By Josh Cook
The first month of the Triple-A baseball season was less than ideal for the Louisville Bats.
"That's quite an understatement," Louisville manager Rick Sweet corrects a reporter, who didn't feel like he had to state the obvious, after a recent game. "It was the worst month I've had since I've been here."
Okay the Bats, who are coming off back-to-back International League West Division titles, were atrocious in April however May was a definite improvement. Now eight days into June, and a full two months into the season, the Bats aren't where they would like to be - they have a 26-33 record and are 9 1/2 games behind Columbus in the IL West.
But things definitely aren't as bad as they were in April. Louisville went 7-15 in the last 22 days of that month and averaged only 3.2 runs per game.
On April 8 the Bats won their season-opener, beating Toledo 5-3. But they then lost four of their next six, won one game, then dropped four of their next five. And if that wasn't bad enough they finished April on a seven-game losing streak, then dropped their first two in May.
"We weren't swinging the bats, or playing good defense, things were not going our way," Sweet said. "This game will humble you in a heart beat and it humbled us."
Then the Bats' bats broke out in a big way - with a 20-7 win at Buffalo on May 3. That victory seemed to ignite Louisville.
The Bats won six of their next eight, lost three straight, then reeled off nine wins in their next 12 games. Louisville lost three of its final five games of May, but still finished the month with a 17-13 record. What's more, Louisville nearly doubled its runs per game over April, averaging 6.1 per outing. The Bats reached double digits six times in the month, including their final game of May when they beat Columbus 16-2 in the second game of a doubleheader.
"We had two and a half weeks where we were hitting," said Louisville native and Bats second baseman-outfielder Chris Burke said. "It's the law of averages really...our April was so bad that it could only get better."
WOEFUL HITTING AND WHO'S ON FIRST?
Two big keys to Louisville's run in that span were hitting and lineup consistency.
Sweet came into the season with the youngest team he's had in his six seasons in Louisville.
"We've played a lot of guys at a lot of new positions," Sweet said.
And although that inexperience didn't necessarily show up in the field, it definitely did at the plate.
Louisville wasn't helped by some early-season roster turnover - of the Bats' nine Opening Day-starters, only five remain.
Outfielder Chris Heisey got called up by the Reds, then highly-touted slugger Juan Francisco (the media guide cover boy) had a brief stint with the Reds before returning to Louisville and struggling mightily. He hit a pitiful .115 in April. His struggles were mirrored by several of his teammates during that month. Wladimir Balentien hit a paltry .118 in April, while Todd Frazier (.196), Drew Sutton (.197), Burke (.211), Daniel Dorn (.233) and Wilkin Castillo (.236) weren't far behind.
But May made Bats' fans realize that change was happening with a five-game stretch early in the month when Louisville scored 20, 4, 5, 16 and 16 runs respectively.
Francisco was leading the way, batting .531 in the first eight games of May, before he was sidelined by an appendectomy. But despite his loss, other players started to respond.
Sutton hit .379 in May and also got an ever-so-brief call-up to Cincy, where he delivered a pinch-hit grand slam in one of his three at-bats there.
A few newcomers have also helped. Outfielder Luis Terrero had a very brief stint with the Bats at the start of the season before going down to Double-A Carolina. He struggled there, hitting .214 in 11 games, but since returning to Louisville he has been a terror at the plate. He hit .310 in 19 games in May with five homers and 16 RBIs.
Michael Griffin, meanwhile, struggled last year at Louisville (hitting .205), but he's started off well since being promoted from Carolina. He hit .310 in 14 May games with the Bats.
The most consistent Bats' bat throughout the season, though, has been shortstop Chris Valaika - who would have to be the team's two-month MVP. Valaika hit .235 in 95 games with Louisville last year, but through the Bats' first 58 games this season he's hitting .310, including .329 in April and .346 so far in June. Catcher Corky Miller was also very consistent, hitting .282 before his recent promotion to the Reds. Call-up Chris Denove (.435 through six games) has been a great fill-in for Miller, though.
"The last couple weeks we've played pretty good baseball," Sweet said in late May. "We've really worked hard."
PITCHING HAS BEEN THE STRENGTH
The best thing about the Bats so far this season has been their pitching. They have ranked among the IL leaders in several of the most important categories - i.e. earned-run average, runs allowed, earned runs allowed and strikeouts.
A good part of that success is likely because there has been little turnover in Louisville's pitching rotation, thanks in large part to a strong start by Cincinnati's staff.
That has kept most of the Bats' talent in town, most notably highly-touted prospect Aroldis Chapman. The left-hander who signed a $30-million-plus contract with the Reds after defecting from Cuba has lived up to a lot of the hype. At a recent game at Louisville Slugger Field he hit 100 miles per hour on four pitches in the first inning, topping out at 103. Although he is coming off his worst outing of the season Monday night against Pawtucket, Chapman still is 5-3 with a 4.45 ERA and has 61 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings. Throw out his two poor showings - at Rochester on May 14 and against the Red Sox on Monday - and he's been extremely strong.
Chapman, though, hasn't been Louisville's best pitcher thus far. Before his call-up to the Reds that was easily Sam LeCure. The right-hander went 10-8 with a 4.46 ERA last season in Louisville, but was 5-2 with a 2.55 ERA in his first nine starts with the Bats this season.
Travis Wood, who was a combined 13-5 last season with Carolina and Louisville, has been decent (3-4, 4.15 ERA), but not dominant.
Meanwhile Matt Maloney, who was 9-9 with Louisville last year, is 4-3 with a 3.55 ERA in his first 10 starts.
Justin Lehr (1-3, 6.57 ERA) struggled before season-ending Tommy John surgery, while Chad Reineke (2-4, 2.47 ERA) and Ben Jukich (2-3, 4.06 ERA) have provided some so-so spot starts. Sweet expects recently-promoted Matt Klinker (1-1, 4.50 ERA) to be with the Bats for awhile.
The only weak link has been at closer, where normally steady Jon Akins has struggled. In 2008 he converted 30 of 33 save opportunities for the Bats, and even did a stint with the Reds. He spent 2009 pitching in the Korean Baseball Organization before signing a minor-league contract with the Reds in December of 2009. However offseason sports hernia surgery slowed his conditioning.
So far this season he is 0-4 with a 7.20 ERA and almost as many blown saves (five) as actual saves (six). However he has been solid in six of his last seven appearances.
Enerio Del Rosario moved into the closer role on a Bats road trip in late May, but that earned him a call-up to Cincinnati. Fellow reliever Logan Ondrusek was also recalled by the Reds, which has given the closer role back to Adkins, if by nothing else by default.
STILL A LOT OF BASEBALL LEFT
Although they are currently 9 1/2 games out of first place in their division the Bats aren't out of the race by any means. If they can find some consistency in the bullpen and at the plate they might be able to make a run at a third straight division title.
Of course it doesn't hurt to have a veteran like Sweet, who has been the IL Manager of the Year each of the last two seasons, running the team. He's proven that he knows how to manage in this league, and when to be tough and when to use his wry wit to his advantage. Because as Sweet so often likes to say, "It's a 144-game season."
And if the Bats find themselves atop the IL West once again after 144 games they'll likely be able to look back on the second month of their season - when they bounced back from a horrendous start - as the turning point.