The name isn’t the only major change in Charleston’s professional baseball team this season.
Long before the West Virginia Power became the Charleston Dirty Birds, the team on the field at Appalachian Power Park morphed from a cellar-dwelling club into a playoff contender.
Just look at the numbers. In the first half of the season, the Power’s record, 22-38, was the worst in the eight-team Atlantic League. In the second half, heading into Friday’s home game against Lexington, the Power/Dirty Birds are 33-18, the league’s best record.
What’s been the difference? Manager Mark Minicozzi cited several reasons, but none bigger than a renewed sense of unity within the club.
“The guys coming together as a team has been the biggest thing,” Minicozzi said. “We’ve had several people leave this team over the last six to eight weeks, and our team unity keeps getting stronger.
“It’s been addition by subtraction. We’ve had a couple of instances, coaches or players, who were all about themselves first. Eliminating them has made us a stronger team.”
In early September, it was announced that pitching coach Paul Menhart and hitting coach Ken Joyce were no longer with the team. In their place, pitcher Elih Villanueva was named the team’s pitching coach while Minicozzi assumed the duties of hitting coach.
In the month of September, the team sported a 21-9 record, with two of the losses coming in the first games of doubleheaders, which do not count toward the second-half standings.
“We became a lot better,” since the coaching changes, Minicozzi said. “When you remove those dark clouds and negative people, good things start to happen.”
While maintaining his spot in the five-man rotation, the 35-year-old Villanueva has had a positive effect on the pitching staff in his first venture as a professional coach.
“Elih’s been incredible,” Minicozzi said. “The numbers don’t lie. He has great communication with the pitchers, he’s done a great job of gaining trust with pitchers. He’s a pleasure to work with.”
The staff has also been bolstered by the arrival of Arnaldo Hernandez, a 25-year-old right-hander from Venezuela who reached as high as Class AAA in the Kansas City Royals organization and began the season in the Mexican League.
Visa issues delayed Hernandez’s arrival in Charleston, but in two starts he’s emerged as the Dirty Birds’ ace. He’s allowed just four hits and one run in nine innings while striking out 14.
“He throws 94 to 98 [miles per hour on his fastball] and has a good mix of secondary pitches, which is not something you see in this league very often,” Minicozzi said. “There’s a real possibility we’ll see him in majors next year.”
Heading into the final days of the regular season, which ends on Oct. 10, the Dirty Birds have settled on a five-man pitching rotation.
Following Hernandez in the rotation is local product Arik Sikula. The 32-year-old who pitched at Hurricane and South Charleston in high school and Marshall in college has been the team’s most durable starter.
In a team-high 23 starts, Sikula ranks among the league leaders in wins (10-7, tied for fourth in the Atlantic League), ERA (4.31, third in the league) and strikeouts (101, also third in the league).
Villanueva (3-3 with a 3.81 ERA in 16 starts), and Joe Testa (5-3, 5.48 in five starts) and Max Povse (1-1, 4.93 in five starts) round out the Dirty Birds’ rotation for the stretch run.
While Minicozzi has assumed the duties of the hitting coach, he said the players have made that part of his job much easier.
“We’ve got a veteran team,” Minicozzi said. “Give them a ball and a tee and an L-screen and they take care of themselves. They’ve taken the responsibility on themselves to prepare themselves.”
The Dirty Birds have also benefited from good health up and down the lineup in the second half. Outfielder Teodoro Martinez, who share’s the team’s highest batting average (.345) with third baseman Alberto Callaspo, has missed some playing time recently with a hip injury, but Minicozzi said he should be ready to contribute over the final 10 games and into the playoffs.
Playoffs? They’re looking more probable every day.
Going into the three-game home weekend series with Lexington, the Dirty Birds are 31/2 games up on High Point in the South Division. They’ll close out the regular season next week with three games at York and three more at Gastonia.
If (when?) they clinch the second-half division title, the Dirty Birds will square off with first-half champion Lexington in a best-of-three South Division playoff series starting Oct. 12.
In the North Division, the Long Island Ducks won the first-half title and own a six-game lead on Southern Maryland in the second-half standings. If Long Island wins the second-half title, its playoff opponent will be a wild-card entrant — the team, regardless of division, that has the best overall (season-long) record.
Going into the weekend, the wild-card leader is High Point (60-50 overall), followed by Southern Maryland (56-54). If High Point can erase the Dirty Birds’ 31/2-game lead and take the South Division second-half title, Charleston (55-56 overall) still has a chance to claim the wild card.
That’s not Charleston’s plan.
“The goal is to win every series. If we do that there’s no way we don’t get in the playoffs,” Minicozzi said. “If we keep on winning series, we should be in a good spot.”