Chris Nichols told catcher Gabriel Lino prior to the eighth inning Friday night if he got in a tough spot he wanted to go to his breaking ball, because he had a good feel for it after pitching two innings of relief. So when Nichols was faced with a runner on third and two outs in the eighth inning, Lino immediately called for a breaking ball.
The first one was in the dirt, holding the runner at third base. And the Williamsport Crosscutters' catcher kept going to it until he had Hudson Valley's Johnny Field set up. Nichols got out of the inning with a lazy fly ball on a fastball Field wasn't ready for and it set the stage for Lino to hit a towering two-run home run in the bottom of the inning to give the Cutters a 4-2 win over the Renegades.
Williamsport snapped Hudson Valley's six-game winning streak and its own three-game losing streak with the win. Starter Drew Anderson and Nichols combined on eight brilliant innings for the Cutters, and Mark Meadors recorded his first professional save with the final three outs.
Hudson Valley Renegade Julian Ridings is out at second as Williamsport Crosscutter second baseman Jairo Cardozo makes the throw to first to end the inning Friday at Bowman Field during Sun-Gazette Pack the Park Night.
Lino played a big part in the win, of course by hitting the game-winning two-run home run in the eighth inning, but also by throwing out two potential basestealers. The last of those potential basestealers was the final out of the game. After Hudson Valley stole six bases in the first two games of the series - mostly against pitchers with slow moves to the plate - Lino didn't allow a stolen base to the best base-stealing team in the New York-Penn League.
The 20-year old Venezuelan who was acquired from the Orioles in the Jim Thome trade last year has been a rock behind the plate for the Cutters. Forced into everyday action with second-round draft pick Andrew Knapp dealing with a strained tendon in his throwing arm, Lino has taken control of the Williamsport pitching staff and has been maybe the most consistent hitter in the Cutters lineup.
"Pitchers know when he's calling good pitches and he's a good blocker, so the pitcher can be confident he can throw the ball in the dirt because (Lino) can block it," Williamsport manager Nelson Prada said. "So when you have a guy who can call a game, block the ball and make pitchers understand he knows what he's doing, pitchers are going to like throwing to him."
Nichols and Lino have built a bit of a rapport over the year Lino has been in the Phillies' system. The two worked together last year in Lakewood as well as during extended spring training this year.
In fact, the usual pre-inning conversation of what pitches either the catcher or pitcher wants to throw during an inning has become a bit of a joke between the two. They've come to know each other well enough they don't have to talk about a pre-inning plan. When Nichols had Hudson Valley's John Alexander on third base with two outs in the eighth inning last night, there was no hesitation of how to attack Field, and the plan worked perfectly.
It was the final out of three fantastic innings from Nichols, who allowed just one baserunner as he helped save a pitching staff which had to use six arms to get through Thursday's game.
"He's a great guy to throw to," Nichols said. "He's got a big body and he has that low frame back there. Gabriel's a great catcher and with a righty up and a guy on third, he knew I wanted to go to the breaking ball. It was the right pitch at the right time and it really set him up for the last fastball."
Nichols told Lino earlier in the game he felt like the catcher was going to get a big hit for the Cutters last night. Lino came to the plate in the eighth having gone hitless in his first three at-bats, but he had hit a couple of them hard.
When he faced Andrew Hanse in the eighth with Dylan Cozens (3 for 4, 2 RBIs) on first base, he jumped all over a 1-1 fastball and hit a no-doubt-about-it blast to left-center field to give Williamsport a 4-2 lead. It was the third home run of the year for Lino who now has a team-leading 22 RBIs. Lino is also hitting .340 this year with runners on base, second to only Logan Pierce's .348 mark.
"He's been very consistent," Prada said. "He's a guy who has matured in the game. He plays in Venezuela in the winter league and that's put him a little bit ahead. He's a good guy to have behind the plate."
"We kept saying every batter that was coming up that this is the guy who's gonna hit the home run," Nichols said. "It started with Knapp the inning before. Now it's going to be Cozens. And then Lino was up and as soon as the ball went off the bat, we knew it was gone. It was fun."
The homer and Cozens' laser of a two-run double in the first inning backed a gutsy effort from Anderson who wasn't his sharpest last night, but was able to wiggle out of trouble. His only mistake was a two-run home run with two outs in the second inning to Granden Goetzman which tied the score at 2-2.
He had three 1-2-3 innings, including a seven-pitch fifth inning to help him get through the five innings the coaching staff was hoping for. He also got out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fourth thanks to an around-the-horn double play with a great turn by Jairo Cardozo to end the inning.
"Drew's that guy. He'll give you five or six hard innings every time out," Nichols said. "He's definitely got good stuff and he's learning how to use it. He got into a few scuffles, but he got out of it and that's the biggest part of pitching. Anybody can pitch with nobody on base, but pitching well with guys on base is a true testament to your ability."