Monthly Archives: May 2015

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.”

Red-hot Gillespie powering Z’s attack

Cole Gillespie ranks among the Pacific Coast League's leading hitters in May. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Cole Gillespie ranks among the Pacific Coast League’s leading hitters in May. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

In 2014, Cole Gillespie reached the big leagues with both Seattle and Toronto, but managed just 74 at-bats between the two stops and spent time on the disabled list for nearly a month. In all, he suited up for six different teams in two different organizations, with a pair of rehab stops in Florida.

But this year, Gillespie has found his groove while comfortably being slotted into manager Andy Haines’ lineup nearly every day and the Zephyrs are reaping the benefits of a healthy and productive player.

In 17 games since May 1, Gillespie has the eighth-highest batting average in the Pacific Coast League at .379 and his 13-game hitting streak from May 2-16 was the sixth-longest streak in the league this season.

Since the calendar turned to May, Gillespie’s average has risen from .270 to .326, coinciding with a recent run of success for New Orleans, whose 11 wins in the month has already eclipsed its total in April.

In the midst of his hitting streak, Gillespie went 9-for-17 in a four-game series in Memphis, including a 4-for-6 game in which he scored three runs.

“I think every hitter will contest that there will be parts of the season where things are starting to roll a little bit and I think it started for me in Memphis,” Gillespie said. “The first game in town over there, it was a hit-parade for the whole team and I was able to get four that night. And that series parlayed into some good at-bats and some hits and things were just falling in place and finding some holes and that’s how baseball works.”

The team returned home and Gillespie remained red-hot, collecting five hits in three games against Oklahoma City before the streak ended with an 0-for-4 night in the second game of the series in Nashville last weekend.

A professional hitter with 243 big league at-bats on his resume, Gillespie said he didn’t put a ton of thought into his streak, instead just trying to “put a good swing on the ball and let the rest take care of itself.” Over the length of his streak, Gillespie struck out only six times and scored nine runs.

“It’s a long season, there’s going to be some ups and downs and you just don’t want to bury yourself when things aren’t going well or you’re not quite feeling well at the plate. You just have to find a way to grind out some at-bats and get some hits,” he said. “I’ve been able to do that for the most part this season.”

Despite the success throughout the season’s first seven weeks, Gillespie is not completely satisfied with what he’s done.

“I wish on a personal level I was driving the ball a little more and hitting for some more power, which I’m capable of, but that park at home might be giving my head a little fits. All I’ve known as a hitter is a friendly yard, but you can’t let that affect you,” he said.

Gillespie leads the Zephyrs with 11 doubles but is yet to hit a home run and has only eight RBI in 129 at-bats. Nevertheless, he ranks in the top-5 in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS and his 53 total bases rank third on the club.

Veteran Rottino giving Zephyrs a boost

After spending time in Japan and Korea, Vinny Rottino has gotten off to a hot start in his return to the Zephyrs. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

After spending time in Japan and Korea, Vinny Rottino has gotten off to a hot start in his return to the Zephyrs. Photo by: Parker Waters / New Orleans Zephyrs

Vinny Rottino is from the old adage that age is just a number. And the 35-year-old is playing like he’s a spring chicken this year for the Zephyrs.

Coming into Tuesday’s series finale against Nashville, Rottino is tied for the team-lead with a .336 batting average and that mark ranks fifth in the Pacific Coast League. He has a team-best 22 RBI and also leads the club with 20 runs scored, as the Z’s have climbed to second place in the division behind Round Rock.

Rottino credits his offensive surge to four years ago, when he played for the Zephyrs for the first time. In 2011, playing for manager Greg Norton and hitting coach Damon Minor, both former major leaguers, Rottino said he picked up a couple adjustments that he continues to use today.

“Using some of those adjustments back then and going to Asia I learned how to block stuff out a little bit better, mentally,” Rottino said.

After spending time with both the New York Mets and Cleveland Indians’ Triple-A and MLB clubs in 2012, Rottino spent the last two seasons playing in Asia, first in Japan’s Pacific League in 2013 and then in the Korean Baseball Organization last year.

Over 313 at-bats in the past two seasons, Rottino hit .275, with six home runs and 30 RBI. He’s on pace to shatter those numbers this year, but knows he learned invaluable lessons playing in the foreign lands.

“They just are so demanding over there and I stay in the moment a little bit better now. It was a good experience to be over there and if I go to the big leagues, that’s going to have to happen again. You have to perform and to learn how to and know how to forget past at-bats, which is invaluable,” he said.

Rottino has at least one hit in every away game this year and has three hits in 14 at-bats in the current series against Nashville, which began this past Saturday with a marathon 18-inning game.

“I was talking to the first base coaches on Saturday, just trying to stay awake at that point, and I was telling them about that 24-inning game,” he said. “I was saying that it was the second-worst game I’d ever played in. The worst was the 24-inning one. It wouldn’t end. We had to finish the game the next day.”

That 24-inning game Rottino speaks of was played out over two days in May of 2006 at the now-closed Greer Stadium in Nashville. Nine years ago, Rottino was a Brewers farmhand and a member of the Sounds, giving him the distinction of being the only player to suit up for both marathon games between the two clubs.

“It was crazy, but it was cool that I was part of both games,” Rottino said.

The oldest player on the Zephyrs roster and just three years younger than manager Andy Haines, Rottino said this is the first year he’s feeling some of the aches and pains that players feel late in their careers. But with a little more precautionary work before and in between games, Rottino had learned to balance it out and keep the pain away as he’s continuing to crush PCL pitching.

“I still feel great at 35. I don’t feel it, I still feel like I can play in the big leagues,” he said. “My body has felt great every year and it still feels good, I just have to do a little bit more to stay healthy and keep those pains out of the body.”

Z’s topple four-run deficit to beat Dodgers

The Zephyrs got three hits and three RBI from Reid Brignac and benefited from a wild Oklahoma City bullpen to rally with seven runs in the final two innings to earn a 10-4 victory on Wednesday afternoon.

Brignac, making his first appearance for New Orleans since the first weekend of the season, went 3-for-4 and plated the go-ahead runs in a four-run seventh inning with a bloop single over third base. He singled in the first and the fourth, matching his hit total for the entire season. He had two hits in 10 at-bats over the season’s first three games with the Zephyrs before being called up to Miami on April 13. With the Marlins, Brignac managed just one hit in 13 at-bats over 17 games.

Brandon Bantz also had three hits for the Zephyrs and scored a pair of runs, as the Z’s pounded out 10 hits.

After Zach Lee yielded three Zephyrs’ runs over the first six innings, he handed the ball to the Dodgers bullpen, which proceeded to walk seven over the final two innings with a pair of wild pitches thrown in.

Ramon Trancoso only managed to get one out in the seventh, allowing three runs on just one hit, and Josh Ravin threw two wild pitches to bring home Z’s runs. David Aardsma only got two outs in the eighth inning, allowing two runs on three hits, with three walks.

The Zephyrs’ four-run seventh allowed Jose Urena to win his third game of the season. The right-hander went seven innings, allowing seven hits and four runs (two earned), while walking two and striking out two. Urena yielded a solo home run to O’Koyea Dickson in a four-run second inning for the Dodgers, who got two runs in the frame from a Scott Sizemore fielding error and a wild pitch from Urena.

Fabian Williamson and Vin Mazzaro each tossed perfect innings out of the New Orleans bullpen to close it out.

Left-hander Adam Conley will oppose Randy Fontanez in Thursday’s contest as the Zephyrs look to win the series.

Z’s batters explode for series-opening win

Vinny Rottino slugged a two-run home run in the first inning to get the ball rolling and the Zephyrs crushed Memphis 13-1 Friday night to start a four-game weekend series with a bang. Rottino’s first of two hits on the night kick-started a Z’s offensive attack that recorded 19 hits, tying a season-high, and set a new season-best with the 13 runs, four more than the previous high.

Rottino picked up his team-best eighth multi-hit game and pushed his batting average to .349. He jumped on a Kyle Hald offering with two outs in the first, upping the Z’s record to 11-4 when they score first.

Catcher Brandon Bantz went 2-for-3 with four RBI, including a two-run home run in the second inning, becoming the second Zephyr to knock in four runs in a game this season. His home run was the just the 12th of his professional career and first since 2013.

Cole Gillespie went 4-for-6 with three runs scored and an RBI and every Zephyrs starter recorded at least one hit, including starting pitcher Jose Urena, who recorded his first hit of the year and fifth of his career.

Urena also dazzled on the mound, going 7 1/3 innings, allowing just seven hits and two walks, while striking out four. He lowered his ERA to 0.77 and threw 63 of his 99 pitches for strikes.

The top five in the Zephyrs batting order went a combined 13-for-27 with nine runs scored and eight RBI, and Miguel Rojas extended his hitting streak in away games to 10 with a 2-for-6 night.

New Orleans turned three more double plays, upping its season total to a Pacific Coast League-best 38 and for the 12th time in the last 13 games, the Zephyrs did not commit an error.

The series continues on Saturday night when lefty Adam Conley opposes southpaw Marco Gonzales.

Rojas making the most of new opportunity

Zephyrs shortstop Miguel Rojas makes a turn in a recent series against Omaha. Photo by: Dennis Hubbard

Zephyrs shortstop Miguel Rojas makes a turn in a recent series against Omaha. Photo by: Dennis Hubbard

When Miguel Rojas made his major league debut last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he struggled after being relegated to a pinch-hitting role and finished with a .181 batting average.

“Coming off the bench, it’s not easy,” Rojas said. “It’s not an excuse as to why I struggled, but if you see the numbers, the first couple of weeks I was doing better because I was playing every day. But when I was in a bench role, it was difficult because I have never been in that role in my career.”

After being acquired in a blockbuster seven-player trade with Los Angeles over the winter, Rojas has seen his numbers take off, playing regularly for the Zephyrs and playing his natural shortstop position in manager Andy Haines’ lineup.

“I’m really happy because they [Miami] gave me the opportunity to play every day and play the position I really like at shortstop,” Rojas said.

Over the Zephyrs’ first 22 games, Rojas has elevated his game to new heights, collecting at least one hit in 20 games and leading the team with a .354 batting average, in addition to playing Gold Glove-caliber defense up the middle.

In the most recent Zephyrs series against Oklahoma City, now the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate, Rojas went 4-for-12 with two runs scored and a pair of RBIs. But his biggest contribution of the year, to date, came on May 6, when he pushed across the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth with a double and then robbed a potential single up the middle with a diving catch, saving a New Orleans victory.

“That felt so good, not because it’s the Dodgers, but it was a great team win because everybody pulled together to win that game. For me, I was in the right place and the right position and I felt a little lucky to catch it,” he said.

It’s just another positive moment for Rojas in his first season with the Marlins organization, one he’s relishing after two seasons with Dodgers’ affiliates in Chattanooga and Albuquerque.

“I had two great years in the Dodgers organization and I’m really thankful for the opportunity they gave me to play in the big leagues,” Rojas said. “I’m just trying to help the team win every day. It’s important in a long season, to be a good guy in the clubhouse. You have to have fun every day and being a part of this team has been great because it’s been a great group of guys so far.”

Rojas’ .354 average is tied with teammate Brady Shoemaker for the sixth-best mark in the Pacific Coast League, and he has five sacrifice hits this year, tied for the PCL lead. His 12-game hitting streak that lasted from April 12-25 stands as the second-longest streak in the league this year, and Rojas is currently riding a seven-game hitting streak in which he’s batted .385 (10-26).

Rojas said that he’s learned a lot from his struggles in the big leagues with Los Angeles in 2014, and he’s applying that to this season and beyond.

“It’s all about confidence and timing. Your time is going to come, you have to be patient,” he said. “Last year taught me a lot and if I have to be a bench player when I get to the big leagues again, I’m going to be prepared for that. But, you can’t just look at what’s happening now, you have to play for the future and career. I want to just be positive and I have to think, ‘I’m here in Triple-A because they want me here.'”

It’s safe to say the Zephyrs are glad Rojas is in New Orleans, stabilizing the top of the lineup and fortifying a defensive unit that leads the PCL with just 10 errors in 934 chances, with Rojas’s .989 fielding percentage ranking second amongst all PCL shortstops.

Rojas saves the day in Zephyrs victory

Miguel Rojas provided the winning margin with an RBI double in the top of the ninth and speared a potential game-winning single with a diving catch with two runners in scoring position in the bottom half of the frame to boost the Zephyrs to a 4-3 victory over Oklahoma City on Wednesday afternoon.

Rojas went 2-for-3 with a pair of RBI, the latter of which came with one out in the ninth, bringing in Isaac Galloway from second base. The center fielder had walked to lead off the ninth off David Aardsma and advanced to second on a ground out by Scott Sizemore.

But Rojas’ biggest play of the day came with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, with the potential tying and winning runs in scoring position. Vin Mazzaro, who had allowed four hits and three runs in the eighth inning, yielded a double and hit a batter in the ninth and Darwin Barney laced a Mazzaro offering up the middle, but Rojas extended to his left to seal the Zephyrs’ victory.

The Z’s drew first blood by scoring a pair of runs in the fifth off of Dodgers’ starter Mike Bolsinger. Galloway led off with a walk and Andre Rienzo bunted back to the mound, but Bolsinger couldn’t make the play at first and the Zephyrs had runners at the corners with nobody out. Rojas lofted a sacrifice fly into center to bring Galloway home, and after a Cole Gillespie fly out, Jordany Valdespin laced an RBI double to right field, bringing Rienzo in from first.

Rojas singled with one out in the seventh to extend his hitting streak in away games to nine, and Gillespie hit a rocket to third base that Dodgers’ top-prospect Corey Seager speared, but the 21-year-old with only five games of Triple-A experience under his belt threw it into right field trying to force Rojas at second, allowing both runners to advance.

Valdespin plated Rojas with a grounder up the middle to push the Zephyrs lead to 3-0.

Pat Urckfitz got all four batters he faced, including a strikeout of Scott Schebler to lead off the eighth. But following the strikeout, Mazzaro replaced him on the hill and promptly three doubles and a single, blowing the three-run lead and wiping out Rienzo’s chance to win his first game of the season.

Rienzo threw six shutout innings, scattering three hits and one walk, while striking out seven. The right-hander fired 59 of 91 pitches for strikes and now has 16 strikeouts over his last two outings.

Galloway scored twice without recording a hit and swiped his second base of the year. He hadn’t scored since April 25 against Nashville.

Brady Shoemaker went 2-for-4 to up his average to .349 and Gillespie also added two hits for the Zephyrs, who have reached the .500 mark for the second time in three days. New Orleans has not been over .500 all season.

The two teams will finish up the abbreviated three-game series in Oklahoma City on Thursday evening. Lefty Justin Nicolino (2-0, PCL-low 0.63 ERA) is slated to take the hill for the Zephyrs, looking to extend his scoreless-inning streak to 18.

Sanchez enjoying life on the mound

Former outfielder Salvador Sanchez is attempting to reach the majors as a reliever. Photo by: Parker Waters

Former outfielder Salvador Sanchez is attempting to reach the majors as a reliever. Photo by: Parker Waters/New Orleans Zephyrs

For the first six years of his professional baseball career, Salvador Sanchez relied on his bat in his dream of getting to the majors. But upon getting to spring training before the 2011 season with Texas, things changed for Sanchez.

“The Rangers were the ones that made the decision to put me on the mound. It was a tough decision. I had my time when everybody thought I was going to be an outfielder in the big leagues and I had a couple good years in Double-A,” Sanchez said. “It took me by surprise that they wanted me to pitch, but I knew I had the potential with my arm. I talked to my family and my agents and came to the conclusion that I was going to give it a try.”

Sanchez, 29, had totaled 51 home runs, 177 extra-base hits, 292 RBI and 102 stolen bases in six seasons as an outfielder in the White Sox organization, but hit just .256 in 565 games and struck out 475 times — nearly one-quarter of his at-bats.

After not pitching in a major league spring training game for Texas, Sanchez re-signed with the Chicago, the only club that he had ever played for, to give it a shot as a pitcher.

In three seasons and five different levels of the White Sox minor league system, the right-hander compiled a 3-5 record over 51 games, posting a 2.88 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 75 innings. Despite the strong numbers, Sanchez found himself in unaffiliated independent leagues in 2014, with New Jersey of the Can-Am League and Somerset of the Atlantic League.

“Once you’re out of affiliated ball, it’s hard to come back,” he said. “There are a lot of good players out there and there’s a lot of competition, so I’m really blessed to have this opportunity. Thanks to the Marlins; they saw me and they gave me this opportunity and I came to spring training and I did my best. It’s been a long road.”

Sanchez has endured an up-and-down start to his tenure with New Orleans, posting a 5.40 ERA over 8 1/3 innings this season, but he’s allowed just one run over his last 3 1/3 innings after a four-hit, three-run outing on April 21 against Iowa.

Like most of the Zephyrs bullpen, Sanchez been much better lately. New Orleans relievers have allowed just two earned runs over 11 innings in the last four games – three Zephyrs wins – with Sanchez working a scoreless frame in that span.

Sanchez had enjoyed the transition from the batter’s box to the pitching rubber, noting he feels like he has an advantage over hitters since he used to be just like them.

“The mentality as a pitcher, coming from being a position player, it helped me a lot. Sometimes I think as a hitter when I’m on the mound and I can think what the hitter is looking for. I use it as an advantage and it helps me a lot,” he said.

The Zephyrs are no strangers to converted pitchers. Chris Hatcher batted .167 in 17 games as a Zephyrs catcher in 2010, only to return the following season as a reliever. Hatcher went on to tie the franchise record with 49 saves over parts of three seasons, and now has established himself as a fixture in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ bullpen.

Sanchez does have an-bat this year, a double play ground-out, and said he misses hitting. But he’s a full-time pitcher now and will do anything it takes to get that long-awaited call to “The Show.”

“I love pitching, but I’m not going to lie, I miss hitting too,” he said. “But I’m playing the game that I love and it doesn’t matter what position I’m playing, I’m just happy.”