Most baseball teams rely on the middle of the batting order to provide the bulk of their offensive production, but it was a one-two punch of a different kind that put up big numbers for short-season Tri-City on Tuesday night.
No. 9 hitter Dan Gulbransen blasted two home runs and leadoff man Joe Sclafani went 5-for-5 with two doubles to lead the ValleyCats to a 9-3 victory over Hudson Valley in a battle of New York-Penn League division champions.
The win was the 51st of the season for the Stedler Division champions, setting a new franchise record and tying the Renegades for the best record in the league with one game to play.
Tuesday also proved to be a career night for Sclafani and Gulbransen, both of whom are in their first professional season.
Selected by Houston in the 14th round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, Sclafani recorded his first five-hit performance, driving in Gulbransen with a double in the bottom of the seventh and scoring on Austin Elkins' single in the fourth.
"We've been struggling as a team for the past week or so," the Dartmouth College alum said. "I was just trying to hit some balls hard and I was fortunate to find some holes. I was really just trying to get on base so the guys behind me could knock me in."
Gulbransen, the Astros' 16th-round pick in June out of Jacksonville University, went yard twice for four RBIs and a career-high three runs scored. The left fielder had homered just four times this season.
"I just got some fastballs that I put the barrel on," Gulbransen said. "There was a little bit of a wind going out to left field. I had some balls go up in that wind after I got good contact with the barrel and they ended up over the fence."
A .324 hitter as a junior at Jacksonville in the spring, Gulbransen is batting .218 in his first 57 games with Tri-City, and entered Tuesday in the midst of a 6-for-32 slump over his last 10 games.
"It's a huge jump," the Wisconsin native said of the transition from college to the Minors. "There's a lot of learning going on, that's for sure. I don't even know where to start. But we have a great group of coaches that have helped me adjust and a great group of guys to play with. You can't ask for much more."
Though Tri-City had already clinched a playoff berth, the ValleyCats didn't sport much life in their bats over the last week. The team was outscored over a five-game losing streak, 21-9, and both players said that Tuesday's offensive awakening came as a great relief, especially with the playoffs looming on the horizon.
"It's unusual for us to lose the games that we did," Gulbransen said. "To come out and get the bats going like we wanted to, it felt really good. We know not every night is going to be like tonight, but it's really important to get back on the winning side, especially going into the most important part of the season.
"I really think that everybody kind of broke out tonight a little bit," shortstop Sclafani added. "We're back to playing good baseball, and hopefully, we can use this to propel us into the playoffs."
Starter Juan Minaya (2-2) held Hudson Valley scoreless until the sixth inning, when Richie Shaffer broke up the shutout with an RBI triple. Minaya finished with two runs allowed on six hits over six innings for the win.
Tri-City touched up Renegades starter Eduar Quinonez (7-3) for five runs on nine hits in four frames.
The two teams will meet again Wednesday night in the regular-season finale.