By DAVE UTNIK
WOODBRIDGE — Edward Valdez wore the look Tuesday night of a pitcher who was capable of accomplishing anything he wanted to on the mound.
That was pretty much the case for the 20-year-old right-hander, who kept the Potomac Cannons in first place with a dazzling performance in his Carolina League debut.
In his first start since earning a promotion from Class A Dayton on July 18, Valdez struck out six in seven dominating innings and received plenty of offensive support from his new teammates in a 14-2 victory over the Kinston Indians.
”It’s good when a kid has that type of confidence. He had a good year in Dayton and he certainly made a good first impression here,” Cannons manager Jayhawk Owens said. ”He did a good job mixing his pitches and he battled hard.”
It was exactly the type of outing the Cannons were counting on from Valdez, who will be a big part of the rotation over the final five weeks of the season following the departures of starters Daylan Childress and Steve Kelly to Double-A Chattanooga.
On a night when they welcomed back closer Nate Cotton for the heart of the Northern Division pennant race, the Cannons roughed up Indians prospect Brian Slocum and held onto the Northern Division lead with their eighth win in 13 games. They accomplished that feat with a 17-hit outburst that included two-run doubles by Tony Blanco and Chris Williamson and a pair of two-run singles by all-star Jeff Bannon.
After dropping the series opener 9-7 on Monday, Potomac knocked Slocum off the hill after just 3 2/3 innings and wound up with a season-high 14 runs on four run-scoring, two-out hits.
”The offense probably made [Valdez] a bit more comfortable,” Owens said.
The comfort zone began in the first inning when the Cannons scored twice to take a 2-1 lead. Before a thunderstorm began dumping rain on Pfitzner Stadium in the seventh inning, the Cannons maintained their status as a second-half pennant contender by scoring four runs in the third inning and sending 10 batters to the plate in a four-run sixth.
Wiping out any lingering memories of a disjointed first half when they were once 14-games under .500, the Cannons improved to 16-13 behind four hits from third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, who has reached base in 26 consecutive games.
Encarnacion, who is batting .374 over the past 25 games, is just one reason the Cannons are in a position to reach the postseason for the first time in eight years. With 25 roster moves since the end of the first half, the Cannons have significantly improved their batting order and their chances of contending for a league championship.
Blanco, who was acquired in a trade on June 17, put the Cannons ahead with a two-run double in the first inning. Bannon drove in four runs and Jesse Gutierrez went 2 for 4 and scored three runs.
Leadoff batter William Bergolla singled twice and scored two runs before leaving the game in the sixth inning with a leg injury. Justin Davis doubled and scored as Potomac piled up its second-largest hit total of the season.
The man largely responsible for all this second-half sizzle, Reds farm director Tim Naehring, sat in a box seat behind home plate and watched the joyous results of his efforts.
The K-Tribe turned a leadoff walk to Ivan Ochoa and a two-out double by Jason Cooper into a 1-0 first-inning lead, but the Cannons trailed for less than 10 minutes as Encarnacion hustled down the line to beat out a two-out infield single that started a two-run rally.
”Eddie beat that out. He ran hard and the flood gates opened for us after that,” Owens said.
By the time the Cannons were done hitting, the K-Tribe had worn out its bullpen and turned to outfielder Miguel Quintana, who made his second professional pitching appearance in the eighth inning.