Squirrels' Winning Ways Continue
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Jun 15, 2014, 16:31
RICHMOND — Twenty-three days ago, the Richmond Flying Squirrels found themselves in an unkind position. They had dropped four of their previous five games after a blown save ruined a superb starting performance from Jack Snodgrass, placing them in third-place in the Western Division, an even 23-23 on the season and six games behind division leader Akron.
Yet, much has changed since the disheartening 4-2 road loss to the Trenton Thunder. Richmond has since flipped the script as the pitching staff has lived up to its advanced billing — they entered Sunday's game with the fourth-best ERA in Eastern League — the hitting has turned a corner and very little mental mistakes have led to the best stretch of the season.
The Flying Squirrels entered their Sunday afternoon tilt against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats winners of 14 of their last 18, 15 of their last 20 and had won the last five series in a row. And with the rubber-match set after the Fisher Cats won the opening-game of the three-game set, Flying Squirrels' starting pitcher Adalberto Mejia made certain the winning ways would continue.
Mejia set the tone by batting back from a 2-0 count to start the game to get New Hampshire lead-off hitter Jonathan Jones to fly-out and continued to mix location with a tailing fastball and change speeds with a late-breaking slider to befuddle the opposition. In fact, the Fisher Cats would not have a runner reach base until there was one out in the 3rd inning and it came on a walk.
With Mejia doing his part on the hill, the Richmond lineup put in a honest day of work themselves, defeating New Hampshire 2-0 on the strength of Devin Harris' two-run home run in 6th inning to win their sixth consecutive series since losing to Trenton 23 days ago. It's been a refreshing chance for first-year manager Russ Morman who witnessed his team struggle to put the pieces together early in the season.
"The starters have been huge and we had two big starts back-to-back," Morman said after the win. "The bullpen has been there all season for us and to be able to hand it off to those guys and let them do their thing is a bonus."
The key reason for the turnaround has to go to a talented pitching staff which has found its groove. Entering the season with some of the top arms within the entire San Francisco Giants' organization, much was expected out of the young fireballers. However, some struggled to make an adjustment to the AA level and the increase of talented players who are in the Eastern League.
Kyle Crick, the Giants' 1st round selection in the 2011 MLB Draft, handed out 16 free passes through his first four starts at the AA level, but has since walked just 12 batters over his six starts. Additionally, Ty Blach has not seemed to miss a beat after surpassing almost every expectation the organization had for him last season.
The Giants' 5th round selection in the 2012 MLB Draft was the California League pitcher of the year last season with a 2.90 ERA and has done even better at the next level. Blach has bewildered opposing hitters with his masterful location, sinking fastball and an ability to change speeds while pitching to a 2.87 ERA.
And while Mejia's outing against New Hampshire is surely a positive sign — he went 7 innings, allowing just four hits and striking out seven — the biggest surprise or not a surprise depending who you talk to is Jack Snodgrass.
Last season's mid-season and post-season All-Star pitcher and the franchise record holder for winning percentage holds a 7-0 record while pitching to a team-best 2.53 ERA. His career record of 19-4 in Richmond shows he knows what it takes to win and is the perfect mentor to a young staff which is fulfilling its potential.
"I think the biggest thing with the pitching staff is that they are working ahead," Richmond second baseman Matt Duffy said after the game. "The stuff wasn't the issue, but now they are getting ahead and that's what leads to results on the field."
But it hasn't just been the pitching which has put Richmond back into contention for a playoff spot. It's also been the strength of a lineup which has come up with clutch hit over the last few weeks. The Flying Squirrels are hitting .258 as a team with runners in scoring position and it's been Duffy setting the tone.
The 18th round selection in the 2012 MLB Draft leads Richmond with a .340 batting average, but is also hitting an absurd .372 with runners in scoring position with 38 of his team-leading 41 RBIs coming in such at-bats. And his success his filtered down to the rest of the team as proven in Sunday's win with Harris playing the part of hero on an afternoon Richmond left five men on base.
For the first time all season, the Squirrels are excelling in all phases of the game and it's a promising development for the future of a young team.
"We've had a two-week stretch where we have been playing well," Morman said of his team. "We've been following the formula that we've talked about all season by having good pitching, timely hitting and solid defense. We have been very efficient in all three phases of late."
After capturing their sixth series win in a row, Richmond is playing their best baseball all season and for it to continue they will need more clutch hits and solid starting performances like they have received over the past 23 days.