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Imports inject stability on Panthers mound

With all four import players from Cuba in the mix, the Kitchener Panthers have 11 pitchers to work with

When it comes to options on the mound, the Kitchener Panthers are somewhere they’ve never been before.

Now that they have their import players into the rotation, the team has 11 guys they can turn to.  Not a bad problem to have.

And Sunday afternoon, the picture started to clear on how Manager Luke Baker will manage all those assets on a game-to-game basis.

After pitchers Miguel Lehara, Yoennis Yera and shortstop Yorbis Borroto made their 2019 debuts in Friday’s win in Brantford, it was Yoen Socarras’ turn to showcase his stuff.

And he did not disappoint, going six innings of shutout baseball, giving up just three hits, two walks and three strikeouts in the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the visiting Welland Jackfish.

“He’s got some very good control.  He doesn’t seem to be like extremely overpowering.  He’s not throwing low-mid 90’s, he’s just got great control and he was getting guys out,” Baker said of Socarras’ start, one that saw him force eight of his 23 batters to pop or fly out.

“He’s getting them off balance, and he was doing a great job of that.  Kind of like (former Blue Jays pitcher Marco) Estrada in the sense of some fly balls, a few ground ball setups to make some good plays for the guys.”

After Kitchener took the 2-0 lead in the first inning --- one off a wild pitch and another on a sacrifice fly --- the offense shut down for most of the game.

The Panthers couldn’t reach second base for the next four innings, before Mike Gordner reached and later scored on a Keegan Marsden RBI single in the sixth to make it a 3-0 game.

The Jackfish got one across in the seventh, thanks to some small ball plays to advance the runners, and spoiled Lehara’s first home save attempt of the season with a pair of runs in the ninth to tie it up.

One would come unearned, after a fielding error.  And a close safe call at second base brought out Baker to have a few words with the second base umpire.

But that was forgotten shortly after, with the first place Panthers scoring the winning run on the ever-so-dramatic bases loaded, walk-off walk.

After lead off hitter Andy Leader reached third base with one out in the ninth, Welland walked Borroto and Jeff Hunt intentionally, and gave Brian Burton the game-clinching pass on a full count.

Back on Lehara, he did snag up two innings of one-run and one-hit ball in Brantford.

But it was the final batter that stuck out on the scoresheet that night, with two passed balls, two wild pitches --- one of which scored the run --- a number of foul balls before getting the last out of the game.

Yes, a struggle.  But don’t let that fool you.

Remember, this is still the same Lehara who went 4-2 for the Panthers last season, with a 2.00 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 27 innings, and racked up eight saves.

And let’s not forget his only save of the 2018 postseason, in Game 1 of the IBL Final on the road in Barrie.

It’s still early.  And Baker made mention that for the Cuban players, it’s their first time pitching in about three months.

“This is, I guess, them a little bit rusty, which is fantastic because they’re still very effective,” he said, “I know a couple of those balls were hit hard.  That’s the name of the game, and sometimes that will happen."

"But the way that they bounce back is fantastic, and that’s huge.  That helps us and if we can stay focused like that, that’s how we’re going to continue to do well.”

Even with all that in mind, Welland deserves some credit too.

They’re in the thick of things in the IBL at 5-5 on their first year since moving over from Burlington, where they failed to have a .500 season from 2011-2018.

“It was our first time playing (them) so it was nice to see them in action.  And I know that they’ve been doing pretty well for their first year in the league,” Baker said, “I know that they’re a bunch of guys from Brantford and Burlington and a few other places.  But it was nice to see them coming in and playing good ball, being competitive.”

Lehara registered the win Sunday, while Christian Hauck and Mike Schnurr each pitched a strong inning of relief in the seventh and eighth respectively.

“A run did score, but there was a couple little misplays that were not his (fault),” Baker said of Hauck, “He should have been out of that inning, no problem.”

Hauck also pitched the seventh in Brantford, as it looks he will be that fourth starter when the Panthers need it.

“(Hauck will) continue to start when we have four games in a week, so he’s our swingman,” Baker said, “He’s going to be one of the first guys out of the pen.  He’s proven himself.  He’s done so well as a starter, and even as a reliever.  He came in in Brantford and did really well for one inning, came in today and did really well.”

So as it stands, the Panthers will go with Yera, Socarres and Jasvir Rakkar as their three main starters, barring any injuries.

But when you have guys like Schnurr, Lehara, Hauck, Matt Vickers, Brady Schnarr, Austin Hassani, Stephen Gade and Geoff Moroz on the lineup sheet, that’s a lot of depth to work with.

“It’s really helpful, especially come playoffs,” Baker said, “The depth is key, so it’s going to give us a really good shot at things this year.  It’s exciting.”

A great shot at piling up some wins.

Even if they have to get a few bases loaded walk-off walks to do so every now and then.

NEXT UP: vs. Guelph Royals at Jack Couch Park Thursday night at 7:30 p.m.


Mark Pare

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