The chase for home run records is making headlines all over the baseball world this season, and Phil Hiatt of the Buffalo Bisons is working on his own slice of homer history.
Hiatt equaled the Buffalo Bisons' modern-day single-season home run record with his 31st in Wednesday afternoon's 10-1 triumph over the Ottawa Lynx, leaving one obvious question:
If he had not missed virtually the entire month of April, would Hiatt be closing in on Ollie Carnegie's all-time Buffalo mark of 45 homers set in 1938 instead of the mark set by Richie Sexson last season?
Hiatt rocketed a Ted Lilly (2-1) pitch over the left-field wall in the first inning at North AmeriCare Park to get the Herd and right-hander Jason Rakers (6-6) off to a 3-0 start. Rakers pitched the complete game, allowing only four hits.
The finale of a three-game set with the Lynx was the last bit of business before the important three-game series with first-place Syracuse opens with a 6:05 doubleheader tonight at the NAP.
The SkyChiefs (74-55) lost, 8-5, at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Wednesday night and lead the Bisons by a mere percentage point (.569 to .568) in the International League North.
Hiatt has 12 games left to pass Sexson. Carnegie's record seems out of reach, but it might not have been if the veteran first baseman had been with Buffalo from the start of the season -- or avoided a slump earlier this month.
The 29-year-old Hiatt hit 42 home runs for Toledo in 1996, making him one of only a handful of IL sluggers to hit 40 or more since Carnegie won the league homer title in 1938.
Hiatt admits he wonders what his numbers might be if he had not missed 21 games at the start of the season.
"All I can do now is do the best I can the rest of this season and help this team win," said Hiatt, who played in Japan last year, then went to spring training this year with the New York Yankees.
When it came time to trim their roster, the Yanks decided they didn't need Hiatt at Columbus, where they had younger prospects they wanted to develop. Hiatt cooled his heels for nearly a month while waiting for New York to make a deal for him. Finally, he got his release and signed with the Bisons April 28. He batted only seven times in that month, with one hit.
Hiatt then hit seven homers in May, eight in June and 10 in July, taking the IL lead before falling off this month. Wednesday's homer was only his sixth in August, but there are signs his bat is coming alive again.
He was 3 for 7 in Tuesday's doubleheader split with Ottawa before going 2 for 4 Wednesday with four RBIs.
"I'm glad to be back in the groove," said Hiatt. "I was being too aggressive at times. You start swinging at pitches outside your strike zone. You're not seeing the ball or seeing the release point, and you start wondering if there is something wrong with your swing.
"Finally I just focused on seeing the ball better and reacting. Really, that's what helped. It was that simple," he said.
Besides the homer, Hiatt had a run-producing single in the fifth inning as the Herd peppered Lilly for nine hits and eight runs (seven earned) in 4 1/3 innings. The Ottawa lefty had struck out 13 Pawtucket batters in his previous start.
Eight of the nine batters in the Bisons' opening lineup hit safely. James Betzsold hit his ninth homer, a solo shot just to the left of the 404-foot mark in center in the second inning. Jacob Cruz had a pair of doubles to extend his hitting streak to nine games. Einar Diaz had a two-run single in the Bisons' four-run fourth, and Brandon Wilson had a two-run triple in the seventh.
In all, the Herd had 15 hits in closing out the season series with a 10-6 edge while outhomering the Lynx, 27-11.
The hit parade and the strong pitching performance by Rakers was a nice lead-in to the Syracuse series.
"This gives us momentum for Syracuse," said Hiatt, who thought Wednesday's offensive display gave the SkyChiefs something to think about. "It's going to be tough for other teams to deal with the lineup we have now with Jeff Manto back and the other hitters we have."