Stott’s 2 home runs, Simmons grand slam helps Cutters score 10 runs in win over Spikes

RALPH WILSON/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Kendall Simmons is greeted at the plate after a grand slam homerun on Sunday.

Kendall Simmons’ two-strike approach has him thinking about hitting the baseball to the right side of the field or up the middle. It’s part of the reason the Williamsport Crosscutters’ infielder has increased his batting average by nearly 100 points in the last two-plus weeks.

Sunday evening at Bowman Field it was big part of the reason he hit another towering home run to center field. Simmons’ second-inning grand slam and Bryson Stott’s two home runs led the Crosscutters to a series-opening 10-3 win over the State College Spikes.

The Cutters scored 10 runs for the first time this season. Stott, the Phillies’ first-round pick in June’s draft, became the first Cutter to hit two home runs in a game since Ben Aklinski hit two solo bombs in a 2-1 win over West Virginia on Aug. 2, 2018.

“They’ve been hitting the ball well,” Williamsport manager Pat Borders said. “They’re starting to figure their own selves out, their own strike zone and their own approach. It’s taken a little while, but they’re starting to figure it out for themselves.”

For both Stott and Simmons, figuring out themselves as hitters meant letting go of the notion of pulling every pitch thrown to them. Simmons’ batting average bottomed out at .169 on July 25 before he had a conversation with Borders and coach Greg Brodzinski which Borders admitted Sunday was supposed to act as a verbal kick in the butt. Since that day, Simmons has realized his potential.

Yesterday’s grand slam, the Cutters’ first this season, was the culmination of executing his two-strike approach and reacting naturally to crush a hittable pitch. He worked the count to 2-2 with the bases loaded and one out in the second inning before State College pitcher Junior Gonzalez threw a 91 mph fastball on the outer half of the top of the strike zone.

Simmons didn’t miss it. The ball carried and carried and eventually cleared the center field fence landing 421 feet away. It was Simmons’ ninth home run of the season, moving him into second place in the New York-Penn League behind Staten Island’s Ezequiel Duran, who has 10.

The bulk of Simmons’ damage has come since that sit-down with Borders. In his last 14 games he’s hitting .369 (17 for 46) with seven home runs and 16 RBIs. In that time, he’s struck out only 11 times and has walked eight, including once last night.

“Me, (hitting coach Joel McKeithan) and Pat have hammered down my two-strike approach and what it should be,” Simmons said. “I sit there on center field and right field and look for spin on the pitch. I know if it’s a fastball I can just react because I know my body and how it works. That’s been working for me. My chase rate has gone down. I’ve been having a lot better at-bats. Even when I do strike out, it’s 3-2, battle, battle, battle, instead of one, two, three, I’m done.”

“I think the biggest part of him hitting well is he’s not trying to pull the ball every time,” Borders said. “Simmons has a real quick bat. I think he can pull the ball by covering a majority of the plate and still get to the balls that are in and do some damage with them.”

Stott sandwiched Simmons’ game-changing grand slam – which gave the Cutters a 7-0 lead in the second inning – with two home runs of his own. It was the first two-homer game of his professional career, and his first since hitting two home runs for UNLV at Stanford on Feb. 24, some three months before he was drafted.

Stott also found his stroke as he’s begun to take advantage of the way teams pitch him. Over a span of nine games from July 22 to Aug. 1, Stott had just three hits in 33 at-bats as he struggled to make hard contact with teams throwing him a plethora of junk on the outside part of the plate, or even off the plate.

But as he’s focused more on allowing the pitch to dictate where he hits the ball instead of trying to pull everything, he’s found his groove as a professional hitter. Sunday, when Gonzalez left a 2-2 change-up elevated over the middle of the plate, Stott crushed it, hitting a 379-foot home run to the opposite-field gap.

“I think he was trying to force using the whole field instead of just letting happen,” Borders said of Stott’s slump. “He’s hit the ball away when he reacts to it instead of thinking I’m going to hit this ball the other way when he probably should have pulled it.”

“You want to be a complete hitter, so you want to show people that you can hit one to left and you can still pull one down the line on an inside fastball,” Stott said. “To be able to get that pitch out over the outside part of the plate is good going forward.”

Stott showed two innings later he’s plenty capable of pulling the baseball when he hit an inside fastball over the right-field wall and into the Cutters’ bullpen. It was Stott’s third home run in his last four games, and was the biggest performance during a 10-game stretch which has been the best of his brief career.

Over his last 10 games, Stott has a hit in nine of them and has gone 15 for 35 (.429) with three home runs and nine RBIs. His five home runs are tied for second-most on the team with Logan O’Hoppe.

“I ran into a little funk like that in college this year. I got pull happy and was trying to yank everything,” Stott said. “So I’m getting back to the basics and hitting it where it’s pitched and really letting the ball determine where I’ll hit it.”

What the three home runs had in common is they all came on crushable pitches from Gonzalez. Phillies minor league hitting instructor Jason Ochart’s philosophy this year has been to punish strikes. And regardless of what the pitch was or the situation Sunday night, punishing strikes was a welcome sight.

“Ochart knows what he’s talking about and he knows what he wants us to do with those high strikes,” Stott said. “The biggest thing we talk about is if it’s in that little window, you need to do damage with it. I got a couple of those change-ups up and hit them to left-center pretty good, and that last one was over the middle of the plate and I thought I could do damage with it.”