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.”