C.J. Ziegler’s hitless spring and his 3 for 18 start to the Wingnuts’ regular season carried significance only because the Wichita newcomer had yet to establish a track record with the team.
Ziegler and Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper saw Ziegler’s slow start for what it was — a small sample size — and were certain the first baseman would provide the offensive muscle that was expected.
Ziegler is making good on that trust over the last three weeks. He hit hit team-leading eighth home run Saturday and reached base safely four times in the Wingnuts’ 9-4 win over Kansas City at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Ziegler is batting .312 with a .606 slugging percentage that also leads the Wingnuts. He has six homers in his last 10 games; last year, he batted .334 with 24 home runs in the North American League, a small step down from the American Association.
"With a guy like him, you’ve just got to stick with a guy sometimes," Hooper said. "We built the team for a reason. He had a heck of a year last year, his numbers were silly. Just sticking with a guy and having confidence in him. He knew that we had confidence in him and his ability."
The night after an 0-for-3 performance that dropped his average to .167 on May 21, Ziegler wasn’t in the starting lineup. The following game he began an 18-game hitting streak, during which he had 30 hits in 79 at-bats for a .380 average.
The streak improved Ziegler’s average to .330, and though he hasn’t quite maintained that, Ziegler is far from fading. His home run Saturday was his second in two games, and the RBI it produced gave him six in six games.
The solo blast put the Wingnuts ahead 4-2 in the third inning and came after he scored on a close play at the plate that led to the ejections of T-Bones catcher Trevor Coleman and pitcher Devin Anderson in the second.
Kansas City pitcher Steve Kent was ejected during Ziegler’s at-bat in the eighth after complaining about the strike zone, but the surrounding drama did little to slow down Ziegler, who proceeded to draw his third walk.
"It’s one of those streaks you have in baseball," Ziegler said. "You can’t explain it. It doesn’t matter — you’re seeing (the ball) well and coming to the ballpark feeling well. That’s why you love the game. That’s also why you hate the game, too, I think. It’s a love-hate relationship."
Saturday’s three walks gave Ziegler 12 for the year, contributing to his .377 on-base percentage. The free passes aren’t always enjoyable for a player as locked in as Ziegler, but they’re a product of those circumstances and his ability to detect pitches that are traveling out of the strike zone.
"They say you don’t walk your way off the island, you hit your way off the island," Ziegler said, describing a philosophy of Dominican players who feel their best hope to play in the United States is to swing frequently. "You always want to be ready to swing and ready to go, but it’s trying to be a smart-aggressive."
The pitches in the strike zone are often traveling great distances. Friday’s homer was estimated at 450 feet and Saturday’s went just under the video board beyond the wall in left-center field.
Ziegler fell behind 0-2 in the count in his second at-bat but caught up to the fastball Dan Kickham tried to sneak by him. Kansas City’s pitchers were more careful with him in Ziegler’s later plate appearances.
"That’s what we talk about all the time in our pitchers’ meetings, trying to trick somebody," Hooper said. "You try to trick him and he’s pretty much strong enough to where I’m pretty sure you don’t want to throw him that fastball."
Ziegler’s success has mirrored that of the Wingnuts, who improved to 20-8 with Saturday’s win. Hitting behind veterans John Rodriguez and Juan Richardson, Ziegler often hits with runners on base, and his power provides a solid bridge to the bottom half of the lineup.
Saturday, the Wingnuts drew 12 walks and struck out once, the embodiment of their philosophy to wear down pitchers by elevating their pitch counts. Every Wichita starter scored a run or drove in one.
"Hoop was a lot of help," Ziegler said. "He told me to just ‘Stay calm, we know what you can do.’ I know what I can do, too, but it helps hearing that."
|Bass lf||3||3||3||0||Khoury ss||2||1||1||1|
|Jones dh||5||0||2||1||Kahaulelio 2b||4||2||2||1|
|Sadler rf||3||0||1||0||Rodriguez dh||3||0||1||1|
|Coleman c||1||0||0||0||Richardson 3b||4||1||0||0|
|Williams c||4||0||1||3||Ziegler 1b||2||2||1||1|
|Kaaihue 1b||4||0||0||0||Peralta rf||2||1||1||2|
|Milner cf||4||0||1||0||Einertson cf||5||1||1||1|
|Goodwin 3b||4||0||0||0||Freeman c||4||0||0||1|
|Duran ss||4||0||1||0||Conroy lf||3||1||1||0|
|Kansas City||002||010||001||—||4 9 3|
|Wichita||031||102||02x||9 8 0|
E— Goodwin 2 (6), Duran (13). LOB—Kansas City 9, Wichita 10. DP— Kansas City 3, Wichita 1. 2B— Bass 2 (4), Jones (10), Williams (2), Peralta (6), Conroy (7). HR — Ziegler (8) SB—Bass (7), Khoury (9). SF — Khoury. S—Conroy.
|Lowey W||5 1/3||6||3||3||3||6|
HBP — by Lowey (Sadler). WP — Bailey, Schaler). Umpires — home, Andrew Carroll; first, Rich Gunton; second, Bryan Childe. T — 3:13. A — 5,207.