The only goal for Matt Shortall in the first inning Wednesday night was to hit the ball hard. It seems, on the surface, like a pretty basic gameplan, but the Williamsport Crosscutters' outfielder had gotten out of that plan in recent games.
So when he stepped to the plate with runners on the corners and two outs in the first inning against Vermont at Bowman Field, he focused on just squaring up the baseball. He did just that, hitting a rocket back through the box which deflected off the foot of Lake Monsters pitcher Christhian Perez.
The ball caromed to second baseman Joe Bennie who couldn't throw out Shortall at first base. Cord Sandberg scored from third, where he had been standing since he tripled on the first pitch of the inning.
Shortall's hit started a three-run, two-out rally in the first inning for the Cutters who went on to win the opener of a three-game series, 7-5, last night. Shortall finished the night 3 for 4 - his third three-hit game of the season - and drove in three runs for the Cutters, who won their fourth game in a row, and eighth in their last 10.
"For a while I was getting a lot of hits and I started trying to get hits and I wasn't," said Shortall, a 10th-round pick out of Texas-Arlington last month. "I feel like I've been hitting it right at people lately, and that one hit his foot or hit the rubber. It worked out the way it was supposed to work out."
Williamsport pounded out 12 hits last night, scoring at least seven runs for the ninth time in 26 games this year. Williamsport's .272 team batting average is the best in the New York-Penn League, and its 4.9 runs per game average is fourth-best in the league.
Shortall was one of seven Cutters to record a hit last night. It all backed another solid outing from David Whitehead who was cruising before tiring in the sixth inning.
"With this offense, we know that we don't have to be perfect," Whitehead said of the pitching staff. "We can give up a run here or there and when you pitch with that looseness, that's when you pitch better."
Shortall has forced his way into the lineup since being assigned to Williamsport following the draft. A crowded outfield corps has thinned out in recent weeks as Herlis Rodriguez was promoted to Lakewood and Justin Parr was released, but Shortall forced his way into an outfield rotation with the likes of Cord Sandberg (.301 average), Aaron Brown (.293) and Jiandido Tromp (.297, six home runs) by posing the second-best batting average on the team at .340.
The right-handed power hitter has all but become the every day designated hitter for the NYPL's best offense. And when he gets a chance to play the outfield, he makes the most of it, like last night when he made an incredible diving catch near the left field foul line against the first batter of the game.
"I came down really hard, I hurt my back a bit. But I'm fine," Shortall said. "I just want to play hard every pitch. Everybody who comes in here wants to get as many at-bats as they can. You just have to have a good at-bat every time. Do something productive every day. Get on base or get an RBI, and try to do that every game. If having the best at-bats is four walks in a row, then that's what I'll do."
There were no walks last night. Shortall drove in a run in the first, fifth and seventh innings. All three run-scoring hits came with two outs. They were huge hits for a player who had been just 2 for 16 this year with runners in scoring position coming into the night.
"You're not going to go 3 for 4 every day, there's no way," Shortall said. "When you concentrate in baseball on the little things, then the big things come. So I was focused on hitting the ball hard."
Whitehead picked up his second win of the year despite giving up three earned runs for the first time this season. Whitehead had cruised through five innings, allowing only a run on a two-out RBI double in the third. He had retired the side in order in the first, second, fourth and fifth innings.
Three of the first batters against him in the fifth reached base, including a solo home run from Yairo Munoz, a 19-year old shortstop from the Dominican Republic. Whitehead finished the night throwing 56 of his 84 pitches for strikes in 5 1/3 innings. He struck out three and didn't walk a batter.
"Honestly, I think it's one of those days," Whitehead said. "You get to that point and things get a little rough. You get a little tired, but you don't feel tired. It was just one of those innings."