The team with the largest divisional lead in all of pro baseball – minor or major leagues – is the Fresno Grizzlies.
Winners of 12 of 13, the Grizzlies (71-48) entered Saturday’s opener of an eight-game homestand as the hottest team in the Pacific Coast League and had built a 14-game lead on Reno in the Pacific Northern Division.
The Grizzlies are challenging for the best record in Triple A and have the benefit of playing 16 of their final 24 games at Chukchansi Park. Only the Oklahoma City Dodgers (72-47) have a better record.
Fresno isn’t just winning in its first season as a Houston Astros affiliate, after a 17-year run as a San Francisco Giants farm club in which even a .500 record was a rarity.
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These Grizzlies are on pace to set a franchise record for victories, reaching the 70-win mark in 118 games – fastest in club history. The inaugural 1998 team, which is the only Grizzlies team to reach the playoffs, got there in 123.
Grizzlies are on pace to set franchise record for wins and already are fastest to 70 wins (achieved in 118 games).
“We’re having fun playing good baseball right now,” Grizzlies manager Tony DeFrancesco said. “I’ve always said winning is contagious. It’s become that way.
“Every guy wants to step up. We’re playing good team ball.”
That team concept hasn’t always been a big priority for Triple-A clubs, including past Grizzlies teams.
Playing at the highest level of the minor leagues can be distracting, sometimes disrupting an entire club, given the numerous roster movements between Triple A and the majors.
The Grizzlies certainly have had their share this year, with 18 players having spent time with both Fresno and Houston.
In all, there have been 48 players who’ve suited up for the Grizzlies this season.
I think there’s a lot of electric players in this organization,. The way the Astros have drafted over the past few years, there’s a lot of talent up and down the minors in this system.
Grizzlies pitcher Brady Rodgers
“I think there’s a lot of electric players in this organization,” said right-hander Brady Rodgers, the scheduled starter Sunday night against New Orleans. “The way the Astros have drafted over the past few years, there’s a lot of talent up and down the minors in this system.
“It all comes together as a whole.”
The Grizzlies have won in a variety of ways, though their ability to hit has remained a constant. The Grizzlies are 44-18 when they’re the first to score.
Fresno leads the PCL with 691 runs, 652 RBIs and a .357 on-base percentage. The Grizzlies are hitting .276, ranking sixth in the 16-team league.
“It’s been a great feeling, coming to the clubhouse every day and expecting to win as opposed to hoping to win,” said corner infielder Matt Duffy, who leads the PCL with 92 RBIs. “Guys understand to focus only on what they can control.
“Call-ups and stuff, that’s out of our control. Playing well, that’s in our control.”
The Grizzlies also have received solid pitching, particularly this month with the staff sporting a team ERA of 2.78 and racking up 114 strikeouts to 28 walks in 120 innings.
For the season, the Grizzlies rank ninth with a 4.37 ERA but have issued the third-fewest walks at 340. One area that has hurt is giving up the long ball. Fresno has surrendered the fourth-most home runs with 107.
“There’s a lot of capable arms on this team who’ve helped and can help the Astros,” DeFrancesco said. “Hitting has been good. Our pitching overall has made big strides.
“The way these guys are playing, I’m just trying to stay out of their way right now.”
48 Players who’ve suited up for Fresno this season
The Grizzlies also credit team chemistry for their success, a collection of players without big egos who enjoy hanging out with one another at and away from the ballpark.
The biggest clubhouse clash this season has been over who gets to control the pregame music.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” Duffy said. “You know, it’s great to have personal success. But ultimately, it’s still about winning.
“Winning is a learned skill. I think we’re developing winning players.”