Missions Notebook: Settling Into Roles

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - The first month of the San Antonio Missions season has already come and gone, but what still remains are several key position battles. The designated hitter spot, first base and even the outfield positions are not yet set in stone, and so far each has been played by committee.

The success of this past week's homestand, in which the Missions went 5-2, may be attributed to certain individuals separating themselves from the pack.

The success of T.J. Bohn in right field with his stellar defense and .345 batting average has made it easy for manager Dave Brundage to plug him into the lineup every night.

The other two outfield spots, however, aren't quite as set. Jaime Bubela, Gary Harris, and Jon Nelson are all vying for the remaining two spots. Recently, with the improved heatlh of Harris, and the success he has had in the leadoff spot, it has become apparent that he will continue to get the majority of the time in center. As for left field, the equal offensive output between Nelson and Bubela has not warranted permanent playing time for either player, so it is likely that the two will continue to platoon.

With the Texas League allowing for a designated hitter, manager Dave Brundage has had the luxury of having several players capable of handling this role. Unfortunately, only one player can be inserted in this spot, and this has led to stiff competition between the candidates. Recently, Nate Espy has anchored down this role and responded with good numbers.

"It's been a good situation for an extra guy like me or Jesse (Hoorelbeke) to play first base and still get in the lineup," said Espy.

The situation has paid off thus far, because Espy has hit the ball well and has a high on-base percentage. At the same time, Hoorelbeke has played exceptional defense at first base.

The designated hitter spot has also been a good opportunity to get players such as Bubela or Harris in the lineup when they are not inserted in the outfield. This has afforded all the aforementioned players an opportunity to get in the game when they are not put in the field.

"You want to be in the lineup and play and have the opportunity to contribute," Espy said.

Brundage likes the flexibility he has when making up the lineup every day, given his abundance of options.

"They all bring something different to the table and this gives them an opportunity to get in the lineup and get at-bats when they otherwise wouldn't get that chance," said the Missions' skipper.

Any way you slice it, competition is good, only raising the level of play amongst teammates. That's precisely what's happening in San Antonio right now.

Breaking Out of It: As cold as he was in late April through early May, left fielder Jon Nelson has been quite the opposite as of late, slowly becoming more patient at the plate as he adjusts to the higher level pitching found at Double-A.

Nelson, fourth in the Texas League with 26 runs batted in, was in the midst of a 6-game hitting streak at the end of the team's latest homestand, batting .375 during that span with two home runs and six RBI. The recent power surge can be attributed to a smarter approach to his at-bats and better pitch selection.

"I'm feeling more comfortable at the plate," Nelson said. "I know it sounds like a cliché, but that's just baseball. You're going to have your ups and downs, but if you stick with it, you're going to get your hits. Hopefully now I'll be up for a while."

The Early Bird Gets the Record: Before the Baltimore Orioles hosted a 5:30 a.m. game against the Kansas City Royals last week to allow fans more time to celebrate Mother's Day, the previous early-start record for a professional ballgame was a 9:00 a.m. date at V. J. Keefe Stadium on April 17, 1993. As a Dodgers' affiliate, San Antonio made the early start to make way for Fiesta Week's Oyster Bake event, held later that day.

Learning how to Calculate ERA: Last Wednesday's 11:00 a.m. start in the homestand finale against the Springfield Cardinals was celebrated as Math Day at Nelson Wolff Municipal Stadium. The 4,396 fans in attendance, most of which were elementary and junior high students from local schools, put their brains to the test in answering math and baseball-related questions in between innings. The early start is the last scheduled morning game of the season. So much for breakfast tacos in the press box!

Outfield by Committee: With four players vying for time in the outfield, Missions manager asserted that he would continue to platoon the position, rotating in T.J. Bohn, Nelson, Gary Harris and Jaime Bubela.

With the exception of Bohn, each has had his struggles at the plate this season, though for the time being Nelson is the hottest. If Bohn, fourth in the league in batting average (.345) and steals (9), continues to showcase his five-tool talents, expect him to move out of the rotation and into Triple-A Tacoma. Having made the jump to Double-A at last season's mid-point, the 25-year old is close to a full year now with the Missions.

"I'm going to rotate them all season," Brundage said. "They're here to play, and that's what they're going to do. Nelson's been struggling a bit, but he's been working at it, going out there every day and taking extra batting practice, and it's paying off."

If Harris, who has been getting the nod lately at center and leadoff, doesn't start taking more pitches at the plate, look for Bubela to get more playing time as the captain of the outfield. After a terribly cold start to the season, the Houstonian finally appears to be fully recovered from knee surgery two off-seasons ago, hitting .353 in his last six games while placing second on the team in homers this year with four.

Web Gems Made Easy: While shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt adjusts to American pitchers, no adjustment is needed for the way he plays the field, making every miraculous defensive play look completely effortless and never failing to wow the fans at the Wolff with his nose for the ball and incredible range on the diamond.

"He's been impressive, no question," Brundage said. "He's saving our pitchers a lot of runs. Yuniesky's going to be a pretty good player; he just needs to play."

Forming a dynamic defensive middle-infield, along with second baseman Ismael Castro, the silky-smooth 23-year-old with the Cuban flare has also hit it off well the city itself, bombarded with autograph requests from young Missions fans immediately after the conclusion of every home game. With his Latin roots, Betancourt is a can't-miss fan-favorite in a town heavily populated with Spanish-speakers and baseball enthusiasts alike.

Fifteenth Time's a Charm: That's how many at-bats it took first baseman/designated hitter Jesse Hoorelbeke to break out of his hitless slump. In last Wednesday's 4-1 victory over Springfield, the former Dell employee delivered the key hit of the game, a 2-RBI single in the sixth inning to give San Antonio and starting pitcher Juan Sandoval (2-1) a 3-run lead.

"I've been working hard, trying to get the feel back, seeing the ball early and seeing it deep," Hoorelbeke said. "I think I've finally gotten back to the point where I'm more confident in what I'm doing at the plate and can be more relaxed."

Along with Nate Espy, Hoorelbeke has rotated at first and DH all season, but his struggles on offense had recently given way to less playing time. As of now Espy looks to have a stronger hold of the position, currently ranked first on the team in walks (21), on-base percentage (.424) and second in batting average (.297). As the seasons progresses, look for the Mariners to settle on one of the 27-year-olds, each in their first season with the organization.

On Tap: The Missions are currently in the midst of a 10-game road trip against the Frisco Roughriders and Corpus Christi Hooks. The team's next game at the Wolff is scheduled for May 23rd, the first of a 3-game set with the Tulsa Drillers.

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