Aging bison keep on kicking

Iowa City, IA - With 37 games to go, the Iowa City Bison hold a very slight 2 game lead over division rival Buffalo. After a difficult 23 consecutive game stretch that saw career relievers Brett Halter and Esteban Rodriguez spot-starting games, the Bison are looking forward to the return of staff ace and workhorse Cookie Ramirez.

How the aging Bison managed to plow through the loss of Ramirez and the increased strain on their pitching staff is anybody's guess, but at least 9 different pitchers started games. Rookie
Rube Murphy (6-5, 4.81 ERA) filled in admirably and pitched better than expected, getting the bulk of the starts (11) in Ramirez' spot during his absence. The starting quartet of Ismael Alvarado (14-7, 2.74 ERA), Rick Cobb (12-7, 3.78), Brandon Freeman (8-8, 4.36 ERA) and Pedro Saenz (5-1, 1.79 ERA) has pitched extremely well, and the four saw themselves as leading men rather than supporting cast to Ramirez.

To say that the bullpen has been inconsistent and over-fatigued at times is an overstatment, even seeing a pitching appearance by ss Willie Lopez, and this is a far cry from the lights-out Bison pens of previous years, but they have pitched well enough to stay in games, preserve leads and win games. (Lopez pitched one inning in a 13-5 blowout loss to Las Vegas, and actually struck out utility man Mark Rupe). For the third year in a row, the Bison lack a true closer, and pitching roles seem to change faster than they can be defined. Iowa City pitching coach Piper Bradshaw said: "We asked a lot of these guys and they all did what the team needed. We'd have to look at it every day, looking a whose arm was fresh enough to go. We held back some relievers to rest them to where sombody could start the next game while using the regular starters as relievers on the day we needed them. It was chaotic for a while, but all of our guys were flexible. Joel (McNamara) and Gene (Maduro) had a great feel for who had gas in the tank and were our "on the field coaches", if you will, when we were trying to sort out pitchers".

But perhaps the biggest explanation for the success of the 'S12 Bison has been a renaissance in their offense. The Bison rank amongst the top 5 in NL Team batting AVG and OBP, despite being amongst the worse in hitting the long ball (132). Six of the Bison's regular starters are hitting .300 or above, although defining a "regular" for the Bison takes a bit of creativity. A total of 12 position players have accumulated 200 or more at bats, and seen action in 100 games or more. Only one player, leadoff man and All-Star CF Aaron Bailey, has exceeded 500 at bats. The Bison's offense has been built around platoon and role players, matching starters on a day to day basis while aggresively making late game substitutions and pinch hitting for more favorable matchups. The cast is full of older players, waiver wire pickups and a few home-raised players.

35 yr old Kenny Perez has been consistent with the bat and glove, despite seeing action at multiple positions and battling chronic fatigue. Aging 37 yr old slugger Mike Burrell has adapted well to a switch to 1B and LF from his traditional RF position, a move to put less strain on his arthritic knees and to facilitate giving him more days off. (Interestingly, Burrell has become a spokesperson for male enhancement pharmaceutical Viagra). 2B Tyler Merrick, CF Aaron Bailey and RF Norberto Fernandez form the young offensive core of this team, and were joined by 32yr old 3B Jason Hall before the trade deadline. Three positions are covered by platoon players: the offense of 35 yr old Bo Wells has alternated with Alex Cooke at 1B; the defensive duo of Tony Tatis and Willie Lopez has provided a combined 15 HRs and has been a welcomed bonus from a position where the Bison management only expected solid defense, and the catching platoon of Joel McNamara and Eugene Maduro has excelled defensively while handling the pitching corps admirably.

Vinny Funaki has been a disappointment, both defensively and offensively, and the Bison tried to trade him but found no suitable takers for the decreasing skills of the often injured 33 yr old former all-star and silver slugger 2B who has hit a meager .245 through the season. ESPN's Peter Gammons reported that the Bison had agreed in principle to a deal that would've sent Funaki to Seattle in a package for a pair of minor leaguers, but Funaki failed to clear waivers when the San Antonio Stallions claimed him. The Stallions were not interested in trading for Funaki, effectively forcing the Bison to keep him as a super utility backup role. (The Stallions, who reportedly were looking for offense, had apparently rejected two previous offers for a deal that included Funaki). Funaki may redeem himself in the last 30 games if given enough playing time, but it is doubtful that Funaki's ice cold bat will find a place in the heat of a pennant race.

The remainder of the schedule will be challenging for the Bison; with the exception of Helena and Norfolk, the Bison will only face teams with winning records, and they have performed poorly against Helena. There are no major additions expected down the stretch, although a handful of AAA players are likely to be called up at roster expansion to add bullpen depth and add some defensive flexibility.

The Bison have made the postseason for a few years in a row - they have done so while riding the arm of Cookie Ramirez. Much hinges on whether Ramirez is fully recovered from the injury that has limited him to 130 innings. An Iowa fanbase that saw a quiet offseason and criticized management as throwing in the "rebuilding flag" behind the remaining contracts of the Bison's aging core has found a renewed interest in this veteran team. These aging Bison are hungry for the postseason, realizing that for many of them, this may truly be their last chance at a World Series ring.

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