By Mike Lemaire
What started on May 26 when high Class A Charlotte reliever Sergio Espinosa got Palm Beach’s Tony Cruz to ground into a seemingly innocent inning-ending 4-6 force out quickly became one of the most impressive pitching streaks in the history of the Florida State League.
When Charlotte reliever Chris Andujar allowed an RBI triple in the seventh inning of the June 16 meeting between the Stone Crabs and Jupiter, it was the first run yielded by the Charlotte bullpen in three weeks—a streak of 18 games and 481/3 innings.
“For as long as I have been playing baseball, I have never seen anything even close to a streak like that,” said closer Zach Quate, who contributed nine scoreless innings and six saves during the streak. “To tell you the truth, most of us didn’t even know about the streak until someone brought it up the other day. Our bullpen has been so good it’s almost like it’s expected. We didn’t really think about it.”
The Charlotte media relations staff unsuccessfully scoured league record books for any precedent of such a streak, only finding a 48 1/3 scoreless streak set by Paul Gilliford in 1966. Gilliford didn’t need any help in accomplishing his record-setting performance. But the Stone Crabs used eight different pitchers, a feat that pitching coach Neil Allen thought was even more staggering.
“When you get a guy who gets hot like that, they are able to see the same batters and start to learn their tendencies,” Allen said. “These guys in the bullpen, they all pitch differently, see different hitters, and have different game plans. So I think when you see a group of individuals answering the call every night, it’s that much more amazing.”
The Stone Crabs roster is loaded with talent, including shortstop Tim Beckham (the 2008 No. 1 overall pick) and touted righthander Nick Barnese. But none of the relievers involved in the streak are among the Rays’ top prospects. Instead, Allen says, the close-knit group has helped each other improve.
“A lot of the times in the minor leagues kids are selfish because they are trying to succeed themselves,” he said. “These guys all talk about how they get different people out, they talk about pitch location. It has been a long time since I have seen a bullpen that is this close.”
Quate admits that he and his teammates hated to see the streak end. But he also left the door open for the beginning of another.
“Once we knew about it, there was definitely more pressure,” Quate said. “But now that it’s over we can just go back to concentrating on getting guys out and working to improve each day. And of course we can always start another one tomorrow.”
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