HARWICH, Mass.--Everyone has theories on why offense is up so dramatically in the Cape Cod League this summer.
Some speculate there is less pitching depth in the college ranks than usual. Others suggest two years of swinging BBCOR bats have made it easier for players to adjust to wood bats. And there is plenty of buzz around the league that the balls themselves are juiced, with livelier cores and less pronounced seams that make it more difficult for pitchers to spin breaking balls.
Whatever the reason, this is unquestionably the summer of the bat in the Cape League. With more than a week left in the regular season, Harwich already has 56 home runs--just three shy of the league record set in 1981. A year ago, Orleans led the league with 28 homers, and the entire league produced just 159 long balls. This year, seven teams already have 28 or more homers, and the league has produced 309 in all.
Yarmouth-Dennis is hitting .305 as a team, and Cotuit is hitting .290. A year ago, Cotuit and Brewster led the league with .260 averages.
So it was no surprise that balls soared out of Harwich’s Whitehouse Field during the home run derby before Saturday’s CCBL all-star game. But once the game itself got underway, the story was pitching--just like in the old days. The East and West held each other scoreless through seven innings, and the game finished in a 1-1 tie.
“It’s tough when you only get one at-bat versus a pitcher,” said East starting shortstop Alex Blandino (Yarmouth-Dennis/Stanford). “You can’t really pick up on tendencies or how he’s trying to approach you. Pretty much, I think, all the hitters were just going out looking for a fastball in the zone, and all these pitchers did really well tonight throwing hard and sharp stuff. I think the result was a good representation of the talent out here, the arms that we’re facing every night.”
Eight of the nine West pitchers sat in the 90s, led by Hyannis righthander Jeff Hoffman (East Carolina) and Cotuit righty Dan Slania (Notre Dame), who each hit 95 repeatedly. Hyannis lefty Seth Manaea (Indiana State) and Wareham righty Colby Suggs (Arkanas) each sat at 94 and mixed in a devastating secondary pitch--Manaea got two strikeouts with a tumbling split-change at 85-87, while Suggs kept hitters honest with a wipeout power curveball at 82-83.
Manaea, the East starter, has been the biggest breakout star of the summer, going 4-1, 1.44 with 75 strikeouts and six walks in 44 innings. That performance earned him the start for East, and after allowing a leadoff single to Tanner Mathis (Mississippi), he picked off the speedster trying to steal second, then struck out the next two batters to end the inning. One crosschecker said afterward that Manaea is “clearly” the top pitcher on the Cape, and he didn’t disappoint Saturday--even though he didn’t show his slider at all because he “wasn’t really feeling it” in his pregame bullpen session. Instead, he featured that power changeup, a pitch he learned at the end of the spring from Indiana State teammate Tyler Pazik.
“I didn’t start throwing it until the last series in Oregon (for regionals),” Manaea said. “I threw it a couple of times for strikes. In the meetings with my coach (after the season), I was talking about working on that pitch, having it for an out pitch next year.”
Hoffman has also made a name for himself in the Cape, building upon his encouraging freshman year at ECU. The lanky 6-foot-4, 182-pounder worked in the 93-95 range in his scoreless fifth inning, mixing in a big-breaking 11-to-5 curveball at 77-78 and a solid changeup at 81. It was Hoffman’s last appearance of the summer, as he’ll head home to rest now.
Slania is more of an established commodity, having dominated out of the Notre Dame bullpen over his first two seasons, racking up 17 saves. He leads the Cape with eight saves this summer, to go along with a 1.82 ERA and a 36-3 K-BB mark in 25 innings. His 91-95 mph fastball and 81-84 power slider made him look imposing Saturday, but he failed to protect the West’s 1-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth. Blandino, the East MVP in the game, led off the frame with his second single of the game, then scored on Robert Pehl’s two-out RBI single through the left side. Slania struck out Conrad Gregor (Vanderbilt) on an 83 mph slider to end the game in a 1-1 tie two batters later.
The pitchers for the East showed somewhat less velocity on the whole, though seven of the nine arms still bumped the low 90s. Harwich righty David Whitehead (Elon) and Chatham righty Michael Wagner (San Diego) showed the most velo, topping out at 93 in their scoreless innings.
The West mounted threats in five of the first six innings but came away empty, twice grounding into double plays with the bases loaded. It finally broke through in the eighth, when West MVP Daniel Palka (Wareham/Georgia Tech) led off with a single--his third hit of the game--against Brewster lefthander Tom Windle (Minnesota). Cotuit’s Jacob May (Coastal Carolina) followed with another single, and a double steal put runners at second and third. Palka was erased at the plate on a fielder’s choice, and it looked like Windle was going to escape another jam unscathed when he struck out John Murphy (Bourne/Sacred Heart) with two outs. But the pitch was in the dirt and reached the backstop, allowing May to score the game’s first run.
“Coach was telling me to look for a dirt ball, and with two strikes, pitchers are trying to throw offspeed. I think it was a curveball in the dirt, and I read it right away,” May said. “I was pretty excited when I saw that ball pass.”
The crowd of 3,812 seemed to perk up during the late-inning drama, but fans who came to see offense mostly had to be content with the pre-game home run-hitting contest. The contest featured only one round, with four players from each side getting eight outs. Five of the contestants hit four or more homers--Stanford’s Brian Ragira hit four, Auburn’s Blake Austin and Virginia Tech’s Tyler Horan hit five apiece and Vanderbilt’s Conrad Gregor hit six. But JaCoby Jones (Harwich/Louisiana State), who was a late addition to the field after Harwich teammate Austin Wilson left with an injury, blasted seven majestic homers over the left-field fence to win the derby.
The wiry Jones is an athletic middle infielder who hit just four home runs in each of his first two collegiate seasons. But he has five home runs with wood this summer, and he can put on a show in batting practice. Jones said he arrived at LSU weighing 188 pounds, but now he’s up to 205, and his power is emerging.
“My power gets better every year, since my freshman year of high school,” Jones said. “I feel like I’ve gotten bigger, stronger, faster. Every year I get better.
“It feels real good, knowing I was going up against some of the best power hitters in the Cape.”