Gone are many of the big bats that powered the Fresno Grizzlies to the top of their division in the first half of the Pacific Coast League season.
Preston Tucker and Carlos Correa were promoted to major-league parent club Houston and Domingo Santana was included in a trade with Milwaukee that sent All-Star outfielder Carlos Gomez to the Astros.
The offense now works much differently, even with slugger Jon Singleton back in the middle of the lineup.
Rabbits have overrun the lineup, “creating havoc,” as outfielder L.J. Hoes puts it, 90 to 180 feet at a time.
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“Earlier in the year, we played for the three-run homer, and now we can’t really play for that,” Hoes said. “We’ve got to manufacture runs any way we can.”
Hoes added that come playoff time, “you’re going to have to win ball games on something other than hitting a homer.”
And the result? An even larger lead in the PCL’s Pacific North and the near certainty of the first postseason berth since the franchise’s inaugural season of 1998.
We’re going to run you into the ground until you guys say mercy.
Grizzlies outfielder L.J. Hoes
With multiple speedy players who instinctually take the extra base – a list that includes Hoes, Jonathan Villar, Andrew Aplin, Tony Kemp, Robbie Grossman and Alex Presley, all of whom have at least 10 steals – the Grizzlies piled up 38 stolen bases in July, the most by the club in a month since August 2011.
Nine games into August, the Grizzlies had stolen 18 more and, perhaps more significantly, had been caught only three times. Through three games of their current series at Albuquerque, ahead of Saturday’s return for an eight-game homestand, Fresno is 6 for 9.
The team tried to be aggressive on the base paths earlier in the season – it just didn’t come as easily.
“Our ratios were terrible,” manager Tony DeFrancesco said. “I just think we weren’t very good at stealing bases.”
Villar had a 60 percent success rate in June, caught stealing four times on 10 tries; around 75 percent is considered acceptable.
“I was frustrated,” DeFrancesco said. “I was on phone calls with the running coordinator trying to figure out what we could do different.
“But we stuck with it.”
80 percent Success rate for Grizzlies’ stolen-base leader Jonathan Villar
Villar now leads the team with 28 steals in 35 attempts – an 80 percent conversion rate – entering Friday. Since the All-Star break, he’s stolen 17 and only been caught twice. As a team, the Grizzlies have improved from a 65 percent success rate before the All-Star break (75 steals in 115 tries) to 79 percent in the second half (45 of 57).
Hoes is second on the Grizzlies with 18 steals in 23 attempts, followed by Kemp (15 of 19), Aplin (15 of 22), Presley (11 of 15) and Grossman (11 of 17).
“This team is showing that when we get on base, we can run – we’re going to run,” Hoes said. “And we’re going to run you into the ground until you guys say mercy.”
Pushing more runners into scoring position has set up the middle-of-the-order hitters.
Matt Duffy is hitting .379 with runners at second or third and .500 with a runner on third while driving in a league-high 92 runs – two off his career high for a season. Tyler White, who moved up to Triple-A Fresno at the start of July, is hitting .432 with runners in scoring position. He’s at .444 with runners on second and third and .500 with a man only on second.
It’s all helped Fresno build that Northern Division lead to 13 games over the Reno Aces entering Friday – more than double the leads enjoyed by any of the PCL’s other three division front-runners.
“I always said a long time ago, winning teams know how to go first to third and these guys have been really good at it,” DeFrancesco said. “I just think we’re starting to feel the finish line here. They’re trying to lock this thing up.”
There’s also greener pastures beyond the PCL playoff run, he added.
“My top sale to them right now,” DeFrancesco said, “is that someone is going to go up (to the Astros) in September, one of you guys, and your job is to run the bases, steal a bag for them, go first to third, and it could be any one of you guys.”
A night for the ‘Future’
Fresno returns to Chukchansi Park on Saturday to begin its second-to-last homestand of the Pacific Coast League regular season, launching it with a “Back to the Future” themed “The Future Starts in Fresno Night.”
The first 1,500 through the gates (opening at 5:35 p.m.) receive a DeLorean Ring. Fans also can take photographs with a replica DeLorean Time Machine inside the ballpark and bid on DeLorean-inspired, game-worn jerseys, with proceeds benefiting the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
Fans can guarantee themselves a DeLorean Ring by purchasing the “Back to the Future” pack that includes a field-level reserve ticket for $19.85 at the Chukchansi Park Box Office, by phone at 559-320-TIXS or online by specifying a “Back to the Future” pack under the “field level reserve” section for Saturday’s game.