Leader Blues

Friday, April 09, 2010

SPORTS >> Hitting the lights: Travelers racing into season

By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor

If the Arkansas Travelers weren’t already sick of their rival Midland RockHounds after spring training, they have to be getting a little tired of their Texas League rivals by now.

And it’s just been one game.

Midland, the defending champion, opened the Class AA Texas League season with an 11-1 victory over the Travelers at Citibank Ballpark in Midland, Texas, on Thursday night.

The Travelers scored the first run in the third, then watched Midland rack up 11 unanswered runs over the final five innings to open its championship defense in style.

It’s a rivalry that stretches from Arkansas, affiliated with the American League’s Los Angeles Angels, to the AL West Division. Midland is the Class AA affiliate of the Oakland Athletics, the Angels’ divisional rival.

“We play them, like, four or five times in spring training so we know each other pretty well,” Arkansas manager Bobby Magallanes said of Midland. “It’s a rivalry not only in the big leagues but in the minor leagues.”

The Angles and Athletics also have affiliates who battle in the Class A California League and Midwest Leagues as well as the Class AAA Pacific Coast League.

Arkansas, at Midland for a three-game series that resumed Friday night, will play host to the RockHounds in a three-game set that opens the home schedule beginning Thursday at Dickey-Stephens Park.

By then, Arkansas is hoping to smooth out some of the kinks seen on opening night.

Right-handed starter Tim Kiely (0-1) held Midland scoreless until the fourth on Thursday and ended up getting charged with six runs on eight hits and two walks while striking out five over 4 2/3 innings.

Magallanes expects Kiely to right himself, especially in the spacious home confines of Dickey-Stephens Park.

“He had a good fall league so we’re looking for him to be a catalyst on the staff,” Magallanes said. “He’s a strike-thrower.

Again, this ballpark, that’s what we want. You throw strikes, you’re going to have a chance to win.”

Kiely is part of a staff that, other than hard-throwing right-hander Ryan Brasier, is more about technique than power and is supposed to be backed up by a fairly experienced bullpen, Magallanes said.

“They’re not going to light up radar guns but they know how to pitch and they can keep teams off balance,” Magallanes said.

“And if they can do that and we bring in our bullpen, it’s a good combination.”

Left-hander Jayson Miller (6-10 with a 5.09 ERA at Class A Rancho Cucamonga) made his Class AA debut Friday night against minor league veteran Carlos Hernandez, a left-hander who was 15-8 with a 4.06 ERA at Class A Stockton, Midland and Class AAA Sacramento last year.

Travelers pitchers combined for eight walks and three wild pitches in the opener.

The offense stranded 10 runners and hit into two double plays while the Travelers’ only run came on an RBI triple by returning second baseman Ryan Mount, who led the offense with three hits.

While Magallanes expects the pitching to do its part as the season heats up, the light hitting will likely continue. This year’s team has no sluggers like Mark Trumbo or Angels No. 1 prospect Hank Conger, both departed.

With speed at the top and bottom of the order, Arkansas’ offense also appears a good fit for Dickey-Stephens Park.

“We’re not going to hit for power but we do have guys who hit the gaps,” Magallanes said. “They’re gap hitters, and because of the huge gaps in this ballpark, if they can shoot those gaps they can have pretty productive years.”

It remains to be seen if that translates to a first- or second-half season Texas League North Division championship, either of which would qualify Arkansas for the playoffs in September.

In his first three years, Magallanes has had teams with a balance of hitting and pitching prospects, teams rich with minor league veterans —?like the one that won the 2008 Texas League championship — and teams with young sluggers like last year’s Travs, who boasted Conger and Trumbo.

And there is no accounting for injuries, streaks, slumps and the needs of the Angels, who can promote or demote players at will as long as it helps the parent club.

There were mutterings that last year’s Travelers, who finished 61-79, may have lacked cohesion or team leadership. Magallanes at least expects that to improve this season.

“When you talk about makeup, this is a good group of guys,” Magallanes said. “What I saw in spring training, they played so well together. They’re close knit; they pull for one another. It was really fun in spring training, so I’m looking forward to the season this year.”