Road Trip To Fredericksburg

A road trip to Fredericksburg on Wednesday to see Travis Sykora’s debut in Single-A started off with a lot of promise for the future. Sykora just celebrated his 20th birthday this week, and at one-time last year was on some draft boards as a first rounder. The high schooler from Round Rock, Texas was a bargain for the Nats in the third round last year. He skipped the Florida Complex League and came straight to Fredericksburg. His second inning started like you hoped with two consecutive strikeouts yesterday, and that is where you saw a glimpse. But then you quickly saw that he was facing batters who have had several weeks in real games — and Sykora was being held to a pitch count of 50 — and exited in the third inning.

These are a few observations in no particular order:

– Ironically, the FredNats *have* a stadium name rights deal—something the MLB club hasn’t figured out yet. They play in Virginia Credit Union Stadium (VCU stadium—something VCU graduates no doubt appreciate).

– It’s a pretty nice little ballpark that is only a few years old. Capacity 5,000, with paid attendance today 4,153 thanks Sykora’s debut and also that it was Education Day (with *hordes* of elementary school kids in attendance. While they did not show deep understanding of the game’s nuances they scored high on enthusiasm).

The above pic is from the VCU stadium equivalent to the Red Porch in Nationals Park. There are lots of little features and places for kids to play in. Concession prices were lower than Nats Park but a bit higher than I was expecting ($8 for Chicken tenders, $6 for hot dogs, $5 for bottled water etc). For those who care, VCU stadium is a Pepsi place for beverages.

More to the point, if one stood where I took the above pic and turned left one could watch a baseball player in the bullpen.

The photo above is of Sykora warming up in the FredNats bullpen. Note the kids advising him over his shoulders.

I play in a 48+ year old “baseball in slow motion” league. Suffice it to say the ball popping into the catcher’s glove here was MUCH louder than I’m used to hearing!

– Soon enough Sykora was on the mound and the game was on!

  • The radar gun at VCU Stadium seems to be VERY conservative (i.e., reads the ball slower than expected). Sykora threw fastballs rated at 88-90 mph with breaking  pitches 76-79 mph. But no other pitcher hit higher than 88 on that gun (Bubba Hall for the FredNats). The Wood Ducks starting pitcher was pretty good (guy named Lobus—came in 3-0 with a 1.86 ERA and gave up nada in four innings to the FredNats). He was rated by that gun as 82-84 with one pitch that hit 85.

As no doubt noted elsewhere, Sykora gave up 3 R, 2 ER and 2.5 WHIP. Not so great statistically, but again, it was his first start against Single-A players who have had weeks of playing in games. He did unfortunately make an error on a comebacker so the unearned run was his fault.

Admittedly, I am by no means a baseball scout. But to me his stuff looked pretty good (yes, even though he was getting hit—it’s more than just velo here, Travis). He was also pretty clearly on a pitch count because he was pulled after the first three batters got on in the third inning around 52 pitches.

  • Pretty good seats, eh? Third row behind the FredNats dugout ($23 seats, even with the “because you have to pay the fee” fees and the “what are you going to do, say no?” fees). The home dugout in Fredericksburg is on the third base side, not the first base side like the home dugout at Nats Park. No idea why.

It should be noted there are dangers in seating that close to the FredNats dugout. When home plate umpire Dylan Reaves called a clear strike (later verified a strike by my brother online) as ball four I yelled “LOOKED GOOD FROM HERE BLUE!” To my surprise, the umpire turned and looked at me—and at the FredNats dugout. I decided not to risk doing an “Aaron Boone/Wendelstadt” to anyone on the FredNats. Umps don’t react this way when I advise them from Section 310 at Nats Park!

  • Charms of the minors: in addition to the swarms of kids for Education Day, there is a lot of silly at minor league ballparks. These include things like
    • Playing a glass breaking noise whenever a foul ball went over the fairly low stadium roof into the parking lot
    • Having a call and response “that was a…FOUL BALL” for all foul balls that stayed in the stadium
    • Announcer and fans going “WOO!” whenever a Wood Ducks player swung and missed or had a strike called against them.
    • A mildly rude (but funny) thing was designating an OPPOSING player as the Chick-Fil-A “eat more chikn” K of the day. If that player (in this case the Wood Ducks #8 hitter) struck out during the game anyone with a Chick-Fil-A app got an unspecified prize.

      Think of this as the “Dinger of the Day” except for an opposing player whiffing rather than a Nats player going yard. And he sportingly did in fact whiff during the 8th inning, coming through for the FredNats fans with the app.
  • The ballpark also has a pretty good scoreboard for a Low A stadium (at least what I expected for a Low A stadium—it’s not like I’ve gone around comparing them):

    – Our guy Elijah Green, who had an Elijah Green sort of day. He struck out in the 2d and in the 9th (to end the game), looking pretty bad both times. But he also *hammered* a ball on a line shot to dead center in the fifth that bounced off the wall 400’ away. Originally ruled a triple (Green busted it out of the box—that’s the way to do it!—and he can fly), the umpires changed it to a home run.

This surprised me (I first wondered if the Ducks new pitcher had balked when they waved Green home). It *really* surprised the Wood Ducks manager. Although not visible in the above picture, the center field fence is taller than the rest of the fence and has a line on it that is darker above the line, lighter below it. Apparently hitting the fence above that line is a home run?

I thought it hit below the line myself, and so did the Wood Ducks manager. He was excused from further participation in the proceedings after an enthusiastic discussion with the umpires and (since this is a minor league park) got to take a long walk down the left field line exiting the stadium for his troubles.

Whether or not it was really a home run, it counted as one. And as noted Green not only crushed that ball but hustled out of the box to leg out a triple before being waved home. Both good signs! So only minor snarking about the two strikeouts today.

  • Both teams seemed to be using an “opener” approach. Not only did Sykora come out after 52 pitches—the Wood Ducks starter only pitched four innings (66 pitches). FredNats basically did nothing to him: a leadoff hit followed by a bad TOOTBLAN (picked off and out by at least a foot) and seven strikeouts in four innings.

Bryan Polanco pitched five innings for the FredNats. After letting one of Sykora’s runners score he did okay until he pulled a classic Nats thing (giving up a two run HR to the #9 hitter, which was that guy’s first HR of the season).

– There were quite a few “oh, right, Low A ball game” moments (like that Green “home run?”). The most complicated bit of baseball comedy occurred in the FredNats 8th inning rally:

  • Wood Ducks pitcher did a 2x LoW (Roismar Quintana, Brenner Cox).
  • After FredNats SS/#9 hitter Nate Ochoa Leyva (more on him in a minute) whiffed, it looked like 2B/leadoff hitter Everett Cooper (III)’s bat “died a hero”, breaking loudly on a weak grounder to the no man’s land to the right of pitcher to load the bases.
  • Except wait! For reasons unclear (I was watching the batter, not Cox) Brenner Cox was called out for interference. So first and third, two out.
  • After Cooper (III) stole second FredNats LF Tyler Baca hit an inning ending groundout to the SS. Which did end the inning but in a very non-standard way. The SS threw the ball past the first basemen allowing Quintana and Cooper (III) to score. However, Baca was thrown out trying to advance to second so the inning still ended.
  • More seriously there was a major brain cramp by FredNat SS Ochoa Leyva. After a single and an almost-DP in the top of the ninth there was a runner at first with a LHH up and one out. The runner broke and FredNats catcher Caleb Farmer (who had already nailed one thief earlier in the game) popped up…but did not throw because NOBODY WAS COVERING SECOND.

That was ugly. With a LHH up I presume it’s the SS’s job to cover the bag, but neither he nor 2B Cooper (III) twitched until the runner was over halfway to the base.

And it mattered because after a strikeout for the second out the Wood Ducks got a single to left field that scored a run. I really, really hope someone in the FredNats dugout talked to Nate about that.

Bonus points for FredNats LF Tyler Baca whose not-very-strong throw in the general direction of home plate on the single to left widely missed the cutoff man allowing the Wood Ducks hitter to advance to second.

  • Down three runs going into the bottom of the ninth one would traditionally expect the FredNats to be working counts etc. Nope! They came up swinging, including at pitches that didn’t look like strikes. Unsurprisingly given this approach Brandon Pimental and Green K’d while Gavin Dugas hit a 1-3 grounder after falling behind 0-2.

    Despite all this, it was a beautiful day at the ballpark. Very sunny (SPF 70 is your friend), temps in the 80s with low humidity and almost clear skies. Sykora’s FredNats debut is in the books and we’ll see how he progresses. He just turned 20 last Sunday (28 April) so he’s quite young even for Low A.
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