The TinCaps finished the first half of the regular season with five wins in their final six games and series victories over two of the top three teams in the Midwest League's Eastern Division.
The hot finish generated optimism that Fort Wayne will once again make a second-half playoff push. The pattern for the TinCaps in the last half-decade, when they've fielded the youngest team in the league every year, has been to use the first half to get the players acclimated to the rigors and routine of full-season professional baseball. Once the players have gained experience, wins generally come in bunches in July and August.
Manager Anthony Contreras said he saw signs of growth from his team late in the first half and he hopes that continues when the season resumes Thursday after the All-Star break.
“One of the biggest things we're focusing on is just not hitting that lull during the game,” Contreras said. “The dugout keeping the energy up, guys who are not playing being able to pick up their teammates. And we've seen that. When our energy is high in the dugout, it resonates on the field and they start playing good baseball when that stuff happens.”
The TinCaps will need more than improved energy to win in the second half, however. There are a handful of talented players on the roster who can make a huge difference in the win column if they improve on their first half performances.
These are some of the key players who need to have individual success if Fort Wayne is going to have team success after the All-Star break.
Blake Hunt, catcher
Hunt, the Padres' No. 27 prospect according to MLB.com, has been solid defensively from Day 1, but his bat has been slower to come around. That hasn't been all his fault, though. Hunt has made more than his share of outs on hard-hit balls, as evidenced by his .260 batting average on balls in play (.300 is average).
He's got a short, quick swing, and he's cut down on his strikeouts this season. He should hit significantly better than the .227 average he posted in the first half.
Grant Little, outfielder
Little is one of Fort Wayne's best defensive outfielders, but like Hunt his bat has lagged behind. He's getting on base at a .355 clip, so he has been passable at the plate, but he has just seven extra-base hits. Little often hit third in the order in the first half, and the TinCaps need some more power from a middle-of-the-lineup hitter. The 2018 No. 74 overall pick has the ability to deliver.
Agustin Ruiz, outfielder
The TinCaps got a taste of what Ruiz can do when he's locked in during the final week of the first half. The powerful 19-year-old hit three home runs in the last eight games of the half, his first three home runs of the season. He has been more aggressive with fastballs in the zone lately, and he could hit plenty of long balls if he continues that approach in the warmer summer weather.
Carlos Belen, reliever
Belen was converted from infielder to pitcher last season, and he has the stuff to be one of the best relievers in the Midwest League: a fastball that touches 97 mph, a hard-breaking slider and an improving changeup.
His first-half ERA was a mediocre 4.66, but he finished the half with 121/3 consecutive scoreless innings and the 23-year-old looks poised to be a lights-out late-inning arm in the second half.