No team has put together a more impressive pitching performance in the Minor Leagues this year than the Lexington Legends. The Kansas City Royals' Class A affiliate was the only full-season club with a sub-3.00 ERA, pacing the South Atlantic League with a remarkable staff mark of 2.85.
Three pitchers -- Christian Binford, Daniel Stumpf and Miguel Almonte -- rank among the league's top 10 in ERA. As a staff, the Legends have surrendered only 897 hits, nearly 100 fewer than the circuit's second-lowest performance, in 126 games. Lexington also tops the SAL with six complete games and 45 saves and ranks second with 15 shutouts, one behind Hagerstown.
"We knew going into the season that we had a pretty special group of talented young men," said Lexington manager Brian Buchanan. "We have some real good pitchers throughout the staff, and I believe there's a pretty good chance that many of these young men will end up in Kansas City one day."
Almonte entered the current campaign as the highest-rated prospect that landed in Lexington. The 20-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic made huge strides in 2012 while displaying a three-pitch repertoire that includes a heavy, low-90s fastball with a solid changeup and an improving curveball. Almonte, who ranks ninth in the SAL with a 3.11 ERA, owns a 2.47 ERA in 11 starts since the All-Star break and has given up two or fewer runs in 18 of his 23 starts this season. He also has controlled left-handed hitters, limiting them to a .213 batting average.
Binford has been equally impressive and consistent for the Legends. After allowing four earned runs in his season debut, the right-hander put together a string of 19 straight starts in which he allowed two earned runs or fewer before giving up eight earned runs on nine hits at Charleston on Aug. 15. Nevertheless, the 30th-round pick in 2011, who overcame Tommy John surgery in high school, has joined Almonte in elevating their statuses among the organization's top prospects while ranking second in the SAL with a 2.38 ERA and third with 125 strikeouts.
"I believe, in the case of all those young pitchers at Lexington, it's been a situation where they have gotten acclimated to pitching every fifth day or so and competing against higher-caliber hitters," said Scott Sharp, Kansas City's director of player development. "They've made progress by learning from their mistakes and figuring out what it takes to get hitters out. It's been impressive to see."
Lefty Daniel Stumpf, who entered the season under the radar, is yet another Lexington starter emerging as one of the most consistent hurlers in the league. Ranking sixth in the SAL with a 2.86 ERA, the 22-year-old southpaw from San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College is second in the league with an opponents' batting average of .207, third with a 1.07 WHIP and fourth with 129 innings pitched. His best performance occurred July 3 when he tossed a seven-inning no-hitter against Greenville while facing one batter over the minimum.
The Legends have remained solid on the bump despite losing a couple of pitchers who put together strong showings during the season's first half. Left-hander Colin Rodgers (3.27 ERA) and right-hander Bryan Brickhouse (2.25 ERA) had excellent starts to the campaign before both landed on the disabled list in late May and early June, respectively. Alec Mills joined Binford as Lexington players selected to the SAL All-Star Game before he also was sidelined in mid June. Lefty Crawford Simmons arrived June 11 and has filled the void with a 3.15 ERA in 12 starts after missing all of 2012 due to injury.
The Legends have needed the strong pitching performances because the team ranks last in the SAL with a .214 batting average. Even so, Lexington has remained in the hunt for the second-half crown in the Southern Division, two and a half games behind first-place Augusta.
"Pitching and defense wins games, and we've been a classic example of that," Buchanan said. "Our starters have kept us in games since the season started. We've swung the bats a little bit better and executed much better in the second half. But our starting pitching is why we're still in this thing."
Intimidators on a roll: Kannapolis extended its season-best winning streak to seven games by completing a four-game sweep at Greensboro with a 6-3 win on Aug. 19. In putting together the franchise's longest victory string since June 2012, the Intimidators have been led by pitchers Kyle Hansen, Adam Lopez and Francelis Montas, who are each 2-0 over the last 10 games, and outfielders Jason Coats (13 hits, 13 RBIs) and Jacob May (15 hits, 14 runs) in the last 10 outings.
Mooneyham on the money: Suns pitcher Brett Mooneyham struck out a season-high nine batters and limited Asheville to three hits over seven scoreless innings to collect his sixth straight win in Hagerstown's 4-0 triumph on Aug. 17. Mooneyham's performance helped give the Suns their league-leading 15th shutout of the season and their seventh straight triumph, matching the team's longest string of the campaign.
Bridwell flying high: Delmarva pitcher Parker Bridwell continued his strong second-half showing by striking out 14 Lakewood batters and limiting his opponents to two hits over a career-high eight innings in a 2-0 victory on Aug. 16. Bridwell, who struck out seven straight hitters at one point in the contest, fanned the most batters for a Delmarva pitcher since Erik Bedard set down 14 Hickory hitters on May 26, 2000.