Three keys to hot start for first-place Dayton Dragons

Jacob Hurtubise has excelled at the top of the Dragons' batting order with the league's highest on-base percentage and 22 stolen bases. Jeff Gilbert/CONTRIBUTED
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Jacob Hurtubise has excelled at the top of the Dragons' batting order with the league's highest on-base percentage and 22 stolen bases. Jeff Gilbert/CONTRIBUTED

A third of the High-A Central League season will be over when the Dayton Dragons walk off the field at Day Air Ballpark on Friday night. So far, their first season at the High-A level has produced one of the best early-season runs in franchise history.

The first-place Dragons enter Tuesday’s six-game series opener against Fort Wayne at 20-16 with a half-game lead on West Michigan in the Central League’s East Division. Fort Wayne (16-19) is last in the division but only 3.5 games behind the Dragons. The division race is wide open, but the Dragons have been the best team so far.

The Dragons have been good in all phases, and since May 18 they have won five times after trailing by at least four runs.

Here are three areas that have been key to the Dragons’ offense:

1. The leadoff man: Brian Rey played in 13 games for the Dragons, led off most of them, and was the league’s batter of the week twice. He batted .423, slugged .904, had a 1.325 OPS, hit six home runs and batted in 19 runs before being promoted to AA Chattanooga.

Jacob Hurtubise moved from ninth in the batting order to leadoff when Rey left town. Hurtubise, who has batted leadoff his whole life, is hitting .284 with a league-best .444 on-base percentage and 22 stolen bases.

“It’s my mentality to get on base and create havoc,” he said. “I’ve identified that as my role in the leadoff spot.”

2. Speed: The Dragons have taken advantage of the new pitching rule and lead the division with 60 stolen bases. Hurtubise leads the team and is followed by Quin Cotton with nine and Michael Siani with eight.

Pitchers now must step completely behind the rubber before attempting a pickoff move. This change has made it more difficult to hold runners close and pick them off and allowed runners to get a better jump.

“Our team does a good job getting on base and we have a lot of fast guys,” Quincy McAfee said. “So even though we’re not seeing the home runs, you’re seeing a lot of stolen bases, a lot of pressure on the defense. And on top of that most of our innings we have guys on second and third.”

Manager Jose Moreno gives his team the green light to steal. He wants them to learn when is a good to time attempt a steal and when isn’t based on the count and the overall game situation. Hurtubise has taken advantage of being the fastest man on the team.

“Anytime we have him on the basepaths, we have something, we’re creating opportunities,” Moreno said. “Sometimes you have to win games when you don’t hit. He puts pressure on, and they know he’s going to run. He’s been taking real good jumps to second and third base, and he’s always in scoring position.”

3. Always a hot hitter(s): First, it was Rey. Now it’s Francisco Urbaez and McAfee. Urbaez is hitting .317 over his last 18 games with two homers, raising his average from .200 to .295. McAfee, who has been batting second, was leading the minors in RBIs and doubles for most of June. He has 18 RBIs and eight doubles this month in 14 games.

“Just being a little bit more prepared to hit when I have those situations,” McAfee said. “Anytime Hurtubise is up I’m expecting him to get a hit. I’m just trying to get it to the next guy, and it just so happens this month that I’ve been able to get those big hits.”

First baseman Alex McGarry is batting over .300 in his last nine games with a grand slam. Shortstop Miguel Hernandez has an eight-game hitting streak and was 4-for-7 over the weekend.

TUESDAY’S GAME

Fort Wayne at Dayton, 7:05 p.m., 980