With an eighth-inning single on Tuesday night, July 7, the Mariners' Jamie McOwen established a minor league hitting streak standard that no player has surpassed in more than half a century. The high Class A High Desert outfielder collected at least one hit in 44 consecutive California League games, a run that began on May 10.
A 2-for-4 effort on Wednesday night, July 8, kept McOwen's streak intact at 45 games, while also padding his advantage on Brandon Watson, who two years ago hit in 43 straight International League games while with Columbus. (These days, the 27-year-old Watson plays for Triple-A Reno in the Diamondbacks system.)
McOwen's streak is the minors' longest since Roman Mejias hit in 55 straight games in 1954. That season, the 23-year-old Cuban hit .354 for Waco of the Big State League. The BSL at the time was classified as one of seven "B" leagues -- a level less advanced than the Triple-A, Double-A and A-ball classifications we know today.
During the 45-game streak, McOwen has batted .398/.440/.536, going 72 for 181 with six doubles, five triples, three home runs and 34 RBIs. He has drawn 13 walks, struck out 24 times and scored 28 runs.
As if scripted, the lefty-swinging McOwen's streak-extending hit on Tuesday night did not come until his final at-bat of the game. Facing San Jose ethane Scott Barnes, a Giants' eighth-round pick last year from St. John's, McOwen went hitless in his first three at-bats. He popped out in the first inning and struck out in the third and fifth.
"For the first couple of at-bats, I faced a funky left-hander who was coming from the side," McOwen said Wednesday in a phone interview. "Plus, they have a different batter's eye in San Jose -- actually they don't have one at all, so it was tough to pick him up.
"Early on, I wasn't swinging because I couldn't see him like I wanted to. I struck out swinging in my second at-bat, then struck out looking in my third. In my last at-bat, I was facing a righty [David Mixon], so now I can see the ball better. I'm thinking, 'If he puts a fastball over the plate with the first pitch, I'm going to swing at it because I don't want to get in an offspeed count.'
"He threw a first-pitch fastball on the outer half of the plate and I hit it in the five-six hole, a broken-bat single. I really wanted to make sure I took good hacks in my last at-bat."
McOwen made things easier on himself on Wednesday night by singling in his first at-bat, against San Jose right-hander Oliver Odle. He also struck out twice in the game, just as he had the night before. The Mavericks conclude their road series with the Giants on Thursday night before heading to Modesto for a four-game set. After that, High Desert hosts Lancaster for four games and then visits Rancho Cucamonga for three.
If he can keep his streak intact, McOwen will undoubtedly look forward to those final two destinations. He's hitting .376/.428/.548 in 157 home at-bats this season -- and during the steak he has gone 43 for 105 (.410) at High Desert's Starner Bros. Stadium, a notorious hitter's haven with its friendly wind gusts and a hard, sun-baked infield surface. But McOwen also lists Rancho as his favorite road destination.
"I like our park, of course," he said. "But I can see the ball well at Rancho because the background is nice. But they have a few tough pitchers, so while it's a nice place to hit, it's not a good pitching staff to hit."
McOwen, 23, blew past the Cal League hit streak record on June 28 when he hit in his 36th straight game. Modesto's Brent Gates (1992) and Bakersfield's Chris Davis (2007) previously shared the record. McOwen had learned of his hitting streak about three weeks earlier, when a local reporter informed him that he had hits in 14 straight games.
"I got a hit in my last at-bat to extend the streak to 18, and from there it just kept going," he said.
Media attention has focused on McOwen as he approached and then surpassed Watson's hit streak. Mostly, they're curious as to what changes the young outfielder has made this season, his second with High Desert.
"Tommy Cruz, our hitting coach, suggested I widen out a bit," McOwen said. "I trusted his opinion, so I started working on my stance every day -- in the cage, just hitting a lot.
"He thought that with the wider stance, I could eliminate some extra movement, and that I couldn't stride as far or move my hands as much. I found that I was on time more with the pitcher and what he was throwing. It was a lot easier to find timing with the pitcher.
"I find that now I don't get fooled as much, and that I can put a good swing on the pitch. Now, I have time to see it, and if I don't like it, I can let it go for a ball."
The numbers bear this out. While scouts, and the Mariners, too, have lauded McOwen for his hitting ability and line-drive stroke, he struggled last season to make enough contact for that ability to manifest. But this year, he's making contact in nearly 86 percent of his at-bats, compared with 79 percent in 2008. His average has seen a corresponding spike, from .263 last year to a .355 mark this year through 276 at-bats.
McOwen, who has spent most of his time in right field this season, while also dabbling in center and in left, can see improvement in other areas of his game, too.
"I've definitely improved my hitting from last year to this year," he said. "But my defense also has gotten better as I've gotten more used to the wind in the Cal League. Even though I've focused on hitting during the streak, [the coaching staff] still hits me fly balls a couple times a week. I'm still chasing down fly balls in BP."
While McOwen has made a fundamental mechanical change to his stance, that hardly compares with the changes evident in the High Desert clubhouse. Last season's Mavericks slumped to a 58-82 (.414) record, ranking them dead last in the Cal League.
This time around, they lead the league in all the good stuff -- average, runs scored, home runs -- while ranking second in wins and walks. Their 51-33 (.607) turnaround marks them as one of 12 full-season minor league clubs to have won at least 60 percent of its games.
But best of all, they've won with prospects. High Desert boasts (or has boasted for much of the year) many of the Mariners' finest prospects, players such as right-handers Nathan Adcock, Phillippe Aumont, Michael Pineda and J.C. Ramirez; outfielders Tyson Gillies and Carlos Peguero and third baseman Alex Liddi. In addition to McOwen, players like first baseman Joe Dunigan, lefty Donnie Hume, right-hander Jake Wild and shortstop Juan Diaz have made significant strides, as well.
"We've been real good from day one. We won our first series and pretty much have won every series since," McOwen said. "Tommy keeps all our hitters hitting and working hard every day.
"The thing about the streak is that our offense is so tough that it wears pitchers down. So that if I have a tough time against the starter, I may take a few bad swings but the other guys will have him knocked out by the fourth inning."
So who is McOwen and why should readers care about his development?
The Mariners selected the Florida International product in the sixth round of the 2007 draft. Attuned Baseball America readers knew about him before then, however. Not only did he warrant pre-draft praise from Florida area scouts in 2007, but he also ranked sixth in a stout 2006 Valley League, in the summer before his junior year. He led the VL with 17 doubles and caught the attention of managers as a solid, heady all-around player.
And finally, in case you're wondering ... Wichita's Joe Wilhoit is recognized as the minor league hit-streak king. A 33-year-old Wilhoit hit in 69 straight Western League contests in 1919, while leading the league with a .422 average, 222 hits and 126 runs scored. The WL at the time was classified as an A-ball circuit, with clubs in cities such as Tulsa, Des Moines, Oklahoma City and Omaha.