When Jeff Francoeur made his Major League debut in 2005 with the Atlanta Braves, he did so without ever having played a game in Triple-A. Nine years later, he's belatedly making his mark at Minor League Baseball's highest level.
Francoeur, an outfielder for the brand-new El Paso Chihuahuas, made headlines last month for reasons that had nothing to do with his hitting ability or defensive play. In mid-April, an online video detailing an epic prank on Francoeur -- in which he was tricked into believing teammate Jorge Reyes was deaf -- quickly went viral. "Frenchie" was a good sport about his internet victimization, however, and soon showed that not only can he take it, he can dish it out.
On the mound.
Francoeur, long renowned for his strong throwing arm, made three pitching appearances last month and was unscored upon in each. The first such occasion occurred April 20, with Francoeur hurling the eighth inning of an eventual 11-4 loss to Las Vegas. The 30-year-old retired the side in order, making him the only Chihuahuas pitcher on the afternoon to pitch at least one inning and go unscored upon. (As an added bonus, the Chihuahuas left fielder during Francoeur's inning on the mound was left-handed reliever Tony Sipp. No balls were hit to Sipp in this, his professional debut as an outfielder.)
Francoeur was back toeing the rubber just two days later, once again pitching a scoreless eighth inning in a game against Las Vegas and once again the only Chihuahuas hurler in the ballgame to throw at least one inning and go unscored upon. Francoeur's successful stint on the mound was a rare bright spot on a particularly ignominious day for the Chihuahuas, who tied a Pacific Coast League record by using nine pitchers en route to losing by a 21-9 score. According to Chihuahuas broadcaster Tim Hagerty, the only other teams in the 111-year history of the PCL to send this many men to the mound in one game were the Hawaii Islanders (April 19, 1964) and Nashville Sounds (May 5, 2006).
MiLB.com's crack research staff was unable to locate a box score for the Hawaii contest, but Nashville certainly had a good reason for using that many pitchers -- their May 5, 2006, game against New Orleans lasted a whopping 24 innings. And would you believe it? On that very same day Francoeur's Atlanta Braves lost a 14-inning game against the New York Mets, and the Braves used nine pitchers in the ballgame. But, alas, Francoeur was not one of them.
The right-hander pitched for the final time last month on April 25, striking out his only batter faced in the eighth inning of a 14-5 laugher of a loss to Sacramento. Over three appearances, Francoeur hasn't given up a run but has struck out two and hit two batters in his 2 1/3 frames for the Chihuahuas.
The Chihuahuas' aforementioned 21-9 loss to Las Vegas was a blowout from the words "Play ball," as starting pitcher Ruben Meija allowed seven runs in one-third of an inning. This was Meija's Chihuahuas (and Triple-A) debut, leaving him with a hard-to-comprehend ERA of 189.00.
Meija was not alone in the PCL's 189.00 ERA club, however. Just two days earlier, Michael Brady made his Triple-A debut for the Salt Lake Bees and he, too, allowed seven runs in one-third of an inning against the Albuquerque Isotopes. Brady took the loss, but his teammates did their best to get him off of the hook. After scoring 11 runs in the first inning, the Isotopes held off a furious Bees comeback and squeaked by with a 13-12 win.
You down with PPP (Position Players Pitching)?
• The Inland Empire 66ers earned a 14-inning win over the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes on April 9, despite having position players on the mound for the final three innings. Brian Hernandez, who started the game at third, pitched scoreless 12th and 13th frames and earned the win. Andrew Ray, who began the evening in left field, shut down the Quakes in the 14th and earned the save.
Ray found himself on the mound again just two days later, this time facing the High Desert Mavericks in the 13th inning of a 5-5 game. Ray allowed a run and took the loss after his teammates squandered a two-on, one-out opportunity in the bottom of the frame.
• Pigeonholed in-between the above two California League contests was April 10's 18-inning tilt between the Visalia Rawhide and Stockton Ports. Wade Kirkland, normally a shortstop, pitched a scoreless 16th and 17th inning for the Ports to preserve a 5-5 tie. Kirkland then switched places with right fielder Dusty Robinson, who shut down the Rawhide in the 18th and earned the win when the Ports finally, mercifully, plated a run in the bottom of the frame.
• Six days later there was yet another 18-inning marathon in Minor League Baseball, between the Burlington Bees and Fort Wayne TinCaps. The teams traded runs in the 16th and 17th frames before Burlington scored two in the 18th for a 7-5 victory. And, yes, of course, position players took the mound in this contest. Mark Shannon started the game in center field and went on to earn the win despite allowing two runs over three innings, while starting first baseman Ryan Dalton pitched a scoreless 18th and earned the save. TinCaps outfielder Ronnie Richardson allowed two runs in the top of the 18th and took the loss.
• And we can't forget 38-year-old Louisville Bats catcher Corky Miller, who pitched the ninth inning of April 13's game against Toledo and promptly allowed eight runs on seven hits and two walks (his ERA now stands at 72.00). But there was beauty amid this ugliness, as Miller was able to strike out Ezequiel Carrera with a dazzling knuckleball.
I've been everywhere, man
When Brett Tomko took the mound for the Omaha Storm Chasers on April 7, his 41st birthday, he became only the second player in Pacific Coast League history to play for eight different teams. Tomko made his PCL debut as a member of the 2000 Tacoma Rainiers and went on to appear for Fresno (2004), Las Vegas (2006), Portland (2008), Sacramento (2009-10), Round Rock (2011), Reno (2012) and now Omaha.
The other PCL player to suit up for eight teams was Eddie Mulligan, who appeared for Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Mission, Portland, Seattle, Oakland, Hollywood and San Diego over the course of 15 seasons in the league (spanning 1919-38).
From friends to foes
April 7 was a notable day for veterans in the PCL. In addition to Brett Tomko making his Omaha debut, two former Japanese league teammates found themselves on opposing sides of the action. Nakajima is a member of the Sacramento River Cats, with Matsuzaka suiting up for Las Vegas.
A bunch of bull
And since we're on the seemingly inexhaustible topic of "Things that happened in Minor League Baseball on April 7," let it be known that on that date Durham Bulls left fielder Charlie Leesman hit a home run off of the iconic "snorting bull" sign in left field of Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The Bulls promptly reported that this was the earliest in the season that someone had hit the sign since Johnny Gomes accomplished the feat on April 7, 2005.
From the "You Don't See This Every Day" Department
During April 10's game against Richmond, the Altoona Curve found a rather unorthodox way to push across a run. Richmond Flying Squirrels broadcaster Jon Laaser explains:
The Curve got out of the gate quickly, striking for an oddly scored run in the top of the first inning. Alen Hanson opened the ballgame with a single off Richmond right-hander Clayton Blackburn. Hanson was bunted to second base with one out. Blackburn struck out Stetson Allie, but strike three was in the dirt and got away from catcher Myles Schroder. Hanson advanced to third as Schroder tracked the ball down and scored on Schroder's throw to first base for the out.
From the "You Don't See This Every Day" Department (Part II)
There were plenty of April showers in the season's opening months -- and we can all agree that hopefully May flowers follow -- but none quite like this.
What you see there is first baseman Fernando Perez running over a sprinkler and causing basically a geyser near the right-field bullpen in Fort Wayne's Parkview Field.
Since this is Crooked Numbers and all, we'll tell you that the artificial blast of water caused an 18-minute delay in the contest between the TinCaps and Great Lakes Loons.
Flying high in The Hangar
The California League isn't known as a fun place to pitch, and Class A Advanced Lancaster's is considered even worse. In his offseason look at park factors, MiLB.com's Ashley Marshall deemed The Hangar the second-best place for hitters in the Cal League.
That makes April an even more impressive month for JetHawks hurlers.
As a staff, Lancaster finished with a 3.83 ERA in April. It was the first time since April 2004 that Lancaster pitchers had collectively finished with a sub-4.00 ERA in any month. (For comparison's sake, the JetHawks had a 5.09 ERA during the 2013 season.) Lance McCullers (2.51 ERA), Kyle Smith (2.60), Kyle Westwood (2.90) and Josh Hader (2.93) led the way with each notching sub-3.00 ERAs across 25-plus innings.