NEW BRITAIN - Facing a seven-game deficit in the Liberty Division with just two months left in the regular season, the New Britain Bees knew they needed to improve in crucial areas if they were to gain ground in the playoff race and possibly clinch a first-ever postseason berth for the franchise.
But just two weeks ago, the Bees had lost four straight games heading into a much-needed day off and had watched their struggling pitching staff surrender 10 runs in back-to-back games to the York Revolution. After a series win over the Lancaster Barnstormers, New Britain dropped a three-game set at home to the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, falling in consecutive one-run games and falling further off the playoff pace.
Those two one-run losses dropped the Bees to a record of 6-10 in games decided by two runs or less in the second half of the season, and their punishment at the hands of the Revolution pushed the team’s collective ERA to the bottom of the Atlantic league. It was clear that if New Britain was to drastically change the narrative of the second half of its season, it would have to be more efficient on the mound and in tight ballgames.
Nothing has changed about the Bees’ roster since that series loss to the Blue Crabs, but something about the team clearly has. Over their last nine games entering Thursday, the Bees boast a record of 7-2 and despite a four-game win streak by the first-place Long Island Ducks, they have pulled to within four games of first.
Is this a soft spot in the schedule that New Britain is taking advantage of? Absolutely not. The Bees are in the middle of a seven-game set in Sugar Land against the Skeeters, who entered the series at 20-13 and in first place in the Freedom Division. Prior to heading to Texas, the Bees won three straight against the High Point Rockers, who were in first place in the Liberty Division before New Britain was done with them. These games have not been layups by any means. The Bees are beating quality opponents and quietly breathing new life into their once dormant playoff chances.
So, how has it come together? So far the key has been correcting the two crushing fallacies that plagued the early part of the season’s second half. The pitching staff as a whole has begun to stabilize, allowing a little more than four runs per game over the past eight contests, which would be an even more respectable mark had it not been for a 12-1 rout at the hands of the Skeeters in the series opener, which came just hours after the Bees landed in Texas after playing a night game against High Point. Remove that loss, and New Britain’s pitching staff is allowing just three more runs per game, leaving its prolific offense in a much better place to win ballgames.
The team’s improvement on the mound has been widespread. In Monday’s win over Sugar Land, Cory Riordan turned in his third straight quality start as he continues to settle into a groove since returning from a lengthy injury, and new acquisition David Roseboom went 5 2/3 innings on Sunday, allowing one run while striking out nine. On Tuesday, Devin Burke broke out of a cold streak that stretched back to the All-Star break by allowing just one earned run over 6 1/3 innings, while reliever Brady Dragmire, who had pitched poorly since arriving to the Bees last month, pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings to set up All-Star Jim Fuller for the save in a 3-2 win.
The final score in Tuesday’s game is a telling sign as well, as it marked the fifth time in New Britain’s last six tries the team has won a game decided by two runs or less. What was crippling the Bees since the All-Star break has suddenly turned into a strength, as timely hits have finally begun to present themselves. Fuller was put into a save situation on Tuesday after Mike Carp singled in Jared James in the top of eighth to break a 2-2 tie and send the Bees to their fourth win in a row. The Bees also scored two valuable runs in the eighth the night before with the help of Carp in a 7-5 victory. Carp, who has been battling a bum hamstring since signing with the Bees in July, enjoyed a stretch of five hits in 13 at-bats this week, including seven RBI.
What was pulling the Bees further into the Liberty Division basement just weeks ago is now pulling them out, and had it not been for a recent surge by the Ducks, they would be knocking at the door for first place. Should they continue to thrive on the rubber and in high leverage spots, a hot streak by a first place team still might not be enough to slow New Britain’s surge to the top.
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or email@example.com