July 30, 2008

Fielding change - The Bats rack up wins despite an ever-changing roster

Last year the Louisville Bats logged more than 200 roster changes over the course of the season. And this summer they’re at it again.

You’d need a scorecard and a Global Positioning System to track all the player movements between Louisville and its major league parent, the Cincinnati Reds. (Mostly traveling up Interstate 71, with not many coming back.) Add injured players going on and off the disabled list, plus trades, signings, releases (two pitchers jumped to Korea), re-activations, rehab assignments and fresh new faces arriving what seems like weekly from Chattanooga, and you’ve got a lot of stuff happening. From night to night, you never know who might take the field.

“We were laughing about it the other day,” says shortstop Paul Janish, who’s been to Cincinnati twice this season. 

“We were looking at our (25-man) Opening Day roster poster and there are 14 different faces here now,” Janish adds. “We have a completely different team. With players getting called up to the big leagues and all the injuries we’ve had lately, we’ve just been decimated!”

But who could tell?

The “decimated” Bats grabbed first place in the International League West division in June and have held sway since. Through Sunday, the Bats (63-46) are 17 games over .500 and recently ripped off 13 wins in a 17-game stretch. 

Although Jay Bruce, the star outfielder here at the start of the season, has gone to the majors, fans seem to be lingering later at Slugger Field this summer — past the peanuts and promotions — to see if a less spectacular bunch of Bats can win.

“We’re playing good baseball,” says manager Rick Sweet, carefully selecting the adjective. “We’re a young club. We’ve got a couple veterans in there, but for the most part we’re a young club and we make mistakes. But we play good baseball. From the first inning to the ninth inning we’re never out of a ballgame. You always feel like there’s a chance we could come back.”

And come back they do. The other night the Bats trailed the Syracuse Chiefs 1-0 through the late innings, needing just one run to tie, but shut out all evening. 

Until the ninth inning. 

Right fielder Rob Mackowiak singled to start a rally — but was immediately erased in a double play. There still was time for two-out lightning.

Catcher Ryan Hanigan singled, and left-fielder Shaun Cumberland — a 22-year-old call-up from the Reds’ Double A farm club in Chattanooga — laced a line drive off the foot of the Syracuse pitcher, and suddenly the Bats had two men on base.

Designated hitter Alvin Colina got down to his last strike, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and stroked a double. With the runners moving on the pitch, and manager Sweet windmilling them home from the third-base coaching box, Hanigan scored, and Cumberland beat the throw to the plate to give the Bats a 2-1 victory.

Which didn’t surprise veteran first baseman Kevin Barker.

 “We’re not going to be a club that hits the ball out of the ballpark all the time,” says Barker. “We’re going to move people over, hit-and-run and steal some bases. The young guys, they’re doing that pretty well. And that’s why we’re in first place. Doing all the little things.”

This is Sweet’s 20th season managing, with 11 in Triple A. He knows how to juggle a line-up.

“It’s not like in the big leagues, where you just go like that and do what you want,” laughs Sweet, waving his hand like a wand. “Shoot, if they use too many guys out of the bullpen, they’ll just call down here and get more. If I use too many guys out of the bullpen — tough luck, you should have figured that out before. So you have to think ahead.”

With a month left in the season, Louisville leads Toledo by four games — and opens a four-game series with the Mud Hens here Monday night. Toledo emerged as an International League powerhouse a few seasons back, with a nucleus of young players who moved on to help lead the Detroit Tigers into the 2006 American League playoffs.

Now, Cincinnati’s pipeline of young talent — which went dry under a previous regime — is flowing again.

Still, recent injuries to pitchers Matt Maloney and Daryl Thompson, and lead-off hitter Chris Dickerson, will present the Bats with another round of roster changes for the pennant drive.

“Attitude won’t be a problem, we’ve got that,” says Sweet. “I just hope I don’t run out of players.”