By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — When you think of a baseball injury, what comes to mind?
Maybe it’s a torn ligament in a pitcher’s elbow, or a broken hand from a batter being hit by a pitch.
Friday night was catcher Nick Ciuffo’s return to the Charlotte Stone Crabs after being on the disabled list since the first week of
June with a hand injury. But the former first-round draft pick wasn’t so quick to tell people the truth when they asked “what happened to your hand?”
“It’s kind of funny,” Ciuffo said. “I’d always just tell people I broke a finger. Then they’d say ‘which one?’ and I’d be like ‘uh, my pinky.’ and kind of just look away.”
Although a pinky injury doesn’t sound serious, it was for Ciuffo. The break in his little finger required doctors to put a screw in there during surgery. The injury kept him sidelined for close to two months.
“Being away from everybody kind of sucked,” Ciuffo said. “Just being back, seeing all the guys again, and playing some meaningful baseball has been fun.”
Ciuffo wasted no time getting back into the flow of the game on Friday in the Stone Crabs’ 5-1 loss to Fort Myers.
Pitcher Benton Moss allowed a first-inning leadoff triple to the Miracle’s Tanner English, and after the first pitch to the next batter, Ciuffo fired a pickoff attempt to third base, trying to catch English sleeping.
“I think the jitters were going a little bit,” Ciuffo said. “I had a lot of adrenaline going. That’s just part of my game. I’m not the fastest guy, and I don’t hit a lot of home runs, so my defense has to be there. If I can set myself apart by throwing, then that’s what I want to do.”
Defense, and his arm, are certainly a strong aspect to Ciuffo’s game. So far this season, 31 runners have attempted to steal a base against the South Carolina native, but 19 suffered the wrath of the cannon connected to his right shoulder. That goes along with a .990 fielding percentage.
“He completely stops the running game,” manager Michael Johns said. “He’s a really good defender, he’s good with the pitchers, and he’s a good receiver. He’s also going to hit in the middle of the order, so he’s a huge part of why we were successful before he got hurt.”
Ciuffo was the No. 3 hitter in his return, and went 0-for-2 in four plate appearances, but did manage to get on base twice with a pair of walks. He wasn’t alone, though, as the Charlotte bats remained relatively quiet for the third night in a row.
Yes, they did manage eight hits in the loss, the same number as the Miracle, but of those eight hits, only two came in the same inning.
“It’s tough to score runs (when that happens),” Johns said. “We haven’t really had a lot of extra basehits, either. Last night we didn’t have any, and tonight we had one with Duffy. You need to certainly have a bunch of hits and walks in the same inning to score runs, and if not, you’re only going to score one or no runs a night.”
To compound the problem, rehabbing Tampa Bay Rays Mikie Mahtook and Matt Duffy accounted for four of the team’s eight hits, while Mahtook scored the only run, and Duffy drove him in. They’re also the ones who took care of those two hits in the same inning.
Charlotte dug itself an early hole, as Moss (6-8) struggled from the first batter of the game all the way to the third inning. English began the game with a triple, which was followed by a pair of singles for Nick Gordon and Chris Paul, to give the Miracle a 2-0 lead.
Moss shut down the next four hitters, but struggled again when the top of the order came back around. Tanner’s double started the Miracle third inning before Gordon singled and Paul crushed a three-run homer for a 5-0 lead.
That was extent of the damage against Moss, as he eventually retired the final seven batters he faced before ending his night after the fifth.
“He started pitching after the third inning,” Johns said. “That was good. I think if he started doing that from the beginning, he would’ve been fine.”
The best offensive chance of the night for Charlotte to add to its total came in the eighth when a Mahtook single, and walks from
Grant Kay and Ciuffo loaded the bases with just one out. The threat ended when Nathan Lukes hit into an inning-ending double play.
“We’ve had good at-bats. It just seems like when they get on, we can’t get them in,” Johns said. “We were not good with runners in scoring position again for the third night in a row. We hit into three double plays, and it’s tough to win.”
Charlotte also had an opportunity in the seventh when Andrew Velazquez led off with a walk, and made it to third base after some heads up base running on a pair of pitches in the dirt. However, Velazquez was stranded there on a pair of strikeouts and a flyout.
Ian Gibaut had a nice outing in relief. He tossed two scoreless innings, while allowing one hit and a walk with three strikeouts.