The bats continue to be as frosty as the fickle Buffalo spring. Last season, the Buffalo Bisons didn't have nearly enough pitching to withstand a similar April slump that carried into May. This year, they have plenty.
Herd hurlers came within two outs of a double shutout Sunday in sweeping a doubleheader from the Pawtucket Red Sox before about 400 fans in frigid Dunn Tire Park. Brian Tallet and Fernando Cabrera combined on a four-hitter as Buffalo took the opener, 2-0, and Francisco Cruceta threw six shutout innings as the Bisons held on for a 5-3 win in the nightcap.
At 4.46, the Bisons' team ERA is only in the middle of the International League pack but it's inflated by two blowout losses that included Saturday's 14-5 Pawtucket rout.
Here's the real stat story: Buffalo pitchers have compensated for the team's IL-worst .222 batting average by allowing four or fewer runs in 12 of the 18 games thus far.
"Last year, we were just about in the same boat in terms of runs scored but we didn't have the pitching early on," catcher Dusty Wathan said. "This year, our pitchers keep us in every game. Here we are two games over .500 (10-8) even though we're hitting really poorly."
"The overall day was really good as far as pitching," manager Marty Brown said. "It was cold, real miserable out there. It was kind of a battle of wills for both clubs."
The Bisons survived by breaking scoreless ties in the sixth inning of both games. In the opener, John Rodriguez's RBI triple off the top of the right-center field wall and Mike Kinkade's RBI single accounted for the runs. A five-run sixth in the nightcap was notable for the fact that only one ball left the infield. Wathan and Brandon Phillips set the table by starting it with bunt singles and Kinkade's two-run single to center put the Herd ahead for good.
Cruceta (2-1) and Tallet, who was lifted after four innings due to a pitch limit, provided quality starts. Cabrera (2-0) and Jake Robbins (IL-leading fourth save) gave the requisite finishing kick.
Cabrera, the 23-year-old from Puerto Rico pegged by many to be Cleveland's closer of the future, was particularly impressive. Using a nasty split-finger pitch and slider, he struck out six in three innings and has 15 strikeouts against just one walk in 8 1/3 innings this year.
Cabrera fanned the last three men to end the game after allowing Kevin Youkilis' leadoff single in the seventh. He showed no ill effects from a blister on his right index finger that had sidelined him for six days.
"I was worried more about my location," Cabrera said. "I don't want to try to overthrow. It was pretty cold so you can't try to warm up too fast. I threw a couple of good sliders but the split was working well and I was using it more than my first couple of outings."
In the nightcap, Robbins had some dicey moments in the seventh after Andrew Brown walked in a run and left the bases loaded. Jake Gautreau then booted a Youkilis grounder, allowing two runs to score and leaving the tying runs on base.
"My goal was just to get ground balls," Robbins said. "The first one didn't work but I just told Gautreau, 'Be ready for the next one because I'm going to get you another one.' "
Robbins fell behind Shawn Wooten, 3 and 0, before rallying for a strikeout on a nasty inside sinker. Kelly Shoppach made the final out on a topper off Robbins' glove that was corraled by second baseman Jake Thrower.
"I was effectively wild today," Robbins said. "As a reliever you have to have a short memory between outings and from pitch to pitch. The ball felt like a rock out there because it was freezing. We're really starting to come around and click as a team. With the weather and all, it's good to be a couple games over .500."