Many of the New Britain Rock Cats’ names are the same.
Nobody signs high-priced free agents to improve Double-A baseball teams, so that isn’t the answer. There hasn’t been an influx of talent deemed to be can’t-miss major league. Neither have the parent Minnesota Twins significantly altered their philosophy of promoting young players to this lofty level on the game’s developmental scale, such as the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays are prone to do.
So how, then, can a team that finished buried so deep in last place among Eastern League teams in 2010 that even an archeological dig couldn’t locate it have reversed their fortunes so quickly? The New Britain Rock Cats were 44-98 last year. The stately EL hadn’t recorded a team that unsuccessful since the Utica Braves tortured fans in central New York with a 37-101 debacle in 1943.
But as the 2011 season veered through the month of May, neither horrors of the past nor a disproportionate slew of player transactions due in large part to injury at the major league and Triple-A levels have deterred our Cats. With the month at its halfway point Sunday, manager Jeff Smith had his boys tied for first place in the Northern Division at 22-13.
New Britain’s humble skipper doesn’t have a Narcissistic bone in his body. He doesn’t take credit for success any more than he should be blamed for last year’s failure. The one-time Rock Cats catcher provides the kind of even-keel leadership for which the large majority of players yearn.
The answer is multifold. Smith talked about the defense. He praised the starting rotation and the bullpen. He loves the way his hitters are approaching their at-bats. But he said a huge part of the equation is the intangible qualities of peer leadership and clubhouse chemistry.
“The big thing is we’ve had some guys step up with good leadership and it’s been a fun start to the season,” Smith said May 13 after the Rock Cats vanquished the struggling Red Sox farm club, the Portland Sea Dogs, in a crisply played 2-0 game before nearly 7,300 at New Britain Stadium.
“There are a lot of guys. The returning guys – (first baseman/left fielder Chris) Parmelee’s been real good out there, we have a lot of pitchers who have stepped up. I think the addition of Mike Hollimon, too, has been terrific for this team in the clubhouse and on the field, too.”
Hollimon, at 28, is older than the vast majority of Rock Cats past and present. After an All-Star season with Erie (EL) in 2007 and an 11-game stint with the Detroit Tigers the next year, injuries and subsequent surgeries on both shoulders limited him in 2009 and 2010.
He played independent ball last year after the Tigers released him in March. The Twins signed him in December, hoping he would add a veteran presence to a team that is always among the youngest and least experienced in the league. Hollimon was unaware just how bad 2010 was for the Rock Cats.
“When I saw the roster, in my head I was thinking we’ve got a chance to be really good,” Hollimon said. “Trust me, there are going to be a lot of guys from this team that are going to be playing in the big leagues. I was excited.”
He found that the team that broke spring training was a good group of guys.
“It’s mind-boggling because the chemistry in this clubhouse is fantastic,” Hollimon added. “I feel like everybody gets along. I don’t see any cliques. The pitchers aren’t staying with themselves. The infielders aren’t staying with themselves. Everyone’s together.
“I know for a fact that it’s a key ingredient for becoming a winning team. You have to pull for each other, and really pull for each other with your whole heart.”
With the chemistry in place, every aspect of play has been solid.
“It’s been a fun start, regardless of wins and losses,” Smith said.
Hollimon, Chris Cates and Steve Singleton have shared the shortstop slot. Combined with Yangervis Solarte at second, there’s strength up the middle.
Through Saturday’s doubleheader sweep of the Portland Sea Dogs (the Red Sox farm club), Solarte is second in the league in batting at .362. Parmelee, a 2006 first-round draft pick with a sweet left-handed swing, is eighth in the circuit at .326 and third in RBI with 24.
Outfielder Joe Benson leads in homers with four and Singleton, despite spending 10 days in Triple-A, has three.
“Regardless whether you get a lot of hits or not, one of the most important things is how you grind out at-bats,” Smith said. “Are you going to give them away? They’ve done a really good job. … The guys have kind of fed off each other and when you do that, it makes the lineup pretty deep.”
From a pitching perspective, right-hander Cole DeVries, 26, was 8-19 with a 5.15 ERA and gave up 26 homers in 206 innings in two years with the Rock Cats as a starter and reliever.
This year in the closer’s role, DeVries has converted all eight save chances and has a 1.59 ERA in 12 appearances.
“He’s been lights-out at the end of our games,” Smith said.
Staten Island’s Bobby Lanigan is 4-2 with a 2.61 ERA in seven starts to pace the starting rotation. Australian-born Liam Hendriks is 3-1 with a 3.66 and Steve Hirschfeld is 2-0 with a 2.08.
So how have the Rock Cats turned it around? It’s impossible to pinpoint one reason but there can be no doubt that Smith all his factors in place as May plays out.