Power has been scarce for the Johnson City Cardinals, but they have generated enough runs to stay above water.
Despite hitting just two home runs in their first 12 games, the Cardinals (7-5) are tied for second with the Greeneville Astros, three games behind Elizabethton in the Appalachian League’s West Division.
Pitching has fueled many of the victories. The Cardinals’ 2.65 ERA is second in the league behind the Elizabethton Twins.
But speed has also helped Johnson City score 4.5 runs per game, which is fourth in the league. The Cardinals lead the league in stolen bases (20) and have only been caught stealing three times.
Base-running’s been invaluable for a team that has fewer home runs than three Appalachian League players. Center fielder Vaughn Bryan leads the league with eight stolen bases and two triples, and hasn’t been caught stealing.
“As I watch these kids play … we’re not gonna be a sit back and wait for the three-run homer type of team,” Johnson City manager Joe Kruzel said Tuesday before playing golf at Pine Oaks on the season’s first off day. “Vaughn’s done a very nice job in the start of his pro career. He’s played a very good center field.
“The key’s gonna be if he can maintain getting on base and stealing some bases and causing some havoc that way. It really looks like that’s our MO right now — guys getting on base and moving them around.”
Shortstop Kenneth Peoples-Walls leads the league in hitting (.385) and is tied for fourth with four steals.
“He’s hitting the ball hard and putting the ball in play,” Kruzel said. “He’s done a tremendous job so far offensively.”
Catcher Rowan Wick (.300) is the only other Cardinal batting at least .300.
“We’ve gotta increase our on-base percentage and our slugging percentage has to get better,” Kruzel said. “You can’t steal first.”
Of course, the Cardinals haven’t exactly had to light up the scoreboard to win. Johnson City pitchers have allowed three runs or less in seven games, and in another one — a 12-inning loss at Princeton — they allowed three runs through nine innings.
Blake McKnight (1-0) has allowed one run and eight hits in his first 10 innings while striking out six and walking none. Luis Perdomo (1-0) hasn’t allowed an earned run in two starts (nine innings). Opening-night starter Alexander Reyes (1-0, 2.16 ERA) has 12 strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings.
The bullpen has been productive. Norge Paredes and Stalyn Lopez have each allowed no earned runs in three appearances. Reliever Steve Sabatino has struck out 13 in 8 2/3 innings. Short reliever Fernando Baez (1-0) has 12 strikeouts in five innings.
“It’s been exciting to watch his development as a pitcher,” Kruzel said. “He used to be a catcher. You know, he’s just really starting to pitch. He pitched out of two huge jams there in Princeton in (the ninth and the tenth innings).”
Despite quality pitching in the final two games of the series, Johnson City was swept in a three-game set at Princeton, which stretched its losing streak to four games.
“The club is still over five-hundred,” Kruzel said. “We’re a young team and we’re gonna make some mistakes, but just have to limit those. Other than that, I’m very pleased with the way these kids have played. We lost a couple of heartbreakers up in Princeton, but other than that the kids have done a great job of maintaining it and showing up.”
Reyes’ spot in the rotation comes up when Johnson City visits Elizabethton for one game tonight at 7. The Twins won the league title last year after Johnson City won the previous two championships. It was Elizabethton’s sixth title since 2000.
“They’re the champions,” Kruzel said. “They’re gonna be well coached. They’re gonna pitch and they’re gonna hit. Those are two things they’ve done over the years, probably for 20 years. … From the stats and where they’re at right now atop the division, you’re probably assuming they’re still doing the two things that have gotten them there for the last 15-20 years.”
The Cardinals open a three-game series at home against the Kingsport Mets with a 3 p.m. game on July 4. It’s free admission for first responders such as police, firefighters and EMS personnel.
Friday’s game is set for 7 p.m., and there will be fireworks afterward. The series concludes with a 6 p.m. game Saturday. It’s Military Appreciation Day, and veterans with military ID will be admitted free.