The losing streak perplexed everyone in the clubhouse.
From first-year manager Mike Guerrero to minor league veteran Jim Henderson to peppy infielder Eric Farris — it didn’t make sense.
Less than a month into the season, the Nashville Sounds were mired in a 10-game skid. The team’s longest losing streak since joining the Pacific Coast League in 1998 was unthinkable considering the immense optimism at the beginning of the season.
When they opened in April, the 25-man roster featured 16 returning players from 2011, three of the organization’s top 10 prospects — according to Baseball America — and nine members of the 40-man roster of their parent club, the Milwaukee Brewers.
Beneath the surface that last number said more — and may have had an impact on the first month of the season.
The 40-man roster consists of players who signed a major league contract and can be called up to the majors at any time. Of the nine Sounds on the 40-man roster, seven played with the Brewers at some point in 2011. In fact, 18 of the Sounds’ opening 25 were at big league spring training in Phoenix.
All arrived there believing they deserved to open 2012 in Milwaukee. Instead, they ended up in Triple-A Nashville and contributed to a 4-17 record — the worst start in the franchise’s 35-year history.
“I think it was a bit of a hangover from spring training,” said Henderson, the team’s closer and lone All-Star. “Some guys hoping they made the [Brewers] and then they are kind of disappointed, and they didn’t come out with the same intensity that maybe we should have.
“I think we’re all picking it up quite a bit, and guys are starting to make the pushes they need to.”
Last week the Sounds turned the page and began the second half of 2012 with newfound enthusiasm.
They went into the All-Star break having won nine of 12 for a 40-51 record and sole possession of second place in the American Northern Division. Prior to last Thursday, they remained 16 games behind the Omaha Stormchasers (Kansas City Royals). Thus, barring a miraculous second-half or nightmarish end for the Stormchasers, making the postseason for the first time since 2007 is highly unlikely (only the four divisional champions make the playoffs).
Still, 11 games below .500 is a vast improvement from when the club hit rock bottom on April 26.
“It took this team a little longer to come together and figure out our identity,” Farris said. “We’re feeding off each other now. There are more people hot. Before, we were a little inconsistent. We’ve been in ballgames all year. That’s never been the problem. We were just waiting for something to click.
“We’re not quite there yet, but we’re definitely about to turn that corner.”
Whether anyone in Nashville will take notice is unclear.
While the Sounds continue to wait on a new stadium, they attempt to sell seats at the aging Greer Stadium, the 34-year-old ballpark that sits in an awkward location south of downtown, outside I-40 and I-65, tucked behind Fort Negley Park.
After 37 home games, the Sounds ranked 12th out of 16 teams in attendance with an average of 5,133. The Round Rock (Texas) Express, the top affiliate of the Texas Rangers, tops the PCL with an 8,389 average.
The difference between a full house and one that is half-empty — or half-full — usually hinges on promotion. Usually, that is.
Evidently, dollar hot dogs weren’t enough to entice fans to come out April 16, when a season-low crowd of 1,699 witnessed the Sounds’ 11-5 loss to New Orleans, beginning the 10-game losing streak.
On May 9, busloads of local students ditched the classroom for some late-morning baseball as part of the Sounds’ Education Day promotion. That contributed to a then-season-high crowd of 9,180. Just three weeks later, on June 2, that number was exceeded, thanks to the triple whammy of postgame fireworks, free Sounds hats to the first 2,000 fans and Trevecca Nazarene Faith Night. A season high of 10,044 filled Greer, which has a capacity of 10,300, to watch the Sounds end a six-game losing streak.
This summer 10 Sounds have been called up to the Brewers, including right-hander Wily Peralta, who made his Major League debut on April 22 against the Colorado Rockies. The undrafted 23-year-old lasted just one game before returning to the Sounds. But Peralta has improved since a 3-8 start, winning his last two starts, and prior to last week, he hadn’t allowed an earned run in his last 18 2/3 innings.
The development of the Brewers’ top minor league prospect is just one instance of the reversal of fortune for the Sounds. Though they’re tied with Memphis for the worst batting average (.258) and the fewest home runs (70), the improvements at the plate are apparent. In April, they batted .235 and scored just 68 runs. May proved to be much better as they hit .270, and as the weather warmed up in June, so did the bats, hitting 31 home runs and scoring 124 runs.
Guerrero sees the headway as a promising sign. The 44-year-old from the Dominican Republic is in his 17th season as a minor league manager but his first with the Sounds. He spent the last two years at Double-A Huntsville, where he was 131-146.
Guerrero believes his nearly two decades as coach and instructor with the Brewers’ organization aids him in juggling the long seasons and enormous travel demands while he manages fragile egos of players on the cusp of the big leagues.
“There is so much I can do, but the players have to go out there and perform,” Guerrero said. “That is part of the game. You’ve got to learn from mistakes you make, mistakes the players’ make and make adjustments here and there. You learn from it, you let it define you, and you got to go on, because we’re playing tomorrow. It is a long season, and no matter what happened yesterday, we’ve got to play today.”