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July 05. 2014 7:25PM

NH Fisher Cats are turning it around as All-Star game approaches

THE New Hampshire Fisher Cats have a whole bunch of games ahead leading into the Eastern League All-Star game in Altoona on July 16.

It's the type of schedule that can tax a pitching staff and stress a baseball manager.

Fisher Cats manager Bobby Meacham prefers to look at the days ahead as less grind and more opportunity.

"There are a couple of doubleheaders and at least those are seven inning games and not nine," he said. "Our pitchers have been pitching well. Our starters have been going deep into games. The bullpen has been outstanding. The number of walks are down and so the pitch counts are down and the guys can go longer. I think the schedule benefits us.

It's a tough stretch, but it's a stretch that will let us measure exactly where we are and see whether we can make a run at the end."

The Fisher Cats have turned things around nicely from a miserable May and are closer to having a .500 record than at any point in almost two months.

They were 39-45 going into Saturday night's game against Trenton at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium.

The Thunder and Fisher Cats close out their series today at 1:35.

Then New Hampshire swings into a pair of five-game series for a total of 10 games in eight days.

New Britain kicks things off with a pair of games at Northeast Delta Dental on Monday starting at 6:05 p.m. The Fisher Cats and Rock Cats play on Tuesday night at 7:05, battle on Wednesday at 12:05 in the first Camp/Splash Day of the summer in conjunction with Whale's Tale Waterpark in Lincoln and then close out the series on Thursday night.

The Fisher Cats play five games against the Sea Dogs in Portland between Friday and Monday. The doubleheader is Saturday, starting at 2 p.m.

After a two-day All-Star break, the Sea Dogs visit Northeast Delta Dental Stadium for the second time this season for four games from July 17-20.

The Fisher Cats had won eight of their last nine games going into Saturday night's game.

They were off to a 2-0 start in July before having games against Reading on Thursday and Trenton on Friday rained out.

The early July results backed up the 17-10 month of June posted by the Fisher Cats. They were 9-23 in May.

The pitching staff led the Eastern League with a team earned run average of 2.84 in June. It was lowest staff ERA for a month since April of 2009.

The hitting has been coming around, too.

Earlier in the season, the Fisher Cats were struggling with a team batting average of .220. They still are last in the league in average, but have boosted the number to .240.

"We've been swinging the bats much better," Meacham said.

Part of that is buying into an aggressive approach at the plate espoused by Meacham and hitting coach Jon Nunnally.

"Jon and I talk about it all the time," Meacham said. "Who's going to walk someone who's not swinging the bat?"

The offense has been getting contributions from players such as Cory Aldridge, 35, and a veteran outfielder recently signed by the Blue Jays out of the Mexican League, first baseman Mike McDade, shortstop Kevin Nolan of Nashua and outfielder Matt Newman.

Aldridge had six hits in his first 16 at-bats with the Fisher Cats,

McDade went into Saturday night's game 9-for-27 in his last seven and Nolan 11-for-25 in his last eight. Newman had an eight-game hitting streak in late June.

Jeff Locke, the left-handed starting pitcher out of Kennett High School in Conway, has helped the Pittsburgh Pirates rebound from a rough beginning to the season and gets a high-profile start this afternoon.

He goes up against the Philadelphia Phillies and A.J. Burnett in Pittsburgh. Burnett played with the Pirates the last two seasons and was a buddy and mentor of sorts to Locke.

Locke had one spot start early in the season for the Pirates and has been impressive since being recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis in early June.

He made the National League All-Star team with an 8-2 record and 2.15 earned run average at the break last year. But he didn't get to pitch in the game after hurting his back while lifting weights shortly before it. The injury limited his preparation between starts and he had some struggles in the second half.

Locke takes a 1-1 record and a 3.46 earned run average into today's game. In four of his six starts, he has gone through seven innings.

In 41 and two-thirds innings, he has 26 strikeouts and only five walks.

"I'm just throwing strikes," Locke told reporters after a recent outing. "That's all you can attribute it to. One change I've tried to make is to try to get ahead more in the count. You don't have to nibble so much. Put them behind, challenge them a little more and keep the ball on the ground."

Improved command is one factor that has allowed him to pitch deeper into games.

"One of the things that feels really good is I made 30 starts last season, (but) I didn't go out for the eighth once, regardless of how well things were going," Locke said.

He has completed eight innings twice this season and gone into the eighth another time.

The Keene Swamp Bats and Laconia Muskrats were rained out of their New England Collegiate Baseball League game in Laconia on the 4th of July and will make it up as part of a doubleheader in Laconia on July 29.

The Muskrats play a home game against Newport tonight at 6:30 and face Vermont at home on Monday night at 6:30.

Keene is off today and Monday and plays at Vermont on Tuesday. The Swamp Bats are at home against Newport on Wednesday and against Plymouth on Thursday.

The home games start at 6:30.

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