Chihuahuas firing on all cylinders

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Ruby Cerino

Chihuahuas manager Pat Murphy talks to his players during a trip to the mound.

Luis Gonzalez, Sports Editor

The El Paso Chihuahuas are among the best teams in the Pacific Coast League after playing 18 games this season. After winning five of their last six games, the Chihuahuas have a 12-6 record that puts them atop of the Southern Division going into the final two games of their seven-game home stand.

El Paso closes out the home stand against Salt Lake and will have one day to travel before taking the field again for eight consecutive road games. From Thursday, April 30 through Sunday, May 3, the Chihuahuas will be in Sacramento, Calif. They will travel down to Fresno for a four-game series against the River Cats from May 4-7.

El Paso will be closing out a very successful month of April in which, after a 4-4 start, the team has won eight of its last 10 games and has yet to lose a series.

Manager Pat Murphy’s team has shown balance between some solid pitching and defense and an explosive offense that has scored 38 runs so far in this current home stand.

“We’ve been getting a lot of production from our offense at big times,” said Chihuahua infielder Tommy Medica. “Our pitching staff, our starters are settling in a little more and going a little deeper into games and throwing really well.”

Coming off their first series win on the road against Tacoma, the Chihuahuas opened their home stand against Sacramento. The canines outscored the River Cats 35-10 in the four games they played on the field at Southwest University Park.

On the mound for the first game against the River Cats was left-hander Robbie Erlin. He shut down Sacramento’s line-up the first time around, retiring every batter he faced in the first three innings. His perfect start came to an end in the fourth, when he allowed the only run of the game after a couple of hits.

By this point, El Paso had already put a couple of runs on the board, something any starting pitcher can appreciate.

“The offense coming up and scoring early made it easy to kind of settle in, put my mind at ease and get the game plan,” Erlin said.

Leading 2-1 after the top of the fourth, the Chihuahuas went to the plate and got to work. Erlin bunted to advance runners, Medica doubled, right-fielder Rymer Liriano tripled and center-fielder Abraham Almonte homered in a four-run inning that would seal the deal for El Paso.

Erlin did not allow another run in his two innings of work after the fourth and Murphy used three relievers, who each pitched a hitless inning, to close the game. Second baseman Taylor Lindsay crossed home in the bottom of the eighth to make it a 7-1 Chihuahuas’ victory.

The offense continued to shine the following night, with a 13-5 win in front 6,591 fans.

The Chihuahuas’ offense scored at least a run in six of the eight innings in which they came to the plate, including a big six-run third inning.

“We put together some good innings,” Murphy said. “(We had) that kind of relentless, stay-with-it attitude.”

Every field player on the Chihuahuas’ line-up got at least one hit. Almonte led the way with four RBI’s and a home run on a night when he went 3-6 at the plate. Left-fielder Alex Dickerson went 2-5, adding three RBI’s and a home run of his own.

Starting pitcher James Needy struggled at times during his five innings of work, but with little consequence thanks to the plentiful production on offense. Murphy once again called on three relievers, who went a combined four innings allowing just one run.

For the third game of the series, El Paso once again came out and roughed up the opposition’s pitcher early.

Liriano went 3-4 from the leadoff spot, including two home runs and three RBI’s, and the Chihuahuas scored all of its seven runs in the first four innings on their way to a 7-3 win.

Liriano struggled mightily at the plate at the start of the season, going 2-14 at the plate in the first four games. He seems to be shaking off the slump after getting a hit in 10 of his last 11 games. During this time, in the one game that he did not record a hit, Liriano still got on base thanks to a walk.

Liriano went 3-4 from the leadoff spot, including two home runs and three RBI’s, and the Chihuahuas scored all of its seven runs in the first four innings on their way to a 7-3 win.

Liriano struggled mightily at the plate at the start of the season, going 2-14 at the plate in the first four games. He seemed to be shaking off the slump after getting a hit in 10 of his last 11 games. During this time, in the one game that he did not record a hit, Liriano still got on base thanks to a walk.

“I was more calm on home plate waiting for the pitches,” Liriano said. “A week ago, I was a little off, but after working and working I was able to improve my swing.”

Starting pitcher Bryce Morrow recorded his second win of the season in three starts after pitching over six innings, allowing six hits, two runs and striking out five.

El Paso won its fourth in a row on Friday night and sealed their first sweep of the season with a final score of 6-1.

Jason Lane had his best start of the year, going seven innings and allowing just one run. He also struck out five and was hit six times. The veteran left-hander came out locked in, commanding his various pitches almost to perfection. He dominated the River Cats’ lineup, allowing their only run of the game in the first inning, mainly in part to some unfortunate bounces.

“The first inning was just bad luck,” Lane said. “Two infield hits and a ground ball just got through.”

The offense did its thing once again, but this time it was shortstop Ramiro Pena leading the charge. The 29-year-old Mexico native was perfect at the plate, getting a hit on every single one of his four plate appearances.

The ex-New York Yankee and Atlanta Brave was just a home run shy of hitting for the cycle that night, after hitting two singles, a double and a triple. He scored three runs and had one RBI.

“It’s a different guy every night,” Murphy said. “It’s kind of cool.”

The winning streak was stopped by the Salt Lake Bees on Saturday night. El Paso’s offense was kept in check and the Chihuahuas lost 6-3.

The Bees’ starting pitcher Andrew Heaney, a first-round pick in 2008, was not dominating, but good enough to neutralize an offense that came into the game red-hot.

Chihuahuas’ starting pitcher Daniel McCutchen and reliever Stephen Kohlscheen both struggled on the mound, each allowing three runs. McCutchen worked for four innings and Kohlscheen pitched just over two.

“We didn’t make big pitches at big times like we’ve been doing,” Murphy said. “They (Salt Lake) got key hits when they needed to.”

El Paso got even on Sunday afternoon in an old-school pitching duel. Hits and runs were at a premium, and El Paso did just enough to come away with a 2-1 victory despite being outhit 9-5.

Erlin pitched for the second time in the home stand, and went six innings allowing seven hits and just the one run for a second-straight game.

“I felt good,” Erlin said. “Some pitches were up, but for the most part I felt all right.”

Once Murphy thought Erlin had done enough, it was time to call in what could be the most consistent part in the Chihuahuas’ game of this young season. Nick Vincent and Marcos Mateo came out of the bullpen and pitched a combined three innings. They struck out four of six batters that came to the plate and allowed just two hits.

Mateo and Vincent are not the only players that have made El Paso’s bullpen dominate and as feared, if not more, than its offense. Kevin Quackenbush, Scott Elbert, among others, have made the final three to four innings of games unbearable for opposing hitters on a consistent basis since opening day.

“I think every starter on this team is happy to turn the ball over to the pen when that time comes,” Erlin said. “The bullpen’s been outstanding.”

After finishing up the series with the Bees, on Monday, April 27 and Tuesday, April 28, the Chihuahuas will head to the road and will not be back at Southwest University Park until Friday, May 8.

After a sub-par first year, the start to this season for the Chihuahuas has been outstanding. No matter what happens during the final three games of the month, El Paso will finish April with a record well above .500, at the top of their division and among the top three teams in all of the PCL.

It’s a time to enjoy for players, coaches and fans.

“These are the times you’ve got to enjoy,” Dickerson said of the win streak. “We are clicking on and off the field. We’ve just got to ride it while we can. There will be times when it’s not going so good. But we’ve got a lot of talent in this locker room. It’s insane.”

Luis Gonzalez may be reached at [email protected]