NILES - After recording an abysmal 6-11 record for the month of June in a dismal start to the 2014 season, the Mahoning Valley Scrappers showed signs of life in July by squeaking out a 15-15 record for the month.
The Scrappers bats caught fire in the latter half of July, and it finally looked as though the team was headed for a turnaround.
Thursday night, though, the team looked like the Scrappers of old, when hits were hard to come by and quality starts were few and far between.
Brooklyn starter Martires Arias pitched well and rendered the Scrappers scoreless through six innings. Mahoning Valley could only muster two hits en route to a 4-0 loss.
"We've been doing this all year, I mean how many games have we had in the fifth or sixth inning with one hit, two hits, no hits," Scrappers manager Ted Kubiak said. "The offense has been streaky. We've been playing better overall. All I can do is look to improve these guys as the season goes along."
Mahoning Valley's all-too-familiar lack of hitting seems to be the common denominator in Scrappers' moody, rollercoaster season.
"It looks easy when the ball's coming," Kubiak said. "Why can't anybody hit it - try it some time."
One player in particular who has fallen into a slump in recent weeks is outfielder Taylor Murphy. Nearly two weeks ago, Murphy led the team with an over-.300 batting average. Now Murphy is batting .264 for the season and .139 over the past 10 games.
"He's struggling at the plate and can't figure anything out. When you go into a slump, I don't know if there's any help for you, you got to get out of it on your own."
In trying times of offensive turmoil, pitching continues to be the Scrappers' saving grace.
"Pitching is keeping us in games like this," Kubiak said. "Starting pitching's been really good, and even the pen's been good."
Julian Merryweather started Thursday's game for the Scrappers and gave up just one run in the fourth before exiting the game. Reliever David Speer took over the mound duties in the fifth and pitched well through his first three innings, racking up six strikeouts during the 10 batters he faced.
"For three innings I felt like I could throw any of my pitches for strikes and put-away pitches," Speer said.
Speer then hit a wall in the eighth inning. He gave up three consecutive singles to start the inning, one of which was an RBI single. Number three-hitter Michael Conforto worked the count against Speer and found a hole for a groundball single that allowed leadoff man John Mora to score. Speer followed with a sac fly, a walk and an RBI single up the middle to supply the Cyclones a four-run advantage.
"I felt like I commanded the strike zone, but I made a mistake," Speer said. "I left a pitch up to the first batter and he got a leadoff hit. It just kind of trickled downhill from there, a couple seeing-eye singles, and then lost my command. I think I was getting a little tired toward the end and struggled."
The singles Speer surrendered weren't hit particularly hard. They were all hit in the right place at the right time.
"Second time through the order they made some adjustments on me. I just felt like I didn't execute my pitches as well in the last inning and they kind of took advantage and put together some nice at-bats," Speer said.
Even though Speer's eighth-inning hiccup pulled the plug, he felt as though his deceiving performance was better than the game's end result insinuates.
"It was one of those days where I feel like the final stat column doesn't reflect how I threw the ball," Speer said. "It was a frustrating team day, I mean it's tough to go out and not score a run."
Speer was satisfied with his performance, but it was easy to see that the team's demise weighed heavily on him. He hung his head on the one bad inning to which he succumbed and held himself just as accountable for the loss as the offense.
"It's a letdown on my part to give up those three runs and turn what was a 1-0 ball game into (this)," Speer said. "We were one mistake pitch away from a tie ball game going into the eighth inning and to come out of it down 4-0, I felt like I took us out of the game a little."
The Scrapper look to take at least one game from the Cyclones tonight as they conclude their three-game series with Brooklyn at Eastwood Field at 7:05 p.m.