Midland Notebook: Championship Caliber

As the first half of the 2005 minor league season rolls to an end, only one Oakland minor league franchise can claim to have already secured a spot in the playoffs. The AA-Midland Rockhounds have been the A's best affiliate so far this season. What has made them so dominant? We take a look at the key components to the Rockhounds' strong season.

On June 13, the Midland Rockhounds clinched their first post-season appearance in 10 years. Although Midland has failed to win since clinching, they are still a stellar 39-31 on the year and have been the class of the Texas League's Western Division for most of the season. So how have they managed to play so well? We first take a look at the Rockhounds' pitching staff.

Despite a relatively weak starting rotation, Midland has managed to keep its team ERA under 4.00 through Saturday's game. They are second in the league in shut-outs and in most number of strike outs.

For much of the season, Midland's pitching staff has been lead by a deep and talented bullpen. At the beginning of the year, the Rockhounds' bullpen was anchored by flame-thrower Jairo Garcia. Garcia, who is now with the Oakland A's, was with the Rockhounds until May 9. During that time, he appeared in ten games, racking up six saves in seven chances. He allowed only nine hits and two earned runs in 16.2 innings pitched. He also struck out 30 over that span.

When Garcia was promoted on May 10, he was replaced by Alex Santos, who was sent up from the A-Stockton squad. Santos picked up where Garcia left off and gave the Rockhounds a strong presence in the back of the bullpen. Since his arrival, Santos has allowed only one earned run in 19.1 innings pitched (0.47 ERA). He has amassed seven saves in eight chances and has two wins against zero losses. He has also struck out 25 and has walked only four.

The Midland bullpen has also been strong in the middle innings. Shawn Kohn, Evan Fahrner, Nick Mattioni. Nick Brannon, Kyle Crowell and Brad Weis have all pitched at least 20 relief innings and they all have ERAs under 3.00. Kohn, in particular, has been impressive, as he has struck out 50 batters in 42.2 innings pitched. As a crew, these six middle relievers have combined to strike out 182 batters in 196.1 innings. Fahrner is tied with starters Matt Lynch and Dallas Braden for the team lead in wins with five.

The Rockhounds' bullpen has had to be good because for much of the season, the Midland rotation hasn't been stellar. Steven Bondurant was supposed to be the Rockhounds' ace at the start of the season, but after a strong April, the finesse lefty has struggled. He has a 4.59 ERA in 14 starts and has a 59/31 strike to walk ratio, which is way down from his numbers at A-Kane County last season. Matt Lynch, Drew Dickinson and Stephen Obenchain have all had their positive moments this season, but none of these starters have an ERA under 5.50 for the season.

However, two recent additions to the Midland rotation have helped improve the staff's stock. Dallas Braden and Jason Windsor were the top two starters at A-Stockton to start the season and they have continued their good pitching after their promotions to AA-Midland. Braden has a 5-2 record with a 2.61 ERA in seven starts for the Rockhounds. The lefty has 37 strike outs and only 14 walks in 48.1 innings pitched and he has averaged nearly seven innings a start. Windsor has a 1-1 record with a 2.41 ERA in three starts for Midland. The Cal-State Fullerton alum has struck out 17 in 18.2 innings pitched and has allowed only 15 hits.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Rockhounds have used a very balanced attack to rack up an impressive number of runs. They are second in the league in team batting with a .287 batting average and rank second in on-base percentage, first in homeruns and fourth in runs scored.

Outfielder Andre Ethier has been the story all season. A recent slump has dropped his batting average under .330, but he has spent much of the season above .340. The athletic left-fielder has a 900 OPS, with 11 homeruns and 48 RBI in 68 games played. First baseman Brant Colamarino was the Rockhounds' other leading offensive player before his late-May promotion to Sacramento. Colamarino socked 10 homers and drove in 45 runs in only 46 games played. He also had a .321 batting average.

Outfielders Brian Stavisky, Jason Perry and Steve Stanley have been top offensive contributors, as well. Perry leads the team with 13 homeruns. Stavisky and Stanley are both hitting over .300. Stanley, who is more known for his great batting eye and singles hitting, has a .430 slugging percentage, as he has 18 extra-base hits in 237 at-bats. He has already surpassed his career high in homeruns with four.

In the infield, shortstop Omar Quintanilla got off to a slow start with the bat, but he has been hot of late and has raised his batting average to .289. Catcher Jeremy Brown has been getting on base at a good clip (.373) and back-up catcher/ first baseman Casey Myers has taken advantage of his sparse playing time, hitting .315 with 909 OPS in 73 at-bats over 21 games played.

Midland will have a chance to win sweep the season division titles race if they can capture the second half crown, as well. Even if they can't repeat their first half performance, they know that they will be battling for a Texas League Championship in late September thanks to their outstanding performance in the first half of the season.

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