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Clubhouse chatter - Today's Top Ten list - Why are the Suns playing better?

June 03, 2007|By BOB PARASILITI

If the 2007 Hagerstown Suns' season were a novel, Chapter Two has just been finished.

As May was ripped off the calendar, it signaled the end of the second leg of the Suns' five-month saga.

In April - Chapter One - we saw the Suns as a young team that was touted to have much talent put together to make Municipal Stadium as the proving ground for the future of the Washington Nationals.

The Suns struggled while learning the ropes and are still struggling against them.

In May, things began to improve, but everything seemed to come together starting May 12. From that point, Hagerstown started to become very competitive and began a climb out of the South Atlantic League Northern Division cellar.

Since May 12, the Suns are 11-10 and still in the lower half of the standings, 15 games behind West Virginia.

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West Virginia is clearly in a class of its own with an 8 1/2-game lead over Greensboro, The Suns (23-31) were climbing up among the lead of the also-rans of the Northern Division until an 0-4 run during this week's road trip (through Friday) knocked them back down. It has also probably taken some of the teeth out of this column.

Still, call the run of the last three weeks a consolation prize.

Or call it a reason to look forward to the second half of the season, which starts on June 21 when all the records are reset to 0-0.

Call it what you want, but here are some reasons why the Suns have played better in the last three weeks.

1. Chris Marrero proves why he was drafted so highly - Marrero, who was selected 15th overall in the 2006 draft, has found his power stroke. In the last 20 games, he has six home runs and 18 RBI. He also has five doubles, meaning 11 of his 22 hits in the span have gone for extra bases. He provided the Suns with one of the wins with a walk-off home run in the 12th inning for a 9-8 win over Delmarva on May 25.

2. Justin Maxwell thrives in the role of leading man - The Suns outfielder, who stands 6-foot-5, has made a bigger impression than being one of the tallest leadoff hitters in baseball. Over the last three weeks, Hagerstown is 11-7 when Maxwell bats in the No. 1 slot, including 8-1 when he has multiple hits.

In the last 18 games, Maxwell has raised his average 37 points to .277 with a 25-for-77 clip (.325) with four doubles, a triple and five home runs. He drove in 15 runs and scored 15.

3. Schedule leans the Sun's way - Hagerstown has spent the last three weeks playing exclusively against Lake County, Delmarva and Lakewood. The Captains are 9-11 since May 12, while the Shorebirds are 8-10 (2-6 vs. Suns). Lakewood is 10-8 in the stretch (3-1 vs. Suns).

4. Starting pitching is hanging around longer - Hagerstown starting pitchers are getting deeper into starts. In the last 17 games, Suns starters have reached through the fifth inning 13 times.

That doesn't sound like much, but compared to April, that is putting less strain on the bullpen.

The Suns are 3-2 when the starters have gone at least six innings, 7-5 when they have gone at least five and 3-5 when they have pitched less than five innings.

5. Offense provides jolt - The Suns have shown an ability to hit the home run ball, especially in May.

Marrero had 11 of his 12 homers in the month, including six since May 12 while Maxwell has had five in the last three weeks.

The Suns have hit 56 home runs, which is tied with Greensboro for the SAL lead. Of the total, 21 of the homers have come in the last three weeks.

6. Defense mends errors of its ways - It's a whole lot easier to win games if you don't give away free runs. There were times in April when it seemed the Suns were giving runs to fans.

Hagerstown averaged 1.54 errors per game in the first 54 games. It has dropped it to 1.25 in the last 20 games. The Suns have committed nine errors in the last three games to raise that average by .31.

7. Switch of fortunes late in games - The Suns have been able to come back with runs late in games to pull out victories. In the last 20 games, Hagerstown has scored 44 runs from the sixth inning on. The Suns have 14 runs in each of the sixth and eighth, meaning Hagerstown is hitting against relievers.

8. Close games no longer mean close calls - The Suns started the 2007 season playing a one-run game nearly every time out, and losing. They were 5-8 in April in the close games.

In the last three weeks, Hagerstown is 5-0 in one-run games (11-10 overall). The Suns are also 2-1 in two-run games (4-4 overall).

9. Roster additions add spark to lineup - Hagerstown has received a number of players from extended spring training during the season through promotions and injuries. Many have made big contributions.

Offensively, second baseman Marcos Cabral has been a welcomed addition and has added some offensive depth to the team. The second baseman is hitting .315 since joining the Suns, including .288 and seven RBI since May 12, mostly out of the No. 2 slot in the batting order.

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