After a night game in Sacramento, the Nashville Sounds face a quick turnaround on Tuesday, with a home game at First Tennessee Park tonight. While they may need a few extra cups of coffee, the Sounds will arrive home happy after a West Coast swing that saw Nashville go 6-2. During the trip, the Sounds outscored the Fresno Grizzlies and the Sacramento River Cats by a combined total of 64-23. The trip left the Sounds one game over the .500 mark (21-20) for the first time since the third day of the season.
“We’ve just started to click as a team. The defense has been playing well and the starting pitchers have been getting us into the sixth or seventh inning and the at-bats have been good,” Sounds manager Ryan Christenson said over the weekend. “We’ve been drawing a lot of walks on this road-trip and, at the same time, our power numbers have been going up. That always works together with us with our offensive philosophy of controlling the strike-zone and the defense has been good. We’ve been meshing and we’ve had some more clean, total games on this roadtrip then we had seen the first month or so.”
Second baseman Joey Wendle homered twice on the roadtrip and is batting .300 over his last 10 games. He says the entire team is starting to click.
“Everyone is just swinging it right now. The power hitters are hitting for power and doing what they do,” Wendle said. “It’s been fun to watch and our pitching staff has been pitching great of late.”
Wendle’s season got off to a delayed start when he strained his throwing shoulder during spring training. He joined the Sounds’ roster on April 19 on a rehab assignment and was optioned to Triple-A on April 29. Wendle says that he suffered a small setback in his recovery from the shoulder issue earlier in the month, but that he has felt better over the past week. He played shortstop over the winter in Mexico and there had been plans to get him time at short in games this season. Those plans are on hold for now.
“We’ll see [about shortstop],” Wendle said. “I still hope it will happen eventually, but we’ll see where they want me to play. I’m happy to play wherever and I’m grateful to be in at second base every day.”
Wendle’s double-play partner Franklin Barreto was the talk of the town in April when he hit .349 with a 971 OPS. Barreto has cooled off in May, although he is still slashing a respectable .281/.319/.438 for the month. Christenson says that Barreto’s success is dependent on his ability to control the strike-zone.
“He got off to a such a great start and he was so hot that I think hitters can sometimes get a little too confident that they can hit line-drives or drive the ball on any pitch the pitcher throws up there,” Christenson said. “That’s how guys get themselves into slumps because they kind of go away from what got them to that point of getting their pitch and if you feel good, you start swinging at it and that’s when the hits start coming. That’s what has happened to Franklin in this little lull. But he understands that and I think he understands completely that that is what makes him go as an offensive player is simply controlling the zone.”
The Sounds have a prospect-laden infield with Barreto at short, Wendle at second, Matt Chapman at third and Matt Olson at first. Chapman and Olson both had big roadtrips, with both homering four times. Chapman now has nine on the year despite missing two weeks with a wrist strain and Olson has 11 despite spending a week in the big leagues in late April.
With Chapman and Olson on the active roster, Christenson has had to use power-hitting corner infielder Renato Nunez in left field. Nunez, who played only third base and first base until late last season, has now appeared in 12 games in left this year. He has converted all 10 of his total chances in those 12 games. Christenson says that Nunez is a work-in-progress in left, but that there are signs he could find a home at the position.
“I’m seeing some serviceability out there. He made a great play in Fresno the other day, tracking a ball down the line,” Christenson said. “He seems to be getting more comfortable out there. His throws are a little offline right now, so we are working on that. But I don’t know that he is going to kill us out there, which is fine. If we are looking for a place to put that bat, then left field is actually a possibility.”
At the plate, Nunez is having a solid season. He leads the Sounds with 12 homers, three of which came on the roadtrip, and he has a .500 SLG. Christenson says that Nunez is making improvements with his approach at the plate.
“He’s a good hitter and he can do a lot of different things. He has been a lot more mature in terms of being able to understand what guys are trying to do to get him out,” Christenson said. “He will take his base-hits the other way and he is working the middle of the field. When he gets a little pull happy is when he gets into trouble, but he’s on a good streak right now. He’s hit a bunch of homers the past couple of weeks and I faith now that he is going to continue to grow and become an even better hitter than he already is.”
Sounds’ Roster Continues to Evolve
The Sounds have had plenty of movement within their starting rotation over the past few weeks, as the A’s have made moves at the big league level. Jharel Cotton joined the Sounds’ rotation after a demotion from the big leagues and Chris Bassitt and Daniel Mengden were added as rehab starters. Mengden has since been officially added to the Sounds’ rotation, while Bassitt is expected to stay with the Sounds indefinitely while he works his way back from Tommy John surgery. Nashville’s re-worked starting rotation is Paul Blackburn, Bassitt, Cotton, Daniel Gossett and Mengden.
Blackburn and Gossett are the only members of the current rotation who have been in that role all season. Neither came into the 2017 campaign with much – if any – Triple-A experience, but both are having strong seasons. Blackburn threw six shutout innings on Friday night against the River Cats to lower his season ERA to 3.89. Gossett was even more dominant versus Sacramento on Monday, throwing a career-high eight shutout innings. His season ERA is down to 3.59 despite a rough first few starts.
“They are starting to build confidence that they can dominate at this level like they did in the lower levels and they can continue to take that into the big leagues,” Christenson said of Blackburn and Gossett. “I think Gossett this last couple of outings is starting to find his groove in terms of his fastball command. That was what was missing in those first couple of outings when he struggled. Blackburn has been building momentum since the first start. He’s really turned it on here of late.”
With the A’s sending so many rehabbing starters and relievers to Nashville (Sonny Gray and John Axford recently completed rehab stints with the Sounds, as well), the Sounds’ bullpen has been crowded and not as busy as normal. Relievers are often going three or four days in-between appearances. Christenson says that bullpen management with this many pitchers on the roster can be a challenge, but it’s also part of Triple-A life.
“When you are sitting out there and there are 10 pitchers in the bullpen, it’s tough to get innings,” Christenson said. “That’s just the situation that Triple-A teams get in and the guys understand that. They just need to take advantage of their opportunities when they get them and that’s all they can do.”
The roster has been a bit more stable on the position-player side of the roster, at least over the past few weeks. One area that has seen some shifting has been at catcher, as Bruce Maxwell has gone back-and-forth from the big leagues to Triple-A. Maxwell re-joined the Sounds for this roadtrip and got off to a hot start at the plate, going six-for-14 over three games. He tweaked an oblique on May 18, however, and was placed on the disabled list over the weekend.
Christenson says that, when healthy, Maxwell makes a big difference for his club behind the plate.
“Maxwell is so good at managing the game behind the plate. He has a good game-plan,” Christenson said. “He’s a student of the game. He’s very involved in the pitcher’s meetings and sometimes takes control of those meetings. He has a good memory for the hitters and he has a good sense of what the pitchers can do and what they are throwing to him. He’s one of the best receivers we have in the organization.
“We love having him back there. He’s always trying to get better in terms of his presence back behind the plate. Being a catcher is important and sometimes he’ll let his at-bats or something that is going on off-the-field bring him emotionally into a place where he doesn’t have to be, but he has been getting better with that the last three or four years. I see him continuing to improve.”
The Sounds begin an eight-day, nine-game homestand on Tuesday against the Omaha Storm Chasers. The homestand includes a double-header against the Colorado Springs SkySox on May 28. The Sounds hit the road again at the start of June, with a trip to visit the Iowa Cubs.
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