Union Fire Up Home Crowd, Silence the Sounders

Union Fire Up Home Crowd, Silence the Sounders

It seemed somewhat fitting that Sounders FC would be in town for the Union's PPL Park inaugural game. The Union played their first ever match in Seattle, and a budding long-distance rivalry began. At least that's the way some of us fans saw it. Seattle is the high-water mark for new franchises and their fans. The Sounders' W-L record this season may not show it, but their attendance mark does. Throw in a few dives by their star player in that season opener and our sights were set.

The Union's showing at Lincoln Financial Field was spectacular, but we've been waiting to see what the atmosphere would be like at their permanent home, PPL Park in Chester. Yesterday we finally got that opportunity. 

The following is a random compilation of thoughts on the game and the stadium atmosphere. 

Enrico, Gootman, and I made our way to the Chester waterfront at about 3, and the tailgating was well underway. I was a little mindful about traffic and the overall parking situation, but we didn't run into any glitches, pulling right into Lot A and opening the cooler. Holy hell was it hot down there yesterday. I wondered how it might affect the game and the crowd's energy. On our way inside, we walked under the Commodore Barry Bridge, which provides a great man-made landscape backdrop for the stadium. 
One gripe I had was that I wasn't allowed to bring bottled water inside with me. Enrico and Goot got in with theirs, but security told me it wasn't allowed. With $4 bottles in the stadium on a mid-90s day, water should be allowed... 

Inside, Enrico pointed out that the park had a collegiate feel. The architecture is simple, with broad walls and walkways under the seating. We were stopped just before getting to our section, and temporary fences were put in place right in front of us for the players to come out of the locker room and onto the field. I would have liked to have made it to our seats for that, but it was pretty cool seeing them run out underneath. They were amped. 

Our seats in the supporters section were sun-drenched, but we knew going in that'd be the case. The field looked great, and it's impossible to overstate how close the seats are to it. The Barry Bridge behind the webbed metal "roof" to the sidelines was a great sight, and from a few rows above ours, you could turn around and see the river.
There wasn't much wind yesterday, but I'm looking forward to sitting at the breezy end for future games this summer.

The fans around us were all friendly and full of energy despite the heat. We're toward the corner, so the singing wasn't as loud away from the main SoB guys, but the chants were pretty good. Most of the songs are OK, but I'd add two to the mix: Under The Bridge and Down By The River Take Me To The River (Neil's song is great, but kind of a bad fit aside from the title. Al Green/Talking Heads fits a lot better). 

As far as the game is concerned, what more could we ask for? The Union romped the Sounders, even more than the decisive 3-1 result would indicate. They controlled the possession and tempo of the game, and perhaps inspired by USA's showing in the World Cup, they were able to come from behind after letting up a first half goal. 

We got to see the best possible outcomes from penalty kicks. Sebastien Le Toux absolutely buried his, and Chris Seitz set the place on fire by making the rare save on a PK. Seitz had a rocky start to his Union career, but his confidence has been on the rise, and he was a major force in yesterday's game. The crowd was enthralled with him, chanting for every save and challenge. So great to see the kid playing bold but smart in the box. 

Danny Mwanga got the start, and we thought he had a brilliant goal buried in the top right corner in the first half. Turned out it went just wide, hitting the pole that pinned the net up; the visual effect of it ricocheting down behind the goal looked to us at the river end like it was in. Danny would get, and take advantage of, another opportunity in the second half though, taking a Le Toux feed and sending the supporters section into a frenzy. Fred, frequently seen with a beaming smile on this day, also scored for the Union. When he was subbed off late in the game, the place went nuts for him. 

Is it any wonder the Union scored all three of their goals while shooting on the goal that sits below the supporters? 
After the game players from both sides gave respectful claps to the fans, who remained in the stands for a while to celebrate the win. The Union players made their way around the pitch, grabbing the outstretched hands of their supporters, and enjoying every second of it. After they made their way into the tunnel, the supporters section was still full and loud, and the players came back out for more. They'd earned it, and so had the fans. I don't remember ever seeing players in any sport so happy after a regular season game, and it was a great move to share that feeling with the fans rather than in the locker room. 

Can you tell I had a great time? Writing this thing like a fifth grade report on My Trip to the Soccer Stadium... We'll have more on the park itself in future posts. This time we just wanted to go in and get a little crazy, not think about anything but what's right in front of us. 

Oh, and Freddie Ljunberg got booed to no end. We'll take pride in that, thank you very much. The fans displayed the trademark Philly vitriol, but also the knowledge of the game, remembering Ljunberg's intolerable diving act in the season opener out in Seattle. He definitely heard about it. The Ro-gaine chants for Kasey Keller were kinda lame though.

After a huge letdown to our soccer weekend from the US side on Saturday, the Union pulled us back up and gave us an idea of what we can expect down by the river this summer and in the years ahead. Think they like playing at home? Two of their three wins have come in Philly, with their only other home game ending in a dramatic tie (yes, there is such a thing).  

I'm probably forgetting a lot (you can probably figure out why), and my "recap" of the actual game action leaves a lot to be desired. I recommend checking out Dave Zeitlin's account, Judah Levine's, and this amazingly shot gallery at the Union's FB. 

Thinking man's pitcher, Phillies prospect Cole Irvin enjoying time with Clearwater

Thinking man's pitcher, Phillies prospect Cole Irvin enjoying time with Clearwater

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Clearwater Threshers pitcher Cole Irvin is a student of baseball, but maybe the word “student” – simply stated and in its base meaning – describes the young left-hander best.

A graduate of the University of Oregon who completed his undergraduate degree in sociology in just 3½ years, Irvin has applied a studious, methodical approach to his work on the mound, where he starred as a freshman and senior for the Ducks as a regular Friday night starter.

His 2014 collegiate season was marred by Tommy John surgery, but he reflects on it now as being an important part of him staying in college and obtaining his degree. He remained in Eugene another semester after getting drafted by Pittsburgh in the 32nd round, his second time getting selected.

“I look at it as a positive. I wouldn’t have been able to finish my degree at Oregon if I didn’t have the surgery,” said Irvin, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Phillies last June.

“Sociology covers so many topics. It’s a great degree to have. My studies varied from the population of salmon affecting society to the study of social media. There was so much I learned in so many diverse topics. I like interacting because everyone’s opinion mattered.”

The sociological background also easily translates to the diamond for the 6-foot-4, 190-pound Irvin.

“It’s the same in baseball. The more information you have about the opposing team, our team, if we’re doing the shift and other things… now you have all that collected information. Now you just go do your thing. I think I apply (sociology) to so many different aspects of what I do,” he said.

Sociology aside, Clearwater pitching coach Aaron Fultz has been impressed with the mental approach Irvin has displayed.

“Very (much so),” replied Fultz when asked if the southpaw is the quintessential cerebral pitcher. “He’s a no frills guy and he’s here to work.”

Fultz broke in to MLB and played three seasons with the San Francisco Giants – 2000 to 2002 – and the former big leaguer said Irvin reminds him from a work ethic standpoint of a Bay Area teammate of his.

“He kind of reminds me of Jeff Kent. He comes here and he wants to work and get better,” said Fultz of Irvin, who also bears a slight resemblance to the five-time all-star and 2000 NL MVP of the Giants.

That industrious attitude worked well for Irvin in his first spring training camp in the Grapefruit League in February. He broke camp by bypassing Low A Lakewood and joining the Threshers. Then he proceeded to overwhelm hitters in the Florida State League.

Irvin, 23, was 3-1 in four starts in April, posting a 1.04 ERA. In 26 innings, he allowed 22 hits, struck out 20 and walked just three. His WHIP stood at 0.96.

“His first four or five starts, I thought he was the best pitcher in the league,” Fultz said. “Since then, we’ve had a little hiccup here and there about location and just giving up some hits. He’s had some bad luck, too.

“But I love the way he goes about his business. He gets the ball and he’s ready to pitch. He has a very good idea and is a smart kid. He doesn’t throw 95, but he’s left-handed – that helps – and he has a really good change-up. His stuff is better than average, but his tenacity and the way he goes after hitters is a really good selling point for him.”

Irvin said he tries not read what is written about him or the multitude of numbers baseball produces.

“The past three outings haven’t gone the way I’ve anticipated, especially after the first five starts of the year,” said Irvin, who is 3-5 with a 3.20 ERA after four straight losses starting on May 4 against Jupiter.

He will try to break that winless skid on Tuesday when he faces Florida back in Clearwater.

Of his standout first pro season at short-season Williamsport last year (5-1, 1.97 in 10 games), Irvin admitted he doesn’t look at the stats, saying, “Honestly, I don’t know the numbers. I don’t get ahead of myself and look at stats. Every once in a while, I’ll look at media stuff, but I try not to follow that stuff.

“Once it gets in your head, you start to get anxious about moving up and thinking about things you’re not supposed to be thinking about. I’m supposed to be thinking right now, ‘What can I do to get better and get to the big leagues?’ It’s not about being in the minor leagues; it’s about being in the big leagues.”

Irvin has enjoyed his season so far and, like a good sociology student, is harvesting his own data.

“There’s a lot to build off of. It’s my first full season, so it’s exciting to spend a whole year playing baseball and doing something you love and is fun. It’s something I’ve dreamed of as a kid,” he said.

“I never thought I’d be here this quick, so I’m taking it one day at a time. I can only focus on this day, and tomorrow will come tomorrow.”
 
Three questions with Cole Irvin

You throw a one-seam fastball. What does it do?

“It’s literally across one seam, holding it with one finger. It depends on the wrist. If it’s on the side of the ball, it’s going to fade (versus righty batters). But if your wrist is more on the inside toward your body, it’s going to cut. I only use it as a strikeout pitch. [Laughing] I’d say it’s a wipe-out pitch, but I don’t have wipe-out stuff like most of the guys on this team. It’s an effect pitch, where there’s a little uncertainty where it’ll go.”

You’re from Yorba Linda, CA, the birthplace of Richard Nixon and home of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Have any good Nixon stories?

“Actually, I do. When I was 12, I had to do community service for the high school I was going to go to. I had to have so many hours. The library was looking for someone to clean the helicopter – Air Force One helicopter or whatever it was called. Every Sunday morning I’d show up at 5:30 a.m. to clean that helicopter. I had to go through the Secret Service back door and security checks. I was 12, so there wasn’t much information on me. I spent four or five Sundays cleaning that helicopter. It was so much fun.”

As an Oregon Duck, you were able to play in the Civil War against the Oregon State Beavers and New York Mets outfielder Michael Conforto. Any success?

“My senior year was the first time we’ve ever gone to Goss Stadium and won a series at Oregon State. I pitched against Conforto and also played with him on the Team USA collegiate team that had (Chicago Cubs star Kyle) Schwarber. Honestly, Michael’s one of the great guys to know and talk to. He’s just a world-class, awesome guy.”

Now on Phillies' bench, Ty Kelly looks back fondly on Team Israel experience

Now on Phillies' bench, Ty Kelly looks back fondly on Team Israel experience

Ty Kelly is currently the 25th man on the Phillies' roster, a utility man who has all of two starts with the club this year.

But two and a half months ago, he was one of the headlining players on the Cinderella squad of the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Kelly was the starting third baseman for Team Israel, which made a surprising run to the second round with a perfect run through Pool A. The team began the WBC with an upset over host South Korea before wins over Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands. Israel beat Cuba in the next round in Japan but fell to Japan and the Netherlands handily.

Unlike most MLB players who spent their spring in Florida, Kelly got to experience two major Asian cities -- Seoul and Tokyo -- while getting his preseason at-bats.

"It was a great experience, trying the food and all that and seeing all the sights," Kelly said.

However, he wasn't too adventurous with trying the local cuisine compared to his teammates.

"Some of the guys were really trying to seek out the native food," Kelly said. "I wanted to do that as much as I could, but at the same time, you're still trying to get ready for baseball games in a tournament, so you've got to do what's best for your body.

"Chicken sandwiches for me were the way to go for the most part," he added with a laugh.

Kelly's participation with the squad began in the middle of 2016, when Peter Kurz, the President of the Israel Association of Baseball, emailed him and asked if he had a Jewish grandparent. Kelly's mother's side of the family is Jewish, making Kelly eligible.

Last year was also the end of Kelly's long road to the major leagues. Drafted by the Orioles in 2009 out of UC Davis, Kelly was traded multiple times, once straight up for current Brewers slugger Eric Thames before Thames went to Korea and back. Kelly wound up with the Mets and finally made his MLB debut two months shy of his 28th birthday. He played 39 games for the Mets at six different positions and got a hit in his only postseason at-bat, which came vs. Madison Bumgarner no less.

Kelly still had to make the Mets this spring, which could have made joining the WBC a tough decision. However, the organization was on board with Kelly playing in the tournament.

"It made it difficult, but I talked to the Mets about it and they were all for me going over there and still playing and getting experience," he said. "People were still watching, so once I got the go-ahead from them, it was an easy decision."

Kelly made the Mets out of the spring but had just one at-bat before he put on waivers and was claimed by the Blue Jays. Eight days later, he was traded to the Phillies. He has four hits (three doubles) in 19 at-bats with the Phillies and had the game-winning RBI single two weeks ago in the front end of the Phils' doubleheader with the Nationals.

He's the only player from Team Israel to have played in the majors this season. Ryan Lavarnway and former Mets 1B Ike Davis are in Triple A while the roster also included former MLBers Nate Freiman, Sam Fuld and Jason Marquis.

While none of his WBC teammates have parlayed Team Israel's run into MLB time, Kelly still thinks the team caught the eye of people in the game.

"There was definitely a lot of fandom around our team," Kelly said. "A lot of people rallied around us, including people in front offices I think. Of Jewish descent or not, I think a lot of people liked what we did.

"Being a part of that definitely looks good for me, which is just an added bonus."