With the Diamondbacks only five games out in the race for the NL West, not only do hopes remain for the organization’s first division title in four years, but down on the farm, the Tennessee Smokies sent six players to this year’s Double-A Southern League’s All-Star Game.
Catcher Miguel Montero, who celebrated his 23rd birthday the night before, was a perfect 3-for-3 at the plate with a pair of doubles. Leadoff hitter and second baseman Danny Richar added two hits and scored a run. Left-hander Doug Slaten pitched a scoreless inning in relief. All players played some role or another in the Northern Division’s 9-4 win over the South.
While Slaten threw 17 pitches in relief, one Smokies pitcher that did not see action was right-handed starter Ross Ohlendorf. The 23-year-old Austin, Texas, native has seven wins and a 2.81 ERA this season. He won seven straight decisions from May 16 to June 27.
It would only be natural for any pitcher to feel somewhat overlooked, or even overshadowed due to all of the attention surrounding fellow prospects Greg Smith (9-0 with a 1.63 ERA at Class High A Lancaster) and Micah Owings, who has racked up 10 wins already this year in only his second professional season.
Not Ohlendorf, though.
“I don’t feel overshadowed necessarily,” said Ohlendorf, who has thrown the second most innings in the Southern League this season with 118 1/3, one behind Montgomery’s Andrew Sonnanstine. “Everyone on this team has been pitching well. The most important thing is for me to feel like I’m getting better.”
And Ohlendorf certainly has been. The fourth-round draft pick from 2004 won 11 games last year at Class A South Bend, but posted a 4.53 ERA. This season, after skipping the California League, he already has more than half the wins from a year ago, a much lower ERA, and is on pace to walk fewer hitters in likely more innings than his stint with the Silver Hawks.
One of the reasons for his turnaround, Ohlendorf believes, is his success with the off-speed pitch.
“My changeup has gotten a lot better this year,” he said. “I feel I’ve pitched well this year.”
Meanwhile, Richar, a left-handed hitting 23-year-old, has the second highest average in the Southern League at .312 (minimum 80 games). His 100 hits are third in the league behind Chattanooga slugger Joey Votto and West Tenn’s Chris Walker.
A lot of the success Richar has seen can be attributed to better pitch selection. After walking only 32 times a season ago at Lancaster and just 23 times in 2004, he has already surpassed that total with 38 walks in 2006.
“I worked extra hard in the offseason and have continued that on into this year,” said the shy Richar, a native of the Dominican Republic.
Twenty-three year old Jerry Gil was signed seven years ago as a non-drafted free agent from the Dominican Republic and began ‘06 at Triple A Tucson. He was sent back to Double-A after hitting just .128 with 15 strikeouts and no walks in 16 games for the Sidewinders.
His current .266 average with the Smokies isn’t overly spectacular, but the former shortstop turned outfielder has never posted particularly booming numbers with the stick.
Entering the year, Gil’s career high for average was .278. That was two years ago at Tucson, a year in which he also garnered a major league call-up and spent 29 games with the Diamondbacks.
When the organization approached him about leaving the post he’d always known in the field, Gil was a little bummed.
“In the beginning, when they told me I was going to play everywhere, I was a little sad because I knew I could play shortstop,” he said. “I decided to talk to my agent about it and he said it would be better for me to play everywhere. I feel comfortable about it now.”
Gil’s sudden boost in power is also cause for optimism. He is slugging over .500 and has a career-high 14 home runs this season -- 13 of which have come with Tennessee, tying him for third overall in the pitcher-friendly league.
“I’ve not done anything really different,” Gil said. “I’d had a lot of strikeouts in the past. Now I’m just trying to put the ball in play. The home runs have just happened.”
The Smokies hammered Jacksonville, 10-2, in their first game back from the All-Star break on Wednesday night. Jaime D’Antona, who was also named to the Southern League All Star team, but did not see playing time, was 1-3 with a walk, RBI, and two runs scored, while Matt Chico earned his third win in a row, allowing two runs in six innings. Richar and Gil each had two hits and scored three runs between them atop the order.
Tennessee is off to a 13-8 start and in first place in the second half after going just 32-38 in the first half.