Erie MLN: 'Wolves Battling Through Injuries

The Erie SeaWolves entered the week as a team with a solid pitching staff and a streaky offense. On some nights they'd put eight runs up on the board. On others they'd fail to protect their staff after it had only surrendered two runs. It was understandable: the weather was cold and their roster had been ravished by injuries, but after their performance this week they no longer have any excuses.

With the sun splitting the clouds and shining through on Jerry Uht Park, suddenly fly balls that were dying on the warning track were finding their way onto the outfield concourse. 89-mph BP fastballs were turning into 93-mph darts. Oh, and those injuries, you can pretty much put all that talk on the backburner for now with the emergence of super-utility man Max Leon, who is suddenly the most productive player in the Eastern League.

Coming into the week Leon had three career home runs in his previous 233 games. He has long been a productive slap hitter, but power has never been a part of his repertoire. Even the occasional extra-base hit was a rarity for him, as he had only recorded 34 in his career prior to 2009. His single season high in slugging was .371.

To expect him to be the man that would smooth over the losses of Michael Hollimon and Casper Wells - well, let's just say it'd be a stretch to even suggest that. But that's exactly what has happened.

"I'm using more of my legs and good things are happening and I've moved my hands forward. Good things have happened and it works so I'm going to keep using it," Leon explained.

Over the last ten games Leon has transformed himself from being a temporary stop-gap to a possible mainstay in the starting lineup by hitting .385 with nine runs, 15 hits, three doubles, two triples, three home runs, and 12 RBI. Due to his performance he was awarded with the Eastern League Player of the Week award.

"It was a real surprise for me. I never think about some award during the season. I just think about hitting the ball good and trying to help the team win," Leon said.

With his recent outpour of offensive production he now leads the Eastern League in OPS (1.232), RBI (18), total bases (41), and triples (3), and ranks third in average (.373).

"During the winter ball season I hurt my knee and my shoulder so they took me out of the roster and I started lifting weights," Leon said. "This is the best I've ever felt professionally. This is the best part of my career."

Brennan Boesch has found the stroke that inspired manager Tom Brookens to call him "one of the best prospects this organization has" at the start of the season. For a while it appeared that the productive spring he had was a mere aberration and he was on pace for another dismal season. It had gotten so bad that even Brookens was beginning to sour on him, dropping him all the way down the eighth spot in the order.

Apparently the warmer weather was all he needed to get it going because his hitting has been so good over the last ten days it inspired Brookens to start mapping out a game plan to prepare Boesch for a future with the Tigers.

"He's getting quality at-bats and he has that special kind of power. He's playing right field and we're going to move him around the outfield. He'll play some games in center and left. If he were to get a call to the majors he's not going to play ahead of Ordonez. When he gets up there he needs to be able to play left field," Brookens explained.

It may not be on the immediate horizon, but if Boesch continues to produce the way he has over the last ten days (.317, two home runs, six doubles, 17 RBI), he may get there before he knows it. He does, however, need to learn how to be more patient at the plate before he achieves that goal. To date he has struck out 22 times against only two walks.

Ryan Strieby started off the season red-hot, but his production dropped drastically during the ‘Wolves' first road trip of the season where he hit .235/.381/.353 without a single RBI. However, once he got back home his bat came back to life.

"I got away from using my leg's a little bit and am now focusing on using my leg's to start my swing," Strieby said. "Toby has been real helpful. Hitting is real complex and he simplifies it for you."

Strieby hit .300 in the Harrisburg series and homered three straight days with ten RBI.

At this point there really isn't a single player that is struggling offensively; even Cale Iorg has begun to find his stroke. He's still hitting .167 on the season with a .190 OBP, but in his last ten at-bats after working with roving hitting instructor Toby Harrah, he's went 3-for-10, all falling in the gaps for extra bases.

On the pitching side of things not much has changed. Alfredo Figaro had another impressive line: 6 IP, 2 runs, 8 K, 1 BB. Luis Marte bounced back after having a poor showing on the road against Altoona (5 IP, 4 ER, 6 SO, 2 BB) by holding Harrisburg to one run over six innings while striking out seven.

Then, of course, there's the incredible Brooks Brown, who has now thrown 17 2/3 innings without allowing a single run. After giving up 9.5 hits per game last season, Brown has only surrendered ten on the season and currently has a 0.74 WHIP.

At this point there's not much to get down on Brown about. He mixes up his pitches incredibly for someone at this level, but at times his pitch count gets inflated by his tendency to work deep into the count.

"He's not just a thrower he's out there mixing things around. He goes a little deep in the count sometimes, but he's doing something right out there," Brookens said.

Dontrele Willis continued to build on the progress he made in Lakeland with a rather impressive showing in Erie on Sunday. Through the first four innings he was prefect despite not having his best stuff with him.

"He threw strikes and I think that is the biggest thing that everyone is looking at. He threw the ball well. I think you didn't see his best stuff. Some of his breaking balls, I thought, didn't have a lot of good bite on it, but I thought it was a real good outing. He did what we wanted to see out of him here," Brookens said.

He got into some trouble in the fifth where he allowed a home run on the first pitch, but it should probably be noted that it barely scaled the right field fence and only traveled 327 feet. He then allowed a second run on back to back doubles, but responded nicely and exited the game after the sixth inning.

On the day he threw 92 pitches, 56 of which were strikes, allowed two runs, three hits, walked three, and struck out six over six innings. He also threw 13 first pitch strikes to 23 of the batters he faced.

Those numbers are little deceiving, though. Through the first four innings he was perfect, and only required 43 pitches. It took him 49 to get the last six outs, 26 of which went for strikes.

His highest velocity of the game was 90-mph according to the Jerry Uht radar gun, which he hit three times. For the most part he lived in the 86-88 range.

"I'm not putting the gun to my head on every pitch. I need to just start throwing the ball and let it happen. I think that goes hand in hand in any work place. If guys are happy working anywhere they're more efficient," Willis explained.

His mechanics looked pretty solid for the most part. In the fifth and sixth inning there were some instances where he allowed himself to fly open and stopped tucking his glove hand, but after a visit to the mound from Alex Avila he made the necessary adjustments and worked through it.

"We talked all game about him flying open or not following through on a pitch. He was just trying to correct himself and he'd ask me because I have a different look and then fix it," Avila said.

Prior to his Sunday start, Willis stated that he is pleased with his progress and that he doesn't feel like the anxiety is going to be an issue any longer.

"I'm just focusing on having fun. Like I said, man, when I think about other things I overheat. I'm not a complex man," Willis said. "I think the progression is good because I'm not worrying about mechanics and that; I'm just letting it happen on its own."

Willis left Erie before Monday's game and headed to Toledo. He will make his third start on Friday at Lehigh Valley.

Notes:

*The SeaWolves currently lead the Eastern League in fielding percentage and have committed only one error in their previous seven games.

*Jonah Nickerson has continued to struggle on the mound. He is currently 0-2 despite getting 21 runs in the four games he's started. Hitters are currently hitting .400 against him and he's allowed an average of 16.8 hits per nine innings. His ERA is currently 8.68 and his WHIP is sitting at a hefty 2.25.

"He's not off to as good as a start as we would like to see. He needs to stop nitpicking so much and get ahead early in the count and induce some contact," Brookens explained. "He's going to be pitching here for a little bit."

*The SeaWolves will close out their homestand with a series against Bowie and then go on the road to Altoona and Harrisburg before returning home on May 8 to host Bowie.

*Max Leon missed Monday's game after taking a foul ball off his shin in the fifth inning of Sunday's game against Harrisburg. He's currently listed as day to day and is cleared to play when ready.

*Cale Iorg took a fastball off his wrist in Monday's game, he was treated by the trainer but it is not believed to be serious.


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