Cutters end six-game skid

CARA MORNINGSTAR/Sun-Gazette Rodolfo Duran of the Crosscutters scores Sunday vs. Tri-City at Bowman Field.

By MITCH RUPERT

mrupert@sungazette.com

Coming off the bat of Williamsport’s Josh Steph­en, the only place the baseball could have landed was in the manicured grass of the outfield at Bowman Field. It was the perfect swing for the moment, a smooth, easy pass through the ball hard enough to float it over the infield and send two Crosscutters baserunners scampering uncontested across home plate.

Prior to that fifth inning single by Stephen, Williams­port’s offense had been like a soda bottle which had been shaken for the last week. The pressure on an offense which has struggled so mightily in tight spots over the last three weeks was relieved a bit in the fifth inning Sunday. Stephen’s two-run single was the big blow in a four-run inning, it was like twisting open the cap on that shaken bottle of soda.

“I don’t know about everyone else, but I know it relaxed me,” Cutters manager Pat Borders said.

That hit led Williams­port to a 5-2 win over Tri-City to salvage the final game of the three-game series Sunday night. The win snapped the Cutters’ six-game losing streak and earned them their first win in a week. Williamsport enters the two-day New York-Penn League All-Star break trailing West Virginia by four games in the Pinckney Division, and Aberdeen by three games in the Wild Card race.“Going into the All-Star break and having two days off, it’ll be a spark going into that next series,” Stephen said.

He was the perfect person to have at the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth inning with Williamsport leading the ValleyCats, 3-1. The Cutters had already pushed two runs across the plate to break a 1-1 tie when Adam Haseley was hit by a pitch and Greg Pickett walked. But they still needed that clutch hit to really break the game open.

Enter Stephen, Williamsport’s best hitter with runners in scoring position by a wide margin. The 19-year-old left fielder has two walk-off hits this season already and seems to have a way of coming up with the clutch knock. He did it again last night, flipping a 2-1 pitch from Tri-City reliever Juan Robles into left field to score Malvin Matos and Haseley.

It was Stephen’s lone hit of the day, but it was the most crucial of Williamsport’s six hits. It gave the Cutters a 5-1 lead and also capped the team’s first inning of at least four runs since a win over Mahoning Valley on July 29.

Stephen is 14 for 32 with runners in scoring position this season, the only Williamsport player with a mark over .300 in that scenario. His 18 RBIs with runners in scoring position are also tops on the team.

“I like the pressure situation. I like the chance to do something great,” Stephen said. “When I’m given the opportunity to make myself stand out or drive in runs, get the game-winning run, or hit a double in a big situation, I just like the pressure situation.”

As it was when he had those two walk-off hits earlier this season, Stephen was able to simplify his approach during his at-bat against Robles. He went back to the basics, thinking through the middle and the other way. It’s where his strength lies, and it’s where he’s at his best.

So when Robles delivered a pitch up and out over the plate, there was no violence to Stephen’s swing. He went with the pitch, flaring it to left field for a back-breaking two-run hit. It came a night after he hit a two-run double to tie the game with Tri-City at 3-3.

“It’s a hard thing to do to not swing at 100 percent when you’re geared up in a big situation. The bigger the situation, the more the adrenaline is flowing,” Borders said. “I think he has a gift for putting the barrel of the bat on the ball. It’s a simple swing that’s easy for him to repeat and do over and over again.”

Stephen’s single came after a strikeout and an infield pop-up gave Robles a road map out of the jam which saw the first five Williamsport batters of the inning reach base. He took advantage of an offense which has hit just .147 over its last 17 games with runners in scoring position, and just .078 over the last nine games.

With that pressure building on an offense to back to stellar pitching effort of a staff which has allowed more than four runs in a game just once in 11 August games, Stephen came through. He’s able to stay calm in those spots. Now the job for Stephen is to find a way to make that translate into his other at-bats when there aren’t runners on base to drive in.

That’s part of his goal during this season is to learn to formulate a plan when he goes to the plate and execute it no matter what. He understands sometimes it means he may not get the pitch he wants or he’ll walk back to the dugout needed to tip his cap to the pitcher. But if he sticks within the gameplan which allowed him to come up clutch Sunday, he can become a more consistent hitter.

“I think sometimes when there’s not runners on or it’s just another at-bat, I try to do a little too much, maybe to try to get the spark going,” Stephen said. “When I think ‘hit a double’ I pull off the ball a little bit and I hit that roll over or swing out of my zone. So it’s a constant battle of how well can I zone in my approach, or how well can I challenge myself to stay within what I do best.”

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