New affiliations might make a tougher division for Chasers

Omaha leadoff hitter Whit Merrifield enters the Storm Chasers' eight game homestand against the American Conference's top two teams with a 17-game hitting streak. Merrifield, who is batting .333, had two hits, including a two-un homer, on Sunday at Colorado Springs.

The cities in Omaha's Pacific Coast League division remain the same.

The teams the Storm Chasers are playing this year, however, are different.

The Los Angeles Dodgers purchased the Oklahoma City franchise this past offseason, setting off a chain reaction of affiliation changes throughout the 16-team league. In all, six PCL squads changed locales.

Two of them are in Omaha's division, the American North. In addition to OKC becoming the Class AAA franchise of the Dodgers, Colorado Springs turned into the top minor league affiliate of Milwaukee.

The Chasers played their first divisional games this past week, dropping three of four in Oklahoma City before splitting four at Colorado Springs. They start an eight-game home stand against the two early season division leaders in the American Conference, Round Rock and OKC, at Werner Park on Monday.

"We haven't seen (Round Rock) yet. But the Dodgers have good arms," Omaha manager Brian Poldberg said. "I think they're the No. 1 pitching (staff) in the league. We had a chance

PCL: ROUND ROCK AT OMAHA

6:35 p.m. Monday • Werner Park • 1180 AM KZOT

Probable starters: RH Chi Chi Gonzalez (1-3, 4.43 ERA) vs. Omaha RH Christian Binford (0-3, 5.09) to win the first two (in Oklahoma City), and we gave both of them away late. Definitely very competitive."

The affiliation changes could make the path to the PCL playoffs tougher for the Chasers, who are trying to become the first team in history to win three straight Class AAA national championships. The Dodgers and Brewers franchises are now in their division instead of the Astros and Rockies. Omaha played the recent affiliate of Los Angeles, Albuquerque, only four times last season. They'll meet 16 times in 2015.

Poldberg said that could make a difference.

"It could a little bit. But you've still got to go out and play everybody, and you've still got to win," he said. "They're going to be just like us, moving guys in and moving them out. You've got to beat the teams you're supposed to. And when you play within your division, you hope to be at least .500, if not higher."

Before picking up a game on the Dodgers on Sunday, the Chasers were 6 1/2 games behind Oklahoma City. They hadn't been that far out of first place in two seasons. Omaha is 5 1/2 back entering this homestand.

Leadoff hitter Whit Merrifield returns with a career-best 17-game hitting streak. He's hitting .333 through the first 23 games this season after leading the Chasers with a .340 batting average last year.

Merrifield had two hits, including a two-run homer, at Colorado Springs on Sunday.

"Whit's got a plan," Poldberg said. "He knows what he can do, and he stays within himself. Even if he's struggling swinging, he can bunt for a hit. He has so many different ways to beat you. As long as he doesn't get too excited and try to do too much, he's going to be fine."

Also, rehabbing Kansas City pitcher Luke Hochevar is expected to make two more appearances with Omaha this week, most likely on Tuesday and Thursday. Poldberg said last week that the right-hander is rounding back into form after missing all of 2014 after Tommy John surgery last March.

"I think he's definitely making progress," Poldberg said. "I see more consistent quality of his pitches. He's getting his feel for his breaking stuff, being able to throw them for strikes, and commanding his fastball a little bit more. Each outing I think he's getting a little more comfortable.

"You just need to get past that point where you're afraid to let it go because you think there's something going to happen. And, right now, he's been doing that. His velocity is pretty good. It's not what it was. But I think he's moving along as planned."

Hochevar's most recent outing, a start against the Sky Sox last Friday, was rocky. He allowed seven runs on seven hits and walked a batter in recording only five outs in Colorado Springs.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1027, tony.boone@owh.com, twitter.com/BooneOWH

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