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Mustangs making progress
Mustangs manager Matt Duffy calls out signals to his defense from the dugout in a game against Thomasville on Saturday. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
Sunday, July 8, 2012
By CHRIS PRIDE AND MARK THOMPSON - Bulletin Sports Writers
With a 4-2 start to the second half of the season, things are looking more promising for the Mustangs to make a push for the Petitt Cup playoffs in August.
There are four weeks left in the Mustangs’ season and plenty of games left to make the first half a distant memory.
However, there is a lot of work to be done to make up for the first half of the season.
Hitting spells, bullpen issues and defense all contributed to the Mustangs’ struggles. The team has comitted 60 errors this season heading into Saturday’s doubleheader against Thomasville. That is nearly two a game and has led to 39 unearned runs.
The team does not have the most errors in the Coastal Plain League, but no player in the league has more than shortstop John Faircloth’s 21. Faircloth started the season at shortstop, which he hadn’t played since high school, but his 87 percent fielding percentage is the lowest on the team for those who have played at least two games.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to make plays,” Faircloth said. “I don’t know, I mean, I’ve had some errors, but a lot of the errors haven’t really cost us that much. I could have done better on some plays, but with the switch and everything, it’s a little bit different position. You can’t really care too much about it because you’ll get down on yourself too much.”
Newcomer Aaron Stubblefield has since taken over at shortstop, which moved Faircloth to second base. Martinsville Manager Matt Duffy said the team was lucky to have landed Stubblefield mid-season.
The Mustangs’ starting pitching has been good for much of the season. Jake Lambert basically has pitched like he’s a walking win, posting a 3-1 record and a 2.45 earned run average. His three wins are the most on the team, while Brandon Hinkle adds a team-leading 2.00 ERA despite not always receiving the most run support.
The Martinsville bullpen has failed to hold onto starters’ leads on a number of occasions. The bullpen has given up a combined 49 runs in 74 1/3 innings of relief.
That said, the Mustangs have been markedly crisper in their execution as of late, which Duffy knows is important if the team is to make the playoffs.
The early season defensive woes forced the offense to produce more than expected, but the offense has not always supported the solid pitching. Duffy has tweaked his lineup several times throughout the course of the first half, moving players up and down the lineup in an attempt to find consistency.
“Some of the guys don’t like how I change the lineup, but nothing has really worked so you have to keep mixing it up until you find something,” Duffy said. “When it has, I’ve stuck with it, and it’s been basically the same for the start of the second half. I’ve put guys at the bottom of the lineup that probably shouldn’t be there to see if they get more fastballs and drive the ball. I just need to find nine guys that can give me consistent at-bats.”
The only thing that has been consistent for the offense in an otherwise up-and-down season has been Jake Stone and Faircloth in the middle of the lineup.
Before Saturday’s doubleheader against Thomasville, Faircloth ranked in the middle of the pack of the CPL in offensive production. He leads the team in batting average for those with at least 90 plate appearances at .298 to go with a team-leading 36 runs. A quarter of those hits have gone for extra bases, as he’s tied for the team lead in doubles and is second in RBI’s.
“Being more consistent with runners on base is our biggest thing right now,” Faircloth said. “I don’t know if we get a little more tight at the plate in that situation or what. But we need to get more consistent with runners on base and get those clutch hits.”
Stone, since being inserted in the lineup not even a month ago, has been big in the 20 games played before Saturday. He is hitting .414 and is only seven hits shy of Faircloth in 51 fewer at-bats. His .614 slugging percentage and .523 on-base percentage leads the team.
Others producing in the lineup on a fairly regular basis have been Ian Harvey and Karsten Stieby. Harvey leads in RBIs with 15 and matches Faircloth’s runs scored, while hitting .278. Strieby is hitting .283 with two home runs, tying him with Stone for most on the team.
Besides those four, the offense as a whole ranked third to last in the league in team average before Saturday, batting .233, a percentage better than Asheboro. The 242 strikeouts is also a high number as the Mustangs strike out one in every 4.36 at-bats.
The team also scored the fewest runs in the league, averaging 3.3 runs per game, which is nearly a run lower than the pitching staff’s ERA. The runs per game average has been helped by the 32 runs scored over the first four games of the season.
Also, the Mustangs have been shut out five times this season, while scoring two or fewer runs in 10 other losses.
“We need to get better at having better approaches at the plate,” Duffy said. “Sometimes though you just run into some really good pitchers in this league and there are a number of them. We just need to be more patient and manufacture runs. That’s been the problem is manufacturing runs.”