On August 8th, I made my annual visit to Mobile to watch the Double A affiliate of the D-backs, the Mobile BayBears. When I lived there, I used to go to 3-4 games a year, and in the past few years, I've gotten to see Goldschmidt, Pollock, and Eaton all hone their skills. It seemed like every time I went to a game, Goldschmidt hit a home run, and Pollock made a good catch. Other talents I've gotten to see there include Davidson, Owings, and Charles Brewer. On top of seeing some great players, the BayBears have won back to back Southern League titles.
Before describing the game, some words on the setting. (I have some pictures, too, but I can't get them loaded right now for some reason. I'll keep trying, but will probably post without pictures at first.) Hank Aaron Stadium in Mobile suffers from having been built at exactly the wrong time, leading up to the 1997 season. It's not a bad place to watch a game, but in comparison to just about every stadium built since, it comes up short. The concourses are underneath the stands, so no getting up for concessions without missing some of the game. The grass seating embankment seems like an afterthought; there's no chance to hear the PA out there, and it's hard to see the scoreboard. Also, for a team that has enjoyed such success (and has already clinched a playoff berth this season) there is little fan excitement. Despite some pretty good drink specials, there were never over 1000 people in the stands (probably not over 500). There were, however, 8 ceremonial first pitches!
Drink specials: a lot of minor league ballparks offer a Thirsty Thursday special (at least in the Southern League). Mobile's is a bit different. From 6-8 (with first pitch at 7:05) fans can choose from a limited selection of beers at discounted rates; $1 for a Natty Ice (which is approximately 100 cents more than I'd pay for it, but oh well), $1.50 for a can of Bud, or $2 for a draught of Bud. Two microbrews were on tap, one local; the local cost $4.50, and the other was over $5. Food choices were also nothing out of the ordinary. Customer service was great, though.
On the stadium grounds is Hank Aaron's boyhood home, moved there from the original location and turned into a museum. Unfortunately, although it should have been open, no one was there, probably due to being understaffed. Some local band played mostly 70s southern rock for about 45 minutes from the time the gates opened, until the ceremonial first pitches started. A girl that seemed to be about fifth grade age sung the national anthem, and knocked it out of the park. Seriously, she would have been an improvement over 99% of the celebrities that ham it up and string every word into about 20 syllables.
Every minor league stadium has its characters. In Mobile, an 80 year old man wanders the stadium, dancing with the music and, generally, trying to get other people to dance with him. Last night, there weren't any takers, and he generally seemed to have less energy than when I've been at games in the past. But he's an interesting character, and I get the feeling I could sit and listen to him talk for a while. Then, there's the heckler. Every stadium has one, and sometimes they say something funny, sometimes they just get downright insulting. The heckler in Mobile was typical in this regard
On to the game itself. I had planned to go to this game to see Archie Bradley, but he was moved back due to a rainout. I realized I couldn't be certain of making it to the game on Friday or Saturday, so I decided to go, even though the starting pitcher, Bradin Hagens, is probably about fourth on our list of pitchers in Mobile expected to make it big. In the first inning, he demonstrated why he isn't more highly regarded, with some control issues and two walks. However, he also threw a changeup in the first couple of innings that had opposing batters jumping out of their pants, only to swing and miss. Given that he spent his first couple of years in professional ball as a reliever, and is only in his second full year of starting (not to mention that he was a 37th round draft choice), I understand why he is lightly regarded. But on a staff with Holmberg and Bradley, not to mention Andrew Chafin, he leads in wins and has a respectable 3.36 ERA. He's definitely the fourth starter in the rotation, but if he can improve his control (he has 56 walks on the year, leading the team, to go with 75 strikeouts), he could make the majors with some team, although probably not the D-backs.
In fact, I would say that much of this 2013 BayBears team is going to be the trade bait for the next year. Of course, Bradley is untouchable, and maybe Holmberg as well, but the outfield...I get to see good outfield play a lot, and defensively, the starting outfield of Justin Green, Ender Inciarte, and Keon Broxton could stand up with the outfields I've seen in the past. (And Mobile baseball fans are officially spoiled when it comes to outfield play; Gerardo Parra also did time in Mobile, and Mobile fan favorite Ollie Linton was no slouch defensively either.) However, Broxton is clearly pressing with the bat. He went 1 for 3, and stole a base, but some of his swings weren't pretty.
To recap the game, after Hagens gave up two walks and struck out one in the first, Mobile took the lead by scoring three unearned runs in the bottom half. The speed of the lineup caused the Birmingham Barons (affiliate of the White Sox, by the way), to make defensive mistakes all game, either rushing throws or looking up before they had the ball. Inciarte reached on an error but was erased when Ahmed hit into a fielders choice. Ahmed promptly stole 2nd, the first of many stolen bases on the night. After a groundout, Dustin Martin singled Ahmed home, and Nate Evans drilled a pitch about 380-400 feet over the left field wall. Evans, a middle infielder, leads the team in home runs, by a lot. He has 18 now, and no one else has more than 6. Mobile isn't exactly a hitters park, of course, between the heavy air and dimensions that are more than fair (although it is only 310 down the right field line).
Meanwhile, Hagens was pitching a gem, and the BayBears were using their speed. Dustin Martin had stolen a base in the first, Keon Broxton stole a base in the second, and Justin Greene scored from first on a double after he had singled to keep his average up. Nate Evans doubled him in for his 3rd RBI, then scored on another double, this one by Mike Freeman, and the BayBears led 5-0 after three. They could have extended the lead in the fourth, but catcher Rossmel Perez tried to score on a passed ball, and an unlucky bounce straight back to the catcher resulted in him being out to end the inning.
In the top of the fifth, Hagens' no hit bid came to an unfortunate end. With two outs, the 9 hitter blooped one into shallow center, and a miscommunication between Ahmed and Inciarte resulted in the ball dropping between them, and almost a bad collision. It looked like either one of them would have caught it, had the other pulled up. Saladino, the next batter, hit one straight to Ahmed at short, but instead of going to first for the out that would have ended the inning, he went to second, and not in time, for the other hit Hagens would give up on the night. Apparently realizing that his defense wasn't going to take care of it, Hagens struck out the next hitter, his 3rd of 5 on the night, to end the threat. He would throw perfect innings in the sixth and seventh before being pulled.
In the bottom of the fifth, the BayBears added a run without a hit, as Justin Greene reached second on an error (it could have gone either way, and the scorer originally gave it a hit, but I agreed with the change), then stole third, and scored on another error. They also sent 8 batters to the dish in the 7th, with Dustin Martin leading off with a triple, and then after neither Evans nor Freeman could bring him home, scoring anyway when the Barons' pitching staff walked four in a row. Ahmed struck out with the bases full, ending what was probably a disappointing night. He seemed to be a fan favorite in Mobile, though, along with Greene. They seemed to get the biggest reaction.
The Barons scored their only run in the 8th, on a leadoff home run by their 9th hitter, Keenyn Walker. After that, Andy Green, the BayBears manager, let most of his bullpen get work in closing it out, and no one else reached base. Jake Barrett struck out the last two hitters, with a lot of movement. Perez dropped both third strikes, in fact.
From my limited view, I'd think that the entire starting outfield, as well as Evans (who has a lot of pop, obviously), and Hagens, could all be in the big leagues some day. Birmingham currently leads the North division, and given the performance by Mobile, it looks like they could three-peat. And even if they don't, D-backs fans can be assured that the farm system is stocked for years to come.