Ozuna finds his footing in New Orleans

Marcell Ozuna has batted .353 with 12 extra-base hits in his first 18 games with the Zephyrs. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Marcell Ozuna has batted .353 with 12 extra-base hits in his first 18 games with the Zephyrs. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Coming into 2015, the Miami Marlins had reasons to believe that this would be the season to break a 12-year playoff drought since winning the franchise’s second World Series in 2003.

The team had acquired Dee Gordon and Dan Haren from the Los Angeles Dodgers, and veteran righty Mat Latos from Cincinnati. They gave superstar slugger Giancarlo Stanton a 13-year, $325 million contract extension, the richest contract in American sports history.

Miami had the makings of one of the best outfields in the game, with all three positions occupied by players 25 years old or younger. Christian Yelich, a 2014 National League Gold Glove winner, also signed a new contract with the club prior to the season after batting .284 with nine home runs and 54 RBI in his first full season.

But the player who manned the outfield between Stanton and Yelich flashed two-way ability that could impact the game like few others in the league. 24-year-old Marcell Ozuna, the club’s starting center fielder, was coming off a season in which he hit .269 with 23 home runs, 26 doubles and 85 RBI. He played defense at a high level, racking up 10 outfield assists to rank second in the National League.

However, the 2015 season has not gone the way Ozuna or the Marlins would have liked it to, as the Dominican Republic native went 1-for-37 over a 10-game stretch before being optioned to New Orleans on July 5. He had been hitting .249 with four homers and 26 RBI for Miami in 79 games. It was the first demotion of any kind for Ozuna since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2008.

“It’s funny, I have so much history with Ozuna; I’ve know him since he signed,” Zephyrs manager Andy Haines said. “I managed instructional league the day he came in and it’s funny to see him go from a little kid, basically, to what he is now and in the grand scheme of things, like I’ve told him about 10 times, this is the best thing that could ever happen to him. I think he’s a major league All-Star and I think he could be a superstar-type player.”

Ozuna has come to New Orleans and performed the way he’s capable of, batting .353 with 12 extra-base hits in 18 games, while collecting four homers and nine RBI. He recently rescued the Zephyrs with a game-tying home run in the ninth inning in Nashville, and has hit .524 (11-for-21) in the seventh inning and later.

“You just don’t see guys that can do what he does with the bat,” Haines said. “Some of the balls he’s hit and the way he can play the outfield and throw. I don’t know if I’ve had a player handle it better, coming from the big leagues to Triple-A. He just plays with a joy about him and he’s happy and he’s been a good teammate.”

For now, as he continues to rack up the hits against Pacific Coast League pitchers, Ozuna awaits the call that will bring him back to Miami. He said it’s been tough, but he continues to put his best foot forward and hone his craft.

“I am just waiting for Miami to give me the chance again to play in the big leagues,” Ozuna said. “That’s what I work for and what I wait for.”

As for his recent run of success with the Zephyrs, Ozuna said he isn’t trying to do too much, instead focusing on the basics.

“I’m just going out there trying to hit the ball. I don’t do anything specific. I just hit the ball and stay back,” he said.

Rienzo makes most of All-Star opportunity

Andre Rienzo worked a scoreless second inning during the PCL's 4-3 loss to the IL. Photo by: Chris Donahue

Andre Rienzo worked a scoreless second inning during the PCL’s 4-3 loss to the IL. Photo by: Chris Donahue

When the Pacific Coast League announced the players it had selected to attend the 2015 Triple-A All-Star Game at Werner Park in Omaha, Zephyrs starter Andre Rienzo’s name was not on the list, despite a 2.75 ERA.

But when fellow starter Adam Conley was summoned from New Orleans to Miami for a spot start the Saturday before the break, Rienzo was chosen to replace his teammate for his third career All-Star nod. It was an honor that Rienzo said he was very humbled to accept.

“Conley deserved it and couldn’t go after he got called up, so I went and I really appreciate that the team gave me a chance to go,” Rienzo said.

Having previously pitched in the 2011 California/Carolina League All-Star Game and the 2013 Futures Game, Rienzo was able to draw from his experience and work around a leadoff walk to toss a scoreless second inning in an eventual 4-3 PCL loss to the International League’s best.

“I have been in the bullpen before so I just tried to relax and not do too much, because sometimes when you go to the bullpen you do too much and get a loss. I just wanted to go to the All-Star Game and have fun. The game is about having fun and I tried my best and had fun with the whole thing,” Rienzo said.

The 27-year-old right-hander from Brazil had set down the two batters he faced in the California/Carolina League tilt and then followed that up two summers later with a perfect frame with a national audience at the Futures Game at Citi Field. Pitching for the World Team, Rienzo got San Diego’s Austin Hedges to pop up, got Cincinnati’s speed demon Billy Hamilton to ground out, and struck out Texas’s Delino DeShields Jr.

Rienzo said he didn’t think too much about his impressive performance two years ago, instead opting to just go out there and try his best and have fun.

“The Futures Game was different. Everybody in that game was just happy to be there, and our league’s All-Star Game is in the middle of the season so we can just have fun and see friends from other teams on the other side,” he said.

After walking Dixon Machado to open the second inning last Wednesday, Rienzo got Jackie Bradley Jr. to line out and then induced a groundout from James Beresford before striking out Matt Hague to end his night in front of the national TV audience on MLB Network.

Setting aside the TV cameras, Rienzo focused on his task and has now thrown 2 2/3 scoreless innings in three career All-Star appearances.

“It’s really cool because this is one of the things you work for,” Rienzo said. “You care a lot about your teammates and your team, but sometimes when you have that kind of chance to be by yourself in an All-Star Game, it’s pretty cool.”

Galloway making a difference on defense

Isaac Galloway has made highlight-reel catches routine during his first Triple-A campaign. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Isaac Galloway has made highlight-reel catches routine during his first Triple-A campaign. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

On any ballclub, there always seems to be at least one player that makes highlight-reel plays and impacts games with his glove and arm.

For the New Orleans Zephyrs, that man is clearly Isaac Galloway.

Galloway has hit .243 in 67 games in his first season at Triple-A, but has been a difference-maker for the Zephyrs in the outfield, consistently running down fly balls and on occasion robbing home runs from the opposition.

Galloway has said that he takes batting practice seriously, using the time before games to practice his routes to fly balls and keep his legs in shape so he can be a game-changer.

“My legs are important. I have to make sure I keep them fresh to run down balls,” he said. “But I try and take good routes in BP and I take that pretty serious. I try to make my defense as important as my offense.”

The offensive side of the game has slowly started to come around for the 26-year-old Galloway, who has hit .300 (9-for-30) in nine July games. He has been in the lineup 66 of 71 games since joining the club in late-April and Galloway said that being in there nearly every day has helped him mature as a player.

“Last year my playing time and at-bats were sporadic and that was kind of the first time for me that I had to deal with that,” he said. “It was an adjustment for me and I didn’t know how to handle that. But this year, I’ve gotten a lot more playing time and more consistent playing time so that has helped me get into more of a rhythm.”

Galloway is tied for the team lead with six stolen bases, despite not having one since June 17. He said he wants to run as often as possible for the Z’s, who have the third-fewest stolen bases in the league, but knows he needs to pick and choose his spots well.

“I try and go for it as much as possible when I get on base,” Galloway said. “This isn’t a team that runs too much and when I get on I try and make something happen.”

A player that relies on his speed to be dangerous, Galloway has set a new career-best with seven triples this season, and had a walk-off RBI single against Omaha on June 13 during a stretch where he had at least one hit in 13 of 16 games.

He has hit .274 with six doubles, five triples and two home runs at home, compared to .213 with six extra-base hits on the road. Considering New Orleans is no paradise to hit in compared to some of the higher-elevated cities in the Pacific Coast League, Galloway said he doesn’t change his approach depending on where he’s digging into the batter’s box.

“I’ve never thought about it or even realized it,” he said. “I have the same approach, home or away, so I guess I am just a little more comfortable at home.”

For a player that collected his first Triple-A hit off Barry Zito on April 25, Galloway has not eased up at all, knowing he’s nearly assured of being slotted into center field upon arrival into the Zephyrs’ clubhouse.

“When I first got called up here, I didn’t know exactly what to expect,” he said. “But I just try to play hard and play well and I definitely don’t take playing every day for granted.”

All-Star Wittgren grasping closer’s role

Nick Wittgren has converted 10 of 11 save opportunities since joining the Zephyrs in mid-April. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Nick Wittgren has converted 10 of 11 save opportunities since joining the Zephyrs in mid-April. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Nick Wittgren has only been a professional baseball player for three and a half seasons now. But he’s starting to get accustomed to being named an All-Star.

The closer was one of two Zephyrs selected to the 2015 Triple-A All-Star Game, to be played at Omaha’s Werner Park on July 15, along with starting pitcher Adam Conley.

Wittgren has now been chosen to represent four different leagues in mid-summer All-Star Games since being selected by the Marlins in the ninth round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft out of Purdue.

“It’s awesome. Being selected with Conley is definitely an honor,” Wittgren said.

The 24-year-old right-hander was previously an All-Star in the New York-Penn League in 2012, the Florida State League in 2013 and the Southern League last season. But the bump up in level of play has elevated Wittgren’s performance, as he has tied for fourth in the Pacific Coast League with 10 saves since being promoted from Double-A Jacksonville in mid-April.

Wittgren said he started to grasp the mentality of being a closer when he got to Purdue after spending one season at Parkland College in Illinois.

“I thrive on pressure and it all started once I got to Purdue. My coach asked me if I wanted to close and I said ‘sure.’ It started from there,” he said. “Sure enough, I had success and he looked at me at the end of the season and asked if I wanted to start again and I said, ‘whatever you want, but I love closing.’ He said they were going to keep me there and I’ve been loving it since. I just love going out there and competing.”

Wittgren set a new school-record with 22 saves at Purdue and was the winning pitcher in the Big Ten Tournament championship game in 2012. He became the first Boilermaker to record a double-figure saves total in consecutive seasons and pitched to a 1.46 ERA for Jamestown in 17 games after being picked by the Marlins.

He has been on the fast-track through the Miami system since, recording 25 saves in 29 chances for Single-A Advanced Jupiter in 2013, which earned him a late-season promotion to Jacksonville, where he converted he only save chance.

Wittgren had 20 saves in 25 chances for the Suns last season, becoming one of only four minor leaguers to notch at least 20 saves in each of the last two years, but faced some adversity by allowing six home runs and posting a 3.55 ERA in 52 games for the Southern League champions.

His first season with New Orleans has been nearly adversity-free, as he successfully converted his first eight save chances before blowing a one-run lead on June 28 at Iowa.

“It’s always tough when you give up the lead and essentially lose it for your team, but as a baseball player in general, you have to have a short memory and if you hold onto things, it’s going to eat you alive in this game,” he said.

Wittgren responded with a perfect ninth the following day and now has 11 saves in 12 chances for the Zephyrs to go along with a 2.18 ERA in 33 innings. The hard-thrower has 34 strikeouts compared to just five walks, and he has allowed the second-fewest number of baserunners per nine innings in the PCL at 8.45.

He said that when the Zephyrs’ starters pitch well – the club leads the PCL with a 3.13 ERA – he gets the itch to get out there and do the same.

“It’s definitely contagious when our starters are going well. You see the starter going out there and competing and that fires up the bullpen. I want to be in the game and who doesn’t want to be a part of a shutout?” Wittgren said.

Conley is slated to start the All-Star Game in Omaha later this month, and if all goes to plan, Wittgren could be in line to save it for his teammate, a proposition that sounds just fine to the closer.

“That would be pretty cool if he got the start and the win and I got the save,” he said.

Nola returns to Omaha with Zephyrs

Austin Nola warms up with Marlins teammates prior to an exhibition game at Zephyr Field on March 30, 2013. Photo by: Parker Waters

Austin Nola warms up with Marlins teammates prior to an exhibition game at Zephyr Field on March 30, 2013. Photo by: Parker Waters

The last time New Orleans Zephyrs shortstop Austin Nola took the field in Omaha, Nebraska, he was suiting up for the LSU Tigers in the College World Series.

This week, Nola returns to the city of his most successful triumph, having earned a promotion to Triple-A for the first time as the Z’s open a four-game series against the Omaha Storm Chasers.

“I haven’t been back in Omaha since we won in 2009 so it’ll be a lot of fun,” Nola said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to run by the old Rosenblatt site where we had so many memories.”

It was in the 2009 College World Series where Nola, then a freshman for the Tigers, had his coming-out party, helping LSU win its sixth championship in the penultimate season at historic Rosenblatt Stadium. His defense at shortstop was perfect – no errors in 24 chances in Omaha – and his bat started to come around .250 (5-for-20 with a double, home run and four runs scored) ahead of three more seasons in the middle of the diamond for LSU.

Following a four-year run at LSU, Nola was chosen by Miami in the fifth round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft and he worked his way to Double-A Jacksonville in 2014, where he was a member of the Southern League championship team that was headlined by a host of current Zephyrs.

But it was not an easy road for Nola once he got to Jacksonville, and even after tasting success for the Suns last season, he returned to Double-A this year and was tasked with playing some second base, a new position for him.

“I needed to learn how to play more second base and get used to playing all around the diamond, being a utility player. That was big for me to get some good reps at second base at Double-A,” Nola said. “I was just trying to refine my approach, that’s it. I want to be consistent and I’ve been able to hit in all counts and play good defense at some different positions, which is a big thing for me.”

Though he hit only .211 in 69 games for Jacksonville this year, Nola was called up to New Orleans last weekend when starting shortstop Miguel Rojas earned himself a promotion to Miami.

“It’s a change of scenery and I’m moving on up. That’s always what you want to do when you get into this line of business: move up the ladder,” he said.

Nola played 27 games at second base, making three errors in 101 chances, but knows he needs to show versatility to continue “climbing the ladder.”

“Reid [Brignac] and I talked about that in spring training,” Nola said. “We talked a little about he and I being Louisiana guys and he just told me to play everything like shortstop. A lot of people I have talked to about it say that if you play shortstop a lot, you’ll be able to adjust to any other position on the field.”

For now, Nola will have to adjust to playing close to home for the first time since graduating from LSU in 2012. But he knows that when he and the Zephyrs return home starting July 4, he’ll have plenty of ticket requests to deal with.

“I’ve got a lot of great family and friends that are all looking forward to getting to see me when we get home and it’s going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “I have a lot of family and friends and you can’t beat that.”

Zephyrs take finale in extras against Iowa

uan Diaz hit a sacrifice fly with one out in the top of the 12th inning to send the New Orleans Zephyrs to a 2-1 victory a salvage a split from the Iowa Cubs on Monday afternoon.

Pinch-hitter Jordany Valdespin led off the 12th with a single and advanced to third when a sacrifice bunt by Jhonatan Solano was thrown up the first base line by catcher Kyle Schwarber. After an Austin Wates strikeout, Diaz hit a 1-1 pitch to right field to score Valdespin.

Nick Wittgren worked a perfect bottom of the 12th for his ninth save, just one day after allowing two runs on three hits to the Cubs, giving the Zephyrs their fourth win in nine tries in extra innings.

Grant Dayton (2-1) tossed a season-high three innings in relief to get the win for New Orleans, yielding one hit and one walk. It was his longest outing since August 10, 2013 for Double-A Jacksonville.

Vinny Rottino continued his torrid month of June with his seventh home run of the season, leading off the second inning. Rottino is now batting .413 in June to lead the Pacific Coast League, and his seven homers move him into a tie with Derek Dietrich for the team lead.

Adam Conley turned in another solid start for the Zephyrs, allowing just one run on three hits over six innings, but did not factor into the decision. The southpaw struck out seven and walked four. He lowered his ERA to 2.52, the fourth-lowest mark in the league.

Lay Batista hurled two scoreless innings of relief for New Orleans, which split the four-game set in Iowa and eight meetings this season at Principal Park.

Blake Cooper (5-3) was saddled with the loss after allowing the unearned run in the 12th, his third inning of relief for Iowa.

Cubs pitchers combined to limit the Zephyrs to three hits through the first 10 innings.

The Zephyrs continue their road trip on Tuesday night in Omaha against the Storm Chasers. The two teams will resume the suspended game from June 14 at Zephyr Field before playing a seven-inning contest afterward. The suspended game will resume at 4:35 p.m. from Werner Park.

Conley’s debut highlights “awesome week”

Adam Conley has ranked among the PCL leaders in wins and ERA en route to making his big league debut. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Adam Conley has ranked among the PCL leaders in wins and ERA en route to making his big league debut. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Pitching just an hour from his hometown, Adam Conley had more support than usual in the stands on June 5.

The 25-year-old left-hander was making his first professional start in his home state of Washington, with more than 30 friends and family in the stands as the Zephyrs took on the Tacoma Rainiers. Conley, who resides nearby in Olympia, Washington, gave his supporters plenty to cheer for.

Conley delivered his best start of the year, throwing 7 1/3 innings, scattering six hits and three runs, while striking out eight as the Z’s won 6-4. He threw 72 of his 107 pitches for strikes and turned in his longest start of the year.

“There was more adrenaline in that start than others. I just felt like the atmosphere there was a little more electric for me, knowing who was there and everything and just from the baseball side of it, it’s a great atmosphere there in Tacoma,” Conley said. “But on top of it, knowing there were so many friends and family there watching me put it over the edge.”

But the great feeling that Conley had following his best start of the season was only multiplied three days later when the Marlins called him up for his Major League debut.

“It was an awesome week for me, that’s for sure. It’s one I won’t forget,” Conley said. “When you go through professional baseball you wonder what that day is going to be like, and over the past few years, I was anticipating it more and was more anxious about that day coming. As I’ve gotten older, I understand better that when I was going to go up there, I needed to be ready and give myself the best chance to stay.”

Conley did his part, setting down the side in order on only six pitches on June 10 at Toronto. Although he was returned to New Orleans on June 12, Conley was able to take in the full experience of being in the bigs and pitching on a new mound, in a new stadium in front of all kinds of new fans.

“What I like to do, and I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now, is when I get to a new stadium that I’ve never been to, I take a good look around then so when I go out there to pitch, it’s not going to be the first time I’ve been out there,” he said. “I had not only the early stretching and throwing program before the game, but I sat through two games from start to finish and it was actually the last defensive inning for us in the whole series, so I had a lot of time to take it in and be with the guys and learn the ropes.”

In two starts upon returning to Triple-A, Conley has earned a pair of victories, including Wednesday’s win over Round Rock when he limited the Express to one hit in six scoreless innings.

The win was Conley’s seventh of the year to move him into a tie for the Pacific Coast League lead, and he lowered his ERA to 2.61, putting him in consideration for the third All-Star nod of his career in his third different level of the Marlins organization.

But Conley said he’s just pitching more consistently to get more outs this season, after struggling in his first taste of Triple-A in 2014.

“I don’t think the things I am doing well right now are any better than they have been in the past when I do things well,” he said. “But I think it’s just limiting those mistakes and being more consistent. When I go out there I don’t do anything special. I just try and move my fastball to both sides of the plate and I try and get ahead and stay ahead.”

“When I can throw three pitches for a strike, on both sides of the plate, I like my chances. I think hitting is the hardest thing to do in sports and I try and keep that in mind when I’m on the mound.”

Dietrich’s game rounding into form

Derek Dietrich has hit .424 over his last nine games with five doubles, two home runs and nine RBI. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Derek Dietrich has hit .424 over his last nine games with five doubles, two home runs and nine RBI. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

After getting off to a hot start in the season’s first three weeks, Derek Dietrich cooled off significantly and saw his average dip into the low .200’s. For a player with 106 games and 373 at-bats under his belt in the major leagues, Dietrich knew that he needed to just stay the course and his bat would come back to him.

He closed May with a bang, racking up five extra-base hits and seven RBI over the final week of the month, getting his average back near his career minor league mark of .280.

“I think I’m usually a pretty good starter into the season and I got off to a good start here, but I just had to battle there for a few weeks,” Dietrich said. “I never panicked once and I trusted my ability to hit and I’ve just been a little bit more aggressive and really looking to drive the ball and use the opposite field.”

From May 23-27, Dietrich went on a tear, picking up three straight two-hit games, with five of those hits being doubles. He sprayed the ball to left field helped lengthen a lineup that dipped as the month went on. But when the club went on its first West Coast trip of the season, Dietrich’s bat exploded even more, culminating with a 3-for-4 night in Reno, in which he homered and drove in five runs as part of a 14-3 Zephyrs victory.

“Some days you get 10, 12, 15 hits and the runs come easy and other nights you get two or three and win or lose by one,” he said. “Those are tough games, but the defense has been huge for us and our pitching as well, but I don’t think anyone is worried about our lineup. We’ve shuffled around, but when we get the guys in there, everyone trusts we’re going to get it done at the plate.”

New Orleans finished the month of May with the Pacific Coast League’s best ERA at 2.73 and has committed a PCL-low 27 errors on the season, with Dietrich at the center of the defensive renaissance.

He has been involved in the most double plays at second base and leads all PCL second basemen with a .994 fielding percentage (one error in 160 chances), despite playing seven games at third base and one in left field. Dietrich said that shifting around with his glove isn’t too much of an adjustment.

“Third base comes naturally to me, just being an infielder in general, but I also played third a little bit for the USA team in college and in summer baseball, so I played a little bit on that side of the diamond and it’s always been a spot that I feel comfortable at,” he said.

But he knows that showing flexibility and playing multiple positions is a good way to get his resurgent bat into the lineup and show the Marlins that he is more than a one-trick pony in an effort to get back to the big leagues.

After hitting his team-high sixth home run in Tuesday’s loss at Tacoma, Dietrich is batting .276 and has moved into a tie for the club lead with 24 RBI. He has 10 doubles to equal his season total from all of last year.

“I’m just playing anywhere I can to get my bat in the lineup and give our club here and the Marlins an opportunity to use my bat,” he said.

NOLA burned by late Romak double in Reno

Jamie Romak doubled home the go-ahead runs off of Greg Nappo in the seventh inning to push Reno past New Orleans 4-3 on Sunday at Aces Ballpark. Romak finished the game 3-for-4 with three RBI for the Aces, and came up with the back-breaking double for the third hit in the inning off of Nappo.

Nick Buss singled and Peter O’Brien doubled with one out off of Nappo before the left-hander got Nick Evans to strike out swinging. But three pitches later, Romak clubbed a two-bagger past Austin Wates in left field to put the hosts ahead for good.

New Orleans rallied in the ninth, getting a run when Cole Gillespie walked with the bases loaded, but Vinny Rottino struck out swinging one batter later to end it.

Adam Conley turned in another solid start for the Zephyrs, allowing only one earned run over five innings, scattering five hits. The southpaw threw 54 of 92 pitches for strikes, but did walk four Aces’ batters. Fabian Williamson worked around a single for a scoreless sixth, before Nappo entered and allowed three hits and two runs in two innings out of the New Orleans bullpen.

Gillespie plated Miguel Rojas with a third-inning single and Conley executed a sacrifice bunt to plate Isaac Galloway one frame later for the other Zephyrs runs.

Galloway went 3-for-4 with a run scored and Wates was 2-for-3 with a run for New Orleans, which failed to make up ground on first-place Round Rock which lost for a third straight day on Sunday.

The two clubs will wrap up the series with an 9:05 p.m. CT start on Monday, with right-hander Robert Morey scheduled to oppose Allen Webster.

Winning formula a simple one for Zephyrs

Highlight reel plays have become commonplace for Zephyrs shortstop Miguel Rojas. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Highlight reel plays have become commonplace for Zephyrs shortstop Miguel Rojas. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Two months into the 2015 season, the New Orleans Zephyrs have established an identity that’s led to victories. It may sound simple, but for the Zephyrs to be successful, it comes down to two things: pitching and defense.

Going into the finale of an eight-game homestand on Thursday, New Orleans led the Pacific Coast League in team ERA in the month of May and paced all of the minor leagues with only 20 errors committed in 44 games.

The Z’s are 15-11 in May after going 8-11 in April, and the club’s ERA has sunk from 3.40 in the season’s first month to 2.68 since the calendar turned.

“I really can’t pinpoint anything our guys are doing differently right now,” Zephyrs manager Andy Haines said. “I have been impressed with our pitching from day 1. There are ebbs and flows to the season and I think that’s just natural. There are different parks we go to on the road that are much more difficult to pitch in than ours, but you just can’t ignore how well we’ve thrown the ball on the mound. It gives us a chance to win.”

The Marlins have called up five different pitchers that appeared in game for the Zephyrs so far this year, forcing Haines to readjust his bullpen alignment. But one of the shining stars of the first two months has been 23-year-old Nick Wittgren, who has saves in back-to-back games and has four saves in as many chances in his first taste at Triple-A.

“I’ve had him in the past in Jupiter and he’s been a lockdown closer. He has really responded to the challenge at Triple-A,” Haines said. “It’s huge for the entire club when they have confidence when they get the lead that you can lock it down. There’s nothing more deflating than to not pitch well late in the game when you’ve played well for three hours and your bullpen is in a tough stretch or you don’t have a strong pen.”

Over the last 17 games, Zephyrs relievers have only allowed 13 runs in 56 2/3 innings, a sparkling 2.06 ERA, and Wittgren has allowed just one run over his past 10 appearances.

But a stingy defensive unit led by shortstop Miguel Rojas has nearly overshadowed the great pitching. The 25-year-old pivot man has made a host of sparkling defensive plays up the middle so far this year, catching the eye of Haines from the dugout on a nightly basis.

“You can’t say enough about Rojas in the middle of the field, the way he takes pride in his defense. I would pay to watch him play. That’s the biggest compliment I can give him; the way he goes about it is exciting to watch,” Haines said.

Rojas and second baseman Derek Dietrich have developed into a very solid double-play combination up the middle for the Z’s, with Rojas pointing to a strong relationship between the two for a little insight into the on-field success.

“It’s a good experience to work with a guy you can help out. We can help each other with different things. We’ve been doing a lot together; I help him with defense and he helps me with hitting. That relationship has been great, especially for him,” Rojas said.

Dietrich leads all PCL second basemen with a .993 fielding percentage (one error in 147 chances) and has been involved in the most double plays 28. He and Rojas, along with center fielder Isaac Galloway have provided stability up the middle of the diamond, giving the Z’s pitchers a level of confidence that they’re going to catch the ball if it’s hit to them.

“We’re competitive offensively, but when you have the team we have pitching-wise and the way we can play defense it’s an exciting team to manage,” Haines said. “You see a lot of great plays. You see in big spots if we can make a good pitch, there’s confidence the play is going to be made. Our guys take pride in their defense and you can see the energy they play with on the defensive side of the ball.”

Rojas knows that for the Z’s to continue to win games and put pressure on Round Rock – a team New Orleans has not played yet – as the season pushes towards the midway point, they need to continue playing solid defense, starting with he, Dietrich and Galloway up the middle.

“We need to be able to catch the ball and pitch because we aren’t the kind of team that’s going to hit the ball out of the ballpark,” he said. “We’re going to score a couple of runs, but we need to pitch and play defense. That’s why we have been successful here.”


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