MIDLAND, Mich. - The Loons have had success on their current homestand thanks, in part, to solid starting pitching.
But getting past the Loons starters and into their bullpen hasn't provided any relief for opposing batters. That's because Loons relievers have been in a lockdown mode ever since the team returned from a three-game road trip.
The Loons bullpen has allowed one earned run in 13 innings while striking out 18 batters during the first four games this week at Dow Diamond. Last night, in a 6-2 win over Bowling Green, Ralston Cash and Victor Araujo each pitched two innings in relief of starter Scott Barlow and slammed the door on the Hot Rods.
"I think we have a good one (bullpen)," said Loons pitching coach Bill Simas. "Our guys down there are paying attention to what's going on out there, and they're ready when it's their time."
There's no question the 'pen will be called upon again tonight when the Loons take on the Hot Rods in a 7:05 p.m. game. That's not a knock on Loons starter Victor Arano (2-2, 6.12 ERA), but rather the reality that starters' pitch counts are closely monitored, and that complete games throughout professional baseball could qualify for an endangered species list.
Moreover, says Simas, the stigma of being a reliever in the minors - and at a lower level like Single-A - isn't nearly as negative as it once was.
"The game has specialized so much that it really doesn't mean anything," said Simas. "I was sent to the bullpen in Single-A, in this league in fact, and a year and a half later I was in the majors."
Simas pitched in 308 major league games from 1995-2001, and all were in relief.
"When they first took me out of the rotation (in 1993 with Cedar Rapids) I told them they were making a big mistake," said Simas. "Turned out it was the best thing that happened to my career."
Eight different Loons pitchers have started games so far this season, while pitchers like Araujo, Michael Johnson and Mark Pope have worked exclusively out of the bullpen. And each one of them has been lights-out: Pope's ERA is 0.64, while Araujo (1.04) and Johnson (1.29) aren't far behind.
Pope, a former 5th round pick of the San Diego Padres, hasn't allowed an earned run since April 15. Johnson, who pitched at Dartmouth College, has struck out 26 batters in 21 innings. Araujo, a native of the Dominican Republic, hasn't allowed an earned run in over two weeks.
"Johnson was a starter at Dartmouth, so he's kind of new to the bullpen," said Simas. "But he's got good command and he's had a very good curveball."
The bullpen's work has helped the Loons (19-21) win three of four since returning home Monday. They're five games out of first in the Midwest League Eastern Division first-half standings with 30 games left in the half.
Tonight they'll face Bowling Green right-hander Jaime Schultz, who will be making his Midwest League debut. A 14th round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013 out of High Point (N.C.) University, pitched in 17 games last season for Hudson Valley of the rookie New York-Penn League.
Schultz will debut while facing the MWL's most productive offense. The Loons lead the league in runs (222), hits (377), RBI (190), total bases (528) and stolen bases (80). Rightfielder Joey Curletta, who had three more hits Thursday night, leads the MWL with his .364 batting average.
Tonight is Super Hero Night at the ballpark. Fans are encouraged to wear the costume of their favorite super hero and can have their picture taken before the game for the chance of winning an Amazon Kindle Fire.
The Great Lakes Loons are an eighth-year Single-A partner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. For tickets and information, call 989-837-BALL, or visit loons.com.