Sam Lynn Ballpark has housed Bakersfield's minor-league baseball team nearly every year since it opened in 1941, but rarely has it felt as much like home to the players than this spring.
Eighteen of the 26 players on the Blaze roster played at least part of the season here in 2013. That's an extreme rarity in minor-league baseball, normally the domain of nomads.
"These guys are just more comfortable," said Blaze manager Pat Kelly, one of the team's few newcomers. "They know this ballpark, they know this city."
Perhaps that's a big reason something else is different about this year's Blaze: They started 11-3 and still equal the California League's best record at 11-5 despite losing back-to-back games for the first time this season Thursday and Friday. Friday night's loss was 4-3 to San Jose; Bakersfield was 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position and allowed an unearned run in an eighth inning that proved to be the difference in a game played in front of a crowd of 1,443.
Still, though game-by-game records aren't kept, 11-3 was the best 14-game start for the club in at least 25 years, according to Blaze scorekeeper and historian Tim Wheeler.
The Blaze, the Cincinnati Reds' Class A-advanced affiliate, has been doing just about everything right thus far: Kelly said he likes the team's defense, Bakersfield lead the Cal League with 27 stolen bases and the pitching has a respectable 3.81 team ERA. But it's at the plate where the Blaze has really shined. In a league known for its offense, Bakersfield entered Friday's game having scored 22 more runs than any other team in the league and with the highest on-base percentage by 18 points.
"Offensively, we've swung the bat very well, and we've done an excellent job with runners in scoring position and on third base with less than two outs," Kelly said. "I think we have 12 (sacrifice) flies already, and you have to take advantage of those situations."
This has happened without the benefit of many hyped-up prospects. There is no Billy Hamilton here. Bakersfield has no players ranked among MLB.com's top 100 prospects, and most of top 20 Reds prospects are in Class AA Pensacola (Fla.) or Class AAA Louisville. The two in Bakersfield are pitcher Ben Lively, who is 3-0 with a 0.53 ERA (and happens to be from Pensacola), and outfielder Jesse Winker, who's hitting .339.
"I've been really comfortable with everything so far," Lively said. "I was on a veteran team in college (at Central Florida), so I'm used to how it's supposed to go. You can tell this is a good team."
Outside of Lively and Winker, many of the offensive leaders are unheralded players who were in Bakersfield a year ago, struggling through a 55-85 season that was one of the worst in franchise history. Outfielder Kyle Waldrop leads the Cal League with 22 hits and a .393 batting average. Junior Arias, another outfielder, stole eight bases in eight games before he was injured last week. First baseman Marquez Smith leads the league with 20 RBIs and is second with a .688 slugging percentage. Pitcher Brooks Pinckard is 3-0.
"I definitely think it helps to come back after playing here, even if it wasn't a full year for some guys," Waldrop said. "We have a lot of new guys, too, some great arms, but it all feeds into it."
Of course, returning players means older players, too -- the average age of the Blaze's position players is 23.5, the highest in the league.
"Cincinnati, because we had so many young clubs last year, just kind of had a lot of guys repeat a level," Kelly said. "It's paying off at all of our levels. We want guys to compete and be successful."
Of course, it's only 16 games into a 140-game season, as Smith, the oldest regular player in the league at 29, is quick to remind. He was the Cal League's first Player of the Week and opened the season batting .444 with 10 extra-base hits; since then, he's 1-for-15, and his average has dropped more than 100 points.
"It's a long season," Smith said. "One week is not going to mean much for the whole year."
And that's why even though there has been a buzz at Sam Lynn to go with rare crowds greater than 1,000 the past two nights, the Blaze's players are taking things slow.
After all, they're a year older and wiser. And they've also been through a Bakersfield summer.
"Yeah, it'll get hot, and it's a long season," Smith said. "But we have a great strength coach, we try to eat right, stay hydrated. All you can do is try to take care of things every day."