If only he had time for one more try perhaps Pat Valaika could’ve done it, as on Thursday night the 29-year-old infielder came just a triple away from the cycle, finishing last night’s win over Memphis 3 for 4 at the plate, with a home run, a double, three RBI and a run scored. After putting together a solid Spring Training with the Braves, including a .300 AVG, a homer and only one strikeout in ten AB, Valaika has started off hot for the Stripers in 2022. In just three games, he already has three XBH (2 HR), and so far, he’s 5 for 12 (.417 AVG) overall as one of Gwinnett’s power hitters in the middle of the lineup.
Gwinnett’s top performers (Thursday)
|Jackson Stephens (P)||6 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 7 K|
|Pat Valaika (DH)||3 for 3, HR, 2B, 3 RBI, R|
|John Negowski (1B)||2 for 3, 2B, 2 R, BB, SB|
|Greyson Jenista (LF)||2 for 4, HR, RBI, R|
The scoring started in the second. Following a lead-off double by John Nogowski, Valaika blasted a no-doubter over the left field wall to put the Stripers up 2-0 on Thursday night.
Three batters later, Greyson Jenista quickly made it 3-0 when he launched a two-out, 3-2 pitch to straight away center field for the team’s second long ball of the inning, and Jenista’s first at the Triple-A level.
Valaika was back at in the fourth. Once again Negowski got on base to lead off the frame (walk), and after stealing second, Valaika slapped a line drive to left for a double, scoring Negowski and pushing Gwinnett’s lead to four runs.
The bottom-half of the inning also featured some flashy defense by the Stripers. With one out in the fourth, the Redbirds’ Nolan Gorman launched a pitch by Jackson Stephens to deep center field, but speedy outfielder Justin Dean was there to make the nice catch up against the wall, saving what likely would’ve been an extra base hit.
Speaking of Stephens (who I wrote about before the game on Thursday), the righty was efficient during his first outing in the Braves organization. The 27-year-old, Alabama native totaled 71 pitches in six innings, while allowing two runs from four hits, to go with seven strikeouts and no walks. Overall, Stephens mostly kept the ball on the ground; of the eight batted-balls that Memphis put in play against Stephens, all but two were groundouts.
Those two earned runs from Stephens came in the fifth when the Redbirds started off the inning by putting three of its first four batters on base. First it was a lead-off double by Alec Burleson, then a single by Luken Baker, a groundout, an RBI single by prospect Ivan Herrera, and then an RBI single by Conner Capel to cut Gwinnett’s lead to 4-2. Fortunately, though, Stephens recovered and settled down, retiring the next to batters in the fifth, before setting down all three Memphis batters in the sixth, in 1-2-3 fashion.
The Stripers offense added another run in the seventh, when Redbirds reliever Kyle Ryan suddenly couldn’t control anything. After walking Ryan Casteel to begin the frame, allowing a single to Jenista and hitting Dean with a pitch, Gwinnett’s Ryan Gosselin took advantage and drew a bases-loaded walk to push across Casteel.
Seth Elledge (who the Braves recently acquired) replaced Stephens for the seventh and looked really strong, working around a hit and striking out two. The 25-year-old Elledge has a mean breaking ball that should be a serious weapon this season. Conner Johnstone took care of eighth, pitching around a hit and a walk, and striking out one. And lastly, R.J. Alaniz worked the final frame, earning the save thanks to a hitless ninth.
The Stripers will be back at it against the Redbirds on Friday, with another 7:05 PM (CT) start time. Tonight righty Allan Winans will take the bump for Gwinnett.
Don’t forget, tonight is also Opening Day for all of Double-A, High-A and Single-A. Be sure to check out Braves Farm on Saturday morning for all the scores and recaps of tonight’s games. Unfortunately I won’t be at any of the Braves minor league games on Friday, though I will be in Birmingham, AL for the Rocket City Trash Pandas versus Birmingham Barons.