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May 23, 2006

Hit, man: Sunny days ahead — new Bats ready to heat up

Something new for the Louisville Bats this summer — hitting!At least that’s what the team and fans have been expecting. It just hasn’t happened yet.The Triple-A baseball club has been mired in a long losing streak through the cool, rainy days of spring, with run production noticeably lacking. Kind of like the past two seasons when the Bats floundered to losing records because the lineup was populated with banjo hitters (no offense to banjos) who couldn’t hit, and especially couldn’t hit with power.But streaks have a way of ending, like April showers giving way to May flowers. And when that happens — it says here — the Bats’ big lumber will begin to connect.The main thing is Louisville now has a roster full of proven hitters who will hit, eventually.This year, Louisville — or actually the Cincinnati Reds, which employees all the players on its farm clubs, including the Louisville Bats — signed a raft of bona fide hitters. And with its newly acquired firepower, the Bats expect (sooner or later) to smoke balls off the fences and score runs in bunches.That’s what Bats General Manager Dale Owens foresaw as the season began.“So far,” Owens said back in April, “this is the best minor league team that has been in Louisville, I think, in the 25 years of the franchise. I know that’s a lot to say, but that’s the kind of talent we’ve got.”And while their bats have been more like wet noodles than hard, white ash, the new Bats batsmen do come with credentials.Owens ticked off new additions, such as third baseman Earl Snyder, who hit 65 home runs the past two seasons at Pawtucket and Durham and led the International League in runs batted in a year ago with 92.Outfielder Andy Abad checked in right behind Snyder with 85 RBIs at Buffalo and led the league with 93 RBIs in 2003. Outfielder Terrance Long, a .270 hitter in five major league seasons, is a snappy line-drive hitter. First baseman Jesse Gutierrez, hit .310 last season at Double A Chattanooga.Meanwhile, the Reds’ hot centerfield prospect, Chris Denorfia, has not fallen into the Bats early-season slump and is whacking away at well over .300. He’ll be in the major leagues soon.“It’s the kind of lineup than can score eight to 10 runs any night, without breaking a sweat,” said Owens. “I know they haven’t done it yet, but it shouldn’t be long before they start to put those kind of numbers up.”Which will help the pitching, noted longtime Louisville fan J.D. Raine.“I imagine one of the reasons the Reds signed all these guys is to protect the young pitching they are trying to develop here,” said Raine. “It’s a lot easier for younger pitchers if they’ve got a lineup that can score runs and keep the team in the game.”Owens said the newly acquired hitting help reflects a change in ownership in Cincinnati, with new owner Bob Castellini handing the franchise to new GM Wayne Krivsky.“I think the Reds have committed themselves to winning, not only in the big leagues, but at every level throughout the organization,” Owens said. “The new GM comes from Minnesota, which has historically had one of the three or four best farm systems in all of baseball.“Krivsky realizes he won’t be able to outbid the Yankees and Red Sox and Mets for expensive free agents. The Reds will have to grow their own talent through the farm system. That bodes well for us.”The new Bats have shown glimpses.One recent afternoon, the lineup cracked five straight hits in the first inning, then five straight again. In that second string, the hitters were first-pitch hitting, rapping an Indianapolis pitcher around like he was just up from Keokuk.After three straight hits, Snyder stepped in with two runners on. After taking a strike, he attempted to hit the next pitch over the Colgate Clock, across the Ohio River.But Snyder didn’t get good wood on the pitch and fouled it back.The Indy hurler figured he’d drop a dinky curveball low and away to get Mr. Muscles to strike out.But Snyder’s been around. He simply flicked his bat at the pitch and clicked a little single into the outfield to keep the rally alive. Good hitters know how to do that.And hitting is contagious, said Raine.“You know they say that coming out of spring training the pitchers are ahead of the hitters,” Raine said. “Well, we’re pretty well out of spring training, but I think as the warm weather rolls around, you’ll see these guys banging the ball.” For more on the Louisville Bats, go to www.batsbaseball.com. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com