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April 04. 2012 11:44PM

Kevin Gray's On Baseball: Fisher Cats start their title defense tonight


New Hampshire Fisher Cats manager Sal Fasano signs a bat for Holden Black of Londonderry as his mother, Nicole Poitras, looks on during a fans' meet and greet at the Executive Health & Sports Center in Manchester on Tuesday. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)
MANCHESTER -- On average, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats win an Eastern League championship every four years.

Tonight the defending champs continue a tradition of player development through winning, kicking off the ninth season in Fisher Cats history at Yankees affiliate Trenton. Fifty-two Fisher Cats have gone on to reach the majors since the inaugural 2004 season, including American League All-Stars Aaron Hill and Ricky Romero.

In 2012, the biggest problem for New Hampshire manager Sal Fasano, returning for his second season, could be filling out the lineup card each night. So many options.

Who's on first? All-Star first baseman and Home Run Derby champion Mike McDade will likely get the start against Trenton at Waterfront Park (7:05 p.m.), though Koby Clemens gives the manager another option at first. Clemens, in his eighth pro season, has belted 95 career homers and brings leadership and power to the Fisher Cats.

Both Mark Sobolewski and reigning Eastern League Championship Series MVP Kevin Howard will see action at third base this season. Ryan Goins has been named starting shortstop, with Jonathan Diaz likely playing second base tonight.

In the outfield, 2007 supplemental first-round draft pick Justin Jackson will be flanked by slugger Brad Glenn (26 homers at Single-A Dunedin), switch-hitting John Tolisano, lefty stick Brad McElroy or Brian Van Kirk.

Catcher A.J. Jimenez, who batted .303 in an All-Star year at High-A Dunedin last season, will see most of the catching duty. Jimenez, a 21-year-old from Puerto Rico, is the top-rated defensive catcher in Toronto's system and has all the tools to become a big-time major leaguer.

“The first part of the year is always fun because you always feel like you have a chance to get kids better, get them to the big leagues and development them the way you think they should be — and hopefully win a championship at the end of the year,” Fasano said. “It's the best time of the year for me.”

Fisher Cats right-hander Drew Hutchison makes his fourth career Double-A start tonight. The third-year pro (career 2.52 ERA) has the best command on the team, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he finished the season with Toronto. Trenton lefty Schaeffer Hall, who went 10-8 (4.12 ERA) in the Eastern League last season, is scheduled to throw the first pitch of the 2012 season.

Hutchison makes his first opening-day start as a pro. In three outings for the Fisher Cats last season, he went 3-0 with 21 strikeouts and two walks.

“He's so fun to watch because there's nothing he does that's really tremendous. He goes out and competes,” Fasano said. “At the end of the year, you go, ‘Wow, his numbers are unbelievable.' I love how feisty he is. His ceiling is really high. I can't wait to see what he is going to end up being.”

Kevin Gray covers baseball for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is kgray@unionleader.com.

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