BRISTOL - The Bristol Blues have caught fire, riding a six-game win streak and victories in seven of their last eight heading into Friday night’s game against the Nashua Silver Knights.
It’s been quite a turnaround for a team that was sitting at 5-10, near last place in the FCBL standings on June 18 with a seven-game road trip on the horizon.
So how has the team suddenly surged ahead to become the league’s hottest team? Here’s a look at three key reasons:
Over the last two weeks, the players’ chemistry and closeness is growing stronger and is at the forefront of the win streak, said manager Ronnie Palmer.
It’s easy to be laughing and enjoying yourself when the wins are stacking up, though, so is the increased camaraderie just an effect of the win streak itself?
“I think it’s the reverse,” Palmer said. “I think the camaraderie of the guys has helped this winning streak along.”
Just a handful of games into the summer, Blues players said the team was already pretty tight-knit. But the players still had to make time to feel each other out and get to know one another.
“The guys started getting along from day one. As with any relationship, it takes time for it to grow,” Palmer said. “Now, if you come out and watch us play and watch how they interact and go about their daily basis while they’re at the field, you would think these guys have played baseball with each other for an entire year, two years or have been college teammates for a while.
“They have created a fun environment for themselves and enjoy coming to the ballpark. They enjoy being around one another, competing and enjoying the game together.”
Pitching and defense
It’s the first thing Palmer mentions when broached about the team’s recent success.
The starters have stayed strong, but their performance wasn’t the issue. Ryan Lauk, James Judenis, Arjun Thakar and Jack Moore, in addition to Cam Van Hoorbeke and Mark Faello when they joined the team, have been solid, and closer Will Nowak has been nearly untouchable.
The bullpen, however, had been the main problem area for the Blues. Those pitchers took plenty of much-deserved flak for blown leads, but still, Palmer held his ground. His relievers didn’t have much experience being thrust into the stress of middle-inning relief, but he believed that if he continued to run them out there, the results would eventually show.
Dominic Niman and Wesley Lahey helped preserve a shutout in the first game of the win streak. Since then, outside of a three-run inning allowed by Tommy Hughes and a seven-run inning surrendered by Ben DeLaubell, the bullpen has allowed five runs in 17 innings. That run includes Hughes bouncing back with two shutout innings two nights after the three-spot.
Also, the middle of the infield has been locked up, with Zeke Diamond emerging as the team’s top shortstop, while Kyle Maves and Danny Roth have been the two main guys rotating at second base.
“Championship quality or caliber teams are built on pitching and defense, and we’ve been doing that the last week and a half or so,” Palmer said.
Offense was hardly the Blues’ main issue when they lost 10 of their first 15 games, but it’s been important that it’s stayed consistent and not fallen off with the rise in the level of the game’s other areas.
The Blues strut out three of the league’s top five hitters on a nightly basis in Brandon Miller (.381, 12 RBI), Austin White (.381, 21 runs scored) and Diamond (.352, 11 runs).
Miller and White are tied for second in the league in average, and Diamond ranked fifth in addition to Danny Roth (.283) ranking 19th-best in the FCBL.
White has been dominant out of the leadoff spot since day one, Miller has crushed it since he arrived to the team a week later, and Roth has been steady throughout.
Of the four, however, Diamond’s surge has been the most noteworthy. Hitless through his first three games and sitting at just .219 with 10 games under his belt, Diamond has been the Blues’ hottest hitter in the last five games.
He was 7-for-16 heading into Wednesday night’s game at the North Shore Navigators, in which he went 5-for-6 with four runs scored. After dropping down a drag bunt for a third-inning infield single, Diamond then showcased power in the sixth by driving in a solo home run for the Blues’ second of the season. (Parker Upton tallied the team’s first homer the previous inning with a three-run shot.)
“It was there from the beginning,” Palmer said of Diamond’s ability. “For him, it was just a little bit slower of an adjustment to the wood bat and playing every day. But you could see it was there, and he’s just piecing it together now. He’s got a plan at the plate every time he goes up to bat, and he attacks with his plan. He’s very aggressive with his plan.
“He’s always been a complete hitter. It’s nothing he’s done for the Blues that he hasn’t done for Emory [University]. It’s just now all coming together for him 20 games into the summer. He’s showing the caliber of player he’s always been.”