It began subtly; Drew Jackson smacking an RBI double to center field on a warm Memorial Day afternoon at Sam Lynn Ball Park.
The Bakersfield Blaze shortstop’s third-inning hit didn’t seem very meaningful at the time as it produced only one run for a team that still trailed 6-1 to an Inland Empire squad that had beaten the Blaze the previous two days.
But as it turned out, Jackson’s run scoring fly ball was the start of big things for Bakersfield.
Just like they had all season the Blaze kept battling and eventually pulled out a dramatic 8-7 comeback victory over the 66ers, kick starting a 10-game winning streak that moved Bakersfield above .500 for the first time all season.
The Blaze (33-31) fell in their final home game of the first-half against Cal League North leader Visalia with an 11-3 record since Memorial Day.
“I just think they (the players) have settled into their own,” Blaze manager Eddie Menchaca said. “It’s minor league baseball so it’s a process and I think it was just a matter of time. But now they’re playing together as a team and everything is falling into place.”
The recent hot streak has come as a direct result of Bakersfield playing its best baseball of the season.
But the Blaze’s early-season difficulties weren’t because the team played poorly as much as it struggled to pull out close games.
Bakersfield lost seven of its first nine one-run games. During the 10-game winning streak the Blaze were 4-0 in games decided by one run.
“I think we have started to just execute (better) in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings,” Menchaca said. “We just get it done and that’s what it’s about.”
The Memorial Day win against Inland Empire is one of two recent games the Blaze have won after trailing by six runs.
After having the long winning streak snapped against Stockton on Saturday night, the Blaze showed its never-give-up attitude the next day in rallying from a 6-0 deficit to beat the Ports 8-7 on Aaron Barbosa’s two-out in the ninth inning, two-run, walk-off double.
Bakersfield’s recent success has truly been a team effort.
Seven different pitchers registered wins during the 10-game winning streak. The recent improvement on the offensive attack has been the result of multiple players swinging hot bats.
That’s not to say that Bakersfield doesn’t have a few standouts on its roster. Three Blaze players, first baseman Kyle Petty along with pitchers Tyler Herb and Kyle Schepel were selected to the Cal League All-Star team.
Petty, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound 2013, 23rd round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners out of California University of Pennsylvania, leads the Cal League in batting average (.345), on base percentage (.416), hits (86), and total bases (130).
“Right now we have all cylinders firing,” Petty said. “We’re getting hits in big situations, pitching is has been really good, our bullpen has done a phenomenal job, and our defense has really picked up.”
The 24-year old slugger played 96 games for the Blaze last season, batting .255 with 9 home runs.
He already has 8 homers this season and is arguably the most feared hitter in the league.
“I’m putting together a good year but I have a great support system with my teammates and everyone else,” Petty said. “I have guys (in the lineup) protecting me and they’ve put me in good situations to succeed.”
As a team the Blaze rank near the middle of the Cal League in both hitting and pitching.
Herb, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound, hard-throwing right-hander is 6-2 with a 3.36 earned run average and is tied for the Cal League lead in strikeouts (76) with teammate Tyler Pike.
“A lot of things didn’t go our way early in the season but we just continued to battle through it,” Herb said. “Now things are starting to bounce our way. It’s been fun. It’s contagious when you go to the clubhouse and you get there and it’s a feeling that we’re going to win today, rather than rather than, I don’t know about today.”
Schepel, the Blaze closer, is 3-1 with 2.03 ERA. The former minor league free agent has been successful in six of seven save opportunities.
Much of the Bakersfield’s hopes for sustained success this year, will depend on how much the team’s roster changes for the second half of season.
Regardless of who comes and goes, Menchaca believes that his team has turned a corner and will continue to play well the rest of the way.
“I’m really satisfied with where we’re at,” Menchaca said. “Obviously there’s still room for improvement. We can always get better individually and as a team. I just think we have to continue to carry momentum into the second half.”