The mood has been light and loud in the Inland Empire clubhouse during the 66ers' charge to second-half pennant contention. Lately, the suddenly prodigious power bat of Sherman Johnson has been generating the biggest laughs.
The Angels prospect homered for the fourth straight game Saturday, part of a career-high five-hit night, as Class A Advanced Inland Empire rallied for a 9-7, 10-inning win at Lancaster.
"I haven't really changed anything," Johnson said after Saturday's win. "I'm definitely seeing the ball a lot better than I have all year. I'm not really a home run guy, so the guys are kind of joking with me about it.
"I guess it's just one of those things. The guys around me are hitting, and hitting really is contagious. I'm just trying to go up there, put a good swing on the ball and get on base for my teammates."
With a .348/.455/.679 slash line in August, Johnson is one of the major reasons the 66ers are alive in the California League South Division second-half race. After finishing the first half at 25-45, Inland Empire is 35-33 and clinging to a one-game lead over Lake Elsinore and Lancaster with two to play.
Johnson has been on his hottest stretch of a red-hot month over the last week. He extended his hitting streak to seven games with a leadoff triple in the first inning Saturday, then led off the third, sixth and ninth with singles.
In the 10th, Mark Shannon broke a 5-5 tie with a one-out solo shot and Alex Allbritton added an RBI double three batters later. With two outs and a man aboard, Johnson bashed his fifth homer in four games, and it proved to be the difference.
"I was hoping that it wasn't going to come down to those last two runs," Johnson said. "I was just trying to get a good pitch up in the zone and put a good swing on it. I wasn't really thinking about, 'We need more runs,' I was just trying to get a base hit."
Johnson has bashed eight of his 17 homers this season in August and has driven in 24 runs, seven more than in any other month this year.
"It's kind of weird how it goes," he said. "I can go a stretch without hitting a home run all season and then, like this last week, they came in bunches. It's not really anything I can explain. I'm not doing anything different. I'm doing the same cage work with our hitting coach, Brent Del Chiaro. It's nothing that I can say that I've done different. I guess I'm just getting good pitches up in the zone and have been lucky enough to put good swings on them."
The 66ers have followed Johnson's lead, going 19-9 in August before the regular season comes to a close on Labor Day. For the month, they're batting a league-leading .304.
"It's a total turnaround from where we were in the beginning of June and even the end of June," Johnson said. "Guys are having fun in the clubhouse. We're playing music, playing cards, guys are joking around. It's just a great atmosphere. Nobody's really tight, like they were two months ago or three months ago."
When 66ers starter Dan Tobik came one after 4 2/3 five innings, four relievers came to his aid. Austin Adams (3-2) earned the win, striking out four and walking two over two hitless frames.
JetHawks reliever Andrew Walter (0-2) surrendered three runs on seven hits over 2 1/3 innings and took the loss.