About three weeks ago, I did a review of the Smokies’ first half. Despite having high expectations, their first half was not very good at all. They struggled with injuries, hitting with runners in scoring position, and the bullpen struggled to keep leads. Things have changed a lot in three weeks and the Smokies are making good use of their second chance to make the playoffs to good use.
Probably the greatest thing about minor league baseball is that each team has an opportunity to make up for a disappointing first half. If they don’t qualify for the playoffs prior to the brak, they can qualify in the second half. The Smokies’ 28-42 record was not indicative of their talent, but they’re starting to show out now.
At 6-4, the Smokies are getting good starting pitching, good relief from the bullpen, and some timely hitting. Duane Underwood had his best start of the year last Thursday night as he went 6 innings and struck out two while allowing only one unearned run. Tyler Skulina still is a bit off at times but still holds the potential to do well. Sometimes starting pitching is contagious. Let’s hope that will be the case was Skulina.
Paul Blackburn’s stunning April ERA of 0.29 has settled back to Earth, though his 2.42 mark on the year is still a massive improvement over last season. He has set the tone for the starting staff. They have their bad starts now and then, but Blackburn and Brad Markey have been the stalwarts to keep them in games all year long.
I really like the fact that Jen-Ho Tseng has returned to his 2014 form without much fanfare. After missing most of May, Tseng put up a 1.29 ERA in five June starts. In 28 innings, he struck out 18, walked only seven, and had a very good 1.14 WHIP. Opponents are hitting .253 against but he isn’t allowing them to come around and score.
Tseng has also been pitching to his strengths this year. His focus last season was on fastball velo (up to 95 at times), but he lost his command in doing so. Now he is back around 90/91 and topping out at 93. What I like most, however, is that Tseng has gone back to pitching off his off-speed stuff and sneaking a fastball in rather than the other way around. This is devastating to some hitters because Tseng is primarily throwing 78-84 with his change and curve.
Dave Berg, James Farris, and Jose Rosario have come in and plugged holes at the back end of the pen. Jose Paniagua has been outstanding all year and Josh Conway and David Garner are pitching well after a rough start to the year
At the end of the first half, Jeimer Candelario and Mark Zagunis were both promoted from Tennessee on up to Iowa. This opened up a couple spots for some players and it seemed to work out for the best. Bijan Rademacher, who had dropped off after an excellent April, has returned to form and is hitting the ball well.
The newest addition to the ballclub is Ian Happ. One the top prospects in the Cubs system, Happ has come in and hit .441 in his first 10 games. This has really made it easier for Victor Caratini and Billy McKinney to drive-in runs. Happ’s addition to the lineup puts a power bat and a player who has a solid approach who also uses walks to get on base in the three hole. I really like his ability to switch-hit and drive the ball from both sides of the plate. He has great hands through the zone, allowing him to stay in the hitting zone a little longer than most hitters.
Jake Hannemann has also shown a little spurt here with some power and Danny Lockhart has moved over to shortstop, shifting Chesny Young over to third. Everybody seems to be set in where they will be playing every night.
The Smokies are not perfect but they’re playing really well right now. They have to embrace the fact that they are getting good starting pitching, good relief, and timely hitting and just understand that they’re a good team. It’s only 10 games but it bodes well for the team considering their struggles in the first half.