Robert Brender, @robertbrender on TwitterThe Las Vegas 51s prepare to open a four game series in Tacoma Thursday night with a 31-26 overall record, one game behind Tucson and Sacramento for 1st place in the PCL Pacific Southern Division. They’re in the midst of their best winning streak of the season, having reeled off seven straight, including sweeping a four game, wrap-around series in Fresno early this week. They’ve also won nine of their last 10. What makes the 51s recent quality of play so surprising is the roster, especially on offense, has been stripped of quality due to injuries and call-ups.
Outfielder Andrew Brown (.371/.442/.655) was forced to the disabled list May 20 with a strained oblique while leading the team in most offensive categories. Despite being gone for 24 days, he still leads the squad in triples, BA, SLG, OBP and OPS and his 32 rbi are second on the team behind Wilmer Flores’s 39.
Zach Lutz, who was playing his best ball of the season in May, landed on the DL May 28, also with the dreaded oblique strain. The PA native, who celebrated his 27th birthday June 3, had hit safely in eight of his previous nine games before leaving the ballgame May 26 against Salt Lake after one at-bat with discomfort on his side. Thanks to a red-hot May with the lumber, Lutz improved his average to .277/.360/.419 overall with 4 homers and 26 driven in. Before they were injured, both Brown and Lutz were serious contenders for big league promotion with Ike Davis slipping toward a trip to Sin City. In fact, it’s conceivable if Mets brass had the option of promoting Brown or Lutz at the end of last month, Davis wouldn’t have been given as much time to work out of his slump.
Shortstop Omar Quintanilla was given his shot to join the Mets May 30 after Ruben Tejada wound up on the DL with a quad strain. The Texan was putting together his best hitting streak of the season in Vegas and might have been given a ticket to New York even if Tejada didn’t get hurt. Before his call up, Quintanilla had a knock in nine consecutive games, raising his average to a season-best .333/.419/.484.
To a lesser extent, the losses of catcher Juan Centeno to the DL May 18 (returned May 28) and utility player Reese Havens May 30 have made depth an issue for Wally Backman. Havens might have lost a chance to get more playing time after collecting 97 at-bats so far this year, most off the bench. Centeno became the starting AAA catcher after Travis d’Arnaud broke his foot in mid April. d’Arnaud is the Mets top position prospect and was expected to contribute heavily to the middle of the Vegas lineup before he would ultimately wind up in Queens. After Centeno was lost to injury, Francisco Pena was called up from the B-Mets and stabilized the catching position (.302/.333/.628).
Probably the most challenging issue facing the 51s coaching staff on a regular basis has been consistently terrible pitching. While Zack Wheeler’s era stands at 3.86, the rest of the Vegas starters own a 5.61 era. It looks even uglier if you remove Collin McHugh’s 2.74 in eight starts before he was called to the big leagues May 14. Right-hander Rafael Montero had a solid spot start May 21 in Iowa, creating some hope he would be added to the rotation permanently. However, that didn’t happen and he’s been in Binghamton ever since. The bullpen hasn’t been any better than the starters, surrendering 110 runs and 220 hits in 193 innings.
So, despite all the problems, what’s the reason for the recent success: Well, 51s hurlers have been better lately, to the tune of a 2.86 era in the last 10 games. Right-hander Carlos Torres has won each of his last four starts since May 18, including a complete game shutout June 3 at Fresno. Despite walking the house, D.J. Mitchell threw six scoreless innings May 31 against Reno at Cashman Field for his longest outing of the season. Recently signed RHP Matt Fox has limited opponents to three or fewer runs in each of his four starts with Vegas. And, new closer David Aardsma has three saves, allowing just one run in seven outings.
The offense is being carried the last two weeks by Wilmer Flores and Josh Satin (.311/.423/.500) but getting lots of assistance from Kirk Nieuwenhuis and unlikely contributors like Jamie Hoffmann and Brian Bixler. In his last 17 games, Nieuwenhuis is hitting .258/ .388/ .636 with 8 HR (seven in the last 12 games) and 14 BB. In the last 19 games, Flores is hitting .347/ .372/ .520 with 8 2B, 1 3B and 1 homer. The 51s are posting 5.42 runs per game over the course of their seven game winning streak.
After losing seven of 10 games from May 13-23 with many of their best players active, it’s surprising to see such a dramatic turn-around considering how limited the roster currently is.