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.
"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.
Through Monday's game, he was batting .360 with three RBIs and three runs.
Prior to Aberdeen heading out on the road Sunday, Yastrzemski, who was picked from Vanderbilt University in the draft, talked about the transition from facing college pitching to professional hurlers.
"It's definitely a lot harder here," Yastrzemski said. "You don't get to this level by dumb luck or anything like that. If you get picked up in the draft, there's a team that thinks you've got the ability to win, and they're invested in you. That just means you face good pitching every night. It's a challenge."
Beaten in 12
The Aberdeen IronBirds played in their sixth extra-inning contest of the season Monday night, but couldn't get their bats going and had to settle for a 2-1 loss to host Tri-City.
The ValleyCats, who went up 1-0 in the fourth, scored the game-winner in the 12th on a solo home run.
Hernandez finished the game 2-for-5, while Anthony Vega, the only other IronBird with multiple hits, was 2-for-2 with a double. Kris Richards was 1-for-5 with a double.
Jared Breen went 1-for-5 and extended his hitting streak to a season-best 10 games.
'Birds win by two
Playing on the road Sunday, the IronBirds put another check in the win column with a 3-1 defeat of the ValleyCats.
Trailing, 1-0, heading into the sixth inning of Sunday's matchup, Aberdeen tied things up with one run, then broke the deadlock with a two-run rally in the eighth.
Breen went 2-for-4 with two runs scored, Trey Mancini had one RBI, and Scott Kalush scored once for Aberdeen.
Aberdeen's Rivera (2-0) picked up the win with a 1-2/3-inning relief appearance, striking out one, walking four and holding the ValleyCats to one hit.
The IronBirds could not hold a 3-1, seventh-inning lead on Saturday night and saw their five-game winning streak ended with a 5-3 loss to visiting Brooklyn at Ripken Stadium.
Two nights removed from a two-home run game, Aberdeen's Bierfeldt smacked his fourth round-tripper of the season, this one a solo shot in the fifth.
Richards was 1-for-4 with one RBI, Jared Breen went 1-for-4 with one run and Austin Wynns was 1-for-3 with one RBI.
Half a game out
With their fifth straight victory on Friday night, a 6-5 home win over the visiting Brooklyn Cyclones, the IronBirds moved to within half a game of first place in the New York-Penn League's McNamara Division.
Aberdeen led the game, 5-1, after seven, but Brooklyn tied things up with a four-run rally in the eighth.
Breen went 2-for-6 with a double, a triple, two runs and one RBI.
Williams Louico (1-0) picked up his first win of the season with a one-inning relief stint, striking out one and allowing two hits in the top of the 11th.
Back home after a three-game road set, the IronBirds celebrated Independence Day by extending their winning streak to four games with a 5-1 defeat of the Brooklyn Cyclones at Ripken Stadium Thursday.
Jeff Kemp was 1-for-4 with one RBI, Breen went 1-for-3 with one run and Bierfeldt scored once.
David Richardson (1-1) picked up the win, striking out three, issuing no walks and holding the Cyclones to one earned run on four hits in a three-inning relief stint.
'Birds at .500
The IronBirds reached the .500 mark on Wednesday night, and they did it with authority, rapping out 17 hits and scoring nine times in a 9-2 road victory over the Hudson Valley Renegades.
Manny Hernandez went 2-for-3 with a triple, two RBIs and one run, while Veloz was 2-for-4 with two RBIs. Mancini had his best showing of the season thus far, going 5-for-5 with a triple, three runs and one RBI.