Funk has Pickles searching for answers
Baseball tends to be a fickle game. One moment you're unstoppable, and the next you're stuck in a seemingly unbreakable funk.
Right now, and going into a tough road series at the 8-1 Walla Walla Sweets, the Portland Pickles are in that kind of funk.
"Baseball can be unforgiving," head coach Justin Barchus said about his team's 4-8 start, which includes a 1-5 record over the past six games. "Everybody's been on teams that have struggled, and the game's twice as hard when you don't feel things are going your way."
Last season, the Pickles found their groove around week two, improving from 4-2 to 9-2. They garnered 15 wins before losing eight.
This year, the Pickles are fifth in the six-team West Coast League South Division and have a 3-6 record against division opponents.
Barchus was unable to manage three games last week due to complications from knee surgery. Hitting coach Mark Magdaleno served as interim head coach. Although inconvenient, Barchus's absence wasn't what derailed the Pickles.
"Everybody has a job," Magdaleno says. "We all know what we're supposed to do."
Errors have hurt the Pickles significantly. Last season, the team had the best fielding percentage (.975) and the fewest errors (49) among all WCL teams. This year, Portland has the second-worst fielding percentage (.946) and is next-to-last in errors (25).
In the series opener with the Bend Elks, Pickles outfielder Chase Lutrell lost two balls in the lights of Walker Stadium with two outs. That resulted in four runs to jump-start a nine-run fifth inning for Bend. The Pickles lost 12-10.
Errors also cost Portland game two, as two of them set up three runs for the Elks — all Bend needed to clinch the series.
"Someone's got to pick someone up at all times," Portland pitching coach Zach Miller says. "The catchers may be really good that day and our pitchers may be bad, and then the other day our pitchers aren't giving up hits but then our defense doesn't do it. It's a team thing."
Magdaleno says multiple players have been moved around in order to make up for holes in the roster.
"It has nothing to do with mental and physical, it's that we're having to play guys in positions they're not accustomed to," Magdaleno says. "It's not as easy as you think. If you're a second baseman and you've got to move to third, it's a different angle off the bat. They're different throws, there's a lot of little different things."
More help should be on the way. Barchus says most of the roster should be in Portland by June 21. A full roster should give Barchus a better idea of who can show up night in and night out.
"I think I've got to figure out who's going to help us win games at this point," Barchus said. "I think guys will generally have a good idea of what they're going to be asked to do and what they're expected to do."
Even though the numbers and results aren't there, Portland has grown more confident offensively. The Pickles have started to generate contact in their at-bats as opposed to week one, when they struggled to even do that. They struggled in their series finale against Bend, falling 3-0 with just two hits on Sunday, but are optimistic despite not getting the breaks they want.
"We're not as worried about not getting breaks right now, because we can't control that," Barchus says. "We got to be better in offensive counts and 2-0 and 3-1 counts, being more aggressive towards those and seeing fastballs."
The team is batting .188. That's last in the 12-team wood-bat league (Kelowna is at .198, with the Cowlitz Black Bears 10th at .224). The Pickles are last in slugging percentage (.245) and have struck out nearly the most (106 times, one less than the Yakima Valley Pippins).
The Pickles are still putting up almost four runs a game, however, which Magdaleno points to as a positive sign going forward.
"With those kind of stats, we shouldn't even be scoring runs," Magdaleno says. "So that tells you that if we can get guys committed to first base and start to get things rolling, we're going to put some numbers up.
"The key for us is going to be how we can start controlling leadoff man. When the leadoff man gets on, he scores roughly 70 percent of the time. That guy needs to get on base for us."
Pitching has been inconsistent so far this season as well. Barchus notes that some games are marred by one or two bad innings from a pitcher. On Saturday, for example, Portland left-hander and Milwaukie High graduate Brad McVay struggled as a starter, giving up seven runs in four innings. After that, however, former Lincoln High standout Zane Mills came in with a solid outing of six strikeouts and one run allowed in four innings.
Miller says finding groups of pitchers that throw off opposing batters is a summer-long process.
"We're always going to be readjusting until we can get this thing right," Miller says. "At the end of the summer, if we look back and we still don't have it right, then we can't say we didn't try."
First baseman Kyle Manzardo has provided the most consistent offense for the Pickles, hitting .385, while pitchers Mills and Titus Groeneweg have performed well, but otherwise no one has separated themselves from the pack.
"There hasn't really been anybody that's stepped up and taken on that role Kyle has," Barchus says. "But I'm sure that will happen."
The Pickles will play 11 of their next 14 league games on the road. A 6:30 p.m. Tuesday game kicks off the series at Walla Walla.
"It'll be a good opportunity for us to go on a true road trip on the bus for the first time," Barchus says. "Obviously we like being at hom,e but it's hard for guys coming in to really mesh when they don't have to go on road trips together and don't have to stay in hotel rooms together. I think this will be a good opportunity for us to do that."
The Pickles will need to be resilient.
"We just can't get out from underneath the wet blanket right now," Barchus says. "But there's only one thing you can do. We're not going to run away, so you've got to join the fight. You got to stay in the fight and come through to the other side."