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Sacramento River Cats first baseman Anthony Aliotti talks to reporters Monday at the team's media day. The Cats open their season on Thursday at Salt Lake. Bruce Gallaudet/Enterprise photo

Sports

River Cats ready to scratch it out in 2014

By From page B1 | April 01, 2014

“We have a winning tradition here,” Sacramento River Cats manager Steve Scarsone told the assembled press at the franchise’s annual Media Day on Monday. “We take that very seriously. We’re not here just to get our work in. We’re here to win.”

As a former journeyman MLB player, Scarsone begins his second season as skipper of the Oakland A’s Triple-A affiliate. He thinks fans will see a different kind of style from a squad that last year went 79-65 but missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

Recent Sacramento editions have had brawny boppers (think Chris Carter and Michael Taylor) who could regularly clear the Raley Field fences.

Reviewing his 2014 roster, Scarsone just doesn’t see a lineup full of gap-busters …

“We don’t have a lot of big bats. We have some good hitters, but we don’t have any home run guys.

“We’re going to have to play a clean game defensively. We’re going to need to pitch well, which I think we’ll do. It’s a team that knows how to play the game, so we’ll be able to do a lot of fun stuff — running on the bases, being aggressive, putting pressure on (the other team’s) defense.”

Sacramento opens the Pacific Coast League season Thursday with a four-game series at Salt Lake City followed by four more in Las Vegas. The River Cats home opener comes April 11 against Salt Lake (7:05 p.m.).

Scarsone knows fortune turn on a dime for Triple-A teams, but likes what he sees going in to the regular season.

Behind the plate — at least for a while — is Stephen Vogt, the 29-year-old who found a full house at Oakland.

Hitting .324, Vogt spanked 13 homers and drove in 58 runs for the Cats a year ago. He also hit .252 for the A’s in limited opportunities.

“Steven is going to be the heart and soul of our ballclub,” Scarsone says. “We just know that by the way … he plays hard every day, especially being a catcher, he’s really taken control. He going to be a pivotal part of getting our (pitching) staff online.”

About that staff …

Matt Buschmann, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound right-hander, is expected to join Josh Lindblom, Philip Humber, Sean Murphy and Joe Blanton in a rotation that should, like most minor-league staffs, evolve as the season plays out.

Buschmann was 14-5 with a 2.81 earned run average while dividing time between Durham (AAA) and Montgomery (AA). He appeared in five games for Oakland.

After going 8-4 in 108 innings at Round Rock (AAA), Lindblom was 1-3 for the Texas Rangers.

Murphy is making a jump to the River Cats. His 10-9 record while sharing time with the Stockton Ports and Double-A Midland came with a 4.01 ERA and 140 strikeouts in 154 innings.

Humber and Blanton are two major-league veterans who come with some former glint.

Blanton, 33, returns to Sacramento from where he broke in with the A’s in 2004. In a 10-year major-league career, Blanton is 85-89 — a figure skewed by a miserable 2-14 campaign last season with the Los Angeles Angels. His 108 whiffs in 132 2/3 innings hint that there’s plenty of gas still in the tank.

Humber, 31, has pitched for five MLB teams, but was 0-8 with 7.90 ERA for a woeful Houston franchise in 2013.

Humber, however, has left his calling card in baseball’s Hall of Fame. On April 21, 2013, the Tyler, Texas, native pitched a perfect game against Seattle. Nonetheless, in eight years of on-again, off-again majors visits, Humber is only 16-23 with a 5.31 ERA.

“They have a lot of experience and I think it will be an advantage to our club,” Scarsone says of Blanton and Humber — knowing that if either finds their old spark, they’ll be gone to Oakland in flash. Remember, A’s pitcher Jarrod Parker (Tommy John surgery) and second-year starter A.J. Griffin (flexor tendinitis) are out — Parker for the season and Griffin for at least a couple more weeks.

Longtime River Cats pitching coach Rick Rodriguez is charged with getting Blanton and Humber ship-shape.

“Those two guys being in Sacramento and ready are going to be valuable to the organization should something happen to the other five (A’s starters),” Scarsone reports.

“(Blanton and Humber) understand that. I expect them to go out with full force and try to make the most of their situation here so they can get that opportunity to … be back at the level they deserve to be.”

Also for the River Cats this season, play-anywhere Jake Elmore can handle shortstop or second-base chores. A former Houston Astro, Elmore can play outfield, too.

Nate Frieman and Anthony Aliotti could share first base and DH duties with former Seibu Lion (Japan) shortstop Hiro Nakajima, 31, also hoping to emerge.

Scarsone has his fingers crossed that veteran Cats Shane Peterson, Jake Goebbert and Conner Crumbliss can join with newly arrived Kent Matthes (Triple-A Colorado Springs) to supply some much-needed pop. At all levels in 2013, the quartet combined for 66 home runs.

Aliotti and Frieman are longtime friendly rivals and Aliotti says it’s been great fun talking with the other first baseman about “being up there. He talked about the playoff run, how fun it is up there. Every game means something, He said it was a blast and, of course, he’s hoping to get back up there.”

Everyone on the roster is looking to The Show. Aliotti talked about getting there:

“Patience is a key. You’re not always going to get what you want — or what you think you deserve — you just keep going, try to produce and help the team as much as you can.

“Let (the chips) fall where they fall and, hopefully, you end up in the major leagues.”

Notes: Jeremy McBride and Jose Flores — both righties — are up from Double-A and could supply solid relief pitching. Both had more strikeouts than innings pitched with Flores getting 16 saves and McBride 15. … Left-handed reliever Eric Berger was 6-3 with a 3.06 ERA at Oklahoma City last summer. He’s a Woodcreek High (Roseville) grad. … The Cats have three Triple-A championships since moving to Sacramento 15 seasons ago. Their last came in 2008. … In 2012, Forbes magazine listed the River Cats as the minor leagues’ most valuable franchise. … In its first eight years in West Sacramento, the club led all minor-league teams in attendance. Last season, the Cats drew 607,329 — up after a two-year decline. In 2001, Sacramento had its all-time best crowd count (901,214). … Scarsone hit .239 in seven major-league seasons with five clubs. The infielder was with the San Francisco Giants from 1993 to 1996.

— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-320-4456

Bruce Gallaudet

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