Imhof tosses shutout in rain-shortened game

Matt Imhof paused just behind the pitching rubber at Bowman Field in the top of the fifth inning Sunday evening, eying Tri-City baserunners on first and second knowing there was nobody out.

He had gotten out of his game plan to those first two hitters of the inning. Pitches up in the strike zone had resulted in back-to-back singles, snapping his streak of 11 consecutive batters retired. But with one pitch he got back on track.

The fastball he had pounded the bottom of the zone with all day turned into a nifty 6-4-3 double play. Another one got him another groundball out and Imhof walked off the field with five shutout innings in his first home start with the Williamsport Crosscutters.

Before his teammates could get another chance to swing the bat, the heavens opened up on the nearly 90-year old ballpark, drowning it in a summer thunderstorm. Imhof’s pitch to exit the fifth inning was the final one of the Crosscutters’ 5-0 win over the Stedler Division-leading ValleyCats yesterday.

Imhof’s five innings were a career high since being drafted in the second round out of Cal Poly in June’s First-Year Player Draft, and he was credited with a complete-game shutout thanks to the rain-shortened win. It was the fifth complete game pitched this year in the New York-Penn League, and the second shutout. The only other shutout came from Williamsport teammate Mitch Gueller who threw his earlier this month against Auburn.

Sunday’s win was the first professional victory for Imhof.

“He pitched great and I love playing defense when he’s pitching because he throws strikes,” said Cutters second baseman Drew Stankiewicz, who hit a three-run home run in the fourth inning. “He didn’t have a lot of strikeouts, but he pounded the zone and let the defense work for him and it worked out.”

Imhof isn’t flashy by any means. He doesn’t feature a mid-90s like some of his teammates. In fact, the southpaw averaged 89 mph with his fastball yesterday. He doesn’t flash explosive breaking stuff, either.

But what he does do is take a fastball with good downhill plane from his 6-foot-5 frame, cut it into right-handers and run it away from left-handers, and place it on the corners of the plate down in the zone. When he got in what little trouble he saw Sunday, that’s exactly what he did. It’s his bread and butter. It’s what made him the 47th overall pick in the draft, and yesterday, it’s what led him to his first win.

“What we preach here with the Phillies is a fastball down in the zone. When you actually see it done like that, it’s impressive,” Cutters manager Shawn Williams said. “It helps other guys to watch him because (the fastball) is pretty much all he’s pitching with and they’re still not hitting him.”

“I like to get ahead early with the fastball. If I can, I like to go through the lineup the first time and not show anything but a fastball if I can get away with it,” Imhof said. “It all depends how the guys are swinging at it. If I’m beating guys with fastballs early in the game, I’m going to stick with it until I see some better swings on it, then I’ll make the adjustment.”

Imhof likes to work predominantly on the inside corner of the plate, something Cutters catcher Deivi Grullon likes to establish with all his pitchers. It led to a scenario Sunday where Imhof very rarely shook off his catcher. The two got into a rhythm for the better part of four innings yesterday.

It was a rocky start for Imhof as he walked the first batter of the game after being ahead 0-2. He then gave up a bleeder of a single to right field, but Jiandido Tromp cut down Tri-City runner Bobby Boyd at the plate for the first out of the inning.

From there, Imhof, who was making his first home start with the Cutters, was dialed in. He retired the side in order in the second, third and fourth innings. He struck out two in the second, throwing all fastballs. An 0-2 fastball in the third froze Tri-City’s Alfredo Gonzalez for his third strikeout.

And the contact which was made by Tri-City, the New York-Penn League’s top offense, was soft and playable. Seven of the 15 outs recorded by Imhof were on groundballs.

“There’s some deception (in my delivery),” Imhof said. “The downhill with the cut and a bit of a funky delivery with a bit of a hitch kind of throws timing off. It just makes it a little tougher to hit. I’ve had guys tell me that makes my 90 mile an hour fastball look like it’s 94. And I can tell off the swings they take.”

“Whether it’s deception or what, the ball gets on you,” Williams said. “He definitely has that. He doesn’t have plus velocity, but with the way they’re swinging at it, it looks like it’s 95 and he’s got the location with it. That’s the things it takes to be a good pitcher.”

The three-hitter couldn’t have come at a better time as Williamsport struggled mightily in its last two games, giving up a combined 29 hits and 23 runs in losses to Vermont and Tri-City.

Center fielder Aaron Brown backed Imhof early, hitting his second home run in as many days when he hit a solo blast the other way to left-center field in the first inning to give the Crosscutters a 1-0 lead. It was Brown’s third home run of the season.

The Cutters added another run in the fourth on a Grullon RBI single to right field. Grullon had been out of the lineup the last three days as he worked on some adjustments to his swing in the batting cage. His ninth RBI of the year gave Williamsport a 2-0 lead.

Two pitches later, Stankiewicz, playing his second game after recovering from an ankle injury, smoked a ball down the right-field line which was ruled fair by home plate umpire Christopher Stump for a three-run home run. The first home run of Stankiewicz’s professional career brought about an intense argument from Tri-City pitcher Francis Ramirez, first baseman A.J. Reed and catcher Gonzalez before manager Ed Romero joined in.

The call stood and the Cutters took a 5-0 lead.

“It’s fair in the book, so it’s fair in my book,” Stankiewicz said with a smile. “I thought it was going to hook, but it didn’t hook as far as I thought it would, so I was like oh shoot, I better get out of the box. “(The umpire) called it fair, so I’m saying it was fair.”