When the Osprey need a stopper. The man from Bear wants
"I like the pressure. I
like pitching when the game's on the line," said Tim Vaillancourt, the
Osprey's 6-foot-4, 195-pound right-hander from Bear, Del.
Missoula's No. 1 starter since Day 1, Vaillancourt has flirted with dominance and disaster in building a 3-3 record and a 4.28 earned run average in nine starts.
Two of Vaillancourt's three wins followed Osprey defeats the game before. He had a sparkling performance in Great Falls that wound up as an 11-inning win for the Osprey but a no-decision for Vaillancourt.
In his first two starts at Missoula's Play Ball Park, Vaillancourt permitted one unearned run in victorious stints of six innings against Billings on June 29 and of 6 2-3 innings on July 10 against Great Falls. He took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of the latter game before White Sox second baseman Adam Ricks broke it up with a two-out double.
"I wouldn't say there's a difference in my approach (at home), because every time I step out on the mound I want to win and throw my best game," Vaillancourt said. "But, yeah, it's fun playing in front of your own crowd. It makes it easier to pitch."
Vaillancourt's season in relief last year was his first bullpen experience. It took some getting used to. His final numbers in 2003 - an 0-3 record, an ERA of 6.41 in 22 appearances - mask his effectiveness as he grew comfortable with pitching on call. In August his earned run average was 2.13.
Before this season Missoula pitching coach Wellington Cepeda lauded Vaillancourt's improved breaking ball
"Last year it was kind of a loopy curveball, and he got hurt by it a lot," Cepeda said.
Vaillancourt's midseason assessment: "I'm happy with my curveball, but it can always get better," he said. "Last year I had a problem when I'd get ahead of hitters and throw my curveball I'd get hit hard. This year I think it's a lot sharper."
His fastball's not appreciably faster, but it's more effective.
"This year I can locate it a lot better," Vaillancourt said. "That's pretty much the name of the game: locate, hit your spots and mix your speeds."
There's another difference to pitching in the Pioneer League this season. Age restrictions have been lifted. Vaillancourt and everyone else are pitching to older, more seasoned hitters. There's not a team ERA under 4.50, and the Osprey's 5.78 is no worse than fifth in the eight-team league.
"The older guys are obviously more experienced and a probably a little better hitters than the younger guys," said Vaillancourt. "And you've got a lot of high draft picks in the league too."
Each of Vaillancourt's first two outings, including the season opener in Great Falls, was marked by solid pitching and one fatal blowup. He lost both, then won three straight. The Pioneer League leader with 48.1 innings pitched, he's looking for his first victory since July 10.
Home sweet home
The claws of a giant lobster reach northward along the Eastern seaboard. The claw on the left is Chesapeake Bay. On the right is Delaware Bay.
Just out of the grasp of their pinchers is Bear, Del.
The name conjures up visions of untamed animals and forests primeval.
"It's the opposite of that," Vaillancourt said with a laugh. "It a suburb between Baltimore and Philadelphia. A lot of people there commute to go to work. It's real crowded."
The story goes that in olden days (read "before Montana was invented") a tavern sat along the road between Wilmington and Dover. Its sign was decorated by a large bear, hence the name of the settlement that grew to a town of 17,500 by the year 2000.
The Vaillancourt family can hop on I-95 and be at a Phillies game or an Orioles game in less than an hour. Tim grew up a Phillies (and Eagles and Flyers) fan. He went to high school in nearby Wilmington, and to college at Delaware State in Dover.
He played high school and summer ball with Scott Martin of Wilmington, and the two were teammates for four years at DSU.
The school's baseball web site includes a group photo taken after their sophomore season in 2001. In the picture, Vaillancourt shares a trophy for the team's Division I-leading earned run average. Martin holds the award for the top RBI team in the nation.
Vaillancourt, a starter from his freshman season on, set Delaware State career records for wins (24), complete games and strikeouts. He and Martin became the first DSU players to have their numbers retired. Vaillancourt, who wears the same No. 31 he donned in college, recalled the spring day in 2003 at Delaware State's Soldier Field.
"We didn't know it was going to happen, so it kind of surprised us," he said. "We were the last two guys to be announced. When we got out on the field there were two panels covered up on the scoreboard and then they uncovered them. It was an honor, for sure."
A few weeks later, Vaillancourt was drafted by the Diamondbacks in the 33rd round and sent to Missoula. Martin went in the 34th round to the White Sox, who started him at Bristol in the Appalachian League.
They've met up in three games this season. Martin, batting .276 for Great Falls, is 1-for-8 against Vaillancourt. Last Friday in Great Falls, Martin doubled off the right-field wall in the fourth inning and then scored. It was the only run Vaillancourt allowed in his seven innings.
"I didn't know it was 1-for-8," Vaillancourt said. "I know he's hit a few balls hard off me. He's a good fastball hitter. I know what he likes. We've been playing together since I was 16."
Of course, Martin knows Vaillancourt's pitching strengths as well, which makes each face-off between the two a Delaware dilly.
"Every day I try to learn as much as possible, to just better myself as a player and as a person," Vaillancourt said. "I want to continue to try to move up the ladder and, before I hang 'em up, just to say I worked as hard as I could to get better."