At the break, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs are in first place in the International League North Division with a 52-39 record and ahead of second place Pawtucket by 1.5 games.
A lot of the reason has to do with a bullpen that changed its face often through the first 'half' of the season in large part due to the struggles the Phillies have had. The IronPigs received an influx of arms from Reading who have successfully aided in Lehigh Valley's success.
To start the 2012 season, the Phillies lost Michael Stutes, David Hearndon, and Jose Contreras due to injury. Add in veteran Chad Qualls' extreme difficultly to be effective landed him in New York where he was traded for a bucket of used baseballs.
Those four spots needed to be filled and they came from the start-of-the season IronPig bullpen. Jake Diekman, Brian Sanches, Michael Schwimmer, Jeremy Horst, and Raul Valdes all started the season at Lehigh Valley and now have prominent roles in the beleaguered Phillie bullpen.
Add in a grueling schedule that saw the IronPigs play 10 games, including a pair of double headers, in the week prior to the All-Star break, manager Ryne Sandberg had few options when it came to placing pitchers on the mound.
On the last night in June, Pawtucket brought the whoopin' sticks out in clubbing the IronPigs 14-1. With a day-night double header the next day and the bullpen spent, he turned to third basemen Tug Hulett to throw. Although he mixed his 'fastball' and his knuckler well to pitch a perfect inning it still did not change the fact that Sunday would be an interesting event with a pair of relievers left in the starting role.
To the rescue came the boys from Reading. B.J. Rosenberg started game one and pitched into the fourth inning. Michael Cisco followed to keep Pawtucket at bay and get the win.
In game two, Tyson Brummett started the season in Reading and was quickly promoted to Lehigh Valley. The long-reliever pitched a two-hit shutout through five innings. He was followed by two arms from Reading who were called up for the day. Relievers Ryan Duke and Frank Gailey earned some valuable experience before packing their bags immediately after the game to return to Reading.
Sandberg called upon Gailey to pitch in relief in a 0-0 game. His sixth inning did not go as well as he had hoped. After getting the first Triple-A batter out, Gailiey surrendered three straight singles. The third hit drove in a run to put Lehigh Valley down 1-0.
"There's a few spots where I could have made that would have helped me in that situation. I left a splitter up, " Gailey said. "[Pitching coach Rod Nichols] worked with me and I'll take that back and work on it so I am more consistent."
Duke, who started the season in Lakewood and quickly worked his way through Clearwater to get to Reading, followed with two solid shutout innings that paved the way for a walk-off win in the ninth and an IronPig sweep.
"[B.J] Rosenberg and [Tyson] Brummett set a good tone from the starting pitching and with a little help from some youngsters, who did a nice job, it gave us a lift," manager Ryne Sandberg said.
J.C. Ramirez and Justin Friend, who was lights out with a 0.33 ERA in 27 innings pitched in Reading, were promoted in June.
"Our bullpen in Reading included me Cisco, Rosenberg, Ramirez, with [Tyler] Cloyd and Brummett," Friend said. "It gives you a familiar environment when you get promoted and it shows there are guys down there that can help."
Friend, who pitched a perfect 10th inning to get his first Triple-A win last week, is unscored upon in 19 of his last 21 outings between Leigh Valley and Reading.
"To say it's a log jam, yes, but when you have a double header like you have, guys can come up and help." Friend said. "It also gives you a nudge that if you aren't getting the job done, there is someone behind you that will be called up to take your place."
Pig Hitting Success!
The IronPig offense thus far has grown in its consistency. Even with players transitioning through they still find ways to score runs in bunches as evidence of the team winning 21 of its last 34 games down the stretch to the All-Star break.
Tug Hulett, who found a power stroke in the past week with a pair of homers is now batting .327 at the bottom of the IronPig lineup.
"We're not going to go out and hit home runs every night so we are going to have to do the little things," Hulett said. "For us to win games back-to-back-to-back we are going to have to go out and hit with two outs and put balls in play with runners in scoring position. We've been doing that and hopefully we can carry on after the break."
For the Love of the Game!
With Ryan Howard and Chase Utley through their rehabs, manager Ryne Sandberg spoke of how the return to the minors in this manner can rejuvenate a player in more than just healing an injury.
"I think coming back here brings them back to why they love the game," Sandberg said of his observations of Utley and Howard. "They are with the kids who are playing to love the game and with the fans who are with their families trying to enjoy a game."