Matt Hagen has been searching for an answer to his team’s rocky start to the season.
After losing eight straight games and falling to last place in the Northwest League’s North Division, the Indians first-year manager said he wasn’t sure how he was going to get his team back on top.
Perhaps a shakeup in the lineup was exactly what Hagen and the Indians needed as they edged the Hillsboro Hops 2-1 on Thursday night at Avista Stadium.
Five new faces took the field – four of them were making their minor league debut.
“We put them all out there today,” Hagen said. “They (came) out here and showed (me) the reason (they) got drafted.”
Tyler Ratliff made his minor league debut at third base a day after Charles LeBlanc was promoted to the Hickory Crawdads – the Rangers’ low-A affiliate in Hickory, North Carolina. The 21-year-old Ratliff was picked up in the 17th round of the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft.
Franklin Rollin took left field for his first night at Avista Stadium. The 21-year-old flew into Spokane on Wednesday evening from Kinston, North Carolina, where he played for the Rangers’ high-A affiliate East Side Wood Ducks.
Matt Whatley, who came to Spokane with Ratliff on Wednesday, suited up and made his debut behind the plate, catching right-handed starter Alex Speas.
Whatley, a 21-year-old from Claremore, Oklahoma, was a third-round pick for the Texas Rangers in the most recent draft. Whatley ended his college career at Oral Roberts one year early to enter the draft. At Oral Roberts this year, Whatley posted a .302 batting average with 11 home runs, 11 doubles and 64 hits in 59 games.
Whatley impressed the Indians (8-14) on Thursday with a diving catch behind home plate in the second inning and another catch five innings later near the visiting dugout.
“Whatley did great, I couldn’t have asked for a better catcher,” Speas said. “I’m sure there’s not even one or two times that I had to shake him off tonight because we were on the same page the whole night.”
Speas worked a scoreless game through four innings before Hillsboro (12-10) put up its run in the fifth. He issued a walk and a base hit to left field to put runners at first and second.
Speas was called for a balk in the middle of his 3-2 pitch to Luke Lowery, moving the runners up.
Officials also awarded Lowery first base.
The call immediately sparked confusion from Speas and Whatley, who was initially thought to have been called for interference on the illegal pitch.
“I don’t know the ruling, but I think the catcher’s interference (call) should have been canceled out and (the batter) shouldn’t have gotten to the base,” Whatley said.
Hagen immediately ran out to the field to argue the call, saying the play should have been ruled a dead ball as soon as the field umpire called a balk. Instead, Hagen said the umpires decided to ignore the balk call and ruled the play a walk since the pitch was also ruled as a fourth ball by the home plate official.
The officials told Hagen that “they (Hillsboro) gets the best result possible, which for them … was ball four, and it loads the bases,” Hagen said.
With no outs and the bases loaded, Speas fanned a batter and forced a short fly to left field. Left-fielder Rollin hustled for the catch and made a quick throw into home to keep the Hops from scoring.
Right-hander Joe Barlow relieved Speas, but he delivered four balls in a row to force in Hillsboro’s first run of the night. Barlow finally ended the inning with a strikeout.
The Indians answered with their own rally in the sixth, beginning with Tyler Ratliff’s double to left field. Andretty Cordero followed with an RBI single to right, but he attempted to stretch the hit to a double and was tagged out at second to end the inning.
The Indians finally took their first lead since Monday in the seventh inning.
Whatley led off and took one off the helmet. He moved to second on Kole Enright’s sacrifice bunt. Enright reached first base safely when Hops third baseman Eudy Ramos overthrew the ball. Enright moved to second and Whatley took third on the error.
Whatley scored on a fielder’s choice grounder by Johan McReynolds.
The Indians also welcomed four new arms to the Spokane bullpen on Wednesday, including former Washington Huskies right-hander Noah Bremer, who was selected in the sixth round of the draft this year.
Bremer made his debut on Thursday night in the eighth inning when he retired the side in order on an infield grounder, fly ball and a called strikeout.
Right-handed closer Alex Eubanks, who flew into Spokane from Dallas with Bremer and two other pitchers Wednesday morning, picked up the save in his first minor league outing after fanning three batters in the ninth.
The roster moves filled a few spots in the bullpen that were recently left vacant after the Rangers transferred a number of pitchers to the organization’s higher minor league affiliates.
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