The atmosphere was electric during the last homestand when the Rock Cats were building a nine-game winning streak and celebrating Cinco de Mayo in style.
But the power source for their success was the offense. In every game except the one that started the skein, the offense had to power its way back from an early deficit. Lost amid the line drives, alert baserunning, situational hitting and clubhouse merriment was the shortcomings of the starting rotation.
Long-term baseball success relies on starting pitchers providing at least six, preferably seven solid innings before turning it over to competent relievers, which the Rock Cats have in number.
The offense tallied seven runs in the game that snuffed out the winning streak in the homestand finale against Bowie last Thursday. The crusher came on the first night in New Hampshire when the hitters posted 11 runs – and lost.
That was the turning point. The offense that carried the Rock Cats to their best record (19-12) since the halcyon days of 2001 with Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Michael Restovich and Dustan Mohr began to quiet down. It was inevitable. Good pitching always stops good hitting.
But the pitchers did not rise to the occasion. The Rock Cats, going into the final game of a miserable road trip on Thursday, had lost six of seven to the two bottom-feeding clubs in the Eastern League North and looking for all the world like they would be joining them.
Since the winning streak ended, the Rock Cats staff has posted a 7.14 ERA. In 34 2/3 innings, starters gave up 48 hits and walked 18. An average of two baserunners per inning is not going to cut it.
The bullpen, which had been among the EL’s best, began to crack under the pressure of starters being unable to get into the late innings. The bullpen’s ERA ballooned to 6.56 in the post-streak doldrums.
The Twins’ minor league administrators have given the current crop of starters ample time to get adjusted.
Right-hander Anthony Swarzak had an 0.56 ERA after three games. It’s now 3.96. Left-hander Ryan Mullins, the most consistent of the lot, checks in at 3.25.
Yohan Pino, who will be skipped Thursday in favor of left-hander Errol Simonitsch, was among the ERA leaders until he struggled against New Hampshire Saturday.
That’s where the bottom falls out. Rhode Island right-hander Jay Rainville has been unable to consistently locate his pitches and his velocity hasn’t reached the level he had attained before shoulder surgery in 2006. He has given up 51 hits in 29 2/3 innings and has a 9.00 ERA after seven starts.
The big mystery is what’s happened to Oswaldo Sosa. Sosa, the lone Rock Cat on Minnesota’s 40-man major league roster, has yielded 37 hits and a hefty 21 walks in 29 1/3 frames. His ERA is at 7.06.
June is coming. That’s when the Twins traditionally make a major shift between those who are excelling at high-A Fort Myers and those who have struggled to find success in New Britain.
Rainville and Sosa have a couple more starts to convince minor league pitching coordinator Rick Knapp and farm director Jim Rantz that Double-A is their forte.