Bobby Mitchell's first season as a Triple-A manager couldn't have started better. His Salt Lake Bees did just about everything right through the month of April.
In fact, the Bees set a minor-league record for the best start by winning 21 of their first 22 games.
But now it's past the halfway mark of the 144-game season and the Bees, while still owners of a 6 1/2-game lead in the Pacific Coast League's best division from top-to-bottom, know they aren't invincible.
Sunday afternoon at Franklin Covey Field, the Bees gave up three runs in the eighth to lose 5-3 to the Tucson Sidewinders and drop to 53-36 on the season.
You can do the math. Since their 21-1 start, the Bees are just 32-35. Sunday's loss completed a three-game series sweep by Tucson, marking the first time since the 2005 season that Salt Lake had been swept at home.
While losing three straight at home to the team with the second-worst record in the PCL is frustrating, Mitchell is trying to see the bright side.
"If you told me at the beginning of the season that at this point we'd be seven games ahead in the standings, we'd take it right now," the Bees' manager said.
That being said, the Bees know winning their third consecutive division title is not a sure thing. All three teams chasing them in their division are currently .500 or better, and it would only take one of them to get on a hot streak like the Bees had to start the season to make things even more interesting down the stretch.
"We're far from clinching this thing," Mitchell said. "We've got a long way to go if we don't start playing better."
For the Bees, coming down to earth after their incredible start has had many contributing factors. For one, the parent Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim raided the Bees' roster for a number of key players. Most of them have since returned to Salt Lake, but some have not performed as well since being sent back down.
"There have been a lot of changes here, more than normal," said Mitchell. "The big-league club had some injuries there. Some of the guys that were called up played (for the Angels), some didn't play and then when they come back down they were a little rusty."
Injuries have also taken a huge toll on the Bees. Including catcher Bobby Wilson, who was placed on the disabled list with a broken thumb on Sunday, the Bees currently have seven players out.
Terry Evans, a 2007 PCL All-Star outfielder, has played in just 26 games. First baseman Kendry Morales, outfielder Brad Coon and pitchers Alex Serrano and Rich Thompson are also currently on the disabled list.
Salt Lake plays eight more games during its current homestand before getting a few days off for the Triple-A All-Star game. Bees pitcher Shane Loux feels that it's only a matter of time before the winning team from the beginning of the year returns.
"Getting three days off next week will be good," said Loux. "Hopefully everybody will come back and we'll make a push toward the team that was here the first 22 games of the year. We're going to get Coon back, we're going to get Morales back, we're going to get a lot of guys who were here early that really clicked. When that happens, I expect us to go on another run."
Here's a mid-season look at some of the key players for the Bees thus far:
TEAM MVP: Matt Brown, infielder
Brown is one of the two Bees players who have been selected to play for the PCL in next week's Triple-A All-Star Game. Like a number of his teammates, Brown has gone back and forth between Salt Lake and Anaheim, but he has spent the majority of the year in a Bees uniform, hitting a team-best .328. Brown, who has played both third base and first base defensively, also leads the club in homers (18) and doubles (26) and is second in RBIs (56).
Adam Pavkovich (16 homers) and Freddy Sandoval (.315 average, 57 RBIs) have been other offensive mainstays for the Bees.
TOP STARTING PITCHER: Shane Loux
A year ago, he was out of professional baseball. Now the 28-year-old has become the Bees' surprising ace. He is tied for the PCL lead with 10 wins and would have picked up his 11th on Sunday had the bullpen not blown a save opportunity late.
"He's been great," said Mitchell of Loux. "In my opinion, he should have been an All-Star. He's tied for the league lead in wins. He's up there in innings pitched. He should have been an All-Star. I'm not sure why he got left off, but we made it clear to him that he deserved it."
TOP RELIEVER: Jason Bulger
Bulger has been outstanding all season since being sent down by the Angels. In his past 18 appearances, he hasn't given up a run, dropping his earned run average to 0.60. He is 2-0 with 10 saves and earned his second Triple-A All-Star spot.
"He's been lights out," said Mitchell of Bulger. "If we can ever get to him, we'll be all right."
BEST IN-SEASON PICKUP: Chris Walker, outfielder
Walker was toiling for the Camden (N.J.) Riversharks, an independent team, when he was signed by the Angels organization and assigned to the Bees in late May. Salt Lake was desperate for another outfielder due to injuries. Walker, a 28-year-old Georgia native, has made the most of his opportunity. He's hitting .317 with nine stolen bases in his 38 games while batting primarily leadoff since joining the team.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Nick Adenhart, pitcher
Adenhart began the year on fire, going 4-0 with a 0.87 ERA in his first five starts. That earned the 21-year-old his first trip to the majors. But Adenhart, listed as the No. 1 prospect in the Angels' organization, was sent back down in mid-May and hasn't been the same since. He's gone 1-8 in his last nine decisions and his ERA has ballooned to 5.34.BEELINES: With Wilson being placed on the disabled list on Sunday with a right thumb fracture, Tim Duff, who has been back and forth between Salt Lake and Double-A Arkansas several times the past two seasons, has returned to the Bees. Salt Lake's other catcher, Ryan Budde, is getting called up by the Angels, meaning another new catcher will be coming to town. ... Tucson's series win marks just the third time this season the Bees have lost a home series. Overall they have won seven series at Frankin Covey Field, lost three and split one. ... Salt Lake has now had 98 transactions this season. By comparison, there had been 65 transactions by this date a year ago.
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