By Grant Braden
It has been a tough season thus far for the Jackson Generals. The 2012 North Division Champions sit eight games back of first place and are currently five games below the .500 mark. They just dropped four of five from the Tennessee Smokies, but were able to take the series against the Birmingham Barons, the team with the best record in the league.
There are plenty of bright spots on the Generals’ team though. Brad Miller is a top hitter in the Southern League, batting .289 with 23 RBIs. Outfielder Julio Morban’s average crept to .358 last week, as his Generals’ season-high hit streak came to a close at 12 games. The twenty-one year old was hitting .421 with runners in scoring position. Finally, the pitching staff holds a 3.28 ERA, second best of the ten Southern League teams.
Among the solid pitching staff are three starters who are making a name in the organization. Taijuan Walker is the second top prospect in the Seattle Mariners’ farm system and he seems to show why with every start. In six of his nine starts, Walker has allowed one or fewer earned runs. He leads the Southern League in strikeouts (57) and is second in opponents batting average (.197). With runners in scoring position and two outs, Walker has held opponents to a .059 batting average. His fastball touches 96 mph and compliments well with a curveball that Walker can locate consistently.
If there were one reason why Walker is still in AA, it would be his command. The right-hander has walked 25 total, 12 of them being with runners on base. The Mariners’ may want to see how Walker will continue to respond as he goes through adversity at the AA level.
“I think he’s done a pretty good job of throwing his fastball where he wants it and spotting it up,” Jackson Generals manager Jim Pankovits said. “What’s next for him…will come down to command of his pitches, in particular his secondary pitches.”
Chance Ruffin got big league experience in 2011, splitting time between the Mariners and the Detroit Tigers. Ruffin appeared in 15 games in the majors. He ended with a 9.31 ERA and opponents hit .395 against him, as the University of Texas alum couldn’t put the pieces together. After struggling in AAA Tacoma in 2012, Seattle’s twenty-seventh top prospect is trying to get back to the big leagues. He is one of five General players on the Mariners’ 40-man roster.
“(He is) just excelling in throwing first-pitch strikes and really commanding the fastball in the zone,” first-year Generals pitching coach Terry Clark said. “His mechanics have become a lot more smooth…which allows him to throw all his pitches for strikes.”
The right-hander has been steady throughout the season and has continued to pitch to his potential. Ruffin has heated up the last five starts. Those starts have included 28 strikeouts and a mere seven walks, getting Ruffin’s ERA to 2.87. He has not allowed more than two runs in those starts. Ruffin gave up two earned runs, throwing 112 pitches and striking out six, in his May 13th start against the Smokies (ND).
Roenis Elias has found his role as a back-of-the-rotation starter. Elias continues to eat up innings as he has gone at least six innings in every start except one. The southpaw has given up only six hits in thirty-four at-bats to lefties, who are hitting .176 off him. Elias has pitched well on the road, claiming a 2-0 record and a 1.82 ERA, as opponents are posting a .162 average against him away from the Ballpark in Jackson. The Cuban-native gets better deeper into starts, still not allowing any earned runs to score past the fourth inning.
“For him, it’s getting the feel of what’s working that day,” Clark said. “He’s trying to figure out what the hitters are doing, what he’s doing, what pitches are working, and then after that, you got no chance past the third inning.”
The Generals’ starting rotation is 13-10 with a 3.21 ERA coming into play. Most of that success is coming from three starters who are looking to move up in the organization as they showcase their skills with every start at the AA level.
“For us it’s just get ahead and attack the hitters,” Clark explained. “When we get behind in the count, we’re not that good, but we have been getting better and I expect us to be a lot better in the second half.