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Double-A Jacksonville might steal all the headlines in the Southern League, and rightly so--as they have arguably the most prospect-laden roster in the minors.
But the Suns had a hard time holding off a talented Birmingham team, winning the first-half title in the South division by just 1 1/2 games. And as the second half winds down, the Barons are holding a 2 1/2-game lead.
Led by Futures Game starting center fielder Chris Young, third baseman and first-round pick Josh Fields, outfielders Ryan Sweeney and Jerry Owens, and hulking first baseman Casey Rogowski, the Barons lead the league in batting with a .279 average.
The pitching staff also has been impressive. Led by righthander Sean Tracey and lefthanders Heath Phillips and Daniel Haigwood, Birmingham ranks fifth in the league with a 4.08 ERA. Add knuckleballer Charles Haeger and a resurgent Kris Honel to that mix, and the Barons' lead will likely be tough to strip away over the next three weeks.
But no one on the roster has meant more to the club's success this year than Owens, who skipped high Class A to go straight to Double-A out of spring training.
Owens, who came over in a deal with the Nationals for outfielder Alex Escobar, has put up MVP-caliber numbers this year, primarily batting leadoff and serving as a catalyst for the rest of the order. The second-round pick in 2003 is hitting .337/.400/.399 with 43 RBIs in 439 at-bats.
"He could be the MVP of this league," Barons manager Razor Shines said. "He's definitely the MVP on this team, that's for sure. I'm not going to say we wouldn't be where we are without him because we have some talent, but without him we're not nearly as good. That's a fact."
After coming out of college, Owens battled through injuries during his debut in the then-Expos system. First, he ran into an outfield wall in his second pro game in the New York-Penn League, injuring his throwing shoulder. He required surgery to repair the shoulder and a pre-existing hernia, ending his first pro season with just eight at-bats.
He bounced back from the injuries in a big way last year in his first full season at low Class A Savannah, where he batted .292-1-37 in 418 at-bats.
Scouts have been down on Owens' ability to remain in center field, however, and some within the organization reportedly agree.
"He doesn't run great routes and his arm strength is below-average," a scout from an National League club said. "And offensively, I just don't see him driving the ball consistently enough to be an everyday player."
But Owens still leads the league in hits and runs scored, ranks second in average, fourth in steals and is in the top 10 in on-base percentage.
No one expected him to skip high Class A and establish himself as the premiere leadoff hitter in Double-A--especially Shines, who clearly thought Owens wasn't ready for the challenge.
"I'm not ready to say he'll never be able to play center field," Shines said. "I'm not going to say never. With some of the adjustments he's made, he continues to get better. He hits three balls hard every night. He goes from first to third as well as anybody and his instincts on the bases are exceptional, which makes him that much more dangerous because of his speed.
"Defensively, his routes aren't that good. But he can get there. He's dominated this league. I'm not going to say never when it comes to Jerry Owens. I did that once already--I thought he'd never hit in this league. That shows you what I know."
• Triple-A has not been kind to Indians righthander Dan Denham. Since Denham was called up to Buffalo Aug. 7, he's gone 0-2, 10.80 with a 6-8 strikeout-walk ratio. In 10 innings, the 17th overall pick in 2001 has allowed 16 hits. Denham took the loss in Richmond's 5-0 win Wednesday, as Braves righthander Kyle Davies threw seven shutout innings.
• It wasn't exactly like his first start this season, but it was close. Orioles lefthander Richard Stahl put together his best outing since then Wednesday for Double-A Bowie. Stahl, a first-rounder in 1999, allowed just three hits over six shutout innings and struck out five in Bowie's 7-0 win against Harrisburg. On April 11, his first outing this season at high Class A Frederick, Stahl tossed seven shutout innings, allowed just one hit and whiffed 10.
• Wednesday was the battle for bragging rights between the top Venezuelan pitchers in the minors as righthanders Yusmeiro Petit and Anibal Sanchez squared off at Double-A Portland. And it was all Petit, who twirled a three-hit shutout over eight innings, striking out 12. Sanchez struggled with his command, allowing four runs on eight hits over 6 1/3 innings. He walked five and struck out five. "Both had a perfect game into fourth inning . . . but Petit had his A-plus game and Sanchez had his B-plus game," Portland manager Todd Claus said. "Petit's stuff was unreal. (Outfielder Brandon) Moss came back into the dugout and said it looks like 98. It just gets on you before you have an idea. He only recorded one ground ball out and that was a guy trying to bunt for a hit."
• Double-A Wichita outfielder Billy Butler hit his first home run Wednesday since being called up from high Class A High Desert on Aug. 6. Over his first 41 at-bats, the Royals' first-round pick last year is hitting .268/.302/.390.
• Prince Fielder is obliterating Pacific Coast League pitching. After starting the month 1-for-11, Fielder is 27-for-50 since with seven home runs, including a 2-for-4 performance last night with his 28th homer of the year for Nashville. He is now hitting .291/.388/.569. After the game, the Brewers recalled Fielder after putting Brady Clark on the 15-day disabled list.
• High Class A St. Lucie put up 14 runs in a 14-10 victory over Palm Beach. Andy Wilson went 3-for-4 with six RBIs and connected for his 26th homer of the season. It was the team's 130th home run of the season. Last week, they broke the Florida State League team record for home runs in a season of 125, set by Dunedin in 2000.
• For the most part, Brian Dopirak has been a disappointment this season in the Florida State League, but on Wednesday he showed flashes of what made him the Cubs No.1 prospect. The power-hitting first baseman was 2-for-4 including his 15th homer of the season. He's still not making enough contact as he is only hitting .243 and has 92 strikeouts and only 34 walks in 445 at-bats.
• It is hard to judge how significant saves are in the South Atlantic League, but Greensboro's Chris Mobley deserves some credit for the enormous figures he is putting up this season. The 22-year-old righthander threw a perfect ninth inning on Wednesday to seal a 3-1 win for the Grasshoppers over Lexington. On the season, the 22nd-rounder out of Middle Tennessee State in 2004 leads the minors with 33 saves. He also has a 2.38 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 57 innings.
• A 21st-round pick out of Division II Molloy College on Long Island, Joe Holden is opening some eyes in the short-season New York-Penn League. The outfielder went 3-for-4 with two RBIs and two runs scored to help lead Brooklyn to a 9-1 victory against New Jersey. On the season, the 21-year-old is hitting .335/.399/.432 with 16 stolen bases in 19 attempts.
• Brandon Erbe is lighting up radar guns in the Appalachian League. The third-round pick from the McDonough School in Baltimore by the Orioles has shown a fastball that sits in the 95-97 mph range. The 17-year-old struck out nine over four shutout innings Wednesday and is now 1-0, 2.70 with an incredible 41 strikeouts in 20 innings.
• Rangers second baseman Joey Hooft is starting to claw his way out of a dreadful slump in the short-season Northwest League. The 20th-round pick out of Arizona State went 2-for-4 for the third straight game at Spokane, lifting his season average up to .238 after it had plummeted to .215 during an 0-for-19 funk.
• Royals outfielder Joe Dickerson, a fourth-round pick in June out of Esperanza High in Yorba Linda, Calif., hit a grand slam for the Rookie-level Arizona League Royals. He is now hitting .302-3-30 in 164 professional at-bats.
• Phillies 50th-round pick Tyler Gooch, a righthander out of Oklahoma, threw four hitless innings, striking out four and walking two in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. It was his fifth professional outing but his first start; he's still looking for his first pro win, but he has pitched well, recording a 3.00 ERA in nine innings of work.
• School's back, at least in some parts of the country. Once 2005 draft picks attend their first college class, teams can no longer negotiate with them. South Carolina's recruiting class improved as Justin Smoak and Reese Havens both began their freshman year this morning. Smoak, a switch-hitting first baseman from Goose Creek, S.C., slipped out of the first three rounds but still turned down a signing bonus approaching $1 million from the Athletics, who picked him in round 16. Havens, a shortstop/third baseman from Charleston drafted by the Rockies in the 29th round, passed on a bonus in or more than $1 million. Aaron Bates went to class at North Carolina State on Wednesday. The Marlins took the first baseman/catcher as an eligible sophomore after he hit .425/.523/.678 with 12 home runs to earn third-team All-America status. He led the Cape Cod League in on-base percentage this summer and won the league's home run derby, but Florida never came up with the $200,000 he wanted to sign.
• Our vote for most traveled player this year goes to Indians infielder Anthony Lunetta. Lunetta was called back to Double-A Akron on Wednesday, just four days after being reassigned to high Class A Kinston. But this move was just the latest in his 2005 travel saga. Lunetta, a ninth-round pick in 2003, broke camp in Winter Haven, Fla., and began the year in low Class A Lake County (1,091 miles), went to Akron April 26th (44 miles), joined Kinston in Potomac, Md., May 12th (364 miles), went back to Akron July 3rd (613 miles), rejoined Kinston in Lynchburg August 13th (446 miles), and is now back in Akron (613 miles). In all, Lunetta has traveled 3,171 miles to play 59 games (an average of 53.8 miles per game) in 16 different ballparks--so far.
Contributing: Will Kimmey and Alan Matthews.
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