The Keene Swamp Bats came into the 2019 season boasting one of the franchise’s best pitching rotations in years.
But while there are have been some bright spots on the mound from players like Zach Messinger, Luke Albright and Justin Willis, the pitching hasn’t been the main reason for the team’s success of late. Keene is on a three-game winning streak, and the key ingredient in all of those wins has been the Bats’, well, bats.
After scoring eight or more runs just twice in its first seven games, the team has scored at least eight in each of its past four games.
“They’re just getting used to being here, getting more reps,” Swamp Bats Manager Gary Calhoun said. “Playing all these games in a row, we’re gonna get to use everybody, so they’re gonna get their at-bats, and some of them are taking advantage of that.”
The streak started, ironically, with a 12-10 home loss to the Valley Blue Sox last Wednesday.
Since that defeat, the Bats have been filling up the win column: first, they beat the Winnipesaukee Muskrats Friday, 13-10; then they got revenge on the Blue Sox in Holyoke, Mass., 8-6, Sunday; and, finally, they defeated the North Adams SteepleCats at Alumni Field Monday night, 12-8. It was their first win at home since June 12.
With league leader North Adams and Valley on three-game losing streaks, Keene has now jumped into second place in the Northern Division standings, a half-game out of first place.
One of the biggest points of note during this streak has been the abundance of long bombs — and, of course, playing at cozy Alumni doesn’t hurt, either.
During their three-game win streak, the Bats have hit 10 home runs, and now lead the league by a wide margin.They have 20 while the Muskrats and Danbury Westerners are next in line with 12 each.
David Matthews already led the league in home runs with five before the streak started, and added another with one of the team’s six dingers in the win at Winnipesaukee. David Bedgood has homered three times in the past three games, twice at Winnipesaukee and once against North Adams.
Brandon Smith had two homers in Wednesday’s loss to Valley, and hit one out Monday, blasting a two-run shot as part of a fourth-inning rally that featured three homers. Seth Caddell (who also homered at Winnipesaukee) and Andrew MacNeil — the Nos. 8 and 9 hitters in Monday’s lineup — led off the inning with back-to-back blasts.
“I just think I’ve swinging at the right pitches and I’ve been on time,” Bedgood said. “That’s one of the things our coaches harp on is just being on time, and I’ve done that this past week and it’s worked out for me.”
There’s no doubt that location plays a factor, as both Alumni Field and Winnipesaukee’s Robbie Mills Sports Complex are hitter-friendly ballparks.
Calhoun also pointed out that the Keene hitters got to face SteepleCats starter Alex Gomes for the second time this season. Gomes threw five shutout innings of relief in a June 8 game at Alumni, where North Adams came out on top, 6-5, but the Bats got their revenge against him Monday. They torched Gomes for nine runs, seven earned, in 3.1 innings.
“We were better than he was tonight, and he was better than us the first time we saw him,” Calhoun said.
But, ultimately, Calhoun said the biggest factor in the team’s success is players simply getting to know each other and the coaches.
“It’s great, because it gives more of the momentum to the team,” said Mitchell Golden, who was hitting .188 through his first five games, but has gone 3-for-7 with a home run and a triple during the team’s winning streak. “You watch another guy hit a bomb or hit a triple, and you get more excited; it makes you want to do the same thing.”
The Bats play three of their next four games at home, weather permitting, starting tonight at 6:30 with a rematch against North Adams. Keene has struggled at home this season, going 3-4 at Alumni so far, but the team is hoping to ride its newfound momentum into some better luck on its own turf.
“These fans are awesome, they show up every night,” Bedgood said. “I haven’t seen a crowd that’s as good as the fans here, and we want to put on a show for them.”
Strange as it may seem to talk about good pitching in a game with 20 combined runs, starter Zach Messinger threw a gem for the Bats. The 6-foot-6 right-hander went six innings, giving up two runs (none earned), five hits, one walk and struck out five. Keene led 12-3 going into the ninth, when North Adams scored five times to make it closer.
Messinger is 2-0 on the season, leads the team in innings pitched (16.2), ranks second in strikeouts (18), and has the best ERA among the team’s starting pitchers (1.62).
“You kind of know what you’re gonna get when he’s out there. He’s been the same, for the most part, in all his starts,” Calhoun said. “He holds runners well, he’s pretty cerebral, he makes the game easy to watch and easy to play defense behind him, too.”
Calhoun said a big factor in Messinger’s success is that he consistency throws strikes. Messinger credits the offense for staking him to early leads, allowing him to pitch aggressively. On Monday the Bats scored three runs in the first, highlighted by a two-run triple by Golden.
In a June 16 road outing against the Vermont Mountaineers, a three-run homer by Matthews in the second inning — the first of two dingers for him that game — put Messinger in the position of pitching ahead.
Even in a June 8 home game against North Adams, when Messinger gave up the game’s first run in the second inning, his team responded immediately with three runs in the third. Although the SteepleCats tied the game in the top of the fourth, the Bats scored two runs of their own in the bottom half, and Messinger would leave the game after five innings with a 5-4 lead (although the team would ultimately lose, 5-4).
“It’s nice to go out there whenever you can go out there and pitch with a lead,” Messinger said. “When our bats are swinging like that, it’s my job to go out there and throw strikes, and that’s what I did.”
A big (league) deal
Two Keene Swamp Bats alums from last summer signed professional contracts and took their first steps toward their MLB dreams.
Pitcher Ryan Gusto signed with the Houston Astros after being selected in the 11th round of this year’s MLB Draft (346th overall), and catcher Cordell Dunn Jr. signed with the Detroit Tigers after being picked in the 30th round (892nd overall).
Dunn — who was selected in the 19th round (579th) in the 2017 draft by the Toronto Blue Jays after graduating from Center Hill High School in Olive Branch, Miss. — had a stellar summer with the Bats, hitting .321/.388/.507 with seven home runs and 24 RBI and making the NECBL All-Star Game as a reserve. He went on to hit .386/.461/.646 with 12 dingers and 74 RBI (ranking ninth in the NJCAA in the latter category) in his sophomore season at Grayson College.
“I’m excited as can be for him,” Swamp Bats President Kevin Watterson said. “He’s a pro. When he swung the bat and the ball came off his bat, it was special, you knew he was going to play professional baseball. Proud to call him a Swamp Bat.”
Gusto had a limited stay in Keene, only seeing 5.2 innings of work and thus finishing with a 9.52 ERA and 11 strikeouts. His sophomore season at Florida Southwestern State was more indicative of his abilities, as he went 7-2 in 18 appearances (nine starts) with a 2.88 ERA and 110 strikeouts.
“He came here last year, his arm was tired, [Florida Southwestern] had really used him a lot, we knew he was only going to stay three or four weeks just to give us some innings,” Watterson said. “A quality individual, led the state of Florida junior colleges in strikeouts, put together a monster year, had a full ride to Western Kentucky [University], but got drafted high enough to make himself just under half a million dollars, and again, how happy are we for him.”
A slight change of plans
Tonight’s game against North Adams was still on as of press time, despite the threat of showers. The full infield tarp is on the field today, and Watterson said they will do everything they can to get the game in. However, they have postponed first responder night to later in the season, considering heavy vehicles on potentially water-logged grass might not be a good idea. Youth camps this morning were also postponed.
The forecast calls for showers, some possibly heavy, into the early evening but clearing in time for the game. Right-hander Paul Kosanovich of Virginia is expected to make his third start on the mound for Keene. Mason Ronan of Pittsburgh is slated to start for North Adams.