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Season-long improvements help Chatham defeat Orleans, 3-2, for 5th win in 6 games

by Andrew Crane, 08-01-2021

Season-long improvements help Chatham defeat Orleans, 3-2, for 5th win in 6 games

ORLEANS — If the improvements of Chatham’s season, the strides that catalyzed a stretch of four wins in five games with the potential for more, could all flash during an at-bat, it came in the fifth inning at Eldredge Park with Dominic Tamez at the plate and a Chatham runner, Kenny Levari, perched at first base. Levari had led off the inning with a first-pitch single, then two strikeouts followed, and that brought up Tamez — in the No. 9 slot with a .081 average — with two outs.

He’d spent the summer working with hitting coach Mickey Tettleton and manager Tom Holliday on the intricacies of his swing, tweaking his grip and watching as the results produced a pair of doubles against Cotuit on July 16. But after that, Tamez entered a 1-for-13 stretch. Levari scampered to second on a wild pitch, giving the Anglers a chance with a runner in scoring position, and advanced to third when Orleans catcher Justin Minkis knocked the ball down but it squirted away.

After a pair of foul balls — one off the home-plate umpire’s mask, one off the backstop’s netting — Tamez met the next pitch and blasted it toward the right-center field fence. Tom Holliday joked that Tamez’s at-bat was his “call tonight to the baseball god,” pleading for Tamez to get a base hit. Chatham players crept toward the top of the dugout, chanting “Get out, ball” and then watching it clear the yellow-lined, chain-link border around the Eldredge Park outfield, bouncing through the Orleans bullpen.

“And then he hits a home run, I said, 'Well, I'm done. I just shot my bullet for the night,” Holliday joked.

Tamez’s home run took a 1-0 Anglers lead, protected by five shutout innings by Cy Nielson in his first Cape Cod Baseball League start, and extended it to 3-0. Nielson threw another inning before exiting after one batter in the sixth. And season-long improvements — for both hitting and pitching — provided enough cushion for a potential Firebirds comeback and pushed Chatham past them, 3-2, toward its fifth win in six games, extending their best stretch of the season one night further.

'We struck out 18 times with no walks and we won a game,” Chatham manager Tom Holliday said. “I mean, that's rare … Early in the year, if we'd have done that, we would've been beat. No doubt about it. But I think they've learned how to win.”

Swings like Tamez’s, the tangible evidence of season-long improvements paying off, are what this point of the season, where no number of wins strung together can create a playoff berth, is all about. The batting practice strides. The late-season breakthroughs that carry over into fall workouts, and maybe the spring season. There’s no pill that players can take and instantly spit out results from the “quick fix,” Holiday said. It takes time, sometimes only one start, in other cases a whole Cape League season, and Holliday repeated that message again after the loss to Harwich officially eliminated the Anglers on Friday. Sunday’s performance by Chatham served as the latest sample.

Nielson positioned himself at the center of that, channeling the spotlight of his first CCBL start and turning it into a second outing with just one run allowed. Ten of his first 12 outs came on fly balls, some deeper than others, but he scattered five hits and one walk across his five innings. To end the first inning, Garrett Martin tracked a Trae Harmon fly ball deep to left field — as deep as it could go without landing over the other side of the fence — and caught the inside fastball that Nielson tried to sneak past Harmon for a strikeout.

For his third and final strikeout, he closed the fifth inning with a breaking ball in the dirt that impressed pitching coach Dennis Cook. It was a changeup, the one that Nielson tossed around 85 miles per hour and he needed to take off around four of them. He did against the Firebirds, and “he’s a different pitcher with that,” Holliday said, making that breakthrough in his final, and longest, outing of the season.

“He held his stuff all night,” Holliday said. “I mean, we got him out when we wanted to and yet I think there was more in there.”

In the third inning, Martin positioned himself in a similar spot, inches away from the left-field fence, as Chase DeLauter’s fly ball threatened to fly over for a home run. This time, Martin flipped the upper half of his body over the fence, snagging the ball with his glove and flashing the second out of Nielson’s inning for the umpires to see.

Chatham had already taken the lead, scoring in the first inning for the third-straight game. Nolan McLean rocketed a pitch from Orion Kerkering over the right-field fence, a hit that DeLauter tried to track near the wall but crashed into it instead. The Anglers managed just four hits over the next four innings against Kerkering, striking out nine times during that span but maintaining its lead because of Nielson’s success.

Cook jogged out to pull the BYU left-hander after Nielson surrendered a leadoff single to the left-handed DeLauter in the sixth inning. His replacement, Bryce Osmond, allowed a double to send home DeLauter, and a single where Garrett Martin’s relay throw missed the cutoff and bounced to the brick behind home plate — scoring Tyler Locklear from third.

The progression for Osmond this season has been subtle. He’s struggled with avoiding home runs, with picking up the big outs, with finding ways to piece together outings that resembled his success last summer as the Texas Collegiate League North’s pitcher of the year. But “it’s happening,” Holliday said postgame. He’s using the bottom half more when throwing, adding an extra mile-per-hour onto his fastball, avoiding the hanging curveball that gets sent into gaps and off the fence.

For his final Cape League appearance, Holliday said he wanted to create as much pressure for Osmond as he possibly could, finding avenues even with the Anglers already eliminated. That’s why he bumped him out of the starting spot for the third time this season, trying to avoid Osmond entering games with expecting trouble — the “negative seed” planted in his mind that surfaced during the fifth-inning hits.

“Then it got over, he got stirred up and some adrenaline kicked in and he quit just trying to get it over,” Holliday said. “He started competing. That's been turned off, and it's starting to turn on again.”

Osmond settled down, recorded six strikeouts and finished with his best outing this season. Jared McKenzie’s single up the middle in the seventh gave the Firebirds a chance with the middle of their order looming, though. Osmond then struck out Luke Keaschall on a pitch in the dirt, and Tamez kept McKenzie at second by looking him back before firing to first after the dropped third.

And then against DeLauter, Osmond snuck a breaking ball, this one in the dirt too, that caused DeLauter to check his swing. The home-plate umpire appealed to the one on the basepath, who confirmed it, and then Tamez did, too. He held his palm out, ball inside of it, for two seconds, starting at the Chatham dugout before flipping back toward the mound. Then he bent his knees and mimicked the motion, revving his elbow up past his shoulder and finishing the strikeout punch— the one Osmond’s pitch had initiated — before bumping fists with him outside.

“We're on a roll right now,” Tamez said.