Isotopes open 10th season at Omaha

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By Mike Cote

ALBUQUERQUE — To start the 2012 season, the Albuquerque Isotopes will become very familiar with the Omaha Storm Chasers and the Iowa Cubs.


But it might take awhile for the Isotopes to get familiar with one another.

The Isotopes, Albuquerque’s Triple-A franchise, throw out their first pitch on the road Thursday at Omaha. After an eight-game road swing to open the season, they will be home April 13 for eight games against those same teams.

This will be season No. 10 for the Isotopes since making their debut in 2003. Since that time, the Isotopes have had three managers and two parent clubs, including their current Major League Baseball franchise, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It was a tumultuous offseason for the big club. Former Los Angeles owner Frank McCourt was the subject of numerous off-field problems, including a high-profile divorce and financial troubles.

Just last month, the Dodgers were purchased by a group which included NBA Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson for a whopping $2.15 billion, the most money ever shelled out for an American professional sports team.

Despite the off-field distractions, Albuquerque manager Lorenzo Bundy said the organization remained as stable as could be expected thanks largely to the efforts of Los Angeles skipper Don Mattingly.

“Don Mattingly did a great job as far as keeping the players focused,” said Bundy. “He didn’t speak of it a lot, but he spoke about it enough to say that the players don’t have any control of that stuff.

“Everybody’s excited about the future of the Dodgers,” he said. “We’re just looking forward to going out and competing.”

This is Bundy’s second season steering the Isotopes’ ship. In 2011, the Isotopes finished 70-74, which placed them second in the Pacific Coast League’s American Southern division behind Round Rock, Texas.

Albuquerque was 12 games above .500 in late June, but limped to the finish of its 2011 season, losing five in a row to end the year, including four at Round Rock and lost seven of nine contests in a critical late August stretch which effectively put the club out of postseason contention.

In its August slide, which included going 7-10 at home, Albuquerque hit a very healthy .311 as a team, but the pitching staff struggled, posting a 6.52 ERA for the month.

Heading into 2012, several of the Isotopes top players are up with Los Angeles, including Dee Gordon, who hit .333 and stole a team high 30 bases.

Returning for the Isotopes, however, are some big hitters including the team’s 2011 RBI leader, Jerry Sands.
Sands, an outfielder, had high hopes of earning a roster spot with the Dodgers following his big year last year, but was sent down to Albuquerque just before the start of the MLB season.

Sands was disappointed about not making the Dodgers’ squad, but said he’s going to make good use of his time at Albuquerque.

“I just need to put good at-bats together,” he said. “This spring didn’t go as well I would’ve liked, but I’m just going to try to get some good at-bats and get some good swings on the ball…it sounds kind of cliché, but it’s a matter of just not missing pitches.”

Sands will likely share the expansive outfield at Isotopes Park with returner Trent Oeltjen and newcomer Scott Van Slyke.

Oeltjen was one of the Isotopes’ top offensive performers last season, hitting .339 and putting up a .583 slugging percentage. Van Slyke, son of former Major Leaguer Andy Van Slyke, was named the Dodgers’ minor league MVP last year with Double-A Chattanooga.

“It’s exciting, now that spring training’s over,” said Oeltjen. “We’re looking forward to the start of the season. We have a really good mix of guys…the lineup’s really strong.”

In all, eight players on the Isotopes’ roster appeared in Albuquerque last season, including four pitchers.
But the Isotopes starting rotation is likely to include Michael Antonini, Stephen Fife and Will Savage, moved up from Chattanooga, and Fernando Nieve, an acquisition from the Astros organization.

John Ely, one of the Isotopes’ returners, is the team’s No. 1 starter.

Joining the bullpen will be several Chattanooga pitchers, including 6-foot-5 lefty Cole St. Clair, one of five left-handed pitchers on the staff.

St. Clair said he’s excited about getting going in Albuquerque after a solid start to the season in 2011. Later in the season, however, following an injury, St. Clair said he struggled with his control and was knocked around.

Going in, St. Clair said he’s motivated by the fact the Albuquerque fan base is large and can turn out in big numbers — the Isotopes drew more than 578,000 fans and topped the 10,000-fan mark 14 times last year — something that hasn’t always been the case during his minor league career.

“It’s great pitching in front of great fans,” he said. “Some nights in the Southern League there’s 100 people in a stadium built for 6,000. It gets much better here. Everyone likes pitching in front of fans who care.”

The Isotopes have nine home games scheduled for April but will be in Albuquerque for 19 games in May.
Bundy said that with all the fresh faces the team has, he’s happy the team is starting out on the road for several reasons, not the least of which is getting to iron out any early-season issues outside of the attention of the New Mexico media — the Isotopes are the only Major League-affiliated team in the state and one of the most well-known minor league franchises in the country.

2012 Albuquerque Isotopes promotional schedule highlights

April 13: Opening night, scarf giveaway
April 14: Coca-Cola beanie giveaway
April 18: Post-game adult fun run
April 30: $.50 hot dog night
May 4-5: Post-game fireworks
May 18: Bank of the West jersey giveaway
May 19: Pre-game celebrity softball game
May 25: US Bank lunchbox giveaway
May 27: Military appreciation night, fireworks
June 7: Baillo’s home appliance giveaway
June 9: Post-game fireworks
June 23: Post-game fireworks
June 26: Businesspersons’ special
July 4: Post-game fireworks
July 6: Myron Noodleman Night
July 7: Youth skills clinic, fireworks
July 20: Lovelace replica jersey night
July 21: Dukes Retro Night, fireworks
Aug. 2: Creamland cowbell giveaway
Aug. 4: Post-game fireworks
Aug: 18: Post-game fireworks
Aug. 20: $.50 hot dog night
Sept. 1-2: Fan Appreciation Days
Sept. 3: Final home game, pre-game catch