July 31, 2014

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Crushers first-half review: Early hole, steep climb

AVON — The Lake Erie Crushers entered 2011 with high hopes, but had a rough first half.

Just two seasons removed from a Frontier League championship in their inaugural season, the Crushers began 2011 with just one player returning from that team — third baseman Andrew Davis. That number has increased to three, but the heavy roster turnover was evident as the team stumbled.

Following a 5-5 May, the Crushers began June 2-12, capped by a franchise-record seven-game losing streak.

From the time the skid was snapped June 16, the Crushers went 9-5 to end the month and 14-9 through the All-Star break.

Included in that stretch was a five-game winning streak, which helped Lake Erie rebound from 7-17 to 21-26. It is six games out of first place in the East Division, which means there’s still work to do if the Crushers aim to get back to the playoffs following a one-season absence.

First-half MVP

Nick Mahin, utility

Mahin came to the Crushers from the independent United League and quickly made his presence felt as a designated hitter and first baseman. When injuries and suspensions led to a lack of bodies in the outfield, Mahin volunteered to move to the outfield. He led the Crushers in average for most of the season, getting up to .340. He has slumped to .310, but is one of only two players on the team with an average over .300.

Top pitcher

Kelyn Schellenberg

At one point, Schellenberg was asked by his college coach to take a second redshirt season, which would have essentially ended his career before it even began. However, he began tinkering with the submarine-style delivery, and it worked. Following a stellar career at Fresno Pacific, Schellenberg signed with the Crushers, and immediately established himself as one of the team’s top relievers. He was the only Crusher pitcher to achieve All-Star honors, going 1-0 with a save and a team-best 0.61 ERA.

What went right

Mazz’s steady hand

As the losses mounted through June, and the Crushers made stupid mistakes time and again, veteran manager John Massarelli never panicked. He never publicly ripped his team, either, falling back on the mantra that the team he assembled had proven track records and would eventually turn it around.

As the Crushers did just that in the latter half of June and into July, Mazz once again showed why he’s one of the best managers in the Frontier League.

Risser’s move to the pen

Travis Risser was one of the Crushers’ best starting pitchers in 2010 and one of only two starters to return this season. However, he got off to a rough start in 2011. Massarelli decided to move him to the backend of the bullpen, and it paid off. Carrying an ERA above 7.00 as a starter, he has lowered it to 4.17 with 10 appearances out of the pen, adding a win and three saves.

Signing Schellenberg

Where does Massarelli keep finding these sidearming relievers who immediatley dominate? Last season it was Jeff Cinadr who came out of nowhere to earn an All-Star berth and almost win the league’s ERA crown as a setup man. This season, it is rookie Kelyn Schellenberg.

Signed out of NAIA Fresno Pacific, he pitched his way onto the All-Star team with a team-best 0.61 ERA, allowing two earned runs and one walk in 292⁄3 innings in 23 appearances. His task to keep the Crushers in the lead for closer Ruben Flores has been a job well done.

Return of Collins

Catcher Joel Collins was released by the Crushers on the last day of the 2010 regular season so he could sign with the extended-season Atlantic League, in which he helped the York (Pa.) Revolution win the championship.

To Massarelli’s surprise, Collins reached out to him, asking to come back. Collins has been a veteran stabilizer behind the plate, helping the pitching staff put together a 4.30 ERA. At the plate, he has raised his average from .257 last season to a team-best .311 this year and was a first-time Frontier League All-Star.

Moving ’em out

Many expected that, with the new roster configurations, the major leagues would be scouting the Frontier League more than usual and, after two years, the Crushers would finally get some players picked up to play affiliated ball. That’s happened twice this season, as relievers Andrew Berger (Giants) and Matt Rein (Cardinals) were plucked away and are in the low minor leagues.

In Rein’s case, his contract was purchased outright by the Cardinals, even though he never got into a game with Lake Erie. The goal of this league is to advance players to the major leagues, so getting two Crushers back into affiliated ball is nothing to brush aside.

Old favorites return

Fans of the 2009 championship season were happy to hear the Crushers reacquired former Frontier League Pitcher of the Year Paul Fagan from Windy City just three games into the season.

They were also happy when shortstop Jodam Rivera rejoined the team after missing the first 30 games due to problems leaving his native Puerto Rico. Fagan rebounded from an 0-4 start to go 3-6 with a 4.31 ERA in the first half, helping shore up a rotation in flux. Rivera homered in his first game back, and the team has gone 10-7 since he returned.

What went wrong

Mother nature

The cold and wet May wreaked havoc as the Crushers tried to hold spring training. Most of their practices were limited to indoor throwing and the indoor batting cage. In fact, two of their four preseason games were rained out. As a result, the team wasn’t able to develop chemistry on the field, or get in a true dress rehearsal, which may have contributed to its dismal start.

Chase Fontaine

Fontaine’s acquisition came with a lot of attention. The Crushers had never added a player drafted by Major League Baseball higher than the fourth round, but Fontaine was a former second-round selection by the Atlanta Braves.

Instead of rising up and accepting a leadership role with the Crushers, Fontaine, according to reports, clearly did not want to be on the team, and his play suffered as a result. After hitting a dismal .188 with six errors at second base in five games, Fontaine was released before he ever played in a home game.

The Cinadr collapse

He came into 2011 pegged as one of the “core” members of the pitching staff, along with Risser, returning ace Josh Roberts and newly acquired veteran closer Flores. However, the Cinadr of 2011 was clearly not the same as the Cinadr of 2010. In seven appearances, he had a 12.27 ERA, walking seven and striking out six in 7 1⁄3 innings. He was released and signed with division rival Traverse City, where he has an ERA of 5.63 in eight innings.

Slumping Davis

Being the only Crushers to play in every game of the team’s three-year existence, Davis is easily the most recognizable member of the team. However, he got off to a slow start with his bat, which mirrored his team’s performance.

Davis, who has batted around .300 the last two seasons, slumped below .230. However, as the team heated up in late June, so did Davis. His average is up to .292 with a team-high six home runs and 36 RBIs. He may not have deserved his All-Star Game start at the time it was announced, but his improving stats show it was warranted.

Baserunning blunders

It seemed like the Crushers were due for at least one baserunning brain cramp in each game.

Countless rundowns, pickoffs, caught-stealings and runners doubled off on flyballs littered the landscape. As the baserunning issues lessened, the wins began to outnumber the losses.

Power outage

The Crushers, for the second straight year, are struggling to hit the ball out of the park with any consistency. Through the All-Star break, they have only 17 home runs, and Davis’ six homers lead the way.

The lack of a true power hitter is jarring. They haven’t had that guy since Gordie Gronkowski in 2009 and, during the All-Star break, the Crushers dealt the rights to Gronkowski to Southern Illinois.

Visa/travel troubles

Rivera’s travel issues from Puerto Rico cost him 30 games. Projected starting pitcher Eric Gonzalez-Diaz hasn’t even suited up for the Crushers yet, as visa issues have kept the hurler in Spain. The team has worked hard with the government to get this straightened out, and is confident he will join the team in the second half. His addition should only bolster the rotation.

Off-field problems

It seems that every year the Crushers have one player they have to dismiss because of off-field issues. In 2009, it was captain Luke Hetherington. In 2010, it was opening-day starter Cardoza Tucker. This season, it was outfielder Scott Houin.

Houin was suspended indefinitely by the team in late June for a “violation of team rules.” Houin, who missed all of 2010 with a shoulder injury, was hitting .286 with two home runs and 16 RBIs.

Second-half prediction

The Crushers are starting to play like many expected them to when the team was assembled. However, that 2-12 start to June may have dug too big a hole.

They should finish over .500 for the third straight season, but it will take more than just good play for them to reach the playoffs. And that seems like too much to ask.

Tonight

  • Who: Lake Erie Crushers at Washington Wild Things
  • Time: 7:05
  • Where: Consol Energy Park, Washington, Pa.

Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or dangilles73@gmail.com. Log on to www.chroniclet.com/freebees for a weekly chance to win free Crushers tickets.