Fisher Cats Notebook: Playoffs certainly in sightBy JOE DUBALL
New Hampshire Union Leader
July 04. 2018 9:31PM
MANCHESTER — The New Hampshire Fisher Cats have failed to make the playoffs in each of the last seven seasons. Barring some drastic changes to personnel or pedigree over the next two months, that drought is going to end as the Fisher Cats entered Wednesday’s game against the Reading Fightin Phils 14 games over .500 and sitting atop the Eastern League’s Eastern Division.
While New Hampshire’s roster carries varying degrees of minor league playoff experience, it’s unknown whether the team will rise or fall in a playoff atmosphere. The first playoff measuring stick came in the Fisher Cats’ previous five-game set with the Trenton Thunder, who are 1½ games behind New Hampshire in the standings and the only other club with a winning record in the Eastern Division.
“We all kind of targeted those five games,” Fisher Cats manager John Schneider said before Wednesday’s game at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium. “You look at every game, except for that Saturday loss with that kid (Michael) King’s great start, and we were in on everything. It was an evenly matched series and it came down to the team that took care of the ball came out on top.”
New Hampshire dropped the series, 3-2, while being outscored, 22-20, by Trenton, but the Fisher Cats did not shy away from the marquee matchup. King’s shutout for Trenton on Saturday was answered by T.J. Zeuch, who hurled seven scoreless innings in a 4-0 New Hampshire win on Sunday.
“When you look at it and match up our offense to their pitching, it’s a pretty cool little head-to-head matchup there,” Schneider said.
New Hampshire ranks near or at the top of most major offensive team stats while Trenton’s pitching staff is No. 1 or 2 in league pitching numbers.
“I like the way our group reacted to it all and the way we competed,” Schneider said. “Obviously you want to treat every series the same, but there was certainly a little more there with this one so it was fun.”
Tuesday’s 4-1 win over Trenton most resembled what playoff baseball might look like. New Hampshire had something to play for in that game as a loss would’ve put the Fisher Cats out of first place in the division, where they’ve spent just 11 days without at least a share of first place since April 5.
Remaining atop the standings was a mere perk for Schneider, who had the bigger picture in mind with his series reflections.
“The cool part for me was seeing everything that we’ve tried to stress from the start of the season really come to life in that series,” Schneider said. “I didn’t have to do too much. They were kind of all over this themselves, which I love and exactly what I’m trying to do at the end of the day.”
Harris back in town
Lefty starter Jon Harris was reassigned to New Hampshire before Wednesday’s game following a pair of starts for Triple-A Buffalo. Harris allowed four runs across 12 innings in two starts for Buffalo, including six innings of shutout ball against the Pawtucket Red Sox on the way to a win in his Triple-A debut.
While the plan was to keep the stint in Buffalo brief, Harris’ promotion was warranted. The 24-year-old was 5-0 in his last eight starts for New Hampshire, including three consecutive victories. Harris allowed two runs combined in those last three wins while yielding two runs or fewer in five of his last six Double-A outings.
The stretch of success comes after Harris tweaked his delivery. Harris and New Hampshire pitching coach Vince Horsman opted to lower the lefty’s glove at the set position, moving from chest-high down to his belt.
“A lot of it came down to him and Vince getting together looking at what had and hadn’t worked over the last year,” Schneider said. “We have all the numbers and information that says what we’re trying to stay away from in terms of hard-hit balls with his heater. It was more about how we can go about making things a little more deceptive.”
Schneider credited the smooth transition to Harris’ open-mindedness and amendability. The lefty was able to apply the changes within a week of identifying what he wanted to do.
“It used to be that as soon as he broke from the glove you could see the ball,” Schneider said. “What he does now just hides the ball a little bit and keeps his body in rhythm a bit more. He’s an athletic guy, so I mean why not use that to his advantage while he’s on the mound.”
Harris is likely to take the ball on regular rest for New Hampshire as they close out their five-game series with Reading on Sunday.
Zeuch rebounds nicely
Last Sunday’s start by Zeuch was quite the bounce-back after a shellacking at the hands of the Portland Sea Dogs on June 25. The righty was torched for eight runs (seven earned) in just 3⅔ innings, which resulted in his first loss since May 18.
The implosion was the first real red flag for Zeuch in Double-A, but Schneider viewed it as a mere hiccup for the Toronto Blue Jays’ No. 9 prospect, according to MLB.com.
“There was no real adjustment as much as it was chalking it up to a guy having a bad day,” Schneider said. “We didn’t play good defense behind him in the inning they hit a two-run homer with two outs off him. It was more him just going back to doing what he’s done really well, which is keep the ball on the ground.”
Zeuch’s response on Sunday against Trenton featured four strikeouts to just two walks while scattering five hits. Schneider expected a return to form from Zeuch and the 22-year-old did not disappoint.
“He’s a guy you can really count on and we will continue to,” Schneider said. “It was about 100 degrees on the day game he pitched in Trenton and he goes out and gives us seven innings. That’s back to business as usual for him and just showed us that we can lean on him down the stretch.
Guerrero on the mend
Schneider offered a brief update on third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who has been on the disabled list since June 7 with a knee strain. Guerrero Jr. has been ramping up his rehab with running and baseball activities and Schneider is optimistic a return is in sight for the Major League Baseball’s No. 1 prospect.
“I check up on him all the time and talked to him a couple days ago,” Schneider said. “He’s in good spirits and I think we’re looking at another week of making sure that he’s all good before really anything happens.”
While a return looks imminent, it’s unclear where the 19-year-old slugger will be returning to. Schneider did not reveal any rehab plans and seemed unsure of what Toronto’s brass had in store for their prized prospect. Guerrero Jr. likely options are a return to New Hampshire or a brief stint in the lower minors before taking his first crack at Triple-A in Buffalo.
Schneider’s gut tells him that the Fisher Cats haven’t seen the last of the phenom.
“I would be surprised if we didn’t see him at some point,” Schneider said. “If we do, we’re talking about adding the best player in the minor leagues to your everyday lineup and into your clubhouse. But most importantly for him in all this is that he’s doing well and will be back on a field doing what he does best.”