Rainiers Notebook: Blackley Leads All-Star Charge

The Tacoma Rainiers continue to sit at the top of their division and are doing it on the strength of their star players all performing at the very top of their game. With many deserving All-Stars on the roster, their are a few no-brainers that the PCL cannot ignore. Find out who they are and catch up with the Rainiers while they take on the seasons longest road trip.



The Tacoma Rainiers have a few players that warrant serious All-Star consideration, led by lefty Travis Blackley who is in the midst of a streak that any pitcher would welcome with open arms.

Justin Leone and Bucky Jacobsen, the two anchors of the Rainiers power-laden lineup, will also get considerable attention when the selections are announced June 24.

Relief ace George Sherrill also deserves to be selected, and if it weren't for the bite of the injury bug, left-hander Bobby Madritsch and outfielder Jamal Strong would sit atop the list as well.

Leone and Jacobsen are 2nd and 3rd in the PCL in home runs with 20 and 19 respectively, while Jacobsen leads the circuit in RBI with 66. The 27-year-old Leone has played three positions, and played all three pretty well. After starting the season as the everyday 3B, Leone was moved into LF due to the injuries that hit Strong and Hiram Bocachica. The Saint Martin's College product then moved back to 3B, only to be moved yet again, when SS Jose Lopez went down with a knee injury. For the past week, Leone has been playing shortstop.

Through all of the changes to the lineup and his own position changes, the one constant for Leone has been his bat. Through Tuesday's action Leone is hitting .270 with 20 home runs and 45 RBI. His .622 slugging percentage and 34 extra-base hits are both second on the team.

Jacobsen's .647 slugging percentage, 19 home runs, and 66RBI might suggest that he is a slugger of sorts. That is not necessarily true. Through Tuesday night, the 28-year-old Oregon native was hitting .315 and has 39 extra-base hits. Those are the numbers of a hitter, not a slugger.

While the 270-pound cleanup hitter seems to be a lock to be selected, Leone on the other hand, awaits the decision on Thursday. There is quite a bit of competition for the infield spots, but his bat has spoken loud enough. We shall see how smart the PCL is.

For all of the doubt, waiting, and the unknown factors that go into the selection process, there is one particular Rainier that is as automatic as his pick off move to second base. Left-hander Travis Blackley has been the league's best pitcher since the last week in April and is on a streak of quality starts that has now reached 12 after yet another fine performance on Tuesday night in Fresno. Blackley has cut his ERA in half over his past 11 starts, and has allowed less than two runs in nine of his past 12 outings. Now the league leader in ERA at 2.63, the cerebral southpaw sports a record of 7-2 and has not suffered a defeat since April 21.

Blackley's most recent start at home versus Salt Lake resulted in a seven inning complete game shutout. The 21-year-old allowed just two hits while striking out six. The Tacoma ace did not issue a single walk and has improved his strikeouts-to-walks ratio to 55/30 for the year. This outing should have solidified his place in the Triple-A All Star Game, and if it didn't someone isn't paying attention to what is going on in the City of Destiny.

The Australian has been working much of the season without his best pitch, a wicked change up that is usually his most effective pitch versus right-handed hitters. Everything, however, seems to be working for him of late.

"Everything was working tonight." Blackley said with a bit of a sheepish smile.

Spotted with seven runs, Blackley knew he wasn't to be beaten on this night.

"If you don't put runs up on me early I know I have a good chance of going all the way. My best pitch was probably my two-seamer. I just threw that all night long and they'd either foul it (off) or swing right through it. That team just tries to pull the ball, every one of them. They don't try and go the other way they just try to pull it. So I just used that to my advantage."

Blackley was even able to hold Stingers 1B Casey Kotchman hitless, which is something the rest of the Rainiers' staff was unable to do throughout the series. Kotchman is one of the Anaheim Angel's top prospects, and is widely considered the top 1B prospect in baseball.

"I wasn't concerned with striking him out, I just didn't want to give him a good pitch to hit." Blackley said.

Working a lot lately with catcher Ben Davis, Blackley spoke highly of the Major League veteran and the way he works with pitchers, including the large target he gives a pitcher to throw at.

"He is just a big donkey behind the plate. You can't miss, he is so big. I really like pitching to him."

Blackley should be joined in Pawtucket, RI, the site of the 2004 Triple-A All-Star Game, by lefty reliever George Sherrill, who has been fantastic all season long. Sherrill is 3-1 with a 2.25 ERA in 28 appearances. The 27-year-old has eight saves since being moved into the closer role, and has compiled 53 strikeouts and just six walks in his 40 innings of work.

When the PCL roster is announced on Thursday, the Rainiers should be well represented.

Tacoma Hanging On:
Despite the call ups and myriad of injuries, the Rainiers remain atop the PCL's Northern Division after the first half of play came to an end on Monday. Tacoma holds a 4.5 games lead after Tuesday night's win over Fresno and are now 14-16 in their last 30 contests.

Tacoma hopes to get some help soon, with lefty Bobby Madritsch scheduled to come off the DL during the current road trip. Prior to the two stints on the disabled list, Madritsch was the Rainiers best starting pitcher, going 3-1 with a 3.15 ERA. The oblique injury has limited the 27-year-old to four innings pitched since May 20.

Notes:
  • The current Tacoma Rainiers roster consists of 15 players that played for the Texas League Champion San Antonio Missions in 2003. That total doesn't include Clint Nageotte who was called upon by the Mariners earlier this month. It is no coincidence that this year's rainiers squad is mirroring some of the success that last year's Missions team had when they defended their Texas League Championship
  • Tacoma will play a strangely scheduled stretch of games beginning with Tuesday night's game versus Fresno. The Rainiers will play 12 of their next 22 games versus the Grizzlies, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants
  • After Justin Leone pounded out two more homers in Tuesday's win over Fresno, the Rainiers pushed their team home run total to 99, which is tops in the minor leagues. In direct contrast, the San Antonio Missions have just 49, the Inland Empire 66ers have hit just 39, and Wisconsin Timber Rattlers have 50. The Seattle Mariners have 49, which is worst in the American League, and only the 44 by the pathetic Montreal Expos keep the M's from baseball's bottom rung
  • The Rainiers lead the PCL in steals with 72, paced by the 12 each of Elpidio Guzman, Jamal Strong, and the departed Hiram Bocachica
  • Justin Leone is 5th in the PCL in runs scored with 50
  • Along with leading the league in RBI, Bucky Jacobsen is 3rd in the PCL in total bases with 152



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