A torn meniscus in his left knee limited Josh Bell to just 15 games with West Virginia last season, his first in the pros. The Pirates' second-round pick in 2011 is back with a vengeance, displaying some early-season power that could put the 20-year-old outfielder back on the fast track to the big leagues.
"Last year was frustrating, but it's just part of playing the game," said Bell, who hit .274 with 11 RBIs last season before undergoing surgery April 26 and missing the remainder of the campaign. "Injuries happen, and I just tried to take it day-by-day and do what I could to get back on the field. I'm back now, and I feel good about the way everything is going."
While West Virginia sputtered a bit out of the gate and won eight of its first 19 games, Bell joined first baseman Stetson Allie in providing much of the power to the team's lineup. The right fielder got off to somewhat of a slow start from an average standpoint before raising it to .289 through April 23, thanks in part to an eight-game hitting streak from April 8-16 as well as a current five-game string. On two occasions he has gone 4-for-5 in a contest, the latest coming Sunday when he drove in four runs in an 11-2 victory over Hagerstown.
Bell's recent offensive barrage has him leading the SAL in RBIs (21) and doubles (10), tied for the top spot with 12 extra-base hits and tied for fourth with 16 runs scored. West Virginia manager Mike Ryan did little to comfort opposing pitchers when he said Bell is not yet at his best after enduring a 10-month layoff.
"I was a little rusty when I first got to Spring Training, and it took me a couple of weeks to get back and feel completely comfortable," said Bell, who was projected to see action during instructional league last fall before persistent swelling in his surgically repaired knee arose. "It's one of those things where I'm feeling better every day and really feel like I'm getting into the swing of things."
Drafted out of a Dallas high school, Bell was considered to be unsignable due to his commitments to the University of Texas prior to coming to terms on a $5 million deal at the deadline. As a result, he did not make his debut in a professional game until last April, when he surprised some people by opening the campaign in a full-season league. Now that he's back on the field and healthy, Bell is beginning to blossom, displaying the ability to drive the ball from both sides of the plate with his mature approach and outstanding all-around athleticism.
"I'm seeing the ball really well right now and discovering what I can and can't do against some very good pitchers," Bell said. "I know I have a lot of things to work on, but it's definitely a better feeling to be on the field and playing compared to what I experienced last season."
Big on the bump: With starters Joan Gregorio (1.06), Chris Stratton (1.08) and Martin Agosta (1.71) sporting ERAs under 2.00, it's not surprising that Augusta leads the SAL in team ERA at 2.42. The GreenJackets bullpen has been equally impressive, led by closer Tyler Mizenko (no earned runs allowed in eight innings with 10 strikeouts and five saves), Stephen Johnson (no earned runs allowed in 10 innings with nine strikeouts) and Derek Law (one run allowed in 12 1/3 innings with 17 strikeouts).
High times for Hickory: The Crawdads reeled off a seven-game winning streak by taking three straight at Asheville and sweeping a four-game series versus Charleston before losing, 10-8, to Greensboro on April 23. Hickory also swept the SAL Player of the Week honors, with Nick Williams being named the top hitter after going 13-for-31 with four homers and 10 RBIs and Alexander Claudio tabbed the top hurler after posting a 2-0, 0.00 line with one hit allowed and 11 strikeouts over seven innings.
Swinging Sand Gnats: Savannah has three of the league's top five hitters, with Brandon Nimmo topping the SAL with a .414 batting average, followed by Jayce Boyd (2nd, .394) and Kevin Plawecki (5th, .379). Surprisingly, the Sand Gnats rank only fifth in the 14-team league with a .269 team average.
Mueller released: Rome outfielder Tony Mueller was released by the Atlanta Braves on April 23 and replaced on the roster by Joey Meneses, who hit .303 in 41 games in the Gulf Coast League last year. Mueller, a former standout at Winona State, was the co-Most Valuable Player of the 2011 Division II National Championships.