Performing in front of the home crowd for the first time since his promotion from low-Class A Peoria just a week ago, 20-year-old Miquel Martinez outpitched all-star Landon Jacobsen with five terrific innings and four relievers finished off a 4-2 win at Pfitzner Stadium.
“Our pitchers in the second half have been phenomenal,” third baseman Al Rodgers said. “That’s why we’re winning.”
The youngest player on the Cannons’ roster, Martinez didn’t fare well in his Carolina League debut last week at Salem, but he seemed more comfortable pitching in front of major league scouts and a home crowd of 3,057.
With scouts from the Colorado Rockies, Florida Marlins and Cincinnati Reds in town for the weekend series, Martinez allowed only one base runner in the first four innings, retired 12 straight during one particularly impressive stretch and eventually left the game with a three-run sixth-inning lead.
“He was hitting his spots and keeping them off balance with his off-speed stuff,” catcher Ryan Hamill said. “With an early lead he was able to be a little more aggressive.”
Thrust into the unenviable position of having to replace all-star Rhett Parrott in the Cannons’ starting rotation, Martinez earned a promotion from the Midwest League after going 3-0 with a 0.79 ERA in 22 innings at Peoria. He had one very rough inning at Salem last week — allowing four runs in the second inning of an 8-3 loss — but he had no such difficulties against the Hillcats.
Working efficiently in the strike zone and mixing in a changeup to keep the Hillcats guessing, Martinez allowed two runs on four hits in five innings against the Carolina League’s most feared lineup. He struck out four, threw 46 of his 67 pitches for strikes and did not walk a batter.
When Martinez turned the game over to the bullpen with runners on the corners and nobody out in the sixth, the Cannons had a 4-1 cushion an accomplishment that becomes magnified by the fact that he is barely a year removed from “Tommy John” elbow surgery.
The bullpen’s performance was equally gutsy. Jeremy Cook, Anthony Rawson, Josh Kinney and John Novinsky combined to get the final 12 outs with Novinsky working an inning-and-a-third for his first save.
The Cannons moved to within two games of first place with their 15th win of the second half. They had 24 total in the first 70 games.
“We feel like we can win every game now,” Hamill said. “We come to the ballpark every day prepared.”
The Hillcats (17-12) didn’t seem to have the same approach this weekend. They lost an extra-inning game on Friday and committed three errors on Sunday. In the first few innings they looked nothing like the team that went 49-24 during a 73-game stretch dating back to May 1. They’ve been in first place for essentially the past three weeks, but the gap is closing.
“We have 35 losses and I bet you we’ve given away 30 of them,” Hillcats manager Pete Mackanin said. “All these teams are improved and we keep handing them wins. We’re the worst good team I’ve seen in my life.”
The Hillcats certainly didn’t do much to support Jacobsen, who has been among the league’s top pitchers all season. An all-star he pitched a perfect inning with two strikeouts against the California League Jacobsen took the mound with eight victories to his credit. None of those, however, have come against the Cannons.
Despite a 2.82 ERA that currently ranks 10th in the league, the 23-year-old is now 0-3 against Potomac this season. He’s pitched well in all three appearances, losing 3-1 on May 29 and allowing two runs in a 6-1 defeat on April 15.
A three-time Carolina League pitcher of the week, Jacobsen has progressed quickly since the Pirates took him in the 50th round of the 1999 draft out of Trinidad State Junior College. He went to a high school that didn’t even have a baseball team, but that hasn’t prevented the right-hander from earning all-star honors in the Carolina League and New York-Penn League.
On Sunday, the Hillcats were uncharacteristically sloppy early on and the Cannons used that to their advantage. A wild pitch and an errant pickoff throw from Jacobsen were compounded by a throwing error by catcher Mike Lopez-Cao.
As usual, Potomac leadoff batter Christopher Morris was right in the middle of all the chaos. After drawing a walk to open the bottom of the first inning, Morris stole his 43rd base of the season, advanced to third when a strong throw from Lopez-Cao squirted past shortstop Jose Castillo into center field. Morris later scored on a wild pitch.
The Cannons opened up a 3-0 lead an inning later on singles from Johnny Hernandez, Al Rodgers and Milko Jaramillo and a Ramon Araujo sacrifice fly. Then Munoz, who has reached base safely in all 10 games since joining the Cannons, crushed a shoulder-high fastball over the wall in right field for his third home run and second in two days.
The Hillcats trimmed a four-run deficit in half in the sixth a rally that started when B.J. Barns homered to right field. Yurendell DeCaster doubled and Chris Duffy reached on an error, ending Martinez’s night. Then Ray Navarrette singled off Cook to knock in DeCaster. After Josh Bonifay was intentionally loaded to walk the bases, Cook struck out Castillo and Rawson came on to retire Luis Landaeta with an over-the-shoulder catch just in front of second base.
That play preserved the lead and then Kinney and Novinsky teamed up to close it out with Novinsky striking out DeCaster on a high fastball for the final out.
“We battled out of some tough situations. Those guys came in and did a great job,” Hamill said. “That was a big win.”