Missions Notebook: Getting Offensive

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Fans arriving to catch the San Antonio Missions during their third homestand of the season are beginning to bear witness to something foreign to Nelson Wolff Municipal Stadium up to this point in the schedule: offense.

Through the early-going this season, San Antonio has relied on quality pitching and late clutch hitting to win games. And that's fine and dandy, if you can get that night in and night out, but anyone with the slightest interest in sports knows you can't make a living out of standing too close to the fire. Eventually you're going to get burned.

"It's good to be able to come back and win in the ninth inning, but we've got to focus more on the earlier innings," said right fielder T.J. Bohn. "We've been trying to concentrate better in the beginning and we've hit the ball really well since."

In finding a solution to this predicament, the Missions have changed their approach to the plate, as the line-drives and "Texas Leaguers" have started to fall in place of the all-too-common major league pop-up to deep left-center.

"They know what to do now (at this park)," said hitting coach Gary Thurman. "They're trying to hit line-drives and hard ground balls. You're not going to hit in this ballpark if you hit fly balls."

After a 3-4 road trip and 2-1 come-from-behind win Thursday, the Missions hit the Wolff ground running Friday night, pounding out a season-high 18 hits (17 singles) in a 10-6 win over the Arkansas Travelers. The next night San Antonio continued to swing a hot bat, collecting 10 to take the third of a three-game set 6-2.

As noted by the unbelievable number of one-baggers from Saturday's contest, the key to the offensive splurge has been an emphasis on driving the baseball, as the coaching staff has discouraged its players from trying to put air under the ball in the spacious Wolff.

"We're playing the way we want to play right now," said manager Dave Brundage. "We want these guys to put the same focus that they do at the end of the game into the beginning."

Perhaps the team is taking notice of right fielder and line-drive connoisseur Bohn. After a 0-10 start, the 25-year-old has been absolutely on-fire since, going through a 15-game hitting streak en route to a .352 average on the season. After the streak came to an end on May 1, he promptly started a 5-gamer, hitting .455 over that span with three multi-hit games, three doubles and a homer, and now leads the league with 10 doubles.

"I've just been patient, waiting to get my pitches and then putting good swings on them," said Bohn, who also has a team-high nine stolen bases. "A lot of it is luck, too. I'm not hitting everything right to somebody."

The earlier run production perhaps correlates to a change at the top of the order. The last three games center fielder has Gary Harris batted in the top spot, to the benefit of both Harris and former leadoff batter and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt.

Betancourt has struggled in his introduction to American pitching, hitting just .238 through 28 games, but is 4-9 with 2 runs batted in over the last two nights, including a three-hit game Saturday, his third such plate performance of the season.

"The two-spot is where I've hit most of my life, so that's where I feel most comfortable," Betancourt said through an interpreter. "I've been hitting the ball right at people lately. That's baseball. It's going to happen sometimes and you're going to struggle. It happened in Cuba, and it's going to happen here."

Harris meanwhile has flourished in his familiar leadoff spot. After coming off the injured list on April 18, Harris platooned at center with Jaime Bubela, hitting .205 in 12 games before the Arkansas series. Since then he is hitting .276, going 7-14 over the last three games.

"(Having Harris) at the top of the lineup allows us to do a lot of different things," Brundage said. "I just wanted to see what he could do at the lead-off spot, and he's accepted the challenge so far."

Left Behind, Somewhat: After a freezing cold late-April, the hitting bug is even starting to affect left fielder Jon Nelson, who homered in the bottom of the seventh in Saturday's win over the Travelers.

Nelson leads the Texas League with 38 strikeouts and is batting .240 in his last 12 games and just .236 on the season. The 25-year-old has had trouble going deep into the count thus far, walking four times in 106 at-bats. However, after the past two nights, things may be turning around for Nelson, as well as the team in general.

"It's reminding me of spring training; this group here was just crushing the ball back then," Nelson said of the recent offensive binge. "It's nice to see everybody starting to do this as a team."

First on the Road: The Missions notched their first road win of the season last week, taking a 5-3 victory from the Arkansas Travelers at Ray Winder Field.

Now 3-9 away from the Wolff, including the first road-series win of the season (against the Travelers), San Antonio sits at 16-13 overall, good for second place behind the Midland Rockhounds in the Texas League West.

Turning Back the Clock: Saturday's game featured special Missions uniforms, as the club celebrated it second Turn Back the Clock night, this time to good ‘ol 1939. Sporting baggy pants and brown and orange caps, the team might want to think about bringing the vintage threads out more often, judging on Saturday's performance at the plate.

Rowland-Smith, Cortez Bounce Back: After less-than-stellar outings, pitchers Ryan Rowland-Smith and Renee Cortez have turned things around recently.

Rowland-Smith was scorched in a 13-3 loss to the Midland Rockhounds back on April 26. In his second start, the southpaw lasted just 2.1 innings in allowing five hits, four walks and five runs.

Last Monday, Rowland-Smith redeemed himself, throwing 5.2 brilliant innings of shutout baseball versus the Springfield Cardinals for his first win of the season, an 8-0 Missions' victory.

After completing an early suspension for steroid use, Cortez stumbled out of the gates, giving up four earned runs in 3.1 innings for a 10.80 ERA. Since then, the Venezuelan has given up just one run in three outings, including a 3.2-inning shutout-performance to finish what Rowland-Smith started against the Cardinals, earning his first save in the process.

Speaking of Pitching...: Bobby Livingston is really establishing himself as the Missions' ace and one of the top pitching prospects within the Texas League. After a solid 2004 campaign, the Texan has four quality starts in just as many outings this season. Livingston, 3-1 with a team-best 2.41 ERA, has shown total control in leading the staff in strikeouts as well, with 22.

On Tap: The Missions next host Springfield for a four-game set. San Antonio then sets out for a five-game set at Arkansas. The May 13 series-opener marks the beginning of a 10-game road trip.

Chris Boehm appreciates your feedback at Christopher.Boehm@gmail.com.

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