Saturday, July 24, 2010

Grizzlies have fun, gain confidence despite loss

Cheyenne fell to the first-place Foxes 3-2 at Pioneer Park on Saturday night, but the real story is not the loss itself, but the positive effect of it.

Head coach Aaron Holley made a gamble Saturday night. He took a chance and threw in all of his chips.
The payout is yet to be determined, but the risk could be enough to right the ship and turn around the Grizzlies’ season just in time for the MCBL championship.

Holley started a lineup that was unconventional at best. It featured four first-time starters, including starting pitcher Nick Colbert. On the season, the eight position players had a combined 11 starts at their position Saturday night. Several players were playing positions they hadn’t played all season, including catcher Jose Gonzalez playing third base and shortstop Jose Jauregui calling the game from behind the plate.

“(Friday night), I turned to Luke (Wetmore) and we decided we were going to let everyone else play,” Holley said. “I knew this game didn’t mean anything in terms of the standings or anything like that, so we let guys play.”

At times, it looked as if Holley was shaking a Magic Eight Ball to determine who would play where next.

Infielders played outfield and vice versa.

Jauregui ended up playing all nine positions, including coming in to pitch in the ninth inning in a one-run game.

“We had joked around about it,” Holley said. “He’s technically our utility guy; he plays short for us but plays outfield at his school. I knew he could play second base and a bunch of positions. I had never seen it before, and figured this would be the game to do it.”

In the bottom of the ninth, trailing by one run and needing a rally, Holley sent up three players who hadn’t swung the bat once all season.

It gets weirder, though.

During batting practice, Jack Winters could be seen wearing a cowboy hat. Mike Lessig was wearing the batboy’s jersey, snuggly fitting four sizes too small.

Two players (Rory Kolo and Kevin Logan) spent the game in the press box calling the action as the PA announcers and K.C. Judge danced and ran the bases in between innings dressed in the Grizzwald suit, Cheyenne’s mascot.

Yet, in the midst of the three-ring circus, the Grizzlies came out and played—and played well, I might add.

“Hopefully it was an eye opener, especially to the guys who play all the time, that if you go out there, let it all go and just play your game, there can be positive results,” Holley said.

Colbert, who had pitched less than seven innings all season, threw seven innings of six-hit baseball. If not for an error on the first batter of the game that led to three unearned runs, he would have thrown a shutout, and would have been credited with the win.

“Unbelievable,” Holley said of Colbert’s performance. “Probably one of the best pitching performances out of a starter we’ve had this year. It was definitely the least amount of pitches through seven. I hope that shows to our pitchers that if you throw strikes and minimize the walks, good things will happen.”

Colbert needed just 82 pitches to get through the seven innings.

“I was having fun and was able to do really well,” Colbert said. “I was throwing strikes, seeing what I could do and how long I could go. My fastball was working enough to get outs.”

Fun is the key word.

Other players also used that word to describe Saturday’s game.

“We played a great game (Saturday night),” said Brett Fanning, who made an unexpected season debut in the ninth inning. “It kind of eases the tension a little bit, and I think it will help build chemistry going into the championship. We all had a lot of fun out there.”

“We’re just trying to have fun,” Jauregui added. “Lately we’ve been losing, so it was good to have a night like this where we could just let loose. We know we’re in the championship, so we’re just trying to gain some confidence. We play our best games when we’re not playing under pressure, and I think you saw that (Saturday night).”

Saturday came with a loss, but during the postgame huddle in right field—the same one that has been glum, melancholy and has lasted as long as 13 minutes during the Grizzlies’ three-week slump—smiles could be seen.

There was laughter and applause. As the players jogged back to the dugout, there was joking and excitement.

There was a sense of confidence and optimism within the team that hasn’t been seen since its slide began during the Fourth of July weekend.

The fact is, Cheyenne threw out a lineup that consisted of backups and experiments while Fort Collins stuck with its starters. The end result was a one-run game, allowing Cheyenne to realize they can compete.

“Fort Collins was still trying, and besides the three unearned runs in the first inning, they couldn’t get anything off of us,” Holley said. “I think the guys had fun, and a game like this can build confidence going into the championship series.”

The Grizzlies and Foxes will meet again Sunday to close out the regular season before beginning a best-of-3 championship series Thursday.

The Grizzlies played well enough to win Saturday, but winning wasn’t Holley’s only intention.

“The last two weeks, Luke and I have been racking our brains around how to get out of this slump,” Holley said. “It got to a point where, at some point, you have to have fun doing it—I don’t want to say have fun losing, because I don’t think losing is ever fun—but, I think what we were trying to accomplish (Saturday night) wasn’t necessarily to win. We were still going to go out there and play hard, get guys playing time and hopefully we were going to be able to compete, which we did.

“We’ve gone out there trying to throw our best lineup, throw our best pitchers, and nothing has been working. You have conversations with individuals, conversations with the team . . . eventually you have to try something different.”

If winning was all that mattered Saturday, Holley would have brought in closer Jack Winters to pitch the ninth instead of a guy who hasn’t thrown off a mound since middle school. He wouldn’t have brought up two pitchers (Josh Boyer and Winters) and an injured Fanning to rally in the bottom of the ninth, either.

Fanning has been fighting an injury that has kept him off the field the entire season. He still hasn’t been cleared to swing, so his intention when going up to the plate with two outs and down a run in the bottom of the ninth was to bunt . . . even with two strikes.

“I’m not able to swing yet,” Fanning said. “It didn’t matter if it was 0-2 or 3-0, I knew I was bunting. That was the first time I had seen live pitching in months. It was kind of nerve-racking, but it was good to be back playing in Cheyenne. Just to be back out there made me feel like I was part of the team. It meant a lot.”

Sure, a win would have been nice, but Holley was looking at the bigger picture than just the final score.

“These summers are long, especially when you play the same team 12 times,” Holley said. “You have to try to find a way to break up the monotony.”

The starters got rest, the reserves got playing time, the Foxes didn’t get another chance to see Cheyenne’s team before the championship series and, most importantly, the Grizzlies gained momentum, even with the loss.

“We’re in good shape,” Colbert said. “It’s just a matter of getting in our groove, and I think (Saturday night) helped us find that groove.”

Perhaps a little fun was all the Grizzlies needed to get them off their slide.

“Hopefully the guys still want to be here,” Holley said. “Hopefully they realize they can still win a championship, and hopefully we can go out there and do it.”

The Grizzlies played loose and relaxed, and had fun while doing it. Will Saturday’s excitement carry over for the remainder of the season?

Only time will tell, but my Magic Eight Ball says, “Signs point to yes.”

Other highlights:

• Colbert’s final line: 7 innings pitches, six hits, five strikeouts, four walks and no earned runs.
• Joe Luft pitched a 1-2-3 eighth in relief.
• Jauregui played all nine positions, saying that catcher and pitcher were his favorite.

“Coach mentioned it to me before the game but I didn’t believe him,” he said. “I was a little nervous, but I threw my breaking ball quite a bit and tried to throw strikes.”

Jauregui let up a one-out single, but struck out the side, throwing 12 of 16 pitches for strikes.

“I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “I was having fun out there, so it resulted in a good performance.”

As for catching: “I liked catching because it’s a tough position to play. Even though I made a couple errors (two passed balls) back there, I had fun and was just trying not to look bad.”
• The starting lineup was unique: Taylor Fallon (SS), Ryan Schwenn (RF), James McCaleb (1B), Jose Jauregui (C), Jose Gonzalez (3B), Ryan Eustice (2B), Tyler Stevenson (CF), Stephon Parker (DH) and Kyle Green (LF).
• Fallon, Schwenn, Jauregui, Gonzalez, Eustice and Stevenson recorded hits, including two hit-games for Fallon and Eustice. Eustice also drove in a run in the sixth inning.

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