Chris Nichols stood in the middle of the Williamsport clubhouse partaking in the postgame spread of pasta, still amped up from one his best outings of the season.
The Crosscutters' right-handed reliever looked like he was ready to go out and throw another three innings. In a season that has been so up-and-down for the former 31st-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies, Friday's stellar relief effort was just another reason for hope.
Nichols, the son of Phillies bullpen coach Rod Nichols, started his season in May with Clearwater in the High Class A Florida State League. But he's been through a demotion to Lakewood and now another one to Williamsport during the course of his second season in the Phillies system.
But he's used this demotion to Williamsport to better focus on what he needs to do to be a more consistent pitcher. His lack of consistency is what hurt him in his stops in Clearwater and Lakewood.
In five games in Clearwater, he allowed eight runs and 12 hits in 6 1/3 innings. But five of those runs and six of those hits came in a one-inning outing against Dunedin.
At Lakewood, he allowed 13 runs and 20 hits in 11 2/3 innings. But 11 of those runs and 16 of those hits came in two outings lasting a combined 4 2/3 innings.
Nine of his 14 appearances this year have been scoreless outings. And in five appearances and 8 1/3 innings with Williamsport, he's allowed just one run. It's more of what Nichols expects from himself.
Although frustrating, he's looked at each demotion this year as an opportunity to re-focus and to be better.
"Obviously you don't want to be going down, but I think I've held up pretty good," Nichols said. "I have a pretty good mentor that I've had my whole life with my dad. I've never gotten to a point where I felt like I was down. I always felt like with each step I have to get better, whether it's a step down or a step up."
Nichols was brilliant in a much-needed extended outing Friday night in a win over Hudson Valley. A night after Williamsport had used six pitchers in a loss to the Renegades, the Cutters' coaching staff was hoping to get at least five innings from starter Drew Anderson, and three more from Nichols who had yet to throw in the homestand. They got exactly that. It set up Mark Meadors to get the final three outs for his first professional save.
Nichols retired nine of the 10 batters he faced, allowing just a leadoff single to John Alexander in the eighth inning. But he stranded Alexander on third base in a tied game. It set the stage for catcher Gabriel Lino to hit a game-winning two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Nichols was effective because he worked ahead in the count and had just two three-ball counts, both of which ended in outs. It's a simple formula, but one the 22-year-old has better focused on executing since joining the Cutters.
"One of the biggest problems I had in Lakewood is I wasn't getting ahead of batters," Nichols said. "So when I came down here from Lakewood I had the mentality of getting that strike one. If you don't, make sure you come back with the next pitch. I've done a better job of that here and it's so much easier to pitch on top. That'll get your confidence going even if batters are not getting out."
GABRIEL LI-YES: It's amazing what can happen when Williamsport catcher Gabriel Lino is given a chance to throw out baserunners. He showed that off in Friday's win over Hudson Valley.
The 20-year-old Venezuelan catcher threw out a pair of would-be basestealers, including Patrick Blair to end the game Friday. It was a good sign after the Renegades had taken their liberties against Lino in the first two games of the series.
Hudson Valley stole six bases through the first two games of the series, but it wasn't necessarily Lino's fault. The Renegades, the best base-stealing team in the New York-Penn League, took their liberties more so against a Cutters pitching staff which was slow in delivering the ball to the plate. On many of those six stolen bases Lino never had a chance to throw out the runner.
But Friday night, with Drew Anderson and Mark Meadors working quicker to the plate, Lino had chances and took advantage of them.
Lino has thrown out 40 percent of would-be basestealers this year, a number which if it holds up would be the best of his career.
"He's very quick, 1.8 to 1.9 (seconds) to second base," Cutters manager Nelson Prada said. "When a pitcher gives him the opportunity, there's a very good chance he's going to throw people out."
After playing with Lakewood last year following his acquisition from the Orioles in the Jim Thome trade, Lino was held back in extended spring training this year to work on some adjustments to his swing. But he's also gotten much better defensively.
Working as the Cutters' primary catcher with Andrew Knapp battling a strained tendon in his right elbow, Lino has been charged with just four passed balls this year after being charged with 28 last year. He's a catcher the pitching staff loves throwing to because he calls a good game and blocks the ball well.
Oh, and then there's that matter of his .309 batting average and his team-best 22 RBIs that's made him one of the most impressive players in the Williamsport lineup.
"Lino's been really helpful. He's been very consistent," Prada said. "He's a guy who is mature in the game. He plays in Venezuela in winter league and that makes him be a little bit ahead. He's a good guy to have behind the plate."
PULLIN INJURED: Williamsport second baseman Andrew Pullin was scratched from the Cutters' initial lineup Sunday afternoon after spraining his ankle during infield/outfield drills. The former fifth-round pick who is making the transition from left field to second base, stepped on a baseball he was trying to field as he ranged to his left and rolled his ankle.
He was quickly attended to by the coaching staff and trainer Taka Sakurai in the outfield grass in right field, but eventually walked off the field under his own power with a noticeable limp.
Prada said they didn't feel the injury was any more than a sprain, and if their assessment was correct, he could be out 7-to-10 days potentially.