21 July 2006

A bevy of the best bats

     With the Cape Cod League All-Star Game in the offing July 29 in Yarmouth, we though we would survey some of the better hitters in the East Division. Itís a pitcherís league, and only eight players out of all 10 teams are hitting over .300. 

Chatham first baseman Matt Rizzotti 

Whether pounding in runs or walking to first base, Chathamís larger-than-average first baseman Matt Rizzotti is making a good case to be selected to this yearís all-star team. 

"Thatís the ultimate goal in this league, to be considered one of the best of the best summer league in the nation," said Rizzotti on the idea of making this yearís All-Star Game. "Itís something that Iíve tried not to think about too much but it would be a dream come true." 

Despite hitting a recent bump in the road average-wise, the 6-foot, 4-inch, 235-pound first baseman is still leading the league with 19 RBI, three more than his nearest competitor. Heís batting .236 in 27 games. 

"Iíve been really lucky. The guys in front of me have done a good job of getting on-base, and Iíve been able to come through with some hits," Rizzotti said. "Lately, Iíve been slumping a little, but Iím confident Iíll be able to work through it. Sometimes the ball falls in for hit, and sometimes it doesnít." 

But the junior-to-be at Manhattan College isnít just driving in the runs; heís also one of the best in the league in getting on base for his teammates to knock in. Rizzotti leads the league in walks with 28, seven more than Hyannisí David Macias, and is fifth in on-base percentage (.415). 

That is all news to Rizzotti, who admittedly doesnít keep track of his stats on a day-to-day basis. 

"If I have a good night, I might kind of take a peek (at his stats), but usually I have no idea," he said. "I was on base (against Orleans), and one of the guys on the other team said, íHey youíre batting .244. Youíre really doing well.í I was shocked that guys from the other team were paying more attention to my stats than I was." 

The sure-handed lefty provides a big target for his teammates at first base and has only made three errors in 28 games. 

Rizzotti also said the presence of catcher Nick Derba, who will be a senior at Manhattan this fall, has considerably helped him. 

"Heís (Derba) like a mentor to me," added Rizzotti. "We went to the same high school and now the same college. Itís really a bonus having him here." 

At Manhattan last season, Rizzotti led the team by hitting .340 in 57 games. 

"Iím not saying we donít face good pitchers at Manhattan, but here it seems that every night your facing a high-caliber pitcher." 

Although heíd love to come back to the Cape, Rizzotti said he would rather be playing somewhere professionally next summer. 

Brewster first baseman Matt LaPorta 

This is Matt LaPortaís second go-round in the Cape Cod Baseball League. Two years ago, after his freshman year at Florida, he played for the Y-D Red Sox and hit nine homers while batting .234. That earned him an all-star berth. 

"Itís a big help," he said. "I know what to expect. I know whatís going on." 

After a year off, heís slugging for the Brewster Whitecaps, hitting .273 with four homers and 15 RBI in 77 at bats. He hit two homers in one game last week. 

"Baseball is a game of failures," LaPorta said. "You canít let an 0-5 night beat you. Every at-bat is a new at-bat. Whether your 4-4 or 0-4, it is the same." 

LaPorta was drafted by the Boston Red Sox, but hasnít signed yet. 

"Itís good when you get back to college," LaPorta said of his Cape League experience. "It seems like you have an advantage because youíve been facing the best pitchers in the country." 

While some hitters alter their strokes to adjust to faster pitching or wood bats, LaPorta doesnít change his style. 

"In my opinion, you donít want to do too much," he said. "You hit the way you hit, and you canít change because youíre facing better pitching. I donít change anything." 

LaPorta would like to play in the major leagues some day, whether itís for the Red Sox or not. 

Chatham second baseman Chris Carrara 

In a league dominated by strong pitching, sometimes it doesnít take much to offset that advantage. 

"Making contact is the biggest thing for me," said Chatham second baseman Chris Carrara, who has been in the top 10 in hitting throughout the season. "Because the pitching in this league is so good, you canít just go up there trying to pound the ball, especially for me because I try to take advantage of my speed as much as I can. When Iím at the plate, I just look to get the ball on the grass and in play." 

That strategy has worked wonders for Carrara, as heís leading the league in on-base percentage at .451. His average has dipped recently, sliding just under .300, at .296, for the first time this summer. He stands 10th in the league in batting. 

Once on base, Carrara has been one of the best in getting into scoring position. Leading the way in stolen bases for most of the summer, Carrara is currently second with 13 swipes, one behind Orleansí Kody Kaiser. 

The 5-foot, 10-inch right-handed batter from Charlotte, N.C., and Winthrop said the biggest surprise coming into this league has been the weather. 

"Itís a lot more chilly up here than what Iím used to," he said. "But itís kind of been easier for me to go out there and play every day because of the lower temperatures." 

Making the all-star team would be a great honor for Carrara. 

"It would a great thrill for me to be able to represent my school that way," he said. 

Despite the Aís subpar season, Carrara sees only positive things from his teammates. 

"This is just a great group of guys that will continue to work hard," he said. "Weíve been able to battle back when weíre down, and weíre always in every game. Thatís just a credit to the character of this team." 

Y-D shortstop Buster Posey 

Heís not a big slugger like some of the players noted here, but Buster Posey is batting .308 for the Y-D Red Sox with 37 hits in 120 at bats. He has scored 17 runs and knocked in 13. 

"Iíve just been working hard with coach Pick (Scott Pickler)," the 6-foot, 1-inch, 195-pounder said. "I take it one at bat at a time." 

Posey is from Leesburg, Ga. and attends Florida State. Asked the toughest thing about Cape League play, he answered playing every day and the caliber of pitching. 

"Day in and day out, itís tough, and when you get into the pen, every guy in the pen is a good guy," he said. "A lot of teams have guys who are starters in college coming out of the pen." 

Posey has altered his swing a tad. 

"The biggest adjustment Iíve made is to swing down on the ball more, because youíre not able to lift the ball as much with wood bats," he said. 

Posey has six doubles and two home runs this summer. 

"I love it. Iím having a good time," he said of his Cape summer. "I have a great host family. Coming from the South, I like the temperatures here." 

Heís going to keep working hard. 

"You canít be satisfied," Posey said. "You can always improve yourself after each at bat. Iíd definitely like to have a professional career. I heard about this league since I was little. Itís the premier summer league. Itís a dream to be up here in the first place." 

Harwich infielder Josh Donaldson 

Proving heís one of the best all-around players in the league this summer, Harwich infielder Josh Donaldsonís name can be found close to the top in nearly every statistical category. 

The Auburn University junior-to-be is fourth in the league in hitting with a .323 average, third in hits (32) and slugging percentage (.505), leads the league in doubles (nine) and is tied for the lead in extra-base hits (12). 

"He has been our best hitter by far this year," said Harwich manager Steve Englert. "Even though we knew what we were getting, weíre still a little surprised at how well heís doing. It takes most guys a little time to get used to using wooden bats and the pitching in this league, but Josh was able to jump right in and be successful. Even most of the outs that he has made have been hard-hit balls." 

Donaldson has also shown a flair for the dramatic, connecting for a game-winning, two-run blast in extra innings against Chatham earlier in the season, one of his three home runs. 

But his numbers at the plate are just part of the story. The versatile Donaldson, listed at 6-foot, 1-inch and 195 pounds, has done very well defensively in a couple different positions. 

"Heís done a great job at third and as catcher for us in a few games. It seems no matter where he plays defensively, heís going to do a solid job for us," said Englert. "Heís a good presence on this team." 

In 22 games in the field, 11 at third base and 11 as catcher, Donaldson has only committed five errors. He has also been the designated hitter in four games. 

Orleans catcher Matt Wieters 

The Orleans Cardinals have long had a Georgia Tech connection, and 6-foot, 4-inch catcher Matt Wieters is the latest Yellow Jacket to play for the Cardinals. 

Heís batting .325 with three homers and 12 RBI in 77 at bats. 

"Itís a lot of luck," Wieters said. "Youíve got to find some holes up here, and whether youíre slumping or going good, youíve got to be on an even keel." 

Like LaPorta, Wieters doesnít want to tamper with his swing. 

"I donít think you can really adjust too much with the wood," he said. "You can always get better unless youíre hitting 1.000, but Iím pleased. I wouldnít say Iím satisfied, but Iím content." 

Wieters is enjoying Orleans. 

"I like the small towns. Everybody makes you feel like youíre king of the world," he said. "And this is a great group of guys here." 

Playing every day has been an adjustment. 

"Coming from college, where you play a weekend series and have three days off, itís tough keeping focused," he said. 

Wieters has been the DH when he hasnít caught, with Larry Day of Connecticut taking over behind the plate. 

"Heís a good catcher, and he gives me time off when I need it," Wieters said. 

By Rich Eldred and Matt Rice