If any member of the Iowa Cubs' lineup was struggling at the plate, Monday was a good night to break out of a slump. Christian Villanueva can attest to that and he wasn't the only one.
The Cubs' No. 11 prospect homered and matched a career high by driving in five runs as Triple-A Iowa thumped Fresno, 17-2, in the series opener of a four-game set at Chukchansi Park. Teammate Rafael Lopez capped a career-high seven-RBI night with a grand slam while top Cubs prospect Javier Baez fell a double short of the cycle.
Since May 21, Villanueva has registered just 11 hits in 58 at-bats, resulting in a .190 average over that stretch that had sent his season-long mark tumbling to .222 entering Monday. That sent the 22-year-old in search of helpful words from fellow prospects and coaches.
"I talked to some of my teammates that have a lot of experience at this level like [infielder Chris] Valaika," Villanueva said. "He's been helping me a lot, talking to me about pitchers, what they're trying to do with hitters. My hitting coach, [Brian] Harper, he's been working with me a lot trying to get me out of this slump."
On Monday night, the Guadalajara, Mexico native may have started to turn the corner. Baez sparked Iowa with a solo homer in the top of the first inning, and the Cubs led by three runs when Villanueva notched his first hit in the fifth. Lopez plated Baez with the first of his runs with a groundout to second base. With two outs and Ryan Kalish at third, Villanueva notched an RBI single.
In the sixth, the third baseman helped to put the game away. Lopez singled in two runs before Villanueva hammered a two-out grand slam to left field. Iowa added two more runs in the seventh and four in the ninth on Lopez's grand slam.
"This is a new level," Villanueva said. "There are a lot of guys with a lot of experience here, guys who have gone to the big leagues and been up and down. The sequences that they throw, they don't throw too many fastballs like Double-A or high A. We need to adjust to those breaking balls."
Like Villanueva, Baez has been struggling to put together a solid span in the Pacific Coast League. Also like his left-side counterpart, the shortstop is showing signs of coming to life. After batting just .172 in 15 April games, Baez batted .250 in 29 May contests. Through the first week of June, the 21-year-old is hitting .364 with two home runs, six RBIs and a 1.196 OPS.
"He's seeing the ball better now," Villanueva said of Baez. "He's more patient at the plate. He's doing the same team as my other teammates, just trying to go out there and have fun and enjoy this game."
Iowa starter Tsuyoshi Wada (6-3) worked six innings and allowed one run on eight hits while striking out two and walking one to earn the victory.
Grizzlies starter Jason Berken (7-5) was charged with five runs on nine hits while walking three and striking out three in five innings.
"I can't explain it," Villanueva said of his offense's big night. "It's too much fun to see all your teammates going through every inning, getting hits, getting on base, good at-bats, driving in runs. We just feel happy to get that 'W' for Wada who did a great job too."