By: Noah Frank
It is officially that time of year again, when the leaves abandon their spring and summer green for shades of yellow and crimson, when the morning chill forces us to shake the dust from our sweaters and jackets, tucked away since the beginning of the baseball season. That means it is also time for everyone from VH1 to us here at Yard Work to break out our “best of” lists for the year gone by.
In that spirit, we will be rolling out our Top Eleven of ’11, the best 10+1 moments of the season past on fresnogrizzlies.com. Our crack panel has assembled what we believe to be the memories that stand above the rest, and will be releasing them every Monday-Wednesday-Friday beginning today until we reach number one. You’re sure to see some highlights from Brett Pill and Tyler Graham, but do you remember the other great games and individual moments from 2011? Will your favorite memory of the season make the list? We start things off with the season’s first game.
Opening Night was a pitcher’s duel most of the way, as Ryan Vogelsong and Brad Mills battled unseasonably cold April weather that even brought hail prior to the game. With the score 2-1 entering the bottom of the eighth, the sky opened up, bringing heavy rain with it. Both teams fought through the conditions, but the Grizzlies took advantage of the situation. Fresno plated nine runs in the inning— capped by Darren Ford’s grand slam— before the 51s could record an out, scoring an 11-1 victory to open the 2011 campaign.
Brett Pill collected three hits, none bigger than his career-high 20th home run, a three-run shot in the sixth inning. That gave Jonathan Sanchez more than enough breathing room as he cruised to a 12-3 victory over Salt Lake in his first rehab start with Fresno in 2011.
Two nights after Emmanuel Burriss set the single-game franchise record with four stolen bases, the Grizzlies combined to swipe a mind-boggling 10 bags in one game against Las Vegas. Five different players got in on the act, with Terry Evans and Darren Ford collecting three steals apiece and Tyler Graham notching a pair in an 8-5 victory.
Pablo Sandoval took no time at all to get the crowd into the game in his first rehab start, following Tyler Graham’s lone home run of the season two batters later with a two-run shot of his own as part of a seven-run second inning. Sandoval added two more RBI on the night as the Grizzlies blew out Las Vegas by a final of 12-4.
The Grizzlies slugged two sets of back-to-back home runs, with Conor Gillaspie and Edgar Gonzalez turning the trick in the third inning and Brad Eldred and Jackson Williams accomplishing the feat in the eighth frame. Fresno finished with a season-high five home runs in the 8-5 victory over Oklahoma City, and would stunningly go on to hit back-to-back shots a total of nine times throughout the 2011 season.
Severely short-handed following call-ups and injuries, the Grizzlies faced Las Vegas in a doubleheader on June 5th. Shane Loux turned in his best start of the season in Game One, shutting out the 51s on just three hits in a 3-0 victory. Then, in Game Two, recent A-ball addition James Simmons hit a pair of towering home runs over the batter’s eye as the Grizzlies hung on for a 5-4 victory and a sweep of the twin-bill.
#5. 7-6 on 7/6 (7/6)
Following a pair of one-run victories over rival Sacramento, the Grizzlies found themselves in a 6-4 hole entering the eighth inning in the final game of the three-game set. Fresno came back to tie the game on solo shots by Brandon Belt and Conor Gillaspie, then pushed in front for good thanks to back-to-back, two-out doubles by Thomas Neal and Max Ramirez, leading to a 7-6 victory on July 6th.
Barry Zito followed a decent first rehab start with an absolutely dominating performance in his second outing at Chukchansi Park. Mixing his pitches and flashing his trademark curveball, he kept Salt Lake batters off-balance all night, with solo home runs by Brad Eldred and Darren Ford providing more than enough support. In the end, he finished off a 118-pitch, complete game, two-hit shutout of the Bees on June 21st.
Some records are set in meaningless contests, with no real impact on the outcome of the game. Tyler Graham’s single-season franchise stolen base mark was not one of those records. After leading off the bottom of the ninth inning with a single in a 3-3 tie against Tucson on July 9th, he stole second and third to give him 43 steals on the season, surpassing Calvin Murray’s mark of 42, set back in 1999. He sat 90 feet from home as Justin Christian lofted a fly ball to shallow center, darting home after the catch and belly-flopping into home plate ahead of the tag with the game-winning run as Fresno walked off on the Padres, 4-3.
The Taco Truck Throwdown grew from a good idea, to an explosive theme night, to a nationally recognized promotion. The Grizzlies drew a vibrant crowd of 10,287 fans on the final Thursday night of the season and beat rival Sacramento, 7-4, on August 25th. The Throwdown went on to win its 10-promotion category for Minor League Baseball Miscellaneous Promotion of the Year, giving the Grizzlies five straight years of MiLB Promo Finalists, a streak unmatched in the sport.
In front of the largest crowd of the year, the Grizzlies got off to a dismal start, spotting rival Sacramento a 5-0 lead heading to the bottom of the fourth. But Fresno clawed back within 5-3, then got back-to-back home runs from rehabber Mike Fontenot and Edgar Gonzalez in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game at 5-5 and send it into extra innings. The Grizzlies loaded the bases on a single and a pair of walks to set the stage for Gonzalez once more, who singled to center field to score Justin Christian with the game-winning run, sending the crowd of 13,455 into a frenzy and setting up what would turn out to be three consecutive one-run victories in the Highway 99 Showdown Series.
Thanks to all our fans for a great 2011, see you all on Opening Day, Friday April 13, 2012!
By: Ellen Ward
Ever since Buster Posey’s season ending injury, the San Francisco Giants have had a tough time fully replacing their every day catcher. A couple weeks after Posey went down, catcher Hector Sanchez was promoted from High-A San Jose all the way to Triple-A Fresno. This sudden promotion sparked many questions and speculation about whether or not the Giants were grooming this young catcher to perform on a bigger stage.
With a pitching rotation that the World Champion lean on, it is only fitting that a top-notch catcher should be calling the pitches and blocking the plate. Posey was the Giants top prospect in 2010, and he found his way to San Francisco on May 28th of that year and became the compliment to the pitching staff. Posey spent the first few weeks at first base while the Giants evaluated their options. In the end they traded veteran catcher, Bengie Molina to the Texas Rangers and Posey became the Giants starting catcher and prized possession.
A year ago, the Giants fan base wouldn’t dare think that a number of players would be doomed to the disabled list, but that is exactly where half of the World Series roster ended up by mid-May. The most devastating injury by far was Buster Posey’s shoulder-to-shoulder collision. He suffered season-ending injuries after Florida Marlins’ outfielder, Scott Cousins barreled into home plate in an extra innings game on May 25th at AT&T Park.
The Giants took action quickly, calling up Chris Stewart from Fresno, and moving backup catcher Eli Whiteside into the starting role. Both catchers are familiar with the pitching staff, but neither has come close to filling the vacant role Posey has left. It is rumored that the Giants are looking for other options to fill the position, and the recent promotion of Hector Sanchez from High-A San Jose to Fresno has provoked quite a buzz.
“This is a huge step for him,” manager Steve Decker comments on the arrival of Sanchez. “We need to make this kid a complete guy.”
There is a whirlwind of speculation about this young catcher but no one seems to know much about him. Sanchez is a 21 year-old from Maracay, Venezuela. He signed with the Giants at the green age of 16 in 2007, and played in the Dominican Summer League for two years.
In his second year of professional baseball, he hit .348, with 63 RBI and went 72-for-207. The next year, Sanchez began playing in the Arizona Rookie League, still catching and still producing runs. He hit a solid .299, and hit safely 35 times in 33 games. In 2010, he played at Low-A Augusta, where he batted .274, went yard five times, and had 31 RBI.
The Giants obviously saw potentional in Sanchez because he was a non-roster invitee for Spring Training in 2011. He spent a majority of camp with the defending World Champions, before being assigned to High-A San Jose.
“He got a lot of playing time because Whiteside got hurt in Spring Training”, points out Decker when asked how familiar Sanchez is with catching the Giants starting rotation.
In the Cal League, Sanchez tore it up in his first 43 games, batting .301, notching 19 multi-hit games, and hitting eight homers. Even more impressive is that he continued to be a RBI machine, notching 46 RBI in just 43 games. All of this work at the plate was done at the same time he was behind the plate guiding the Giants’ young arms, including top prospect Zach Wheeler. When Sanchez batted clean up for San Jose, he hit .319, and hit six of his eight home runs in the four slot. Sound familiar? Posey was the Giants permanent clean up hitter, and rotating players since his injury have filled that slot.
Sanchez was promoted from San Jose on June 9th, and played in his first Triple-A game on June 10th. He went 1-for-3 with a walk, and a RBI in his first game. He caught for veteran Shane Loux who gave up one earned run and fanned three batters in six innings of work. Sanchez’ has reached base safely in seven of his first nine games. He notched his first multi-hit game just six days into his Triple-A career, going 2-for-4, with a double and single, while plating two runs. He accomplished this at the same time as he was behind the plate calling a game for Cy-Young Award winner, Barry Zito in his third rehab start. Sanchez was the starting catcher in every single rehab start that Zito has pitched in, both games with San Jose and two more in Fresno.
“Sanchez called a great game and made it easy for me”, expressed starting pitcher, Andrew Kown after he threw six innings of no-hit ball to beat the Sacramento River Cats on June 19th.
On the surface Sanchez is a RBI machine based off his offensive numbers alone, and he has the advantage of being a switch hitter at the plate. The real question is, can he catch a starting rotation that carried the Giants to the World Series?
“He is in a position to be called up,” says Decker when asked if he sees Sanchez making his major league debut this season. “They always say you’re one foul tip away from the big leagues.”
Decker, a former catcher who spent most of his career with Giants organization, coached Posey at the Triple-A level, and will continue to shape Sanchez until San Francisco calls upon him.
The Giants put trust in Posey at a young age, but it remains to be seen if they will do the same with the 21-year-old Sanchez. It might be too early to tell, but according to Bay Area reporters he is on the right track. If he keeps producing at and behind the plate, he may find himself in the Bay Area sooner than later.
By: Noah Frank
When you’re just 28 years of age, as I am, it may seem naïve to suggest that any part of your life has come full circle. And yet, as spring has abandoned us for another scorching summer in Downtown Fresno, that is exactly the position I find myself in this week in regards to my professional life working in baseball.
My first baseball job came in 2001, when I served as the website intern for OaklandAthletics.com in the final season that it operated independently, prior to the league-wide acquisition of team sites by MLB.com. A week prior to being hired for the internship, I was just a recent high school graduate, sitting at Francsesco’s Italian restaurant on Hegenberger Road, a popular family-style joint just across Highway 880 from the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum. I was attending an Oakland A’s booster lunch, which featured a local media member (exactly whom, I have forgotten by now) and an up-and-coming A’s player, a young left-handed pitcher by the name of Barry Zito.
A then-23 year-old Zito charmed the crowd with his upbeat, friendly personality, fielding softball questions from the crowd of a couple hundred fans, most retired season ticket holders. As he answered queries about his hair, his favorite color and the guitar, my mother— a then-A’s fan, who had raised me as such before deserting the Green and Gold last summer for her childhood rooting interests across the Bay— nudged me to ask a question of my own, a real one, that a ballplayer might appreciate.
The summer before, I had attended Northwestern University’s National High School Institute Journalism Program in the northern Chicago suburb of Evanston. I spent five weeks focusing on sports journalism, and even wrote my major trend story about the league-wide increase in power numbers and how they might be related to smaller ballparks, more tightly-wound baseballs, or even (gulp) “supplements” of some sort. Sports Illustrated would publish nearly the identical story the final week of my program.
On one Saturday— July 22, 2000, to be exact— a friend of mine, also in the sports group of the program, grabbed me on my way out the door of my dorm room. This kid had grown up in Tucson, attending many Sidewinders games, the Diamondbacks affiliate, which has since moved to Reno and become the Aces. He had watched a young Athletics farmhand dazzle and baffle hitters with a knee-buckling curveball, and had been predicting great things for him as soon as the Oakland brass would pull him up to the East Bay. July 22nd was that day.
“The A’s just called up Zito, he’s starting today,” he said. “You’ve gotta watch this kid pitch.”
Based on his description of Zito’s successes in the “Coast League”, I agreed. I ditched my plans for wherever it was I was headed and sat down in front of a computer to watch one of the most primitive versions of ESPN’s Gameday to follow the progress. The A’s were playing the Angels that day in Oakland, and jumped out to an early 7-1 advantage. Zito was moving along well into the fifth inning, when he hit a spot of trouble. Facing Anaheim’s 9-1-2 to begin the frame, he sandwiched walks to Adam Kennedy and Benji Gil around a Darin Erstad single to load the bases with nobody out and the 3-4-5— Mo Vaughan, Tim Salmon and Garrett Anderson— coming up. All he did from there was strike out the side, finishing his five innings of work in style for his first Major League win.
That takes me back to Francesco’s, one year later, debating what to ask Mr. Zito. I decided to go for it, and described in detail exactly how that fifth inning of his Major League debut had gone down. I asked him what was running through his head, how he approached the situation, how it felt when it was all said and done. Most of the crowd was caught off-guard, but Zito just sat there and smiled, then gave an honest, thorough answer to the question. I came up afterward and we had a nice discussion about UC Santa Barbara, where he had attended for a year and where I was off to begin school at in the fall, and other non-baseball topics. We wished each other well, and went our separate ways.
A week later, I was hired by the A’s.
The first time I was assigned to collect post-game audio from the home clubhouse, I was instructed by one of my two bosses not to talk to the players while I was down there. Naturally, as soon as I stepped inside the door a spiky-haired Zito came strolling out from the showers and saw me.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” he asked, smiling. “Get over here.”
One quick glance at my dumbfounded boss and I was off, chatting it up with Zito, as I would from time to time throughout the season. He was friendly with me during that summer and once even invited me out for drinks with “Eric” and “Jason”. For those unfamiliar with the 2001 Oakland squad, that would be Eric Chavez and Jason Giambi. The thought alone was thrilling for a young A’s fan, but impracticle for an 18 year-old that looked more like a high school freshman at the time. I thanked him for the offer, but settled for the gesture, one that made a young, aspiring baseball executive feel at home.
Fast-forward 10 years, and here we are. While I’ve seen Zito in passing the past two Spring Trainings in Scottsdale, I’ve never really had a reason to speak with him, as he’s never been a Grizzly. But now, suddenly, here he is in Fresno as part of his Major League rehab as he fights his way off the Disabled List for the first time in his career. It was my duty to organize and monitor his press conference, and on Thursday I will have the chance to watch him start in person for the first time since he left the A’s following the 2006 season.
But there is another piece to this reunion story. My former boss in Oakland, the first of my baseball career, was none other than current Comcast SportsNet Bay Area personality Mychael Urban. Back then, he was the OaklandAthletics.com beat writer assigned to the A’s. As it turns out, Urban will be making the trek south to the Central Valley for Zito’s start, meaning I will fill out the press pass that will allow him in the park and sit next to him in the press box.
So in the end, I guess I could say my baseball life has come full circle this week in Fresno. After all, I might be more naïve to think that my past ever will intersect with my future more completely than it will on June 16th.