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All of a Sudden, The Bisons Are Winning

Sacking of hitting coach pays dividends

Circle June 10 as the day that the turnaround finally happened. The reeling and floundering Buffalo Bisons, coming off yet another depressing loss, 10-2 to the Indianapolis Indians, had a day off to ponder their next move.

Here it was, just two months into the season, and an astounding 50 different players had already donned the Buffalo uniform in 2009.

The familiar theme, which manager Ken Oberkfell has lamented about since Opening Day, the team’s punchless offense, continued to haunt the team.

So the New York Mets pulled the trigger.

No, Oberkfell was not shown the door. But the Mets did make a small adjustment, and the move is apparently paying dividends. Demoted to the AA Binghamton Mets was hitting coach Luis Natera, who Oberkfell has consistently defended despite the dismal results: Dead last in the IL in batting, and a record of just a .189 average with runners in scoring position. Incredibly, Oberkfell said he was “shocked” when he received the news from his bosses in New York, and offered a plateful of tired excuses for Natera’s underperformance during his stint in Buffalo. “I think today was a wake up call,” Oberkfell admitted.

Trading places with Natera is the B-Mets hitting coach, Bill Masse, who joined the Herd in time for the June 11 game against the Durham Bulls. The 42 year old Masse has spent nine years as a minor league manager at the AA and A levels and his teams have made the playoffs in four of the last five years. In 2004, Masse’s Tampa Yankees won the Florida State League championship.

Masse’s arrival paid immediate dividends. The Bisons pounded out 15 hits in a 13-5 pasting of the Bulls, and they haven’t looked back. Although players are stating that the coaching switch is not what has made the difference in the team’s sudden offensive explosion, there is certainly a different attitude in the clubhouse and a spring in everyone’s step that hasn’t been prevalent at all this year.

Of course, the addition of key players to the Bisons roster hasn’t hurt either. Outfielders Emil Brown and Chip Ambres have been solid since joining the Herd, especially potent in driving in runners and collecting RBIs. Javier Castillo is another player to watch, batting over .400 in the games he has played for Buffalo. And the woeful Mike Lamb has all of a sudden looked like an All-Star, including ringing up a 4-4 performance at the plate last week at Syracuse, and his season average is now above .200.

On the pitching side, Buffalo has finally gotten what was expected out of top prospect and starting pitcher Jonathon Niese. Niese went 0-6 in 10 starts with Buffalo, and racked up an additional 2 losses when called up to the Mets. On June 12, Bisons fans were finally treated to an epic performance. A large and boisterous fridaynightbash crowd watched Niese and the Bisons take a no-hitter into the sixth inning. By the time the ninth inning came around, Buffalo was clinging to a 1-0 lead, Elmer Dessens came in to save the game and promptly struck out the side in order, and fans were on their feet and making lots of noise. It was one of those moments that have been all too rare at Coca-Cola Field this season. “Everyone likes to be part of things when we win. These fans are great,” said Oberkfell.

Niese improved his record to 2-6 this past weekend with yet another stellar performance at Charlotte, where he scattered six hits while pitching seven scoreless innings.

So is it too late for the 2009 Bisons to turn it around? As of this weekend, the team is still dead last in the International League, and trails the division leading Scranton/Wilkes Barre Yankees by 16.5 games. After starting off the month of April at 2-17, just being in a pennant chase come August would be nothing short of a miracle. But in baseball, sometimes miracles do happen.

Around the bases...

Manager Ken Oberkfell has been named to the IL’s field staff for the 2009 AAA All Star Game. This year’s event will take place on July 15 at PGE Park in Portland, Oregon.

The Bisons return to Buffalo starting this Saturday for a six game homestand, with some of the most popular promotions of the season on the calendar. On Saturday the Famous Chicken makes his annual appearance, always a fan favorite (Exactly when does that shtick with the little chickens lifting their legs up and peeing on the umpire become old?). Next Tuesday is Irish Night, and then on Friday, July 3, the most anticipated night of the year, as the Bisons usher in Independence Day with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the biggest fireworks show of the summer.

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