TEXAS LEAGUE BASEBALL: Arkansas keeps rolling despite managerial change

MIDLAND Most successful baseball organizations don’t expect to have to make a managerial change in midseason.
The Arkansas Travelers found themselves in that position, however, when Mitch Canham was named head coach at Oregon State, his alma mater.
The Seattle Mariners, Arkansas’ parent club, tabbed Cesar Nicolas to take over. The Travelers have suffered no dropoff with the change, winning four of five under Nicolas, including three in a row to start the second half of the Texas League season.
The latest victory came Thursday at Security Bank Ballpark as Arkansas’ Joe DeCarlo hit a tie-breaking grand slam in a 10-6 decision against the Midland RockHounds.
Arkansas clinched the first-half title in the North Division with more than a week to go and moved to 21 games over .500 for the season with Thursday’s victory. Nicolas, who had been serving as the Mariner’s Latin America Development Coordinator, said his job was simply to keep the ship on course.
"I came into a situation where they’re playing good baseball," Nicolas said. "This team’s been together for a couple of years. It’s a really special group in that sense. In professional baseball, you don’t really get that continuity, but these guys know how to play the game.
"For me, it’s just a situation of coming in and trying to maintain what they had going on already."
Nicolas spent the past two seasons managing the Dominican Summer League Mariners after serving as hitting coach at Clinton in the Class A Midwest League in 2016. At Clinton, Nicolas worked with several current Travelers players and members of the Arkansas coaching staff, which he said helped ease the transition.
"Some of them I had at Clinton, then over the last few years whether it’s been spring training or as a (roving instructor) at one of their affiliates and working with them there," he said. "Having a good relationship with Pete Woodworth, our pitching coach, helps a lot, and having prior relationships with (hitting coach) Kyle Wilson, (athletic trainer) B.J. Downie and Mikey (Apodaca), our strength coach.
"It’s a great group and I’m really fortunate to come into this situation and really excited about the opportunity."
In Thursday’s game, Arkansas hammered out 17 hits with every player in the lineup getting at least one. Dom Thompson-Williams was 3 for 4 and Logan Taylor was 3 for 5, while Luis Liberato, Jordan Cowan, DeCarlo and Mike Ahmed each had two hits.
The Travelers strung together five consecutive two-out hits, including a two-run double by Nick Zammarelli, during a five-run third. Midland tied it at 6-6 with a three-run sixth, capped by Luis Barrera’s RBI single.
In the seventh, DeCarlo connected for his first home run of the season off Midland reliever Trey Cochran-Gill (2-3) after the Travelers loaded the bases on two walks and a single.
Zac Grotz (3-3) got the win with 2.2 scoreless innings in relief of Travelers starter Ricardo Sanchez.
"It’s a group that knows how to play the game," Nicolas said. "They understand how to prepare themselves and they’re competitive. It’s a lot of fun to watch them go out there and compete.
"They’re not really paying attention to our opponent. They’re not really paying attention to the standings, whether we clinched in the first half or not. Just a good group of professionals who really know what they’re doing."
For Midland, Kevin Merrell was 3 for 4 with two RBIs, while Luke Persico came off the injured list to go 2 for 3 with two RBIs and Barrera finished 2 for 5.
Merrell singled in a run in the first, had an RBI triple in the fourth and singled and scored the tying run in the sixth.
"Merrell, for probably the last week and a half, it’s been nice to see him barrel balls and get on and use his speed a little bit," RockHounds manager Scott Steinmann said. "He drives the ball pretty well and when he gets it out into the outfield, it goes pretty good.
"He’s got a special tool there with his speed. If he can just have that knack of getting on base a little more often, we’ll start to see those stolen bases climb and the first-to-thirds and first-to-home type things happen."
Another bright spot for Midland was reliever Angel Duno, who pitched two scoreless innings after working himself out of trouble in the eighth. Duno gave up a leadoff single to Liberato and a double to Thompson-Williams to put runners at second and third with no outs, then struck out the next three batters. He finished with five strikeouts.
"That was a great job," Steinmann said of Duno’s eighth-inning escape. "Angel had a little bit of a rough first half, but by the end there he started picking some things up and figuring some things out. I think the second half of the season he’s going to do a great job for us, so I’m excited the second half for him, kind of erasing that first half from our memory and moving forward."