In the game of professional baseball, the road can be a cruel place.

Just ask the Coastal Bend Thunder. When they left Robstown for an 11-game road trip, they were comfortably in second place in the United Baseball League. Some two weeks and eight losses later, the Thunder are in fifth place.

Again, the road can be a cruel place.

"It was tough on us," Coastal Bend general manager C.J Bauer said. "We were in second when we left, and now were finally back and we're in fifth."

The Thunder's slide can be blamed on the team losing eight of their its 11 road games in series against San Angelo, Edinburg and Laredo.

However, professional baseball is also a game of hope and new beginnings. That's why Bauer said and and the 16 homes games the team will play in Fairgrounds Field are so important to the club's postseason chances.

The team's August schedule began Tuesday night with a home game against the Rio Grande Valley White Wings. Bauer said the Thunder must win this series and as many games as possible after that to lock up the league's final playoff spot.

"This homestand is going to be crucial for us making the playoffs," Bauer said. "(Rio Grande Valley) is someone who we think we could be battling against at the end of the season for that last playoff spot. Hopefully, we can just win a bunch of games and take that second or third spot, but as it looks right now, we're going to need to take care of the White Wings."

The good news is with the help of recently acquired outfielder Alex Fernandez. The one-time big league prospect has given the Thunder an immediate offensive boost. In the two games he played with Coastal Bend before Tuesday, he went 3-for-8 with four RBIs.

"Every team in the league wanted him," Bauer said. "He's a high-profile player, and just a heck of a hitter. He has six years of Triple-A experience and that's a big deal."

Fernandez is also expected to be a fan favorite. He was originally signed out of the Dominican by the Mariners in 1998 and was taken by the White Sox in the Triple-A Rule 5 draft at the 2001 Winter Meetings. After a mediocre Double-A season in 2000, he returned to Birmingham with a vengeance. H

e hit .292-7-52 with 20 steals in 87 games with the Barons, and won the home run derby and MVP award at the Southern League all-star game. He has played five AAA seasons in his 10-year minor league career. He has a career batting average of 279 with 71 home runs and 471 RBI. Besides playing with Seattle & Chicago he's also spent time with San Diego and Cincinnati organizations.

As a team, the Thunder was in a hitting slump over the last two weeks, but it is something the team appears to have overcome. Third baseman Leivi Ventura is batting .307 for the season and shortstop Amado Zazueta is batting .307. Alfred Joseph is batting .288.

Pitching has been the team's strength through the entire season. Former Corpus Christi Ray star Toro Trevino leads the team with a 5-3 record and 3.09 ERA in 59.2 innings.

"Our pitching has been awesome," Bauer said. "They've been doing their part. They've been a powerhouse, just fabulous.

"If we can just hit the ball, I think we could win this thing," Bauer said.