Early in the season it was pretty obvious the Myrtle Beach Pelicans would be contenders.
Now the club is basking in the glory that comes with clinching a spot in the Carolina League playoffs.
Despite clinching the day before, the Pelicans took a 4-1 victory Sunday over the Lynchburg Hillcats at TicketReturn.com Field at Pelicans Ballpark to cap a terrific first half of the season.
“As a group, overall we played well in the first half,” Myrtle Beach first-year manager Mark Johnson said. “We caught the ball defensively and we don’t have a lot of big [bats] but we manufacture some runs when we need to and we always scratch in every at-bat throughout the whole first half and hopefully we continue to do those things in the second half. There’s a lot to build off of and a lot we need to get better at.”
However, a large part of the team’s success has been pitching. Even with a six-man rotation, starters Duane Underwood (6-2, 1.85 ERA) and Jonathan Martinez (5-1, 2.62 ERA) both shined and made the Carolina League all-star team.
Underwood said he continues to feel great on the mound, too.
“First half has been good; we won it so I can’t complain on those fronts,” Underwood said. “We’re all working hard and it’s been a great experience; let’s just hope we can take it into the second half.”
Johnson isn’t sure if the team will go back to a six-man rotation in the second half, but has been impressed with the pitchers’ play thus far.
“Overall they’ve been pretty efficient and have kept us in games,” Johnson said.
Said Pelicans outfielder Trey Martin: “They work hard and always put is in a good position to win. You can’t really ask for more than that.”
Meanwhile, they say offense wins games but defense keeps you in those games and the Pelicans’ defense has been nothing less than stellar. Myrtle Beach has committed the fewest errors in the Carolina League with 47.
“Those guys do a great job,” Underwood said of the defense. “We really take it personal and we strive for greatness when it comes to us fielding our positions. Our defense is key to us winning and the whole organization preaches good defense so that’s been big for us.”
The Pelicans have also have strayed from the norm and have played better on the road than at home. Nineteen of the players on the Myrtle Beach Opening Day roster played for Kane County (Ill.) – which had the best record in all of baseball at home – at some point last season.
“It’s one of those things,” Johnson said. “Like last year we had the best record in all of baseball at home and this year it’s kind of the opposite. We’re playing real well on the road and not so good at home and there’s no real rhyme or reason.”
Said Underwood: “On the road we really do a good job of really coming together, staying focused and doing our jobs.”
Despite losing big contributors like Billy McKinney, Wes Darvill, Gerardo Concepcion, Jacob Hannemann and Tayler Scott to call-ups, the players who have replaced them have stepped right in and contributed.
Martin got called up in the middle of the season and has been a staple on defense in center field and Chesny Young has led the team in batting average (.364) in 36 games since a call-up from Low-A South Bend.
Also, key players like Mark Zagunis – who leads the Carolina League with a .444 on-base percentage – have led the offense and is batting .322 in 62 games and was also named to the all-star team along with teammate Jeimer Candelario, who was a late addition to the game.
Candelario is batting .269 with 24 RBIs and five home runs.
“That’s what you’ve got to do. When opportunity knocks and it’s your turn to fill in, it’s one of those things where you need to show people what you’ve got,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that have stepped in and have taken advantage of their opportunities.”
Contact MAX McKINNON at 626-0302 or on Twitter @mmckinnonTSN.