Adam Shinder/Recorder staff Amsterdam Mohawks second baseman Josh Gardiner, right, avoids a wild pitch as it gets by Albany Dutchmen catcher Jake Hanson during Thursday's game at Shuttleworth Park.
Adam Shinder/Recorder staff Amsterdam Mohawks pitcher Connor Johnstone warms up prior to the first inning of Thursday's game against the Albany Dutchmen at Shuttleworth Park.
Adam Shinder/Recorder staff Amsterdam Mohawks first baseman Brendan Tracy, right, looks back to the dugout while standing next to Albany Dutchmen first baseman Cameron Miller (20) during Thursday's game at Shuttleworth Park. Mohawks first base coach Doug O'Brey, left, signals across the diamond to head coach Keith Griffin, not pictured.
Adam Shinder/Recorder staff Amsterdam Mohawks head coach Keith Griffin, center, huddles with his team prior to Thursday's game against the Albany Dutchmen at Shuttleworth Park.
By ADAM SHINDER
A couple weeks ago, Amsterdam Mohawks pitcher Connor Johnstone worked out the kinks in his changeup. That, as it turned out, was bad news for the rest of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League -- as if they league needed any more of it from its most dominant team.
After four uneven outings to start his season, Johnstone's hit his groove in his last three starts, reeling off three straight victories. The latest came Thursday night at Shuttleworth Park, as he limited the Albany Dutchmen to two runs on five hits over seven strong innings while Josh Gardiner and Alex DeBellis provided the muscle at the plate by driving in three runs apiece as the Mohawks continued their tear through the PGCBL East Division with an 8-2 win.
"I found my changeup, which was big," Johnstone said. "I've just been living off that and my fastball."
Johnstone took a shutout into the seventh inning before one bad changeup was drilled over the left field wall by Albany's Demetrius Webb for a two-run home run. The righthander pounded the strike zone, getting through seven innings in less than 100 pitches while striking out one batter and issuing only one walk.
Mostly, Johnstone got the Dutchmen to harmlessly roll over his off-speed pitch as the game wore on. Nine of the final 12 outs Johnstone recorded came on groundballs.
"It's easy. Best way to do it, I guess," Johnstone said. "You don't need strikeouts."
In 19 2/3 innings over his last three starts, Johnstone is 3-0 with a 1.83 earned run average, with Thursday's outing lowering his season ERA to 2.97. With Johnstone's ERA dipping, five of the Mohawks' six regular starters -- Johnstone, Brandon Whitmore, Ryan Clark, Taylor Blatch and EJ Ashworth -- have an ERA of lower than 3.00.
"Connor was outstanding, and he was outstanding his last two times out," Mohawks coach Keith Griffin said. "He's probably making a real move on our staff as the playoffs are rolling in. He's really pitched well. I think he's made a real jump as far as where we are number-wise."
With Johnstone on cruise control, the Mohawks (26-8) rebounded from Wednesday's uneven win over the Glens Falls Golden Eagles to put in an authoritative performance for their 24th victory in their last 26 games. Amsterdam chased Albany starting pitcher Jose Hernandez with two outs in the third inning, pounded out nine hits and worked 11 walks against four Albany pitchers.
"Great night tonight," Griffin said. "We played really good tonight. We played solid, solid baseball. We've got to clean up some things defensively, and we've got to get our best players playing their best. That's what it boils down to."
Gardiner and DeBellis led the way, with each picking up a pair of hits and driving in three runs. DeBellis doubled to set the stage for the Mohawks' three-run rally in the second inning, scoring on a Jonathan Pryor groundout before Gardiner's two-run single brought home Jack Czeszewski and Marcus Carson.
DeBellis added an RBI groundout of his own in the third to chase Hernandez, then knocked reliever Jamie Young out of the game two innings later with a two-run single. Gardiner capped that inning with an RBI single off Josh Ferry. An RBI groundout from Tommy Kain capped the Mohawks' offense in the seventh.
"We got some timely hits tonight, and we just played like we've playing all season," DeBellis said.
The win pushed the Mohawks' lead to six games over the Mohawk Valley DiamondDawgs in the PGCBL East Division. Amsterdam is off today before hosting Mohawk Valley for a doubleheader Saturday, where they'll be in a position to erase almost all doubt from the division race.
"We're in a lot better spot than they are," Griffin said while wiping whipped cream off his face after being sneak-attacked by Gardiner and pitcher Kevin Guthrie as a belated celebration for Griffin's 200th win with the Mohawks, which was earned Monday in Watertown. "We've got two good guys going, we've got a rested arm and a great bullpen going that night, so we'll be in good shape. We've just got to keep getting better offensively, because that's what it's going to boil down to in the playoffs."
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