Improved rotation paramount for Smokies’ title asiprations

(Photo Courtesy: Nick Roark)

(Photo Courtesy: Nick Roark)

By: Nick Roark

As Tennessee Smokies manager Buddy Bailey stood in front of media members Wednesday afternoon at Smokies Park, he knew his club faced a challenge from the Birmingham Barons – Tennessee’s North Division Championship Series opponent. Specifically, Bailey foresaw the task his starting rotation faced against a club that possesses one of the top offensive lineups in the Southern League.

“You can throw all of what’s behind us is behind us now,” Bailey said as he fielded questions about his team’s title aspirations. “This is another season, this is the point that you always try to get to, the postseason, and hopefully we find a way to win six more games.”

Tennessee could not pick up its first win of the postseason Thursday night as Barons’ starter Chris Bassitt held the Smokies to just four hits over seven innings while striking out nine batters. Smokies hurler Nick Struck allowed three earned runs over five innings while walking three and striking out three.

Bailey will need an impressive performance from southpaw Eric Jokisch, the man who delivered a no-hitter earlier this season, in game three of the NDCS.

The 24-year-old has seen his fair share of struggles against the White Sox Double-A-affiliate this season by going 0-4 with a 7.77 ERA (19ER/22.0IP) in four starts, but will be called upon to pitch a critical game for Tennessee.

“It’s (going to be big) getting ahead in the count,” Jokisch said Wednesday afternoon. “They’re usually a pretty patient team – at least they were through the season – and getting ahead in the count and making them hit my pitch rather than me giving in and giving them a pitch they can get ahold of and keep guys off the base paths.”

(Photo Courtesy: Roger C. Hoover)

(Photo Courtesy: Roger C. Hoover)

The lefty said he expects plenty of adrenaline on the mound Saturday evening, but knows if he can keep himself under control, success on the hill will follow.

“For hitters, adrenaline’s a lot easier to handle because hitting is a lot of power and things like that. But as a pitcher, I need to keep myself under control, keep myself down in the zone cause once the adrenaline gets pumping, I get up in the zone. So if I can keep it down and keep the strikes where I want them, I think that will be important for these playoffs.”

“I think we’ve got to pitch a little bit better from here on in to win it,” Bailey said. “We’ve got to get better starting pitching because the bullpen’s been really good lately. We’ve got to be able to get the lead and turn it into some hands that can hold the leads for us.”

The Tennessee bullpen has turned into a bright spot as of late, posting a 2.62 ERA (28ER/96.1IP) in the month of August and a 3.12 ERA on the season. The bullpen’s improved numbers coincide with a decrease in walks. After striking out 91 batters and issuing 71 free passes in July, the relief corps walked just 47 batters in August while striking out 82.

An improvement in command is just one of many reasons for the successful reliefs statistics, Bailey says.

“(The bullpen’s been) more aggressive,” the skipper said. “A.J. (Morris) has really been in the zone and pretty good lately. (P.J.) Francescon’s had less walks and he hadn’t given up runs a lot. I think one big part that’s stepped in to help us a lot is (Armando) Rivero came in. He kind of solidified a spot in there.”

“Hopefully we get a chance to use them a little bit different as far as not an inning or two like you do for development. We’re here to win now and if we have to use a guy for an out or two, we’ll try to go that route,” Bailey said.

And while Tennessee faces a 1-0 deficit in the NDCS, Jokisch knows his team can overcome it if they play to their abilities.

“Our talent is off the charts. I think with big prospects like Baez and Szczur and Villanueva, we’re a very talented team and if we play up to our talent, there should be nobody that can go out there and beat us.”

To stay current with all the latest news, follow Smokies on Radio on Twitter and like the Smokies on Radio Facebook page.  Nick Roark is the Senior Beat Writer for the Smokies Radio Network.  You can follow him on Twitter here: NickRoark4.

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Categories: 2013 Smokies Feature


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