It takes time to get settled into a new home, and the Keene Swamp Bats have been finding that out the hard way this summer.
In an up-and-down start to the season that has the team standing at .500 through the first eight games, all four of the Bats losses have come in Keene, with the team holding a 2-4 record at home.
“I just think it’s part of the league,” Bats Manager Gary Calhoun said. “Part of what happens when you don’t know much about who you’re throwing and all that stuff. They don’t know your personality and you don’t know theirs. It works out in the middle, kind of.”
For a Bats team that came into the 2019 season talking about possibly having its best pitching staff in years, it makes sense to a degree that it would struggle figuring out how to win at hitter-friendly Alumni Field, with its short outfield fences.
Keene’s four losses have also come as part of their four worst defensive performances, in terms of runs allowed: a 14-8 season-opening loss to the Upper Valley Nighthawks on June 6, a 6-5 defeat at the hands of the North Adams SteepleCats on June 8, a 7-3 loss to the Winnipesaukee Muskrats on June 15 and Wednesday’s 12-10 loss to the Valley Blue Sox.
“It is an adjustment,” Swamp Bats pitcher and Keene High alum Erick Zecha said. “Line drives that usually might fall in as doubles, they sneak out, and just things like that. You can sometimes get away with that stuff at other parks, but here you don’t, so I would say it’s a big adjustment learning to play here.”
The Bats have not given up more than five runs in any of their wins. This includes the team’s two home victories — a 7-5 win over Newport June 7 and a 5-3 victory over the New Bedford June 12 — that just so happened to feature three of the team’s most highly-touted pitching prospects: David Johnson (started the Newport game, pitched 4.1 innings), Luke Albright (started the New Bedford game, pitched six innings) and 2018 All-Star Justin Willis (pitched 6.2 innings of relief between the two games).
Albright is projected to start tonight’s game against the Sanford Mainers at Alumni at 6:30.
“Forget about today and start over, because we’ll be fine,” Calhoun said. “It’s just another game. We’ve got plenty to play. It’s a long season.”
Mr. Smith goes yard
Swamp Bats fans know the name Brandon Smith.
It was hard to miss during the 2018 season as he lit up scoreboards, stat sheets and record books on his way to winning the league MVP award.
His return year in 2019 had gotten out to a solid start through his first five games, slashing .250/.318/.300 with a double, five runs scored and five RBI (as compared to .227/.292/.409 with a double, a home run, five runs and seven RBI at that point last year), but on Wednesday he reminded fans why he was such a big name last summer.
He started off slow, leading the second inning with a single and then scoring the game’s first run on a double to left by David Matthews. He really got his game going with a leadoff home run to left in the sixth, but by then the Bats trailed the Sox 12-5, and his big swing didn’t seem to make a dent.
But in the eighth, he hit his second homer of the night — a two-run shot to right-center that drove in Will Wagner — and sparked a five-run rally that brought Keene within two runs of Valley, turning the blowout back into a close contest.
Last year, it took until July 6 for Smith to have his first, and only, multi-home run game of the season.
“I made a few adjustments here and there that Coach [Shaun McKenna] and Skipper Gary have helped me make,” Smith said. “A few adjustments to get my timing down, and today it paid off.”
Smith, however, had no more heroics left at the end of the game. He struck out swinging in his final at-bat for the final out of a 1-2-3 ninth inning.
“Would like to have had a big hit at the end to maybe seal the comeback; would’ve been really cool,” Smith said. “Hopefully, we can carry it over to tomorrow and get the win tomorrow.”
The local boy shines
Wednesday was a rough night for the Bats’ and the Sox’ pitchers.
Between the teams, 11 pitchers were used, and six gave up multiple runs. Only four pitchers got out unscathed, and only one of those pitched more than one inning. That one was Zecha.
He came on in the seventh inning with his team trailing by seven runs, and proceeded to throw two hitless innings of relief, striking out three batters in the process.
For the local hurler, it was a welcome rebound from his previous outing, where he gave up three earned runs in one inning in the season- opening loss to the Nighthawks.
“I was just hitting spots,” Zecha said. “I struggled early in the year, first game, and I put a lot of work in the past few weeks, cleared my head and stuff.
“Today, we were down a lot, but this is my home field. I played here in high school, and you’re never out of the game here, especially with the dimensions of the field, so no matter the game you’ve just got to come in and just compete, and that was my goal today, just compete and help out our team.”
Josh Bates came on to the pitch the ninth and struck out the side, finishing the job by putting down Dakota Mulcay — the hitter who drove in five of Valley’s 12 runs with a pair of homers, including a grand slam.
“Your team plays better when they throw strikes,” Calhoun said. “Those last two guys did a great job. It was nice to see, especially for [Zecha], he’s a solid citizen.”