When the powers that be decided to delay the start of the Buffalo Bisons season by two days, the impact on the baseball could have been profound. In some ways, it was. A completely new team, from coaching staff to players, had time to settle in with each other and into Buffalo. When the season finally began, the Herd promptly won four straight and finished their opening homestand with a 5-2 mark.
The Bisons dropped the finale, 2-1 in 10 innings to the Rochester Red Wings Thursday afternoon. As disappointing as that loss was, coming when reliever John Stilson walked in the winning run, the first seven games have featured the magic combination of strong pitching and timely hitting.
As the Herd takes its show to Moosic, Pa., for a three-game series with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, here's what we've learned:
1. The Bisons have quality pitching. The Herd is near the top of the International League in earned run average (3.15). Jarrett Grube put up the team's first quality start on Thursday in a no-decision, giving up one run on two hits with seven strikeouts over six innings. Thursday was the third straight game in which the Bisons' staff combined for double-digit strikeouts with 13. They had 15 on Wednesday, the most by the Bisons' staff in one game since fanning 16 Pawtucket hitters in the 2016 season opener.
"The key is to throw the ball over the plate but stay out of the middle," first-year Bison manager Bobby Meacham said. "When that happens, good things happen."
They've done it for the most part without the full services of Casey Lawrence, who was recalled by the Toronto Blue Jays and pitched two innings of relief over two outings. Lawrence, who was supposed to be the Bisons' Opening Day starter, threw three scoreless innings when he returned to the Herd's rotation on Wednesday. He will need time to be stretched out to starting-pitching length.
2. April continues to be a good month for the Bisons. Since they've been an affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, the Herd has played winning baseball in the first month of the season. Including their 5-2 start this year, the Herd is 59-39 in April since joining the Blue Jays organization in 2013. They've had only one losing April in that span, which came last year with a 10-13 record.
3. The Herd is winning without massive displays of power. Sure, power is nice, particularly when it comes in the form of a wicked fastball or a crushing home run. But that's not the only way to win a game and the Herd has pitched to contact and manufactured runs. They've also shown some smart play. Case in point, Thursday's game.
The Red Wings had taken a 2-1 lead in the 10th and Rochester was threatening to add to its lead with a one-out long fly to center fielder Ian Parmley. But heads up play in the field allowed the Bisons to chase down a runner at home plate – an 8-3-4-2-5 double play – to end the inning.
"I like the fact they can win even without being overpowering as a pitching staff or they can win without hitting power, like home runs," Meacham said. "We can run the bases well. We make good plays. Even that last inning. We cut the ball off. When Parmley caught it in center and we got a double play out of it. Plays like that show that these guys know how to play baseball and good ball players win ball games. That's what we're looking to do."
4. Rowdy Tellez is good, but probably needs some time to heat up. Tellez, the No. 5 prospect in the Blue Jays organization, has a lot of eyes on him. Especially since the Blue Jays started the season 1-7 batting an MLB-worst .190. Tellez went 2 for 3 on Thursday to lift his batting average to .273 (6 for 22) with an .878 on-base percentage. He's not the hottest hitter on the Herd (four players in Thursday's lineup had a better batting average) but his approach has been solid and he is sure to get an opportunity with Toronto, probably sooner rather than later.
5. The overall attitude in the clubhouse is positive. Starting pitcher T.J. House said that it's a fun team. "We have a lot of guys that have come from different places. ... If we're going to be here we're going to win. There's no reason to be here and lose," House said. "It's no fun to lose. So we want to win and have fun and the chemistry is great. Guys are getting along. A very laid-back atmosphere which I love. We don't need a clubhouse that's tight, no one's talking. We play music, we have fun, we goof around and when it's time to play, when we step between the lines, we go play."
And if there's one thing Meacham wants his team to improve on, well there isn't one thing. It's an entire process and so far what he's seen in the regular season is what was evident in spring training.
"We're in the midst of getting better every day so it's not one thing, it's everything," Meacham said. "We tell these guys we don't want to be good today, we want to get better every day. I think they know that and they're sold on that idea that we're going to go forward and get better every day.
"I've said it before these are scrappy guys. They grind out at-bats. They run the bases well. They're relentless. They don't give up. That's what we've seen and that's why we're 5-2.