As of now the team sits at 10-9, three games behind the Midland Rockhounds for first place in the Texas League's West division. However, five of those losses are from the Missions' first road trip, a five-game set with Midland almost two weeks ago. Take those games out of the equation and you've got a 10-4 start at Nelson Wolff Municipal Stadium. Want to know something else? Three of the four home losses also came at the hands of those pesky Rockhounds.
Now aside from the obvious conclusion that Midland's "pretty good," one also notices a fast start at home, the likes of which no one has seen in years. The Missions haven't opened this strong at home in so long that everyone this reporter's spoken to just shrugs something like, "It's the best start I can remember."
During last year's woeful 66-72 campaign, the Missions stumbled out of the gates to a 5-7 record at the Wolff before finishing the first half in third place with a 30-40 overall record. Okay, a bad team stumbles out of the gates. That's understandable, but even when the Missions were busy winning back-to-back league championships in 2003 and 2002, they still weren't known as fast starters.
In 2002, the team opened the season 5-7 at home. A year earlier, en route to Dave Brundage's first pennant as the Missions' manager, San Antonio was 3-5 with the crowd behind them and just 6-14 through 20 games. That's quite a difference from this year, a season in which the team rattled off eight home victories in a row to start the new campaign, beginning on Opening Night with a walk-off homer from outfielder Jon Nelson to secure a victory over the Corpus Christi Hooks.
"We know in our place, with the wind blowing in, we're going to be in a lot of one-run games," right fielder T.J. Bohn said. "A lot of times it comes down to the last at-bat, so we definitely have a bit of an advantage playing here and getting to the plate last."
The quick start, which includes series victories over Corpus and last year's league champ, the Frisco Roughriders, can be attributed to quality pitching and clutch hitting, the latter of which the Missions have had quite a penchant for, already owners of four last-at bat victories and three eleven-inning wins.
"I think the guys just feel very comfortable here, especially after winning two games in the bottom of the inning to start out," Missions hitting coach Gary Thurman said. "They're getting used to this ballpark, and are figuring out they need to hit line drives here. The team's realizes this is our house, and people aren't going to come in here and just push us around."
What many in baseball realize is that a field can make or break a team or pitcher's season (Mike Hampton and Colorado, Jose Lima and the former Enron Field), and in the case of Nelson Wolff Municipal, with its spacious outfield (402' to dead center), is widely known as a pitcher's park. That in turn leans heavily in favor of this year's squad, which sports rangy, athletic outfielders and a starting rotation that relies more on control than power.
"I like playing here at home. Our team understand that you have to play games a little differently to win," outfielder Jaime Bubela said. "When we're in the outfield, we try to play the shorter hits, betting that the guy's not going to just drive one, and that usually doesn't happen. If they hit the ball at all in the air, we know we're usually going to be able to run it down because of the wind."
The pitching is what jumps out at fans when looking at what makes this team a contender. Last season's squad wasn't able to take advantage of their surroundings, ranking among the worst in the league in earned run average and walks, even securing individual honors with Juan Done's league-worst 70 walks.
Done's still on the club, but so are a host of new starters, such as former Inland Empire-staffers -- Bobby Livingston, Juan Sandoval and Thomas Oldham - that have quickly learned how to make the most out of the situation at the Wolff.
"We've got young pitchers, but they throw strikes, and that's good not just at this ballpark but anywhere," Brundage said. "I feel pretty good about our team, and you're going to have success at this park if you throw strikes and make people earn their runs."
Now if the Missions could figure out how to dish some punishment back at Midland, Brundage's team would be in a good position to make a run at the league title. In their five games at the Rockhounds' Citibank Ballpark, the pitching staff's earned run average is 6.08, much higher than the 3.75 recorded so far at home.
"When we've had success against them, we've worked the plate for strikes and got ahead in the count," Brundage said. "Anytime you fall behind against a good offensive ball club, you're going to be in trouble."
No Fans? No Problem: The Missions' fast start at home has come even with a low turnout to start the season. Currently fifth in attendance within the Texas League, San Antonio is averaging just 3,696 fans through 14 dates. That number should climb in the coming weeks, however, as the season figure recovers from last week's Fiesta. Spanning the entire week, the Mardi-Gras-like celebration full of floats and parades detracted greatly from the Missions' 10-game homestand, as local youths chose it over a day at the ballpark.
Midland Owns Missions: After the two series with Midland, the Rockhounds have won eight of the 10 total games between the two clubs. In those games, the Missions have been outscored 34-68, including a 13-3 drubbing last Tuesday.
"They've got a nice offensive team. They're tough to pitch to, running all those left-handers at you," Brundage said. "When we've played them, they've been, for the most part, the more aggressive offensive team at the plate."
The Missions' next crack at Midland, atop the Texas League leader board for hits and runs, does not come until June 16, when the teams play each other for a four-game series at the Wolff.
Bohn Continues On: Left fielder T. J. Bohn, who leads the team with a .338 average, extended his hitting streak to 11 games Tuesday afternoon, going 1-4 with 2 RBI in the loss to Midland. The Minnesota-native has been on a tear since starting the season 0-10, and now leads the team in hits (23), doubles (7) and stolen bases (6).
While Bohn's streak stays alive, the same cannot be said for first baseman/designated hitter Jesse Hoorelbeke. The 27-year old went 0-4 with two strikeouts in his last game, but still shares the team lead in home runs (3) with four other players, while sporting a .297 average, second among Missions' players with at least 30 at-bats.
"Jesse was just pulling off with his upper-half in those first games," Thurman said. "He was just thinking too much about pulling the ball. He's closed his stance since then and is staying inside balls better. Now he's putting good wood on the ball."
Disappointing Debut: Since returning to the Missions over the weekend after serving a 15-game suspension for violating Minor League Baseball's steroid policy, RHP Renee Cortez has stumbled out of the gates, already the owner of a 10.80 ERA. In 3.1 innings, the 22-year-old has shown little control, giving up six hits, four runs and three walks.
In his last outing, a Monday night loss against Midland, Cortez looked especially inept, giving up a towering three-run homer to Midland outfielder Andre Ethier after a single and a walk in the top of the seventh inning. Not fooling anybody, the Venezuelan got out of the inning with two consecutive fly-outs to the warning track, saved only by the aforementioned gusts of wind.
On the Right Track: After an extremely slow start, center fielder Jaime Bubela has caught fire as of late. In his last four games, Bubela is hitting .428 with six hits, one triple, three RBI and two homers, including a monster shot over dead center in Monday's game. The recent power surge is quite the contrast to the Houstonian's first seven games, when he was hitting just .115 with 13 strikeouts to three hits in 26 at-bats.
"I‘ve just been working with Thurm on a few things," Bubela said. "The biggest thing's been to clear my head and try not to think about what happened last time, but instead focus on one pitch or at-bat at a time."
Serving the Community: Before Sunday's game with Midland, the Missions held their Keebler Chips Deluxe Kids' Clinic, serving over 600 Little Leaguers from San Antonio and surrounding areas. On hand to help with the festivities were a number of Missions players and coaches, including shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, catcher Brian Moon and Mariners shortstop Pokey Reese, in San Antonio over the weekend for a rehab stint (shoulder).
On Tuesday, over 4500 fourth and fifth graders from San Antonio grade schools were given the chance to see Missions baseball in-person as part of the Drug Awareness Resistance Education program. Oak Farms Diary first purchased the tickets, then distributed them to school districts with underprivileged students. As the game kicked off at 11:00 a.m., the screaming children made up a huge majority of the crowd that day.
Road Trip Ahead: The Missions head to Arizona for a four game-set with the Travelers that starts Thursday. After a three-game series with the Springfield Cardinals, San Antonio returns to action at the Wolff on May 5 for three games with Arkansas, currently first in the East.
Chris can be reached for feedback on this story or any other he's written at InsidethePark.com at Christopher.Boehm@gmail.com.
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