Sacramento Notes: Make-Shift Line-Up Winning

With a myriad of injuries both in Sacramento and in Oakland, the Sacramento River Cats have had to piece together a make-shift roster for much of the season. Despite losing on Saturday, the River Cats are defying the odds with a winning record. We spoke to the River Cats' manager about the impact of the injuries, the progress of Dan Meyer, the production of Nick Blasi and Jason Perry and more...

Winning Short-Handed

On Saturday, the Sacramento River Cats active roster featured only seven players who had been a part of the team's Opening Day roster. Injuries both to the River Cats and to the team's parent club have taken a toll on the Sacramento roster. Despite playing much of the year short-handed, the River Cats have managed a 39-31 record.

The injuries began early, as the team lost infielder Lou Merloni for a time to post-concussion syndrome shortly after Opening Day. Since then, numerous River Cats have lost significant time to injuries, including Donnie Murphy (strained bicep), Daric Barton (bruised wrist), Brad Halsey (strained shoulder), Jason Windsor (strained right shoulder), Dallas Braden (illness), Brian Stavisky (broken finger), Jason Stokes (back) and most recently Kevin Melillo (wrist). The team has also lost a number of players for a time to promotion to Oakland or to trade, including Hiram Bocachica, Charles Thomas, Santiago Casilla, Connor Robertson, Colby Lewis, Ron Flores, Erasmo Ramirez, Kurt Suzuki, Murphy, Braden and most recently J.J. Furmaniak.

Sacramento manager Tony DeFrancesco called this season the most challenging of his managerial career.

"It seems like it never ends," DeFrancesco said. "It seems like the door is always opening and closing here. But I think these guys are doing a great job."

"Our staff – Rick Rodriguez, Brian McArn and Walt Horn – are doing a great job keeping everyone together here. Everyday we go out and have a chance to compete. You have to give these players a lot of credit. They are playing short-handed and it doesn't seem to affect these guys at all."

The River Cats' most recent injury troubles have been in the infield, where both second baseman Kevin Melillo and the veteran Merloni are banged up.

"Kevin is having a little wrist problem. We tried to give him a couple of days off and then [on Friday] Merloni got jammed and his thumb blew up and so Kevin had to go into the game," DeFrancesco said.

"[Kevin] says he is ready to play and we were going to try to get him rest through the day off on Monday, but he is going to play [this weekend] because unfortunately we are a little short-handed right now."

Reinforcements could still be a ways off for DeFrancesco. His starting rotation has been without two of its top hurlers – Windsor and Halsey – for some time. Neither is particularly close to returning.

"They are still on the rehab program. Windsor is probably ahead of Halsey right now. You know what, if we could get a few guys healthy and if the A's could get healthy, that would be a good spot to be in for the organization," DeFrancesco said.

The injuries to the starting rotation, as well as the promotion of five of the River Cats' regular relievers, have stretched the Sacramento bullpen thin. Much of the relief corps was promoted from either High-A Stockton or Double-A Midland during the season and many are relatively inexperienced compared to other Pacific Coast League bullpen. Jeff Gray, Leonard Landeros, Steven Bondurant and David Shafer are all in their first extended stretches at Triple-A. Brad Ziegler was exposed to Triple-A last season as a starter, but this year he has made the conversion to relief and is throwing with a new, submarine motion.

"It's such a young bullpen out there. We have guys up from Stockton and guys who are in their first year in Triple-A. The veteran presence down in the bullpen, it just doesn't exist right now," De Francesco said.

"We are counting on Jeff Gray, who has one of the best arms in our organization, to finish some games. I'm sure he is going to have some hiccups along the way, but hopefully it is a good learning experience for him. The other part of the bullpen is filled with some guys who want to prove themselves. I think with the A's showing that they have promoted five guys to the big leagues and that they are all doing well, it really shows these guys that they can compete at the next level."

One of the relievers that the River Cats lost was their closer, Santiago Casilla. Casilla was promoted to Oakland at the start of June. Since that time, Casilla has been light's out in the major leagues. He hasn't allowed a run in 10 innings of work and he has two wins and two saves.

Casilla has been a member of the River Cats for parts of four seasons (2004-2007). His success with the A's makes it unlikely that the River Cats will be seeing Casilla again this season.

"He is a guy that we have counted on over the years. I remember back in '04 and '05 that he had something like 20 saves for us. He got a shot at the big leagues and unfortunately it didn't happen for him, but to see him back in the big leagues and doing well is great," DeFrancesco said.

"I talked to Curt Young [the A's pitching coach] and Casilla is throwing strikes and his slider is sharper and he is pitching with confidence and hopefully he can give them a little lift if they need it."

Outfielders Perry And Blasi Impress

At the start of the season, outfielders Jason Perry and Nick Blasi were in the disappointing position of having to repeat at levels that they had competed at the season before. Perry started the 2007 season where he began his 2006 campaign, in Double-A Midland. Blasi, meanwhile, began the year in High-A Stockton, the place he had ended his 2006 season. Through injuries and promotions, both were called-up to Triple-A and both have made big impacts on the River Cats.

Perry split his 2006 season between Midland and Sacramento. He hit .402 for the Rockhounds in 28 games before being promoted to Sacramento. Perry struggled to be consistent with the River Cats in 2006, and he batted .252 with eight homers in 90 games. He was sent back to Double-A at the start of the 2007 season, where he hit .256 with five homers in 21 games before being given another chance at the Triple-A level. Through 31 games for the River Cats, Perry has been one of Sacramento's top hitters. After going 2-4 with a homer on Saturday, Perry was hitting .309 with five homers and 24 RBI in 31 games for the River Cats.

DeFrancesco believes that a renewed confidence in his abilities as a hitter has been a key to Perry's success this season.

"I think Jason finally believes that he is a big league hitter again. I think that he is one of our better outfielders in our system and that he eventually is going to hit for some power and drive the ball [at the big league level] and he is showing a great arm in the outfield," DeFrancesco said.

Blasi has been arguably the biggest surprise for the River Cats this season. The Wichita State alum was promoted to Sacramento from High-A Stockton as a temporary injury replacement, but when injuries struck Antonio Perez and Donnie Murphy, Blasi was given a chance to play. Since that time, he has played himself into a regular starting position with the River Cats. Through Saturday, Blasi was batting .329 in 39 games for the River Cats. He was hitting only .238 in 29 games for Stockton before his promotion.

"It's an amazing story. A kid who is just supposed to be here for a few days and it looks like he is competing at this level and opening some eyes up at the major league club. He does a nice job in centerfield and it seems like every game he gets a couple of hits. He is on-base consistently and for a young player to compete at this level, I think he is doing an outstanding job," DeFrancesco said.

Meyer's Improvement Impresses DeFrancesco

Dan Meyer endured his first loss of the season on Saturday when he allowed six runs in five innings against the Las Vegas 51s. Four of the runs Meyer allowed came after two were out in the fourth inning – all on a grand-slam by rehabbing major leaguer Marlon Anderson.

Despite the poor outing on Saturday, Meyer has been one of the biggest bright spots for the River Cats since he joined the team in May. Before Meyer's start on Saturday, DeFrancesco spoke about the progress of his left-hander, who is coming off of two injury plagued seasons.

"It's unbelievable turnaround for Dan. He is healthy again and his velocity looks great," DeFrancesco said.

"The only thing I think Dan needs to really improve on is his pitch count. It seems like he is getting ahead of people, but unfortunately it is taking six or seven pitches for him to put guys away and by the fifth inning, he is out of pitches. He needs to learn how to get into the sixth and seventh innings. If he can do that, that would be super."

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