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We [don't] Love This Team

This past week the Buffalo Bisons finally put together a winning streak of sorts, taking the first three games since returning to Dunn Tire Park for the current homestand.

Boston Red Sox World Series MVP Mike Lowell was in the Pawsox lineup for a rehab assignment this past weekend, but his presence was not enough to help defeat the Bisons. Then the Scranton/Wilkes Barre Yankees came to town this past Monday, with their top pitching prospect Kei Igawa. Buffalo’s Ben Francisco’s two-run blast was enough to lead the Bisons to another win.

Perhaps Buffalo has turned the corner, but this season, the consensus lame duck year as the Cleveland Indians affiliate, is starting to look like it will be a long and dreary one.

Most Bisons fans remember the Pittsburgh Pirates farewell season in 1994…big Rich Aude hitting and Tim Wakefield knuckleballing through a dismal and forgettable 55-89 season.

Fewer fans remember 1970…miniscule crowds at the Rockpile during the height of racial strife, watching a wretched team that won a scant few games, packed its bags, and moved to Winnipeg before the All Star break.

Okay, things have not become nearly that bad in Bisons country. But after one month, the 2008 edition of the Herd has been very tough on the eyes. Hitters aren’t hitting, and the bullpen can’t hold leads or seal the deal. Going into this week’s play, the team ranks 12th in team hitting, with no player on the roster approaching .300.

The one bright area for the Bisons, starting pitching, has offered little solace. Starters Jeremy Sowers and Matt Ginter have not received much in terms of run support during their outings. Predictably, player movements and call-ups are now taking their toll on the starting rotation—with Aaron Laffey and Sowers being sent up to Cleveland and Sean Smith traded to Colorado. (Sowers has since returned to the Herd.) Top prospect Adam Miller joined the starting lineup on April 23, and Jason Stanford, who has spent parts of five seasons in a Buffalo uniform, was signed to a minor league contract on April 25.

This team that was so good “on paper” coming out of spring training has been anything but.

The disappointment within the organization is not limited to Buffalo. Cleveland’s minor league affiliates in Akron (AA) and Kinston (A) are also suffering through tough seasons. Up in Cleveland, the Indians are just now beginning to emerge from their early season funk, but are still a shadow of the team that took its 2007 season to the brink of the ALCS pennant.

On two occasions this season, the Bisons looked great early on, only to suffer devastating losses in the late innings. On April 21 in Pawtucket, the Bisons could not hold a 4-1 lead, losing 6-5 in 10 innings, surrendering three straight base hits including the walk-off winner in the bottom of that frame.

But nothing was worse than the fourth game of the season down in Norfolk, the second game of a doubleheader on a cold and rainy Sunday. The Bisons took an 8-3 lead into the bottom of the seventh and final inning, then surrendered six runs to lose that game 9-8. Relievers Ed Mujica and Rich Rundles were the goats in that game.

Manager Torey Lovullo continues to insist that things aren’t as bad they seem and that the team is turning the corner. “We got beat up. On the road…beat up. We could have folded coming back home here against Pawtucket, and we didn’t. I know it’s an old cliché where we didn’t get any of the bounces, but we didn’t. Now we’re on the other side and we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

As for the minor league system’s overall organizational record, Lovullo isn’t exactly sure what is going on. “We’re all very aware of the record. We certainly want to win games, but we know it’s about developing players and sending them to the big leagues and getting the job done up there. Speaking on behalf of what’s going on here, we want to develop winning players, we don’t want to focus on winning only, but combine the winning with the development.”

Infielder Josh Barfield also feels that things will turn around in due time. “We haven’t been playing the way we’re capable of” Barfield admits. “It’s still early. We got a lot of time left. I think we haven’t played our best but slowly we are making our adjustments and getting better every day.”

Buffalo is stuck in 13th place in the 14-team league, with only the woeful Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs behind them in the standings. It’s a position to which the team has been unaccustomed. The swagger that the Bisons have had in recent seasons is but a dim memory. “We can’t bring that back overnight. But we do it an inning at a time, one game at a time, one series at a time. There’s still plenty of baseball to be played,” Lovullo assured.

Let’s hope so.

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