Cutters waste Loven’s strong start

DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Williamsport Crosscutters pitcher Max Loven delivers a pitch during Wednesday's game at Bowman Field against the Trenton Thunder.

The home plate umpire removed his mask and walked away as the Williamsport Crosscutters’ Ramon Bramasco turned to talk to question his strike-three call. The pitch came in letter high but was still called a strike and Wednesday’s game ended.

The Cutters wasted a brilliant starting effort from Max Loven, who threw five shutout innings, striking out seven. But the team’s offense again struggled to finish rallies and recorded just four hits in a 2-1 loss to the Trenton Thunder.

Trenton scored a pair of runs in the top of the eighth inning despite getting just one hit, and the Cutters managed just one hit in nine at-bats with runners in scoring position. Many of Williamsport’s at-bats in high leverage situations ended in frustration Wednesday night at Bowman Field. A night after going hitless in 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position, only Sean Ross came up with a base hit in the same situation.

“It is frustrating,” Cutters manager Billy Horton said. “We talk to the hitters about making better contact in fair territory early in the count otherwise you leave it in the umpire’s hands. We can’t sit there and blame the umpire. We have to blame ourselves because we’re not hitting the ball earlier in the county hard. That’s what we need to do better.”

The Cutters are two critical hits away from having already won this series against a Trenton team which is just one game out of first place in the MLB Draft League. Instead, they’ll go into Thursday’s series finale looking to salvage just one of the meetings in the three-game series because the offense has failed to support two strong efforts from the pitching staff.

The only Crosscutters baserunner to reach third base Wednesday was Bramasco, who touched it on his way to scoring a first-inning run on Ross’ single. Only Steven Nitch reached second base over the final five innings for the Williamsport offense, which recorded just four hits.

“We have to keep grinding away,” Horton said. “We have to monitor their work load to make sure they’re not getting too tired. But it’s frustrating because we want to take care of the home field.”

The pitching staff did everything it could to make the one run Williamsport scored in the first inning stand up. Max Loven, in just his second start this season, found command of his sweeping breaking ball and was able to keep Trenton’s offense off-balance for all five innings. Despite seeing a lowered velocity in his role as a starter than when he was in the bullpen earlier this season, Loven dominated the Thunder offense.

He did it by spotting up his fastball early and using that curveball as a true swing-and-miss pitch. The southpaw struck out seven batters over five innings, scattering just three hits.

“You work every day in practice and bullpens for this,” Loven said. “When it works out and you have success on the field, it always feels good because that’s what you’re working for and it finally pays off.”

“He did an amazing job,” Horton said. “He mixes his breaking ball in really well with his fastball and it makes his fastball look a lot faster than what it is.”

Loven has been up into the low-90s with his fastball in relief outings this year while the Cutters coaching staff tried to monitor his workload. Since being given the OK from his college coaches to return to a starting role following the All-Star break, Loven has seen that velocity dip to the mid-to-upper 80s.

It’s the product, Horton said, of preparing his body to throw 60 pitches in an outing instead of just 15 or so. But velocity didn’t much matter for Loven on Wednesday. Never has it been more true that it’s more important to locate pitches and change speed than it was for Loven on Wednesday. Trenton’s offense was off-balance as Loven retired the first 10 hitters he faced before allowing a fourth-inning single.

When Loven found a touch of trouble in the fifth inning after back-to-back singles, he induced a harmless infield pop-up to escape the jam and hold the 1-0 lead the Cutters had. Being short-handed in the pitching staff since the All-Star break, Horton and pitching coach Jim Gott told Loven they needed four innings from him. The 21-year-old from Minnesota did one better with a season-high five innings of work.

“I’m working on trying to throw harder, but I’ve never been a hard-thrower,” Loven said. “I don’t really expect my velo to be high, so I have to focus on other things come game time. I have to focus on getting them out any way I can. Usually that’s with the off-speed pitches and that’s what I was doing (Wednesday).”

“We needed him for four (innings) but we didn’t even talk to him about five,” Horton said. “But it was in the back of everyone’s mind. But you have to attack the zone and trust your defense like he did. Attacking the zone is priority No. 1.”

Loven and Jerome Bohannon held Trenton scoreless through the first seven innings and, even though it didn’t add on any runs to Ross’ first-inning RBI, the Williamsport offense had done enough through seven innings to hold a lead. But a throwing error and a hit batter by Cutters reliever David Stiehl to start the top of the eighth inning put that lead in jeopardy.

After a groundout moved runners to second and third, a passed ball on a walk to Jordan Willey allowed Trenton’s first run to score. Andrew Cossetti then added an RBI single which gave the Thunder a lead it never relinquished. Stiehl did a great job to limit the damage to just the two runs and keep Williamsport within striking distance, but the Cutters’ offense never came around.

“Ross had a huge hit in the first inning. We had moved him up in the order because he’s been having better at-bats,” Horton said. “I thought that would get us going and we’d score a bunch of runs. It just didn’t happen.”


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