Inland Empire looking to get back on track

Through the first month of the season, the Inland Empire 66ers were the best team in the Mariners farm system, pitching lights out and tearing the cover off the ball at the plate. While the pitching has remained strong, the bats have gone quiet over the last two months and now Seattle's High-A affiliate is on the verge of losing a spot in the California League playoffs.

Three months ago the Inland Empire 66ers had the best pitching staff in the California League and also was the second best hitting team in the league as well, second only to Lancaster. The Sixers were in a dead heat for the first half championship and were 11 games over .500 at the end of May.

Then came June, and next, July.

As the heat intensified in San Bernardino, the hitting froze. While the pitching continues to be one of the best staffs in the league, even without 18-year old Felix Hernandez, who was promoted to Double-A San Antonio after the all-star break, the hitting has slipped down to fifth in the league. Scoring runs has been a struggle almost every game out.

A 12-13 record in June saw the 66ers hitters drop from a .293 team batting average in May down to .261, the second worst team average during the month. But it hasn't stopped there. As July dwindles down, the averages have plumetted. In the 19 games thus far in the month, the Sixers are hitting an anemic .248, 18-points lower than the second lowest team.

Has it now become a mental problem?

"I'd like to say it is more mental," said first baseman Matt Hagen. "We've had times this year where we have just been a machine. So if we can do it part of the time, why can't we do it all of the time. We have guys who can hit, it's just a matter of us doing it everyday."

At the end of May, the Sixers finished with a three-game winning streak, scoring 28 runs during that streak. But as soon as the calendar changed to June, the bats went silent. They quickly lost their first five games in the month and it took them eight games for them to match the 28 runs they scored in three at the end of the month. As the month of June continued to pass, a pattern began to form.

They just cannot seem to mount any kind of an extended winning streak. As a matter of fact, they still have not had a winning streak to date longer than three games since a four game sweep of High Desert from May 10-13.

One of the major reasons why Inland Empire has averaged 4.2 runs per game over the last two months has been the lack of clutch hitting. With the bases loaded, the team has hit a mere .246 average as a team. That number is actually lower than their .251 overall average, which the Sixers have hit over the course of the two months.

While they are averaging eight hits per game over the last 43 games, the lowest in the Cal league, they have nearly equaled that number with 6.6 strikeouts per game.

During the drought, Juan Gonzalez's batting average dropped 36-points, from .330 to .294. Rene Rivera has seen his average fall to under .250, a 24-point drop in his average. Because of this, manager Daren Brown has made adjustments to the starting lineup. He moved three-spot hitter Gary Harris to the top of the order and slid the combination of Gonzalez and Jesus Guzman to the two and three slots.

The only players who have been able to stay clear of the hitting disease have been Guzman and Jon Nelson. Guzman, in his first professional season in America, has held his batting average at .312. Nelson has been explosive at the plate with 12 home runs and a team leading 61 RBI. But lately, those two have been it.

In the last eight games in July, they have lost six of them and for the first time all season, are in real danger of not making the playoffs. By playing just an even .500 baseball since the end of April and three games under .500 June and July, the Sixers have dropped to fourth in the second half standings. If the playoffs were to begin today, they would be in, but barely, as they are holding one to a 2.5 game lead over Lake Elsinore and a three ahead of Ranch Cucamonga. All three teams are fighting for the final two playoff spots.

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