San Antonio Notebook: Team goes as pitching does

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - A week ago, the Missions had righted all wrongs from the 2004 season, as the pitching staff led the charge to a 4-0 opening homestand... (what happened next is hard to believe).

In sweeping the Hooks, San Antonio's arms combined to give up just four runs in 38 innings of work, allowing a mere five walks. The Missions received top performances from all four starters, with ace Bobby Livingston kicking things off opening night by posting a one-run performance over six innings.

"I think the staff's done a good job. Our guys came out and threw strikes," Livingston said at the time. "We've got a great bullpen, and we'll be fine once we get our routine down."

Fast-forward to now, and the winds have changed, blowing off course any and everything, including the staff's pitches to the plate.

In a road series versus Midland, the wheels came off the proverbial bus, as underwhelming pitching contributed to the Missions dropping all five games of the series to the Rockhounds.

"Walks and miscues are a part of the game, but we've just got to eliminate those as much as possible," pitching coach Dwight Bernard said. "We're trying to get everybody in a groove and get them better. Work on the mound and repetition will take care of that."

Fifth starter Jon Huber got the nod the first night in Midland, lasting just 2.1 innings and surrendering five runs on four walks and six hits.

"He had a little bit a of a struggle, but in the past when I've seen him he's been better than that," Bernard said of Huber. "I think he was just a little excited (over his Double-A debut)."

And that was just the beginning.

In a two-run loss, game three saw San Antonio give up 10 runs to the Rockhounds. For a series finale, the Missions sent Nick Bourgeois to the mound for his second start of the season. The southpaw lasted just two innings, walking four and surrendering five runs in a 7-0 loss that put Bourgeois' season line at 0-1 with a 7.50 earned run average over just six innings.

"You can't really say we were in (Saturday's) ball game, but we still had a chance to win four out of the five games in the (Midland) series," Missions manager Dave Brundage said.

Just a week and a half into the season, it's apparent that whatever success the 2005 club will ascend to is heavily dependent on the state of the pitching staff, as the team has yet to find a steady hand at the plate and boasts just a .235 team batting average after 10 games, good for second to last in the Texas League.

"I think pitching is probably the most important thing for this team," said middle reliever Ryan Rowland-Smith. "Our bats will come around, but our pitching will probably win or lose our games."

Still, even with last series' letdown, it's obvious to Missions fans that when compared to a season ago, during which time the club ranked among the worst in walks and earned run average, pitching has moved from being a team weakness to a strength.

"Anytime you have young guys making Double-A debuts, there's going to be nerves involved, but it was actually nice to see how sharp we were (in the opening series with the Hooks)," Brundage said. "The two most consistent things we've done this season are throw strikes and give our team a chance to win."

The tide seems to already be turning yet again on the young season. Livingston and lefty Thomas Oldham have four quality starts between them, as each player contends for the title of "staff ace."

"There really isn't any competition. Everybody has their own role on this ball club," Livingston said. "Of course everybody wants to get to the big leagues, but nobody is thinking they have to be better than someone else. Most of these guys have been together for awhile, and we all know each other really well."

In a losing effort at Midland in the series' final game Saturday night, Rowland-Smith entered in the third and took advantage of his relief appearance. He went five strong innings of one-hit baseball, striking out two Rockhounds and lowering his ERA to 3.12 on the season by throwing "nothing but strikes," by Brundage's word.

"That was good for me because it shows the coaches that I can pitch longer outings and be successful," Rowland-Smith said. "Brundy really hadn't seen me pitch all spring training because I wasn't there, and hopefully after that game (the coaching staff) gives me more opportunities later on."

Huber also made good on his second start of the season, fighting off the memory of his introduction to Double-A and breezing through seven innings in a no-decision against the Roughriders. The Sacramento resident allowed just a single in the third inning of an eventual 4-2 San Antonio victory.

"Every level, you've got to prove yourself," Huber said. "You just take confidence from (a performance like this) and roll with it."

After opening to good reviews, the staff hopes to continue to mature and complete a Missions turnaround that could help remedy San Antonio residents' aches from a season ago.

"It just comes down to what you've developed at the High-A level," Brundage said Sunday before the opener with Frisco. "This year seems to show that we've got a lot of consistency, and a number of these guys are big league pitching prospects. There is room for improvement, but through the first nine games of the season, my expectations have been exceeded."

Rivera Starts Hot: Out of the everyday players, C Rene Rivera is currently batting .308 and is on a five-game hitting streak. Coming into the season, the highly regarded catching prospect was touted for his defense, but the main issue surrounding the 21-year-old was how he would respond to Double-A pitching. Rivera's numbers at home – prior to Sunday's 4-2 win against the Roughriders – were .091 in three games while he hit .467 in four games at Midland. Rivera did not play in Sunday's game.

Home Cookin': With Sunday's victory, the Missions extended their home winning streak to five games. The Double-A club started the season with a four-game sweep against the Corpus Christi Hooks before losing five straight in Midland to the Rockhounds. The Missions are currently 5-5 and second in the Texas League's West Division.

Run, Don't Walk: One of the downfalls for the Missions last season was control problems at the plate, and so far this season San Antonio pitchers have combined for a league-leading 24 walks allowed.

Up Next: The Missions play their next nine games at home, playing Frisco for each of the next four and then welcoming in Midland for a five-game set.

Joe Ruiz contributed to this report.

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