This is the third part in a series that looks back at the remarkable season of the 2010 Louisville Bats.
By Josh Cook
The Cincinnati Reds went into Spring Training looking for a leftfielder.
The Reds were set in right field with former Bat Jay Bruce, while Drew Stubbs had the inside track on center after his strong finish to the ‘09 season, but “Who’s in left?” was one of several questions facing the team as players reported to Arizona in late February.
The left corner got a little more crowded Feb. 22 when the Reds re-signed Jonny Gomes, who had spent ‘09 with Louisville and Cincinnati. The next day Reds manager Dusty Baker had seven names written on the dry-erase board in his office. They were Gomes, Chris Dickerson, Laynce Nix, Josh Anderson, Danny Dorn, Chris Heisey and Wladimir Balentien, all of whom were in competition for the left field vacancy.
“We have tremendous talent up there,” Baker told MLB.com on Feb. 23. “We have Dickerson. Gomes is a heck of a hitter. We have Nix, who did a good job for us. Balentien, I heard he had a good winter. Heisey was our (Minor League) player of the year. I don’t know Anderson and I heard a little bit about Dorn. We’re trying to go north with the best team that can go north.”
Nix, Dorn, Dickerson and Anderson were all left-handed hitters and with a lineup that already included left-handed hitters Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, so it made sense that the vacancy would be filled by a right-handed hitter. Gomes, Heisey and Balentien all fit that bill.
Gomes was an incredible story. He suffered a heart attack on Christmas Eve 2002 when he was 22-year-old minor leaguer. Despite that he made his Major League debut with Tampa Bay less than a year later (September of 2003). He remained with the Rays through the 2008 season, but wasn’t offered a tendered contract by the team and therefore was a free agent. He signed a minor-league contract with Cincinnati in January 2009 and began the season with the Bats before being called up in May. Despite a solid showing - .267 with 20 home runs and 51 RBIs - he wasn’t offered a tender after the season and once again became a free agent. The day before full-squad workouts began, though, the Reds re-signed Gomes.
Then there was Heisey and Balentien, both of whom had vastly different backgrounds.
Balentien, a native of the Netherlands, was signed by the Seattle Mariners as an undrafted free agent on July 14, 2000 - 12 days after his 16th birthday. He spent his first five pro seasons playing for teams like the Arizona League Mariners, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Inland Empire 66ers, San Antonio Missions and Tacoma Rainers. In 2007, while playing for the Rainers, he participated in the All-Star Futures game. He hit .291 with 24 home runs and 84 RBIs that season, winning Pacific Coast League Rookie of the year honors, before getting the late-season call-up by Seattle.
The day after Labor Day he pinch-hit for Jose Guillen in the eighth inning of a game against the New York Yankees. Balentien made it a first big league at-bat to remember because he promptly delivered a two-run double off Luis Vizcaino.
Balentien signed a one-year contract with the Mariners after the season and began 2008 back in Triple-A Tacoma before being called up in late April, when Seattle was playing in Cleveland. In his season debut , on April 30, Balentien went 2-for-4 and blasted a three-run home run in the top of the seventh off Cleveland star pitcher Cliff Lee to end his streak of scoreless innings pitched at 27. That was the high point, however, for Balentien.
He struggled during the rest of two stints with the Mariners that season, hitting .202 with seven homers and 24 RBIs in 71 games.
Balentien did a little bit better in 96 games with the Mariners in 2009, hitting .234 with seven homers and 24 RBIs, before he was traded to the Reds for reliever Robert Manuel in late July.
Meanwhile Heisey was a product of Pennsylvania. He was born in Mount Joy, Penn. and attended Messiah College, a private Christian college with less than 3,000 students. The school participated in NCAA Division III athletics and was more well known for its soccer programs. The men’s and women’s soccer teams won the D-III national titles in 2005, 2008 and 2009, and the school’s softball team also won the ‘09 national title.
Hesiey, however, starred for the baseball team. He set still-standing career records in highest batting average (.405), total bases (294), doubles (41), home runs (23) and extra-base hits (71).
In 2006 he was a 17th Round draft choice of the Reds. He quickly rose up through their minor league ranks. In 2007 he finished fourth in steals (22) and sixth in batting average (.295) in the Reds’ minor leagues. In 2008 he batted .291 with 150 hits and 61 RBIs. In 2009 he hit an astounding .347 with 13 homers in 71 games with Carolina before being promoted to Louisville, where he hit .278 with nine homers and 37 RBIs in 63 games.
In Spring Training, Balentien hit .327 in 49 at-bats, while Gomes hit .309 in 55 ABs. Heisey, however, hit .143 in only 21 at-bats. Consequently Gomes and Balentien began the season in Cincinnati, while Heisey started it with the Bats.
After winning three of their first four games at Toledo the Bats traveled to Columbus, where they lost their first game 5-3. Heisey, hitting leadoff, went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts to lower his batting average on the young season to .158. But he wasn’t the only one struggling. Todd Frazier was hitting just .105, while Chris Burke was batting .077.
The next night Heisey went 0-for-3 as the Bats managed only three hits in a 4-3 loss to the Clippers. Louisville led 3-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth, but would lose 4-3 in 10 innings.
In the ninth the first signs of rust on Adkins, who had knee surgery before the season, began to show. He gave up back-to-back singles to start the bottom of the inning then, after a sacrifice moved the runners over and an intentional walk. The Bats didn’t get the game-ending double play they were hoping for, instead Shelley Duncan singled to right field to tie the game.
In the bottom of the 10th Clipper Chris Gimenez hit a two-out, walk-off home run off Jesus Delgado.
The next night, in the Bats’ home opener, Heisey had one of only four Louisville hits in a 3-0 loss to Indianapolis. Indians starter Brad Lincoln outdueled Travis Wood and ironically it was Wood, who allowed only two hits and two earned runs while striking out five over 6 2/3 innings, who had half of his team’s hits.
Earlier in the day, though, the Bats - whose lumber was in a serious slumber after they won three of their first four games - figured to get some help when Balentien was optioned to Louisville from Cincinnati, where he didn’t get an at-bat.
The Bats got back to .500 (4-4) on tax day. Todd Frazier’s two-run homer and a strong start by Matt Maloney (6 IP, 5 hits, 2 ER, 2 BB, 7 SO) helped them beat Indy 4-2.
Chapman was slated to make his Slugger Field debut the next night, a Friday, but Louisville’s game against Columbus was rained out. So instead he took the mound the Saturday afternoon, on Thunder Over Louisville, day at Slugger Field. He brought some thunder himself, hitting better than 100 miles per hour on the radar gun, but it wasn’t enough. He was one-upped by Clippers starter Yohan Pino, who threw seven shutout innings while walking one and striking out six in Columbus 3-1 win.
Chapman took the loss despite giving up only one hit over five innings (87 pitches). However he did give up one earned run (giving him a 0.93 ERA), while walking four - two in the first inning when Columbus scored without a hit - and striking out just one.
The next day Louisville scored just four runs over 14 innings in dropping a doubleheader to the Clippers - 6-4 and 3-0 in a pair of seven-inning games. After 11 games the were last in the 14-team International League with a .207 batting average.
“Obviously we’re struggling as a team, we don’t have more than one or two guys who are hitting,” Louisville manager Rick Sweet said. “But as a team when you are in a slump and everyone is struggling the second game, as far as the quality of at-bats, is more important to me than anything. That’s all I care about and all I want them to care about.
“The second game we had a lot better at-bats. The first game started out okay, but then it kind of disintegrated on us.”
Heisey homered in the first game and went 2-for-4 in the second, but it wasn’t enough for the Bats, who dropped to 4-7 on the young season.
“We had some opportunities, now we just got to come up with some hits,” Sweet said. “We’ve got 130-something games left, I know this isn’t going to continue.”
It didn’t continue the next night as Louisville clobbered the Clippers behind four RBIs from Heisey and a strong start from Sam LeCure, who allowed only two hits over eight innings while striking out nine. He lost his shutout, though, when Adkins gave up two runs on three hits in the ninth. Balentien, in his first appearance of the season, went 0-for-4.
Armando Galarraga, who had lost to Louisville on April 10, got the better of the Bats this time around, beating them 4-1. He gave up just three hits, while striking out six over seven innings. Louisville’s hitting woes return, though, as exampled by Heisey and Balentien, who combined to go 0-for-7 with five strikeouts.
The Bats bounced back to win back-to-back games on April 21 and 22. In the first game against Toledo, Maloney improved to 3-0 by striking out seven and giving up just four hits in five innings, while Chris Valaika went 3-for-4 and Heisey 2-for-4 to lead Louisville’s eight-hit attack.
The next night, in Indy, Chapman picked up his first professional victory by beating the Indians 7-1. He struck out eight and allowed just three hits and one unearned run over 5 1/3 innings. Some signs of things to come, though, were his five walks and two wild pitches.
April may have started off well for Louisville, but it ended atrociously for the Bats. They lost their last seven games of the month, the final five by one run each.
They lost the first of those two games 6-1 to Indy - Balentien went 0-for-4 in the first to lower his batting average to .048 - before losing 7-6 to Indy in 15 innings on April 26. Heisey’s two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth had sent the games to extra innings and although he wasn’t tearing up Triple-A pitching (hitting .232 at that point), he was off to a better start than the team’s other big hitters. Juan Francisco went 0-for-6 in that game to lower his batting average to .133, while Frazier (.152) and Balentien (.038) both went 0-for-5.
Heisey went 2-for-5 the next night, but the Bats still lost 5-4 at Scranton/Wilkes Barre. The Red Barons beat the Bats 3-2 on April 29 despite Balentien’s first homer - which raised his batting average to .063. That same night in Houston, Dickerson broke his right wrist in the Reds’ 4-2 win over the Astros.
The next night Heisey missed Louisville’s month-ending 5-4 loss to Scranton for good reason. Earlier in the day he had been called up by Cincinnati. He was going to “The Show” for the first time to platoon with Gomes and solidify the position he had fought for in Spring Training...he was going to be in left field.