Getting Tough for a Playoff Push
Buoyed by a mix of exciting, young players and some savvy veterans, the Missions soared for most of the summer as a first-place team in the Pacific Coast League.
They glided, surveying the landscape not only as the top ball club in the PCL's American Southern Division - but in all of Triple-A baseball, as well.
Now, with a precious few weeks left in the season and with a playoff berth on the line, they will open a four-game home series Thursday night at Wolff Stadium as the division's second-place team.
Seemingly faced with the task of learning how to fly all over again, the Missions will try to snap out of a six-game losing streak against the New Orleans Baby Cakes.
"We're happy to be coming home," Missions manager Rick Sweet said Wednesday.
Sweet expressed optimism that the team's pitching woes can be fixed and that his team, with 19 games remaining, can win the division to qualify for the playoffs.
"You got to get tough, and that's what we're doing right now," he said in a telephone interview. "We're happy to be coming home and we're happy to have an off day (Wednesday). This day comes at a good time.
"We can regroup, come back to our home turf, and get ready for the rest of the season.
"We don't have any more off days. This is our last off day -- until we have that break at the end of the season, to start the playoffs."
The regular season ends Sept. 2, with the first round of the PCL playoffs set to open a few days later.
Sweet isn't happy with losing seven out of nine at this time of year, but he understands why it's happening.
He traced it to roster upheaval and the loss of a few key players.
"I knew it was coming," Sweet said. "I didn't know to what extent. But I did know it was coming ... The trade deadline changes the personality of your (team)."
It also makes it makes it harder to win, in certain circumstances.
For instance, the Missions are 4-9 since July 31, when center fielder Trent Grisham was called up to the parent-club Milwaukee Brewers and shortstop Mauricio Dubon was traded to the San Francisco Giants.
In addition, Sweet's pitching has been hit hard, much of it due indirectly to extensive injury problems that have plagued the parent-club Brewers in their quest to reach the National League playoffs for a second straight year.
Because of the injuries, the Brewers have regularly dipped into Sweet's staff for replacements. A loyal organization staffer, he takes pride in helping the parent-club.
But Sweet also acknowledged that he is "pretty much" faced with re-tooling his own team's strategy, particularly his starting pitching rotation, for virtually every series.
"They're going to make changes (at the major-league level)," he said. "You know, you see (former Missions reliever Ray) Black pitching today in the big leagues (for the Brewers).
"(But) whenever I send a guy up, I don't get a guy back for three or four days. So, it makes it very, very tough, especially on the pitching (staff).
"That's where we struggled on this (last) road trip. It was the pitching ... We just could not shut down the other teams."
Actually, the Missions' pitching issues first surfaced on the last homestand, when they yielded a combined 19 runs on 31 hits in two games to close a series against Fresno (on Aug. 4 and 5).
After traveling to play three games at Albuquerque and four more at El Paso, the Missions continued to take a beating, giving up another 63 runs on 83 hits combined in the two hitter-friendly parks.
The Missions won the road-trip opener, 14-7, at Albuquerque. But they lost the last six on the trip, including a 14-9 setback in the finale at El Paso on Tuesday night.
Combined with a Round Rock victory at Albuquerque, the leadership in the PCL's American Southern Division race changed hands for the first time since late May, with the Express (72-48) moving into first place ahead of the Missions (72-49).
On top of all that, Sweet learned last week that the Brewers were calling up veteran infielder Hernan Perez from the Missions.
To make room for Perez on the 40-man major league roster, Missions starting pitcher Burch Smith was designated for assignment.
On Monday, the Giants claimed Smith off waivers and assigned him to the Sacramento River Cats, where he will join Dubon on the roster of the PCL's Pacific Northern Division leaders.
"That's a huge loss," Sweet said. "He was a guy, quite frankly, who was a big part of our pitching. He was somebody we relied on, day in and day out."
Now that the Missions have lost Grisham, Dubon and Smith in recent weeks, Sweet has maintained a cool demeanor.
He met informally with his players Tuesday night in El Paso after the road trip finale and joked about playing in the western region of the league, at high altitude, in what he calls "Disney World for hitters."
Sitting in the clubhouse with the Missions players, Sweet said he told them, "Whew, boy I'm glad we're going home. Being here at Disney World has not been a fun experience.
"The guys kind of laughed," he said. "I said, 'We get to go back to where we have the best home record (in the PCL). We're going back to our world, and I'm looking forward to it."
The Missions are 44-19 this season at Wolff.
American Southern Division - Round Rock 72-48, San Antonio 72-49, New Orleans 65-54, Oklahoma City 57-63.
American Northern Division - Iowa 66-55, Memphis 55-66, Nashville 53-66, Omaha 52-69.
Pacific Southern Division - El Paso 71-50, Las Vegas 71-50, Albuquerque 51-70, Salt Lake 51-70.
Pacific Northern Division - Sacramento 64-57, Reno 57-64, Fresno 55-66, Tacoma 53-68.
Note: One first-round playoff matchup will feature the champion of the American Southern against the American Northern divisions. The other will be the Pacific Southern vs. the Pacific Northern. The winners will meet in a series for the PCL title. Both the divisional and championship series are best-of-5.
The Missions will play Thursday night as their alter ego -- the Flying Chanclas de San Antonio. Zack Brown is expected to start on the mound for the Chanclas.
Sweet said he will turn to Shelby Miller for Game 2 on Friday. In Saturday's Game 3, Thomas Jankins will get the ball, followed by Aaron Wilkerson on Sunday in Game 4.
Trey Supak is in line to start Monday in the opener of a road series at Iowa.
Freitas on fire
Catcher David Freitas batted 3-for-5 Tuesday night and extended three different streaks. He has reached base in 24 straight games. He's hit safely in 10 in a row. Plus, he's also produced an RBI in six straight.
Bidding for a first
The Missions are bidding for a playoff berth in their first season in the PCL, and in their first season in Triple-A.
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Pacific Coast League Stories from August 15, 2019
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