Missions Notebook: Southpaw Separation

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - After 19 starts between the two of them, it's apparent what separates southpaws Bobby Livingston and Thomas Oldham.

"I probably have a better sense of humor than him," Oldham said of his teammate.

Livingston quickly responded, saying he's the better looking of the two.

"Yeah. He's got the looks and I've got the sense of humor. That's what's important," Oldham said. "That's all you really need to know."

Of course, this would make a rather short story, so instead we'll focus on more "trivial" matters: pitching styles.

For the casual fan, it may be a stretch to find differences in these two left-handed control pitchers with underwhelming fastballs but devastating off-speed material. A quick synopsis will tell you that Livingston has more movement while Oldham delivers more velocity.

"Bobby's more of a finesse pitcher than Thomas. They are unique in some respects," said Missions manager Dave Brundage. "Bobby's change-up turns over better, whereas Thomas' is more of a drawstring, flatter change. In the end though, they are both able to hit their spots and have done a great job."

At this point of the season, Livingston has been the better, more consistent pitcher, settling well into the role of staff ace in building a 5-2 record and 3.08 ERA. An impeccable control pitcher whose fastball tops out in the mid-80s, the Lubbock, Texas native has utilized a humiliating change-up to lead the team with 37 strikeouts.

"You can throw your change-up for strikes, and make your fastball look like it's moving 95 miles an hour when its actually 86 or 87," Livingston said. "I've said before that you don't need to throw 95 to win ball games. You can use your off-speed, deal through the back door, and throw your change to both sides of the plate. The name of the game is getting outs, and if you can locate your pitches you'll be fine, and I think both of us have done that this year."

Oldham throws a fastball in the high 80s, and holds a 3.53 ERA that has produced just a 2-3 record in nine starts out of the three-spot of the rotation. He struggled badly two starts back, going just four innings in a Missions loss to Tulsa last Monday. As with his teammate, the Nebraska resident also relies on a well-placed change to take out the opposition.

"I would definitely say change for the both of us," Oldham said. "We both have our breaking balls, but those are more strike pitches, not necessarily something I use to strike someone out. But a well-located fastball can also get the job done; guys we face know we're going to throw a lot of off-speed stuff, so that can work, too."

Livingston, fresh off an eight inning, one-run gem against Wichita, appears to be the more polished of the two, and has more professional experience as well, now in his fourth professional season compared to Oldham's third.

"The biggest difference is that Bobby has a lot more experience than me," Oldham said. "He's pitched a ton of innings, and is very consistent. I feel I'm pretty consistent, but I'm still working towards that."

Livingston added that Oldham should gain that consistency, as he did, through his time in the minor league system.

"Thomas is a good pitcher with good stuff. He uses the plate well and throws all of his pitches for strikes like I do," Livingston said. "The more innings he gets and the longer he plays professional baseball, the better he'll be at attacking hitters' weaknesses and knowing when its okay to throw what pitch."

Still, even with more games and innings to his name (77 to 48), Brundage feels that Livingston's youth (at 22, he is a year younger than Oldham) brings a fearlessness that helps him on the mound.

"Bobby's somewhat naive, but I say that in a good way," Brundage laughed. "He's not afraid of anything or anyone."

Despite conceivably battling for a promotion within the organization at some point, both players are on good terms with each other, joking with one another throughout the interview and noting an absence of competition among the starters.

"There's not really competition between us," Livingston said. "Everybody just wants to work on going out and pitching better than they did the last time out."

The two got to know each last year when Oldham got a late-season promotion from Wisconsin to Inland Empire, where Livingston pitched during the entire 2004 campaign.

"Last year Bobby was the guy I went to before starts," Oldham said. "He had faced these guys before, and seeing that I'm a similar pitcher, I wanted to know how he was pitching them. It's a continual learning process, and you're always picking up stuff from everybody."

In managing each player through a third of the season, Brundage notices subtle differences in each player's personality and approach to pitching, though in his mind both methods are conducive to reaching the major leagues. When talking to the two pitchers, Livingston confessed to being more of a visualizer in preparing for starts, while Oldham said he favors getting ready three to four days before his scheduled outing, making sure to allow sufficient time for bullpens and running.

"Bobby's more laid back," Brundage said. "Thomas does a lot of preparation before starts. When he has his moments he's pretty unhittable, but both are very capable of pitching in the majors. You see a lot of guys up there with equal stuff, and they are on their way to the majors as long as they stay with the same track and work ethic."

Holding down the Hooks: Last week the Missions swept a five-game-series at Corpus Christi, their first road-series victory of the season. San Antonio is now 9-0 against the first-year Hooks, who currently hold the worst record in the Texas League at 15-32.

While sporting a 26-22 overall record, the Missions still are struggling away from Nelson Wolff Municipal Stadium with a 9-13 record. Only two teams in the league have winning records on the road (Tulsa and Midland) who are, not coincidentally, in first place in their respective divisions. San Antonio sits four games out behind Midland in the West.

A Winning Combination: Recently the Missions tallied six straight wins, ending with a May 24, 10-inning loss to Tulsa. During that stretch, the bullpen was sensational, pitching 19 scoreless innings and recording four wins and three saves.

"The numbers speak for themselves," Brundage said. "Everybody's doing their job (out of the bullpen)."

The relievers are led by Cesar Jimenez and a resurgent Renee Cortez. The two have combined for 13 scoreless innings and 15 strikeouts over their last nine games.

April showers bring May...hits?: After slow starts at the plate, two Missions find themselves (and their batting averages) springing forward in May.

Yuniesky Betancourt looks as if everyday he's more and more comfortable hitting American pitchers, batting .308 for the month with two 3-hit performances against Tulsa this week to raise his average to .272 on the season.

"He's still got a ways to go, but he's doing a better job; he's got a better command of his strike zone," said Missions manager Dave Brundage. "He's getting more 2-strike hits, and that's telling me he's not afraid to get to that point in the count. That way, when he gets to that situation, he can hold off on a bad pitch, rather than throwing the bat out there trying to get a piece of it."

One Texas League scout I talked to said that Betancourt is the best prospect in the league, and projects that the Cuban will be in the majors by next spring.

Jesse Hoorelbeke is also putting up better numbers as of late, batting .296 with a home run a seven RBI in his last eight games, quite a turnaround for the first baseman/designated hitter who recently went through an 0-18 stretch earlier this month.

"Right now, I've gotten back to the point where I am more confident and can be more relaxed at the plate," Hoorelbeke said. "When you're slumping you tend to push hard, thinking you have to get a hit, but normally I try to stay in the zone and lay off the high stuff."

Welcome back Rivera: Catcher Rene Rivera's short stint with the Mariners came to a close last Friday, as he was optioned back to San Antonio upon Seattle's signing of veteran catcher and former Mariner Pat Borders. Rivera's time in Seattle seems to be well-spent, as the 21-year-old is hitting .389 in his last five games since returning to the Missions.

"That motivated me a lot," Rivera said. "While I was up there in the majors (hitting coach) Don Baylor help me work on my swing. That's what you've got to do; just keep practicing."

Thursday night Rivera's bat was the difference in the game, knocking in two runs on a double in the bottom of the fifth as San Antonio claimed a 3-1 win in the series opener with Wichita.

"I felt really good at the plate," Rivera said. "Their pitcher did a good job against us, but I was just able to see the pitch and hit it down the line."

In other player movement, middle-reliever Jeff Harris was sent to Triple-A Tacoma before Monday's showdown with Tulsa. He was replaced with Tim Rall from the Rainers, who is already 1-1 with 3.78 ERA with San Antonio.

Brundage was glad to see the 31-year-old journeyman move closer to "the show," although it meant losing a valuable arm and leadership presence, not to mention the team's wins leader with five.

"Guys like that are invaluable," Brundage said. "Jeff's somebody that can spot start for you while but also provides so much more on and off the field. He's a big leadership figure for the younger guys."

It's Like Night and Day...or Home and Away: First baseman/designated hitter Nate Espy currently holds a respectable .270 average through 39 games. But when you take a closer look, you find that all the hits are coming within the friendly confines of Nelson Wolff Municipal Stadium. At home Espy is hitting .318 compared to just .194 anywhere else.

The same holds true for southpaws, who Espy is hitting .189 against.

"I think early on, whether it was against righties or lefties, we were having problems," Brundage said. "His numbers are down now, but by the end of the year, they'll be roughly equal."

Promotions Aplenty: During their latest home stand, the Missions hosted two movie-influenced promotions.

In addition to the usual dollar draft night, Thursday's game also played host to the Blues Brothers, in town to entertain Missions fans with musical performances and wacky antics between frames. Jake and Elwood rode in driving a replica Chicago police car from the classic film starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, complete with a gigantic megaphone tied down with rope. The promotion was a hit with the above-average 4,838 fans in attendance, and the two performers said they would love to be back next year.

Friday night was billed as both 100th Anniversary Free Cap night and Star Wars Night at the Ballpark, in an attempt to cash in on the recent release of Revenge of the Sith. Jedi knights and various Star Wars characters were in attendance, with bounty hunter Boba Fett throwing out the first pitch. The Force was not with the Missions though, as they lost an ugly 6-2 ball game to Wichita. Juan Sandoval (2-3) picked up the loss after giving up five runs in four innings.

Speaking of the Force...: Left fielder Jon Nelson's anger led to...well, not the dark side, but the disabled list. After a weak pop-up against Tulsa Wednesday night, a disgruntled Nelson went back to the dugout and punched a water cooler, breaking his hand in the process. The injury is expected to keep the 25-year-old out for about 1-2 weeks.

For the time being the Missions have called up outfielder Casey Craig from High-A Inland Empire. The 20-year-old from La Mesa, California was hitting .345 in eight games for the 66ers.

On Tap: The Missions are scheduled for two more games with Wichita before setting off on an 11-game road trip that starts with Tulsa on May 30. The next game at the Wolff is slated for June 11, the first of a five-game set with Corpus Christi.

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