Gaston & Catawba

Only a break stops the Grizzlies' surge

As the Gastonia Grizzlies headed to the Coastal Plain League's All-Star break last Tuesday, head coach Eli Benefield was actually a little disappointed his team had a few days off.

That's because the Grizzlies had won four straight before the July 22 All-Star Game at Asheboro.

“I told the guys I almost hated to take the All-Star break,” the second-year Grizzlies head coach said. “Everybody is starting to relax, play with confidence and play up to their capabilities.”

The 2008 season started terribly for Gastonia. The Grizzlies lost their first seven games and were 3-11 after two weeks. For the first half of the season, Gastonia finished 9-17, last place in the Western Division.

And even though the Grizzlies were just 7-7 in the second half before the break, there are reasons for optimism.

The Grizzlies are 5-2 during the second half in games decided by two runs or less, compared with 5-7 in the first half. The offensive numbers have stayed similar, averaging just over four runs per game.

But the pitching staff and defense, which allowed 6.1 runs per game in the first half, has improved greatly in the second half. During the four-game win streak, the Grizzlies allowed three runs per game and committed just one error in their last 23 innings of play.

“I think the execution of our defense and the bullpen has been important,” Benefield said. “I think early on the guys didn't know each other, and it took some time for us to become comfortable with each other.”

Another positive has been Gastonia's play at home. The Grizzlies were 12-9 at Sims Legion Park before the break and had won three straight there.

“It's a great place to play,” said pitcher Tyler Musselwhite, one of three Grizzlies named to the Coastal Plain League All-Star team. “We have a great crowd, and that may have a lot to do with our success.”

After the All-Star Game, the Grizzlies had 14 games remaining in the regular season. They trailed first-place Thomasville by 41/2 games but were only one game out of second place, behind Martinsville. All 14 of those games are against division foes, so if they can continue to play well, a playoff spot is within reach.

Benefield says that even when the team struggled early, its attitude and work ethic has not changed. Musselwhite, who has been at South Carolina but is transferring to Division II North Georgia, gives credit to Benefield.

“Eli is great to play for because he has been through this and can relate to us,” he said. “Everybody in our dugout gets along, and we want to win for each other. I've enjoyed this summer more than any other in baseball.”