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May 30, 2012

Hard times

Bats talent well suddenly runs dry

"By ’n’ by hard times comes a knocking at the door …”

Just as “My Old Kentucky Home” warns, the hard times of baseball have arrived on the doorstep of the Louisville Bats. Most years a winner, and a frequent International League pennant contender in the past decade, the Bats have suddenly fallen into last place in 2012. Through Memorial Day, Louisville is 18 games below .500 with a record of 17-35. It is last in the league in hitting and next to last in pitching. The doormat of the International League.

What happened?

Not too hard to explain. All those terrific hitting and pitching stars to come through Louisville in recent years — Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto, Joey Hamilton, Adam Dunn, Zack Cozart, Jay Bruce, Devin Mesoraco, Aroldis Chapman — they’re all starring now with the Cincinnati Reds or other major league clubs.

And last year’s three leading Bats hitters, Yonder Alonso, Juan Francisco and Jeremy Hermida — plus No. 1 draft pick Yasmani Grandal, who was slated to catch this season in Louisville — were traded for pitchers now hurling in Cincinnati. Nothing from those trades came back to the Bats. And the seemingly endless talent well that kept Louisville’s AAA team stocked with stars has — temporarily, at least — run dry.

“You just can’t take that much talent out of the system that quickly and hope to be anywhere near where you hoped you would be,” says Bats General Manager Dale Owens. “We were going to be as good, record-wise, as we are bad, record-wise, if those guys are here.”

But the Louisville GM understands Reds general manager Walt Jocketty is trying to make this year The Year in Cincinnati.

“With a small market team (like Cincinnati) you’ve got a small window of opportunity,” Owens says. “With Votto in the prime of his career, and Brandon Phillips in the prime of his career, and Johnny Cueto turning into a No. 1 starter, and Chapman looking like he’s going to be God Only Knows What — if (Jocketty) can add a few missing pieces they can win the World Series this year.”

Of course, Owens and the Bats would love to make some moves themselves — as the then-Louisville Redbirds did in 1987 when the club signed free agent pitcher Bob Tewksbury when it badly needed pitching. Today Louisville would quickly sign a hitter or two, but pro baseball rules now prohibit minor league teams from making their own deals. All minor league players’ contracts are owned and swapped by major league clubs.

In Cincinnati, the plan is working. The Reds just moved into first place in the National League Central. But the depleted Bats languish in last, 13 games behind division-leading Indianapolis.

Though not dead yet, says Louisville manager David Bell.

“It’s not where we want to be by any means,” Bell says. “But because we have a long way to go, we can get right back in this thing if we play the way we’re capable. That’s why I’m positive. The other reason I’m positive is you go through things like this in baseball. You have to get through the bad to get better.”

Good defense has kept the Bats close. The problem has been the failure to deliver big base hits at crucial times. The other day, the Bats left 14 runners on base in a 15-inning loss to Indianapolis. And Louisville’s pitching has some years on it — with no 90 mph-plus young arms on the horizon. The Bats have also been hampered by injuries to key position players Paul Janish, Chris Valaika and Denis Phipps.

On the other hand, young slugging prospect Neftali Soto has shown a swing with some sting, at times, and he leads the International League in at-bats.

Veteran catcher Corky Miller says what the Bats need is a lightning bolt spark.

“A year ago, Yonder Alonso suddenly got red hot in the middle of the season — and everyone around him was suddenly hot, too. That’s when we started winning,” Miller says.

“Now we just have to be in the right place at the right time to catch fire. Maybe it’s winning an extra-inning game, maybe it’s a walk-off win, maybe it’s a blowout — where everybody finally gets relaxed.”

Infielder-outfielder Cody Puckett was called up from AA Pensacola, and Bell hopes he’ll give the team a lift.

“The three things Puckett does well that makes him an exciting player is he can run and steal bases, he can hit for power and drive the ball — he hits a lot of doubles and drives runs in — and he’s also a solid defensive player at multiple positions,” Bell says.

Puckett sees himself helping a low-scoring team score more runs.

“I’m a situational player: If a runner is at second, get him to third, if he’s at third, make sure you get him home,” Puckett says. “I try to have good ‘team’ at-bats, be productive. Come up with those two-out RBIs. Fundamental winning baseball.”

Bell says Louisville fans can look forward to the eventual arrival of some hot prospects, starting with super-speedster Billy Hamilton.

Hamilton stole 103 bases last season at Dayton (A) and already has swiped 49 in 46 games this year at Bakersfield, in the high A California League. At Pensacola (AA Southern League), the Reds have top shortstop prospect Didi Gregorius, and Henry Rodriguez is batting .348.

What one doesn’t hear much buzz about, however, are young pitchers. Probably not good news.

So patience is suggested. Hard times might not limit themselves to one year at Slugger Field.

“If we have to take a bad year in exchange for the Cincinnati Reds winning the World Series, that’s a success for them, and really even for us,” Owens says. “We’re a part of this whole organization. It’s not us standing here alone. They provide our players, and if they can win the World Series, we’ve done our job.

“And, I think most Louisville fans would be very, very happy if the Reds brought a World Series home to Cincinnati this year or next year.”

Just don’t forget to restock the minor league arsenal.