This is the sixth part in a series that looks back at the remarkable season of the 2010 Louisville Bats.
By Josh Cook
If May was the month the Louisville Bats made up ground in the International League West Division. Then June was the month they took a step backwards.
Louisville went 17-13 in May, then posted a 12-16 record in June. So when the Bats began July they were a long way out of first place in the West. A long way. Louisville had a 36-44 record and were in the West cellar, 12 games out of first place.
But the month wasn’t a complete wash. On the last day of the month it was announced that Louisville Bats Travis Wood and Chris Valaika had been selected to play in the Triple-A All-Star Game.
Many thought that Wood would be the Cincinnati Reds’ fifth starter during the 2010 season. But something happened during Spring Training, rookie Mike Leake earned the No. 5 spot in the pitching rotation, ahead of Wood, a left-hander who was a 2005 second-round draft pick.
Wood had starred at Double-A Carolina in 2009, going 9-3 with a 1.21 earned run average in 19 starts before being promoted to Louisville. In eight starts with the Bats he went 4-2 with a 3.14 ERA in eight starts.
His 2010 season didn’t start off as well, though. Wood went 0-3 in April with a 3.96 ERA and 27 strikeouts in four starts (25 innings), but bounced back to go 3-1 in May despite his 4.34 ERA. But while the Bats collectively struggled in June, Wood did not. He went 2-2 with a 1.26 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings and ended the month with his best performance of the season.
On June 25 Wood dominated Norfolk, allowing five hits while walking one and striking out nine in eight shutout innings. Five days later he was named to the IL All-Star team, but that was only the beginning for Wood. One day later he was called up by the Reds.
Valaika, meanwhile, was still waiting for his “call” to “The Show.” And if any one of the Bats was deserving of that it was Valaika.
Not only had he been Louisville’s most consistent performer all season, but he had done so without so much of a peep about his position switch.
Valaika had come up as a shortstop. He was a standout at that position as a college player at the University of Cal-Santa Barbara, and had a big bat too. He hit .335 with a team-high 10 home runs his junior year, during which he was a third-round draft pick by the Reds. He came up through the Cincinnati organization with guys like Drew Stubbs, Chris Heisey and Danny Dorn, all the while as a shortstop. But this season Zack Cozart, a highly-touted shortstop, was placed in Louisville at the start of the season. With an anything-that-helps-the-team-win attitude Valaika readily accepted a move to second base.
It was a mature move that may not have happened if not for 2009.
Valaika had risen up quickly through the Reds’ farm system, and had been a standout at every level. In 2008 he was the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year, so it was no surprise that he started the 2009 season in Louisville. What was surprising, however, was his start. After about a month he was below the Mendoza line - hitting less than .200. Valaika had never struggled like that before. He was frustrated. He began putting more pressure on himself.
“Everything just snowballed,” Valaika said. “I had never failed like that before in my life.”
Finally, after a strikeout in early May dropped his batting average to .167, his frustrations reached a boiling point. Once he returned to the dugout he punched a water cooler. He lost. Valaika broke his hand and missed more than a month of action.
“It gave me a different perspective about the game,” Valaika said. “I was able to really sit and watch it for the first time. It made me a better player in kind of a weird way.
“This game can be a grind, playing day after day. It was nice to just clear my head.”
The break - both of his hand, and from the game - seemed to help. He hit .260 in the final 72 games of the season.
“It taught me how to fail,” he said. “At every level I’d had success until I got here...But it also taught me that I could play at this level.”
He proved that from the beginning of the 2010 season. His move to second base was a success right away.
In the Bats’ season-opening win at Toledo, Valaika went 2-for-3 with a run scored while batting in the No. 8 hole. The next night he went 2-for-4, then 1-for-4. The next game he went 0-for-4 with a throwing error while starting at third base. Two games later he was back at second base to stay. While the rest of his teammates struggled at the plate, Valaika hit an awesome .329 in April. He followed that up by hitting .289 in May. His average dipped a little in June, when he hit .269, but his batting began to warm up again in July. And this time he wasn’t alone. All his teammates started hitting the ball too.
The Bats had ended June by losing four of their final five games of the month. They extended that to 5 of 6 when they lost the first game of the month, 6-0 at Durham. The defeat dropped them a season-high 13 games out of first place in the IL West. On the bright side, though, Louisville had out-hit the Bulls 10-9 in that loss.
The next night the Bats had 15 - the biggest of which was Yonder Alonso’s eighth-inning grand slam - in a 10-5 win over Durham.
While Louisville’s hitting had been hot and cold much of the season, its pitching had been solid. That continued. The Bats beat Indianapolis in four straight games - three of which were shutouts, including two of the seven-inning variety during a doubleheader sweep of the Indians on July 5.
Indy beat Louisville 9-7 the next night, although the Bats out-hit the Indians 13-10.
Louisville bounced back to win three of its next four games and entered its final game before the All-Star Break on an up-tick. The Bats had won eight of their last 10 games and had gained 2 ½ games on division-leading Columbus in eight days as they hosted the Clippers in a Sunday evening game.
Things started off well for Louisville. Cozart homered in the bottom of the first to give the Bats a 1-0 lead. After Columbus scored one in the second, Dorn hit another homer in the bottom of the inning to make it 2-1. The Clippers scored two in the fourth off Louisville starter James Avery, the pride of Moose Jaw, Saskatoon, Canada, in what would be his only start of the season. The Bats had his back, though. In the bottom of the inning they scored three runs - on a sacrifice fly by Valaika and a two-run single by recently-called up catcher Chris Denove - to give Louisville a 5-3 lead. Avery left after the sixth inning with his first Triple-A victory in sight. But the Bats’ bullpen couldn’t back him up.
Columbus scored once in the eighth, then added another in the ninth to tie the game. The Clippers won the game on Wyatt Toregas’ two-run home run in the 10th inning off reliever Enerio Del Rosario.
The mood in the Louisville clubhouse afterward was somber, to say the least. A few days off couldn’t come at a better time for the Bats. Although not all of them.
Photo courtesy of the Louisville Bats