Cutters win back-to-back games for 1st time this year

Williamsport Crosscutters shortstop Raul Rivas prepares to throw to first base for a second out after a force out of Batavia’s Lazaro Alonso at second base in the fourth inning at Bowman Field on Wednesday. (MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette)

A golden opportunity was about to bypass the Williamsport Crosscutters on Wednesday night. They had the bases loaded with nobody out in the fourth inning and all of a sudden they were only one pitch away from exiting the chance without a run to show for it.

Enter Juan Luis.

The Cutters’ center fielder smoked a ball through the right side scoring a pair of runs. Cole Stobbe scored on the tail end of the play as Luis got caught in a rundown. And all of a sudden a pitchers’ duel was broken open by a crooked number on the Williamsport linescore.

The Cutters pounded out a season-high 11 hits to back Julian Garcia’s six shutout innings as they won back-to-back games for the first time this season, 7-3, over Batavia at Bowman Field. Garcia’s nine strikeouts in six innings were both career highs, but it was that Luis single which changed the entire complexion of the Cutters’ first home win of the season.

“That was big time. We’ve been struggling with the bats here and there, but the guys are finally getting comfortable at the plate and going after pitches,” Garcia said. “To see that with the bases loaded and two outs, it pumps up everybody.”

The Cutters had missed on their previous two opportunities last night with runners in scoring position before Greg Pickett, Jhailyn Ortiz and Cole Stobbe loaded the bases with nobody out. Batavia starter Hunter Wells could see his way out of the jam with a strikeout of Brian Mims and a lazy fly ball to right field. But he fell behind Luis, 2-0.

Luis controlled a fastball on the inner half of the plate and shot it past first baseman Ben Fisher to score a pair of runs. It was Luis’ second hit with runners in scoring position this year, as well as his second and third RBIs.

“That changed the game entirely,” Cutters manager Pat Borders said. “It completely changed the game from a tight, well-pitched game to ‘we’re in total control.'”

And Garcia didn’t let that control go. The 10th-round pick in the 2016 draft out of Metro State who posted an 8-plus ERA as a starting pitcher a year ago was brilliant for the second time in as many starts this season.

The 22-year-old right-hander faced just two batters over the minimum and faced no more than four batters in an inning over his six innings. Garcia threw a first-pitch strike to 12 of the final 17 batters he faced, and after throwing 35 combined pitches in the first two innings, he threw no more than 12 in an inning over his final four frames.

When he did allow a baserunner, he rolled a double play ball in both the fourth and fifth innings to erase the runner each time. Only a batter who reached on a dropped third strike in the second inning and a batter who singled with two outs in the sixth inning weren’t retired on the bases.

The strong start was a continuation of his stellar debut last week when he allowed one run and struck out seven in five innings against West Virginia. Last night he spotted his fastball early in the count and finished off hitters with a 12-to-6 curveball which was tight and deceptive.

“Last year I was a college guy who had success with strikeouts because of my curveball. But here last year, I kind of lost it and didn’t have command of it, especially in starts,” Garcia said. “When I was relieving I felt comfortable with it more. This year in extended (spring training) I got more comfortable being a pitcher. I’m still learning how to be a pitcher every day.”

“His dang breaking ball spin and command is so good,” Borders said. “He can throw a strike breaking ball, a below-the-zone breaking ball. Everything physically is getting better. Mentally he’s a lot stronger knowing what to do with his pitches instead of just throwing it.”

Garcia started last season in the rotation but was eventually moved to the bullpen as he struggled with his command, walking eight batters and allowing eight runs over his first three starts. He never worked more than four innings a year ago, including an eight-strikeout performance in relief at West Virginia.

Last night, he was on total cruise control as he and catcher Rodolfo Duran were succinct and precise in their pitch selection and execution. Garcia struck out a pair in the first inning sandwiching a sensational diving catch in right-center field by Ortiz. He struck out three more in the second inning and a pair in the third inning. He had seven of his nine strikeouts before seemingly even breaking a sweat.

Garcia became more economical in his final innings throwing seven, 12 and nine pitches over his final three frames, facing one batter over the minimum. He left after six innings, throwing 50 of his 74 pitches for strikes and allowing just two hits.

In his first two starts, he’s posted a 0.82 ERA with a 0.64 WHIP. He’s striking out 13.1 batters per nine innings pitched. It’s a far cry from where he was a year ago, and it’s making the game much more fun for him.

“I think I just settled in,” Garcia said. “I’ve gone with my fastball command and getting the curveball over for a strike, and getting it for a swinging strike as well. I’m just kind of focused on my target and going from there.”