-2 Western Division decision against the Snappers in a game that didn't see a run after the second inning.
“It was a well-played ball game. I like our chances if they only score three runs against us. I like our chances tomorrow night and I liked the way we came back,” Clinton manager Scott Steinmann said.
Clinton (18-12) gave up its first run almost immediately, but if newcomer left fielder Jake Shaffer could have laid out just a little bit more than he did on James Beresford's dying-quail double, 'Kings starter Kenn Kasparek could have gotten out of trouble in that inning and it might have been a different game.
“With the outfielders we've had early, it was tough for him to make the team, but he drew attention to himself (in extended spring training) and when we had injuries, he's the guy,” Steinmann said of Shaffer. “He's a legitimate outfielder, he played outfield in college, and he almost made a great diving catch in that first inning.”
Clinton got the run back in the bottom half when Maximo Mendez opened the game with his Midwest League-leading fifth triple, and scored on Nate Tenbrink's RBI triple. Mario Martinez then collected his first home run at Alliant, a deep drive to left field, in the bottom of the second to make it 3-2, and the score held up from there.
Kasparek settled down after getting hit hard in the first two innings, getting 11 infield outs by going to his secondary breaking pitches for outs after trying to set up his fastball in the first and second.
“He was trying to establish his fastball and he left it up just a little bit,” Steinmann said of the Snappers' big hits early. “When they got ahead a bit, he mixed his pitches a little more and kept them off-balance. He did a great job giving us a chance.”
Bullpen spells relief
The 'Kings' bullpen has stood in the shadow of what so far has been an elite starting rotation in 2009, but Tuesday's solid efforts from Bobby LaFromboise and Blake Nation (31⁄3 innings, four hits, two walks and four jams gotten out of) were more evidence of a rotation willing not just to follow, but to lead, the staff.
“It's...trust your stuff,” Clinton pitching coach Lance Painter said of the philosophy, which seems to have rubbed off on the relief staff as much as the starters. “I've been happy with the way guys are attacking the strike zone. This is as deep a staff as I've had, and I want to guarantee these guys an opportunity to show what they have. I think they've done a good job.”
Also shining early, though not pitching Monday, are relievers Cheyne Hann (0.57 earned-run average, 0 ER in last 11.1 innings), Jose Jimenez (15.1 consecutive scoreless innings at one stretch) and Ruben Flores (five saves, 13 consecutive scoreless innings) have all sparkled as the calendar has moved into May.
“Attack the strike zone, you don't know what will happen,” Painter said. “Get timid, usually bad things will happen.”
A brief cooloff
Clinton first baseman Kris Sanchez couldn't keep his hot bat going in his first appearance at home as he had while joining the team on the road, as he went 0-for-4 after being named the MWL's Offensive Player of the Week behind a 7-for-16, three-HR effort last week.
“He probably would have made the team out of spring training, but he got hurt. He's showed he definitely deserves to be here,” Steinmann said. “We're going to try to keep his bat in the middle of the lineup.”
By Shannon Heaton