The 2012 season for the Houston Astros has been one to forget at the Major League level. That scenario is much different in the Minors, welcome news for an organization that has struggled to develop impact players over the last several years.
Lexington has proven to be fertile ground for Astros prospects this year. The team entered games Aug. 22 with the second best overall record in the Southern Division with a 67-59 mark, and the Legends have seen a handful of players make significant strides in their development and rank among the league leaders in several categories. The pitching has been paced by the strong performances of starters Michael Foltynewicz and Luis Cruz, and the lineup has been powered by Zach Johnson and the recently promoted Delino DeShields Jr.
"These guys kept working hard," said manager Ivan De Jesus Sr. "I kept telling them at the start of the season that it was a marathon, not a sprint. All these guys worked hard to have good seasons and turn things around during those times when things weren't going as well."
No one has been more consistent than Foltynewicz, the Astros' first-round pick in 2010. The big right-hander lost his first nine decisions as a professional, including six of his first seven starts in 2011 while going 5-11 with a 4.97 ERA at Lexington. He returned to the SAL this spring and displayed more polish, particularly with his control as well as his feel for his off-speed pitches. The results include leading the league with 14 wins and ranking second with a 2.67 ERA and 145 innings pitched and fifth with an opponents' batting average of .241.
"This year has been all about hitting my spots while maintaining my velocity," said Foltynewicz, who has allowed eight hits and no earned runs over his last 19 innings and recorded a season-high 10 strikeouts against Greensboro on Aug. 21. "I've been concentrating on working both sides of the plate, hitting the outside corner and the inside corner. I think I've done a good job of improving the location of my pitches this season."
In many ways, Cruz is the antithesis of Foltynewicz. The diminutive left-hander from Puerto Rico has ridden the proverbial roller coaster this season. He notched victories in five straight decisions from April 27 to May 30 before going 0-4 in June. Cruz rebounded to win his next four decisions before having that streak snapped Aug. 15, when he suffered the loss after giving up four earned runs in six innings at Savannah. Cruz pitches to contact and does a good job of mixing his pitches, resulting in 123 strikeouts, good for third in the SAL. He also ranks third with 136 2/3 innings pitched and 10th with a 3.89 ERA while posting a 9-6 record.
Johnson, the Legends' first baseman, has put up some impressive numbers despite being somewhat unheralded, not unlike Cruz. Drafted in the 15th round last year out of Oklahoma State, Johnson leads the league with 106 RBIs, is tied for first with 13 sacrifice flies and for third with 35 doubles, and ranks fourth with 51 extra-base hits. His batting average, meanwhile, is a modest .243, and at age 24 he is unlikely to find his way on a plethora of prospect lists.
One player who has regained his stature as a top prospect is DeShields, who was promoted to Lancaster in the California League on Aug. 10. DeShields joined Foltynewicz and Cruz in making an encore appearance in Lexington. After a dismal showing in 2011 that included a meager .220 batting average, the second baseman responded to the challenge by hitting .298 with the Legends. Nearly two weeks after his promotion, he continues to lead the SAL with 83 stolen bases (35 more than his closest rival), 96 runs and five intentional walks while raking fourth with 70 bases on balls and fifth with 131 hits.
"Things have started to come together, that's the big thing," DeShields said. "I'm learning things faster and easier. I'm better at second base; I'm a better hitter and base runner. It's just a matter of getting comfortable. I've got a lot to learn and a lot of progress to make, but I can see a lot of improvements in every area of my game."
Pennant fever: The pennant race is tight in the Northern Division with a dozen games left in the regular season. Hagerstown, which finished in second place in the campaign's first half, leads Hickory and West Virginia by 1 1/2 games and Greensboro and Lakewood by four. This weekend could be a defining moment when the Crawdads travel to West Virginia for four games while the Suns host Delmarva, owners of the league's worst overall record. In the Southern Division, Rome has a three-game advantage over Asheville and 5 1/2 games over Augusta.
Alsup's 'A' game: Asheville's Ben Alsup ranks second in the SAL with 13 wins and tops the circuit with 150 innings pitched. The former LSU standout went 2-0 this past week, allowing only three hits and no earned runs in 15 innings. His performance Aug. 15 against Charleston was his best of the season as he allowed only a one-out, broken-bat single to Ben Gamel in the seventh inning in his shutout.
Hefflinger's hot: Someone forgot to mention the dog days of August to Rome outfielder Robby Hefflinger. In addition to hitting at a .310 clip so far this month, 11 of Hefflinger's 22 hits have gone for extra bases, leading to a league-best 22 RBIs in 18 outings.