2015 Baseball Season Underway in Reading: Finding the Groove and Walk-Off Wins

Reading Fab Five (l to r): Zach Eflin, Ben Lively, Jesse Biddle, Tom Windle,

Reading Fab Five (l to r): Zach Eflin, Ben Lively, Jesse Biddle, Tom Windle, Aaron Nola (Source: Reading Eagle)

Jesse Biddle’s first 2015 home start was last night (Saturday) in front of a Reading crowd of about 7,000, with a slight breeze and game time temperature in the 70s. It was deemed the match-up of the night by many minor league prognosticators around the country. Biddle was going head-to-head with the Richmond Flying Squirrels’ Kyle Crick, the San Francisco Giants’ #1 prospect. Crick has electric stuff.

Jesse’s first inning was a bit rocky as he worked to shake off a seven-day wait to take the mound after his last start. Inevitably, he left a couple balls up, yielding a double and two singles in that first frame. Kelby Tomlinson led the game off with that double, and would go 3-5 on the night including a home run and three RBI. Kelby Tomlinson looks like a guy who won’t be playing in AA much longer this year. (Since the Giants probably don’t need another young middle infielder these days, we’re wondering if anyone in the Phillies front office is thinking about Tomlinson as part of a trade…they’re going to need a replacement for Chase Utley in another year or two).

In the end, Jesse yielded two runs in the first and threw 30 pitches. He says he felt great, though, and was just looking for a rhythm and a groove. It all came together after that. In six innings he struck out 8, only gave up those two runs, walked one, yielded just two additional hits, and left the game up 3-2. One of the highlights of the game for many of us who know the kid was seeing him start the bottom of the 5th by lacing a single to left center, eventually coming in to score the tying run (with Carlos Alonso hot on his heels for the lead).

Overall, Jesse threw 91 pitches on the night (7 by our count in the 2nd, and 9 in the 3rd) — 67 strikes, 24 balls. Interestingly, his change-up was on full display. It’s a doozy. He threw about eight for strikes (two we recall for balls). He sprinkled in a good number of curves and sliders, too, and the fast ball had decent late life as well, producing a good number of “swings-and-misses.”

It was a good second outing, but the game wasn’t over after Jesse gave up the mound to Ethan Stewart. The Flying Squirrels went ahead in the 7th 5-3. The Fightins tied it in the 8th with two runs, including a two-RBI single by Brock Stassi. The game would finally end in the bottom of the 10th after Stephen Shackleford pitched a classic 4-out inning, striking out the side and adding a fly out to center field for good measure. (How is that possible, you ask? Ball in the dirt strikeout to start the inning, wild pitch, runner advances safely to first).

It would all come down to Brock Stassi in the bottom of the inning. With two on and no outs, Stassi barreled a long line drive to right center. He gets credit for only one RBI (both runs scored), but that’s all the Fightin Phils needed to win the game. Perfect way to end a beautiful spring Saturday night in April. Stassi is the league RBI leader with 16. The next closest hitter has 9.

Brock Stassi hits a walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the 10th inning. (Tug Haines/Reading Fightin Phils)

Brock Stassi hits a walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the 10th inning. (Tug Haines/Reading Fightin Phils)

So, the 2015 AA baseball season is underway in Reading, PA and #54 has so far had two strong outings. April is always a funky month for starting pitchers. It’s hard to find a groove if you start your real work in the Northeast after six weeks of warm-weather baseball in Florida. Part of the early season fun, for discerning fans, is watching pitchers ramp up and find their stuff. It’s not easy.

In Reading’s case, the team will trot out five top prospect pitchers every five game days — at least to begin the year. Watching these guys figure out how good they are has been fun already after just two weeks of the season. Let it be known as well that Jesse is enjoying the chance to watch four other quality starters throw every night — with poise, confidence and skill. He says they’re all good guys, fun to watch, and fun to be around. Can we call them the Fab Five? Only time will tell, but it’s looking pretty likely so far.

Reading started on the road in Portland, Maine this year and had the first two days of the 2015 season snowed out. Jesse Biddle and Aaron Nola finally got their first games of the season under their belts in a double-header on Saturday at Portland’s Hadlock Field. Nola was a bit rusty in his first inning of work, but managed solid pitching going 4.2 innings. In the second game of the day, Jesse went 5 scoreless innings, struck out 4, and only allowed 2 hits. Those numbers look okay, but Jess was quick to note he didn’t feel great out on the mound until the fifth inning. Such are first games of the season when the temperature is in the low 50s and the wind is swirling at 20 – 30 mph.

Both pitchers would wait longer than the five-day count for starters to throw again. In the mean time, however, the Fightin Phils trotted out Zach Eflin on Sunday in Portland who pitched a quality shutout six innings, scattering four hits. The Fightins won that game 10-2, firing on all cylinders. Heading to New Hampshire, Tom Windle scattered 9 hits only allowing one run through six innings, and the next day Ben Lively pitched well through six innings, yielding solo home runs in the first and second, but settling in nicely as the game progressed. Both top prospects did not get wins as the Fisher Cats managed to surge against relief pitching at game’s end. In the last face-off of the series, 28-year-old Anthony Vasquez got a spot start for Reading and went five innings (with the win) not allowing a run through five.

With last night’s win, the Fightin Phils are leading their division in the Eastern League with a 5-3 record. They’ve got offense, great starting pitching, good defense — especially in the outfield — and a solid set of relievers. It’s minor league baseball, of course. Things change so fast from week to week. But with five top prospects taking the mound every night, it’s worth a trip to Reading to watch pretty much every home game the team hosts.

Jesse’s scheduled to be on the mound again in Harrisburg on Thursday night, April 23. He’s 1-0 right now with 12 strikeouts, an ERA of 1.64, and a WHIP of 0.91. Let’s hope he can continue to keep the ball down and dominate AA hitters. Lehigh Valley is only an hour away from Reading. Maybe we’ll be reporting from there before the season is over. For now, though, games at Reading can be might fun to watch.

See you out there.


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