Paul Miller and Tim Leiper have known all about struggle and uncertainty this season. Friday night at Pilot Field, they were finally able to make major contributions to a Buffalo Bisons victory.
The Herd opened its longest homestand of the year by rolling past the New Orleans Zephyrs, 6-1. A crowd of 15,471, the largest since Opening Day, saw the team even its home record at 8-8 with one of its best performances of the year.
Miller (2-3) pitched six innings of three-hit shutout ball in his second outing since returning to the rotation from the bullpen. Leiper snapped a 1-for-18 slump by going 3 for 4, scoring two runs and driving in two with a third-inning single.
Miller, who is still on the comeback trail from 1992 shoulder surgery and entered the game with a 5.93 earned-run average, tied his career high with seven strikeouts. He walked none and didn't allow a runner to reach third base.
"I don't know if I'm a slow healer or what, but it's been a nightmare to get the arm going again," Miller said. "Tonight I thought I had a decent fastball and that makes you a lot more aggressive. When you're getting lit up with your fastball, you tend to crawl in a shell."
Buffalo starters have gone at least six innings the last four games, allowing the bullpen to get badly needed rest and giving the offense a chance to keep the team close. The Herd is 4-2 in its last six games.
"The starting pitching provides a feed-off effect," said manager Doc Edwards. "There was a time the regulars might have been getting the feeling, 'God, how many do we have to score tonight?' "
Miller's recovery has been slowed in part because the Pittsburgh Pirates have yo-yoed him in and out of the starting rotation. With the recent promotion of Jon Lieber, Miller is back in.
"I want to show them I can do whatever they want," Miller said. "But I won't be a hero. The last time I tried to do that was two years ago in Denver after getting sent down and after the season I'm on an operating table. That's the lousiest feeling in the world."
Miller felt fine Friday because the Bisons' acumen on the bases produced a 4-0 lead through three innings. Leiper was in the middle of the action.
He went first-to-third on a Marshall Boze wild pitch in the second on which Rich Aude scored Buffalo's first run and then came home on Stanton Cameron's groundout. He then stroked his key single in the third to the opposite field in left on an 0-2 pitch.
Junior Noboa led off that inning with a double and took third on Greg Tubbs' sacrifice before setting up the inning by wriggling out of a rundown after Tony Womack lined a sharp one-hopper at first baseman Bo Dodson.
Noboa was frozen between third and home but coyly slipped into third when Womack broke catcher Rick Wrona's concentration by breaking for second.
"That's the kind of stuff we need to do," Leiper said. "All night, we were making something happen and we haven't been doing that enough so far."
Leiper took Boze's 0-1 inside pitch for a disputed strike before bearing down to get the hit that broke the game open.
"I felt I was seeing things well and that was a ball," he said. "But you just bear down when it's 0-2 and say, 'There's no way I'm going to let him get me. I have to get him.' "
Leiper, who was briefly sent to Double A during spring training, entered the game hitting .194 after posting a .327 average for the Herd last year. On the just-completed road trip, he struck out four times in a game at Nashville and was removed from one at Oklahoma City after throwing a ball over the outfield wall during between-inning warmups.
"You know he's a good hitter," Edwards said. "But when you're in a slump, you'll chase bad balls and get yourself out."
"It feels great to contribute. In Okie City, I was just frustrated and not feeling well (because of lingering back trouble)," Leiper said. "I want to win. We've got a good bunch of guys here that can and that's the bottom line."