Lakeland MLN: Shooting for Tops

Things are finally beginning to look auspicious for the Flying Tigers' second-half hopes as, behind timely hitting and starter Drew Smyly, they find themselves in sole possession of second place in the FSL North.

The past week ended with a commonplace 4-3 record but after a Thursday night where four FSL North teams lost to the FSL South, Lakeland is only one game behind Tampa's Yankees.

"It's all going to come down to pitching and defense," said catcher Eric Roof about how the team has to go about continuing their late-season push, "the hitting going to be there some games and not be there other games."

"[We need] clutch hitting at the right time," Roof continued, "we're getting runners on base, but we're not always getting that clutch hit."

In regard to unpredictable hitting, Lakeland's .500 record can be, unfortunately, a bit misleading. Despite the win-losses, the past seven games read almost like a rollercoaster. In just two days Lakeland lost by as much as nine and won by as much as eleven, implying a potential halt to the momentum.

On Wednesday, though, the need for timely hitting was fulfilled. In the bottom of the third with the game tied at zero despite Drew Smyly getting hit hard, Jordan Lennerton strolled to the plate with Brent Wyatt and Tony Plagman on base. Lennerton then hopped all over University of Tampa alum Alex Koronis' first pitch for a base-clearing double. Just like that Lakeland had an early lead, and from then on Drew Smyly cruised to six shutout innings.

"When guys step up and get that clutch hit, it's really been helpful," Roof finished.

The drastic disparity in final scores isn't the only possible obstacle in Lakeland's roll, though. A new change for Lakeland, although beneficial for parent club Detroit, is the departure of all-star Julio Rodriguez.

Step on up, Eric Roof

Late-afternoon Wednesday, so late that he was listed on the line-up card, catcher Julio Rodriguez (along with West Michigan pitcher Antonio Cruz) was traded to the Kansas City Royals organization for major league 3B Wilson Betemit.

The player most affected by the trade, though, is new starting catcher Eric Roof. Rodriguez was a remarkable backstop was sporting a .283 average during the time of the trade, leaving Roof with some pretty large cleats to step into.

"I'm obviously happy for Julio, whenever you get involved in a trade that means the other team likes you," Roof reflected, "we got a big leaguer for him, so you know they're really invested in him."

"But for us, we're going to go out and do the same thing, still try and go out there and win."

Roof, in his one game as leading catcher, seemed to ease any possible Lakeland worries. Not only did he gun out Charlotte's Omar Luna attempting to steal third, but blasted his first homer of the year over the right field wall.

However, his promotion is likely short lived as Rob Brantly was brought up from West Michigan on Thursday morning, and is likely to take over the starting catching duties for the Flying Tigers.

And while it seems that Eric Roof might continue to keep Lakeland flying toward first place, one player has proven to be a consistent void in production.

Daniel Fields' performance

It was addressed in last week's LFT notebook that Field's spot in center field was possibly threatened, but that, despite his weak arm, his range was wide enough to preserve his spot as the captain of the outfield. But now, ironically, Fields' fielding has become a problem. Possibly affected by his popularized weak arm, Fields isn't tracking the ball like he usually can.

It was to no surprise to anyone in the press box when, in the top of the second inning in yesterday's game, Fields turned the wrong way on a flyball over his head. At first sight the ball seemed routine, but after a few shoulder-switches on his way back, the ball landed for a leadoff Charlotte double. Smyly was getting hit hard at the time (fortunately "at-em" balls), but didn't end up allowing the runner to score. But, surprisingly, the shakiness in the field is not the eight-hitters only problem, or his biggest.

Fields, since July 10th, is 0-for-26 with 11 strikeouts and only reached base four times over the span. His average now lies at .220. On Thursday, he struck for the remarkable 103rd time of the season.

He still sees the lineup and the field everyday, though, and although his throwing might land him in left, it seems like the Tigers are willing to be patient with the coveted outfielder.

Consistent Smyly

Drew Smyly has continued to impress Lakeland fans in his first professional season.

On the 15th, against FSL South-leading St. Lucie, Smyly posted five strong innings, allowing 1 ER and striking out seven. And then, in the week's rubber-game, threw six shutout innings en route to an 11-0 rout. The win improved his record to 6-3. Despite beginning the years out of the bullpen, Smyly has become a snug replacement for Jay Voss.

Trevor Feeney has become a decent complement to Smyly of late. He's an unremarkable 7-8, but boasts a respectable 3.84 ERA.

The three starters that usually round out the rotation haven't been as solid, though:

-Jared Wesson continues to be inconsistent, going 1-1 this week and pushing his record to a high 10-7.

-Mark Sorensen, in his first start for Lakeland, allowed four earned runs after being pulled after two innings.

-And Luke Putkonen has been pulled from the rotation.

In brighter light, Kenny Faulk was activated from the 7-day DL. He relieved Drew Smyly in the seventh inning on Thursday and allowed one hit in 1.2 IP while striking out three.

Slower offense

The offense is still to be improved upon. Not including Wednesday's eleven runs, the Flying Tigers scored 13 runs in their last 6 six games –a measly 2.16 R/G– and only amassed 38 hits (including Wednesday they have 24 and 47 in 7 games).

The most notable hitters are Tony Plagman (surprise!), who is 7-for-24 with two homers and Brent Wyatt, who is 8-for-24.

Plagman RBI watch: 70.

Looking forward Wednesday night's game was the end of an eight-game homestand. On Thursday Lakeland travels to Jupiter for four vs. the Hammerheads, and then immediately return home to host Palm Beach.

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