Heading into their first home game after the All-Star Break, last Thursday versus Fayetteville, the Holly Springs Salamanders were already straining to keep their season together just seven games into the second half.
They held a 2-5 mark since records were reset on June 30, already two-and-one-half games behind the East Division-leading SwampDogs, and lost six of their eight games overall.
"I expect a lot out of these guys, I really do, so we're not where we want to be," Coach Kevin Soine said.
The most glaring issues for the Salamanders appeared fixable, throwing strikes and preventing errors.
In 269 innings, the Salamanders pitching staff had walked 147 batters and plunked 38 more, meaning more than six opposing batters reach for free per game.
The defense only compounded the issue with 55 errors and 39 unearned runs.
"[Our pitchers] have been getting a lot better at pounding the zone and our defense needs to be better behind them, especially at home," Soine said prior to Thursday's game. "We need to use the turf to our advantage."
On cue, Salamanders' pitching and defense has stepped up the past two games.
Tom Gugliomello, Holden Cook, Tyler Vogel and Kyle Davis held the SwampDogs offense to one run, Thursday, with stellar defensive nights from Jake Holtzapple (four assists), Dan Leckie and Chance Bryant, making his Ting Stadium debut behind the plate with two runners caught stealing.
On the road Friday, Parker Thode shutdown the Martinsville Mustangs with eight scoreless innings in an error-free 2-0 victory.
And, now the team is gelling. In the season's first half Salamander dugouts and bus rides were quiet scenes.
"We're fairly young and those guys that are new to [summer league] needed some time to grasp the competitiveness of the league, the seriousness of it all really," Soine said.
Recently, Soine has noticed change. Little things like an infielder striding up for a mound visit when his pitchers struggling, or building confidence of a teammate at the plate are now commonplace. Last Friday, Chris Crabtree and Will Hoyle led a team-wide movement, donning unique eye black war paint.
"Team stuff like that is what we need for the summer. The teams that are successful are the teams that care for each other and our rooting for each other," Soine said. "In the second half I am really looking for the [summer league veterans] like Crabtree, Will Hoyle, guys like that to really step up and lead these younger guys and they've been starting to do that."
With 17 games to go the Salamanders are 1.5 games back from making their first playoff run since 2015 and have three straight home games (11-6 home record this year) to help them make a push for the lead, starting tonight, June 13, at 6:30 p.m. against High Point-Thomasville.
"I think we've got one of the most talented rosters in not just the East, but the League, so we're definitely going to be making a run to get into playoff position and hopefully make a push heading into mid-August, Soine said. "As a coaching staff that's what we expect… Shoot we're here, we might as well win it all."