If the 2013 IronBirds were adjusting to each other and getting the feel for professional baseball at the beginning of this season, which they started with five straight home-field losses, then lately they seem to have figured things out - through Monday the Aberdeen club was sitting one game over .500 at 11-10 and 1.5 games out of first place in the New York-Penn League's McNamara Division.
"I've got a team now," Aberdeen skipper Matt Merullo said prior to the IronBirds hitting the road on Sunday for three away games. "At the beginning everyone was getting their feet wet, and we were figuring out where everyone belonged. Now we've got a better sense of who goes where, who our leadoff hitter should be, who should be pitching in different situations."
Since last Wednesday, the Aberdeen men passed the .500 mark for the first time this year and ran up their longest win streak of the season, a five game-stretch that ended on Saturday night with a loss to Brooklyn.
Heading into Tuesday's road game with Tri-City, the IronBirds trailed first-place Hudson Valley by 1.5 games, were a half-game behind second-place Staten Island and led last-place Brooklyn by two games.
Skipper weighs in
"It's been great watching these guys," Merullo said before one of his team's recent victories. "Watching the team come together [during] the extra-inning games, [where] everyone has been contributing, has been a lot of fun."
Extra-inning contests, a test of any team's endurance and composure, have been part of the IronBirds' game-to-game existence from the start of this season, as more than a quarter Aberdeen's matchups have gone beyond the nine-inning mark. The IronBirds' bullpen has had to deal with the strain of added work.
"The bullpen has done a tremendous job," Merullo said. "Every time they come in and I hand them the ball they've got that good look in their eye. They've been aggressive, fearless, and they've attacked the hitters. The key to any winning ballclub is the bullpen, and we've been really fortunate there."
As evidence of the workload put on Aberdeen's relievers, two bullpen pitchers, Harry Marino and Jorge Rivera, have the best records on the team, both sporting a 2-0 mark through Monday. The only IronBirds starter with two wins was Sebastian Vader (2-1).
"We're lucky to have three left handers in [the bullpen]," Merullo said. "We've got some very hard throwers, we've got guys that can throw strikes, and I'm fortunate to have that many weapons out there."
Donnie Hart, who along with Marino and Rivera make up the trio of lefties that Merullo mentioned, led the team in ERA as of Monday, having not allowed an earned run in 6-1/3 innings pitched. Jimmy Yacabonis, the IronBirds' closer, was right behind Hart with an ERA of 0.87.
Back-to-back double homer games
Last week, for the first time in club history, two IronBird hitters had multi-home run games on back-to-back nights.
The first came last Wednesday, when Conor Bierfeldt smacked his second and third homers of the season in a 9-2 win over Hudson Valley. The next evening, Hector Veloz hit his third and fourth round-trippers of the year in Aberdeen's 5-1 win over Brooklyn.
Bierfeldt, the ninth player in club history to hit two homers in one game, and Veloz, the 10th, were Aberdeen's co-leaders in home runs through Monday with four apiece. Bierfeldt hit his fourth on Saturday in Aberdeen's 5-3 loss to Brooklyn.
The Orioles' 29th-round pick in this year's draft, Bierfeldt talked about his approach to improving as a ballplayer.
"I didn't come into this season with clear-cut, hard-set goals," he said. "I think when you do that, you limit yourself, you give yourself a ceiling. I'm just trying to soak up everything the coaches tell me, to make the adjustments I need to, and to get better every game."
Yaz heats up at plate
The Orioles' 14th-round selection of this year's draft, Mike Yastrzemski, grandson of Hall of Fame inductee Carl Yastrzemski, had the best showing of his professional career so far on Sunday, going 3-for-4 with a triple, a double and two RBIs in Aberdeen's 3-1 win over Tri-City.
On Monday, in the IronBirds 2-1, 12-inning loss to Tri-City, Yastrzemski scored his team's only run, while on Saturday, in a 5-3 loss to Brooklyn, he was the only Aberdeen player with multiple hits, going 2-for-4 with one run scored.