It was the best start in franchise history.
The Buffalo Bisons posted their best modern era record in the month of April, going 17-7.
They were in first place in the International League North and hopes were high for a first playoff appearance by the Herd since 2005.
But things started to unravel as the once-explosive offense started to slowly decline.
The Bisons, who had been playing winning baseball all season, fell two games below .500 Saturday night with a 4-3 loss to the Syracuse Chiefs in front of 8,080 at Coca-Cola Field.
The Herd struggled offensively. They had trouble even finding the good bounces. In the fourth inning, Kevin Pillar and Mauro Gomez led off with back-to-back singles, but Jim Negrych’s hard hit up the middle was played by the second baseman for a double play. Two feet, in either direction, and a run probably would have scored.
It wasn’t until the ninth inning when the Herd were able to get on the board, thanks to a one-out single from Negrych, a home run to left from Andy LaRoche and Mike McCoy’s single to make it 4-3.
But those swings have been inconsistent and too late. For the last few weeks, the hits, the openings and the runs have not been there for the Bisons. And the club that had been 10 games over .500 on eight different occasions has fallen into a skid.
In April, the team batted .305 and in May, they hit .258 and individuals were putting up great numbers, earning Negrych and Gomez spots on the International League All-Star team.
“We were winning games as a team and everyone got off to a pretty good start,” said Negrych, who batted over .400 through May 17. “A lot of people put up some pretty good numbers in the first half and I was just happy to be a part of it and going along with the flow with everyone else.”
Then came June and July. And things started to slide. Gone are hopes of a divisional title, though the playoff race is still in the picture with the Herd 3½ games out of the wild-card spot.
The biggest culprit to the slide has been lack of offensive production. The Bisons’ hot hitting started to cool off in June, as the team hit just .256. In July, the offense has been dismal. The Bisons are batting just .161.
Hurting the Herd has been the absence of slugger Luis Jimenez. The first baseman and designated hitter, who is batting .307, has not played since July 1 with tendonitis in his knee, though he has not been moved to the disabled list.
It’s not just batting average. Measure by other offensive statistics and it’s not much better. The team’s on-base percentage in July was .217 entering Saturday (the team had a .345 in May), and run production has been difficult to come by. They’ve scored just 11 runs in July and in June were shut out four times – three of those at home.
If hitting is contagious, the Bisons need someone to get infected, and quickly.
“Hitting’s weird. One guy gets it going and all of a sudden holes are opening up in the field and little hits go through,” Negrych said. “One of the things that’s contagious in this game is hitting. … Very few times you put up five-six hits. Usually it’s 11-13 or it’s three or four. We want to keep going as a team and just keep playing the game to the best of our abilities.”
“I think there’s plenty of guys that have to understand they need to step up and play as a team,” manager Marty Brown said. “It’s been in some ways frustrating because there’s a lot of guys that are not necessarily going about their job where they can let the next guy do the job. They need to get on base instead of trying to do too much. … It’s a mindset. Sometimes it’s very difficult to get guys to understand that. It’s just a selfish attitude. I think that has to be eliminated.
“It’s one of the reasons I think Jim and Gomez are both on the All-Star team. They’re team-oriented guys and have done some good things because they’re looking out and trying to put together a good at-bat rather than just hit a home run today or, ‘I’m going to steal my bases today’ or ‘why am I hitting at this spot in the order?’ Those kinds of things have really made us scuffle a bit as a team.”
It is, also, part of the product of Triple-A baseball. As the season wears on with roster moves from call-ups and returns to releases, staying focused in your current role can become a challenge. The challenge for the Bisons now is to find a way to refocus and catch their second wind.
“I think everybody at the beginning of the year, it’s fresh and new and you’re wanting to get off to a good start,” Brown said. “At this level you go through the trade deadline and you’re having a good year and nothing really happens. A lot of these guys want to get to the big leagues but then for whatever reason it doesn’t happen, then there’s a letdown. I think there comes that lull, that letdown.
“And the team’s been rearranged somewhat. We’ve had to release guys. We’ve moved players. And a lot of the movement going up and down, ‘why wasn’t it me?’ It’s just typical Triple-A stuff but you have to get through that lull and kick it back in at some point and we’re at that transition right now.”