Every April, Bees manager Keith Johnson promises a team that will play hard game in and game out.
On the cusp of August this season, he has one.
Baseball is arguably the ultimate numbers game, and by many statistical measures, the Bees could easily blend into the pack. Except for this: As of Tuesday, Salt Lake sits in first place in the PCL's Pacific Northern Division.
What's kept the team there is what some thought would hold it back: A clubhouse of veterans ranging from their mid-20s to early 30s, mostly out of baseball's accepted "prospect" range. There aren't any streaking-star phenoms on the roster a la Mike Trout but the Bees are what a team should be: cohesive, competent and fun.
"A lot of people coaches, scouts, whatever they always measure what's outside someone's character," first baseman Efren Navarro said. "You can't measure a man's heart. The team unity, the team chemistry, how strong we are has been helping us overcome in a lot of games."
When it comes to numbers, the Bees do have some in their favor. They bat .286 as a team, which is tied for third best in the PCL. They have the fewest strikeouts in the league, and are among the most-walked teams. They have one of the highest on-base percentages (.362).
But that doesn't fully explain the manner in which Salt Lake wins. The team is a perfect 51-0 when it's leading a game after eight innings. They're 9-3 in games that are tied after seven innings.
When other teams fade, the Bees play their best.
"We've been taking advantage of pretty much every situation the other team gives us," outfielder Matt Long said. "Playing small ball, bunt, get a guy over, get a guy in. We're scoring a lot of late-inning runs. When you're ahead, it demoralizes a team; when you're behind, it puts them on their heels."
While the Bees don't hit the hardest or run particularly fast (as a group, anyway), they have poise in spades. Most of the players have been to the majors at one time or another, and several of them for long stretches. There's a lot of professionalism in the clubhouse, but it's not stuffy, either.
Additions such as Trent Oeltjen and Chris Nelson haven't just brought their bats they bring levity as well. It sounds corny, the Bees acknowledge, but chemistry can energize a team trying to break out of a late-game tie.
"I don't think anyone has any idea how a certain group of guys are going to fit together it's just kind of a bonus," infielder Andrew Romine says. "It's kind of unusual this year: We don't have a lot of guys who hit a lot of home runs, we don't even have guys who steal a lot of bases. But when guys get up, they know they just have to get a base hit."
The Bees have one of the PCL's worst team ERA marks (5.32), and only Fernando Cabrera has been on the roster all year as a reliever. But the bullpen has been consistent week after week despite turnover. Salt Lake has a very different pitching staff than the one it started the season with, but most can be counted on to carry the team the rest of the way.
Big arms Daniel Stange and Mike Ekstrom have helped as late-season acquisitions, but most important, reliever Jeremy Berg said, is how the bullpen has measured up mentally.
"Any arm can get people out it's just where you're given the opportunity and how bad you want to get the outs," Berg said. "It's something inside you that gets the outs, not how fast you can throw."
If the Bees could bottle up that something and use that edge at will, they would. Right now, they just don't need to.
Bees on a roll
Some critical players on Salt Lake's first-place run*
Efren Navarro, 1B • Leading the PCL in on-base percentage (.427)., team-high .349 average
Matt Shoemaker, P • Leads PCL in strikeouts (122) and walks per 9 innings (1.55)
Luis Rodriguez, INF • Tied for team lead for RBIs (66)
Jeremy Berg, P • Team-best ERA (2.33) with 4-0 record
**Kole Calhoun, OF • hit .354 with 12 home runs after hand injury
**Chris Nelson, INF • Batting .323 since joining the team in June
*statistics reflected through Monday
**recalled to the L.A. Angels in past week