This is the first part in a series that looks back at the remarkable season of the 2010 Louisville Bats.
By Josh Cook
The Louisville Bats were done, stick a fork in them.
You could use that, or any other overused analogy of your choice, to describe the Bats on the July 15. That night - another of many balmy ones at Louisville Slugger Field over the summer (game-time temperature was in the low 90s) - the Bats were trailing the beautifully-named Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs 7-0 after 1 ½ innings one night after the Triple-A All-Star Game.
To make matters worse the two-time defending International League West champions, who had been living in the division’s basement since late April, were trailing first-place Columbus by 11 ½ games.
Sure, things had started to look up for Louisville earlier in July. The Bats had won 8 of 10 before blowing a late lead against Columbus and losing 7-5 in 10 innings in their final game before the break. Afterward sixth-year Louisville manager Rick Sweet sat dejectedly behind his desk in the clubhouse. He looked tired. He was frustrated with the poor pitch-calling of his catchers that night (which irked him even more because he is a former big league catcher) as well as his team’s play in the first half of the season.
“Tonight’s ball game was a killer,” Sweet said. “We had that ball game and we made young mistakes, and they were mental.”
At the break the Bats were not even within shouting distance of first place in the IL West. Hell, they weren’t even within shouting distance of second-place. But, as it often does in baseball, the second half of the season brought the Bats new life, if for no other reason than the season was a little more than a month and a half from being over.
“You can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel,” first baseman Danny Dorn said.
But after 1 ½ innings against the Iron Pigs it looked like the Bats, and their season for that matter, might be in need of last rites.
Right-hander Matt Klinker, who had recently been promoted from Double-A Carolina, was off to a clunker of a start. Chris Duffy started the game with a double off Klinker before two of his teammates followed with back-to-back singles. There was a walk, then another single before the first out, which was a sacrifice fly. After a strikeout there were two more singles. The second of those, which made it 5-0, came from Lehigh Valley starting pitcher J.A. Happ, the 2009 National League Rookie of the Year runner-up with the Philadelphia Phillies who was down on a rehab assignment and was only two weeks away from being traded to the Houston Astros in the Roy Oswalt deal.
Things didn’t get much better for Klinker in the second. He allowed a leadoff home run to Ozzie Chavez, then a one-out solo homer to Andy Tracy, which made it 7-0.
Here the Bats went again. Louisville fans had almost become accustomed to this kind of start during the season. It seemed like the momentum for that last loss to the Clippers had carried over.
Sure Wladimir Balentien led off the bottom of the second with a solo home run to left field and the Bats tallied two more times to make it 7-3. But a comeback? Not a chance.
But then Juan Francisco hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh to trim the Iron Pigs’ lead to 7-6. Maybe it was possible, but don’t be your live savings on it.
But the Iron Pigs weren’t just going to let Louisville win. They brought in closer Scott Mathieson, a midseason IL All-Star who would finish with the second-most saves in the league (26). The flame-throwing right-hander had been clocked in triple digits despite two Tommy John surgeries.
Dorn led off the bottom of the ninth with a line drive double off Mathieson before Todd Frazier lined. And when big-hitting Francisco (“He’s a freak when it comes to hitting balls,” Dorn said) stepped to the plate Louisville had the potential tying run on second base. The Bats had hope.
Almost no one outside of Cincinnati (and probably some inside the city limits too) didn’t give the Reds any hope of making a run at a division title, much less at a playoff berth, in the 2010 season. They hadn’t been in a serious playoff race in more than a decade - they won 96 games in 1999, but lost a one-game playoff against the New York Mets for the NL Wild Card spot. Cincinnati, at 78-84, had finished 13 games behind St. Louis in the National League Central in 2009. However the organization had plenty of young talent, exhibited by the fact that Cincinnati’s Triple-A affiliate was coming off back-to-back IL West titles.
And while the Reds had done little in Spring Training to raise any eyebrows, going 12-16 in the Cactus League in Arizona, there were some positive signs for the Bats.
“The team that we were going to have was playing (together) in Spring Training and it was crazy, we’d go out there and just kill teams,” Dorn said. “We’d score five runs in two seconds, just one after another. We knew we had a ton of talent and a ton of potential.”
As the Reds began to whittle down their roster it became apparent that there would be some familiar faces in Louisville, as well as some new ones when the season began in early April.
Among those was Todd Frazier, an infielder/outfielder, who was rated as the organization’s No. 1 prospect by Baseball America before the season started. Frazier, though, had been on the national radar long before that. In 1998 he went 4-for-4 with a home run for Toms River, N.J. in the championship game of the Little League World Series (Toms River beat Japan 12-9). He was a supplemental first-round draft pick of the Reds in 2007 out of high school and since then had quickly risen up through the ranks of the minor leagues. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound right-handed hitting Frazier had been promoted to Louisville late in the 2009 season and prospered, hitting .302 with two home runs and nine runs batted in in only 16 games. His older brother, Jeff, was also running down the American dream of playing pro baseball in the Detroit Tigers organization.
There was also Chris Heisey, a solid outfielder (rated No. 4 in the organization) who had been promoted to Louisville in 2009 after dominating Double-A pitching in Carolina, where he hit .347 with 13 homers and 40 RBIs in 71 games. He hit .278 with nine homers and 37 RBIs in 63 games with the Bats to finish the season with a combined .314 average with 22 home runs and 77 RBIs.
The Bats would also have some of their arms from ‘09 back too. They included a pair of left-handed pitchers (Travis Wood and Matt Maloney), and one righty (Sam LeCure). Wood, the organization’s seventh-ranked prospect, went 4-2 with a 3.14 earned-run average in eight starts with the Bats in 2009. Meanwhile Maloney and LeCure were two of Louisville’s most solid starters in ‘09. Maloney, the No. 8 prospect in the Reds organization went 9-9 with 3.08 ERA in 143 innings over 22 starts, while LeCure went 10-8 with a 4.46 ERA in 143.1 innings in 25 starts.
A trio of infielders who had lengthy stays in Louisville in ‘09 were also back. They were Dorn, who hit .275 with 14 homers and 47 RBIs in 112 games; Chris Valaika, a shortstop who had struggled mightily in his first season in Triple-A, hitting just .235 in 95 games; and Drew Sutton, who had hit .317 with 20 homers in 2008 at Double-A Corpus Christi, Texas (the Astros’ affiliate) before being traded to the Reds in early ‘09 and hitting. 261 with five homers and 22 RBIs in 44 games with the Bats before making his MLB debut in July.
There were also a couple of key newcomers to the team. One was Zack Cozart, the Reds’ 10th-ranked prospect whose sure-handed play at shortstop and solid hitting had helped him rise through the organization since being a second-round draft pick in 2007. Then there were two players who were well acquainted with Louisville, one very much so. Relief pitcher Jon Adkins had a franchise-record with 30 saves with Louisville in 2008, but played the ‘09 season for the Lotte Giants in the Korean Baseball Organization before returning to the United States.
Then there was utilityman Chris Burke, who has played every position professionally except pitcher and catcher. Burke had been born and raised in Louisville. He had standout at St. Xavier High School and then was an All-American at the University of Tennessee before being the 10th overall pick in the 2001 Major League Baseball Draft by the Astros. He made his MLB debut on the Fourth of July 2004 and in 2005 hit one of the most memorable home runs in postseason history. Less than two years later he was sent down to Triple-A, then traded to Arizona. After bouncing around from the Padres to the Mariners to the Braves, Burke signed a minor-league contract with the Reds in December of 2009.
As April approached, though, it became apparent that there would be one other new face in the Bats clubhouse at the start of the season - a highly-touted, and highly-paid, pitching prospect.