Burlington Notebook: Hanging With The Pack

Last April, the Burlington Bees got off to a torrid start, which separated them from the rest of their Midwest League Western Division rivals en route to a first-half division title. This year, the Bees are hanging back with the pack to start the season. Bill Seals updates us on the April that was for the Oakland A's Low-A affiliate.

Team Overview

Through the first month of the 2012 season, no one has separated themselves from the pack in the Midwest League's Western Division. That's quite a contrast from last spring, when Burlington opened with a torrid pace and led through the duration of the season's first-half.

The 12-12 Bees wrapped up their April schedule with a rainout at Lake County Monday night, and return home to Community Field for a three-game set against Quad City on Wednesday. Only 1.5 games currently separate first through fourth in the division.

Unlike last season when much of the Bees' early-season success was attributed to a strong pitching staff, manager Aaron Nieckula's club has had excellent performances on the mound and in the batter's box.

Starting pitchers Sean Murphy (1.17) and Drew Granier (1.33) each rank among the top seven of the MWL in ERA, and have combined to win six of their seven decisions.

Murphy was named MWL Pitcher of the Week after one spectacular start last week. Last Wednesday, he pitched seven innings of shutout baseball, allowing four hits and striking out 13 batters. Granier, who has allowed just one earned run in his last 18 innings, was named the MWL's top pitcher a few weeks ago and has posted four consecutive quality starts to open the season.

But even with a solid 1-2 punch atop the rotation, the Bees must get better outings from the rest of a starting staff that includes Jonathan Joseph (0-1, 5.04), Raul Alcantara (1-3, 6.45) and Jose Macias (1-3, 6.65).

Offensively, the Bees have been a slow-starting unit with the exception of outfielders Chad Oberacker and Dusty Robinson. Oberacker is the only .300 hitter on the squad and has a line of .317/.403/.524 through his first 71 plate appearances (note: Oberacker was promoted to High-A Stockton on Monday night, although the transaction hasn't been officially announced yet).

Robinson is finishing the month of April in much the same way he started, earning MWL Player of the Week for the second time. He has hit .375 over his last seven games with an OPS of 1175. Robinson had two doubles and two homeruns while driving in nine runs. The slugger currently leads the Midwest League with seven home runs and 21 RBIs, and also ranks first in total bases (55) and slugging percentage (.632).

Comings and Goings

As expected, much of the Burlington roster has remained intact through the season's first four weeks. Outfielder Aaron Shipman was expected to open the season in Iowa, but remained at extended spring training to rehab an injury until being activated on April 17th.

One of the top prospects in the Bees lineup, Oakland's third-round selection in the 2010 draft has started off slowly as an everyday player. Shipman has just six hits – all singles – in his first 40 at-bats. He's also struck out 12 times while collecting just one walk.

Two additional players were placed on the minor-league disabled list – infielder Chad Lewis and pitcher Nathan Kilcrease. Lewis was placed on the DL on April 24th after posting a line of .133/.133/.133 in his first eight games of the season. Kilcrease was activated and returned to action last Friday with a scoreless inning of relief.

Who's Hot

In addition to the aforementioned Oberacker and Robinson, fellow outfielder Royce Consigli is finishing April on a high note. The 20-year old, who is repeating Low-A ball, has hit safely in five of his past seven starts and posted a line of .290/.436/.452 over his last 10 games. His 11 walks currently tie him for second on the team.

Yet another outfielder and Midwest League returner Douglas Landaeta is also on a bit of a roll, hitting safely in nine of his last 10 games while posting a line of .289/.341/.474. Landaeta's three-homer was the difference in a 3-1 Bees victory at Fort Wayne on April 25th.

Reliever Ryan Doolittle has been near-spotless in his first eight relief appearances, allowing just one earned run on five hits in 9.2 innings. He's struck out 12 and has yet to allow a walk. The 24-year old has likely put himself in position for an early-season promotion, once a spot opens up in Stockton.

Fellow reliever Brent Powers has allowed just one hit and walked none in his last four innings, including an appearance April 22nd against Great Lakes in which he retired nine of 10 batters.

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