The American Association will have a new single-season home run record holder this year.
But it may take until the final day of the season to find out who it is. Breaking the existing record has proven to be the easy job compared to winning this year’s home run crown.
Wichita’s C.J. Ziegler and Sioux Falls’ Tim Pahuta have been trading the lead, and the record, back and forth.
On Aug. 21, Ziegler’s third home run in three games tied Sioux Falls Brandon Sing’s record of 27 home runs, set in 2010. The next day, Pahuta hit a pair of home runs to take the league lead with 28 home runs and thus set a new standard. Ziegler responded with home runs in each of his next three games to leapfrog back into the lead with 30.
The lead has been changing hands so frequently that Sioux Falls broadcaster Scott Beatty and his Wichita counterpart, Steve Schuster, text each other after each home run so fans can be kept apprised of the current state of the race.
With the season winding down, the home run race has provided a reason to pay attention for both clubs. Sioux Falls is wrapping up a disappointing, last-place season that had them 21 games out of first. Wichita was at the other end of the spectrum, wrapping up a division title with a dominating run to the best record in the league. The Wingnuts have pulled off the rare feat of leading the American Association in both runs scored and runs allowed.
For Pahuta, a Seton Hall alumnus who spent the past eight seasons in the Nationals organization, his first taste of the American Association has proven to be a pleasant introduction to the independent leagues.
Pahuta had offers to stay closer to home to play in the Atlantic League, but he saw a chance to go to Sioux Falls as an opportunity to see another part of the country while still getting paid to play baseball. As a 30-year-old, he’s realistic about his outlook and says his career is starting to “wind down.”
The choice of Sioux Falls has work out beautifully, and the ballpark’s dimensions (312 feet down the line) have been a good fit for Pahuta’s pull-heavy approach.
Pahuta has hit home runs in bunches. His record-breaking two homer game was his fifth multi-home run game of the season.
But as he tries to chase down Ziegler in the home run race, Pahuta faces a dilemma. The more he thinks about the home run record, the more he has to remind himself to not try to do too much.
“I’m paid to hit home runs, but when I try to hit home runs, I don’t hit them,” Pahuta said.
For Ziegler, the home runs have come with a whole lot of line drives sprayed around the park. He has home run power when he pulls the ball to left, but he’s just as capable of taking line drives off the wall to right field for doubles. That explains his .322/.408/.664 line.
“He’s a good hitter. He’s not just a power guy,” Wichita manager Kevin Hooper said. “He’s become a really good hitter. In BP, we watch him hit the ball the other way for power. The key for him is to stick to that approach.”
The Wingnuts slugger gets his home runs on extended hot streaks. Ziegler has homered in back-to-back games on 10 different occasions this year. He has hit home runs in three straight games three times and has a four-game home run streak.
A 16th-round pick out of Arizona of the Giants in 2008, Ziegler put up similar numbers for Wichita last year, as he hit .320 with 18 home runs in 58 games. He would have given the home run record a run last year, but he missed a significant amount of the American Association season to play in the Mexican League. He returned for the end of the season and still finished third in the league in home runs despite not having enough at-bats to qualify among the batting leaders.
Ziegler hit at Arizona as well, but he has been a late bloomer as a pro. He hit only 14 home runs in two seasons in the Giants organization and hit .226/.328/.413 in a season-long stint with the Frontier League’s Traverse City club in 2010.
Ziegler found his footing with a breakout year in the now-defunct North American League in 2011, as he hit 24 home runs between Lake County and Calgary. That got him the job in Wichita.
This year Ziegler told Hooper that he was sticking around for the duration of the season. When Ziegler made that decision, Sing’s home run record was placed in jeopardy. Now it’s just a question of whether Ziegler can outpace Pahuta the rest of the way.