Strikeout Records Fall Between Rancho Cucamonga And Inland Empire On Opening Day
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.— After more than 18 months since their last official game, most minor leaguers figure to be understandably rusty in the early part of the 2021 season.
The season opener between Inland Empire and Rancho Cucamonga on Tuesday served as a case in point.
The two teams combined for four runs, 11 hits and a league-record 35 strikeouts in Rancho Cucamonga’s 3-1 win at San Manuel Stadium. Rancho Cucamonga, the Dodgers Low-A affiliate, set a franchise record by striking out 21 batters. Inland Empire, the Angels affiliate, had 14 strikeouts.
“Tonight was really unexpected seeing that many strikeouts,” Rancho Cucamonga manager John Shoemaker said. “First night game for a lot of the kids, they haven’t played in over a year, pitchers with good velocity tonight, first year players out there, there was a just a combination of a lot of things.
"You gotta give the pitching a lot of credit. Strike out 35 guys between both teams, the pitching had to be doing something pretty good.”
Gavin Stone, the Dodgers’ fifth-round pick out of Central Arkansas last year, was central among the pitching standouts. The 22-year-old righthander pitched three scoreless innings, allowed only one hit, walked one and struck out six in his professional debut. After sitting 90-92 mph in college last year, his fastball sat 94-96 mph throughout the outing.
“I was throwing that hard in the back end (of the bullpen) my sophomore year and then I moved to starter, so I guess it just took me awhile to get used to that starting role and get my arm in shape for that starting role,” Stone said. “That’s a big contributor to the velo jump, and just working in the offseason.”
Stone dominated almost exclusively with his fastball. He consistently located it to both sides of the plate to get both called strikes and swings and misses, and showed the ability to elevate his fastball and get swings and misses at the top of the zone as well.
All six of his strikeouts came on his fastball, including four swinging. By his estimation, he threw only five sliders and didn’t throw a changeup the entire night.
“I’ve been working a lot on my fastball and figured out what spots in the zone are best for my fastball to get hitters out,” he said. “I’ve been working on that and I think that played really well tonight. I felt like I had great command tonight. It might not always be like that, but tonight I felt like I had great control with my pitches.”
Rancho Cucamonga’s bullpen followed Stone’s example. Jeisson Cabrera, Franklin De La Paz, Cameron Gibbens and Aldry Acosta combined for 15 strikeouts over the final six innings to set the franchise strikeout record.
Andrew Blake, a 21st-round pick of the Angels out of North Carolina State in 2019, did his part to keep Inland Empire in it. In his first professional start, the 23-year-old righthander threw five innings with four hits and one (unearned) run allowed, no walks and eight strikeouts. He mixed his 90-94 mph fastball, mid-80s slider and low-80s changeup effectively to keep hitters off balance and got swings and misses with all three pitches.
Rancho Cucamonga pounced after Blake left the game, breaking a 1-1 tie on an RBI groundout by Jorbit Vivas in the sixth and adding an insurance run on an RBI double by Wladimir Chalo in the ninth.
The flip side to the pitchers' success, naturally, was the hitters’ struggles. Jeremiah Jackson and Kyren Paris, the Angels No. 6 and 9 prospects, respectively, each went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. Jackson struck out against fastballs in all four of his at-bats, including three swinging. Paris struck out against fastballs in his first three at-bats before taking a curveball looking in his final at-bat. Jose Bonilla, the Angels No. 15 prospect, went 1-for-4 with three strikeouts.
The Dodgers top prospects in Rancho Cucamonga’s lineup fared mildly better. Shortstop Alex De Jesus, the Dodgers No. 18 prospect, went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, a grounder back to the pitcher and a chopper Bonilla couldn’t handle at third base. Outfielder Jake Vogel, the Dodgers’ third-round pick last year, went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, although he did steal second base after drawing a walk and showcased his speed and defensive ability when he ran down a long fly ball in the right-center gap. Third baseman Brandon Lewis, the Dodgers’ fourth-round pick in 2019 out of UC Irvine, was one of the few hitters to have success, going 2-for-4 with an opposite-field double off the right-field wall.
“There was an adrenaline component also,” Shoemaker said. “Maybe a lot of big swings, maybe tried to do too much to prove a lot, but overall I thought both teams played pretty well.”