Sunday’s 5-2 win over Gateway allowed the Miners to head into the four-day All-Star break on a high note.
And according to manager Mike Pinto, the break came at just the right time.
“We had a number of guys who were a little beaten up,” he said. “Our catchers have taken a beating with the travel and doubleheaders we’ve had over the first part of the year. But we’re looking forward to the second half, and we’re going to be healthier.”
Most importantly, Southern Illinois will spend a good part of the second half at home. That includes a six-game homestand which starts Friday night with the first of three games against East Division cellar-dweller Joliet.
The Miners (27-23) play 27 of their 46 games after the break at Rent One Park, including 15 of their last 21. They are 14-6 at home, a mark which includes a four-game losing skid snapped by Sunday’s victory.
“We like playing at home,” Pinto said. “The guys are comfortable, and they’re treated well. It gives the guys an opportunity for home cooking, eating our food every day. They like the surroundings at the ballpark.”
It’s evident that Southern Illinois is a different team on its turf. The Miners have pitched to an earned run average of more than 5.00 on the road, but at home, even with 7-3 and 10-1 losses over the weekend to Gateway, they boast an ERA of under 4.00.
And their pitching should improve in the last seven weeks of the season. Ryan McAuliffe, who was lights out in three starts before a shoulder injury sidelined him for six weeks, returned on Saturday. Steven Ridings, a workhorse who eats six and seven innings every start, has been hurt since late May, but should be back next week.
Add those two to Chase Cunningham, who has posted 10 straight quality starts since getting rocked on Opening Night in Evansville, and Southern Illinois should have one of the league’s best rotations.
“If we can get consistent starting pitching, that could lead to an awful lot of victories for us,” Pinto said.
On paper, this should be a weekend where the Miners get good pitching. Joliet is authoring a first to worst story this year, limping into town with a 20-31 record based primarily on a lack of offense.
The Slammers are scoring 2.8 runs per game, hitting a measly .210 and pairing poor average with little power (21 homers) and no patience (2.4 walks per game). Simply put, even in the weaker East Division where the difference between the top and bottom is just 6 ½ games, Joliet is unlikely to defend its league title of last year.
But that doesn’t mean Southern Illinois can take it for granted. Gateway came to town last weekend as the West’s last place team, and slapped the Miners around in the series’ first two games. Of course, that occurred after Southern Illinois lost All-Star shortstop Bryant Flete when the Cincinnati Reds signed him to a minor league deal.
Pinto was thrilled for Flete to get another shot at affiliated baseball, but his July 4 departure hit the team hard on multiple fronts.
“We took a .363 hitter out of the lineup and we couldn’t get someone to replace him until after the break,” Pinto said. “We had no extra players. We told our guys that no one can afford to get ejected.”
After this weekend, the Miners get three more games at home with Gateway, including a Wednesday doubleheader. That will start a stretch of three twinbills in 10 days. They have to make up a rainout on July 19 at River City, then play a regular scheduled double dip on July 27 with Florence.