AVON — Instead of leading his team to a playoff series at Traverse City, Lake Erie Crushers manager John Massarelli was back to instructing players at his Canton-area baseball school.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying. The Crushers went into the last day of the regular season still alive for their third Frontier League playoff berth in their four-year existence.
However, a myriad of factors played a role in Lake Erie ending up on the outside looking in for the postseason.
A 7-14 start, augmented by a 1-11 record at All Pro Freight Stadium, is one reason. The team rebounded to post a 53-49 record — their best since going 57-38 in 2009 — and 27-24 at home. Still, the 24 losses at The Freight were a franchise high.
A 3-5 finish against clubs that either qualified for the playoffs or were in contention also hurt.
Veteran third baseman/shortstop Andrew Davis, who is the only member of the club to play all four years, believes the Crushers could have been a force in the playoffs had they got there.
“Our team was way better than we showed, especially at the end,” said Davis, who led the Crushers with 14 home runs and 67 RBIs while batting .277. “We had a chance at the end, and throughout the season, that’s really the goal — to have a chance at the end of the season. We were right there and we kind of fell short of it.
“I wouldn’t specifically pin it on one thing. Baseball’s a team sport, and it takes everyone on our team to win a championship. I can’t single out one thing that would have kept us from doing that. Baseball’s baseball and it’s not really a very predictable sport. Anything can happen at any time.”
Massarelli believes this year’s Crushers team was one of the most talented and deepest he’s ever put together.
“Overall, I was very happy,” he said. “We had a strong club. We had speed, power, extra-base power, a lot of ways to score runs and good arms on our staff. Do I think we could have hit better? Yeah, but we hit good enough to win the majority of our games.”
Massarelli looked a little deeper at his roster when analyzing why his ballclub was shut out of the postseason.
“You look at the records of the starting pitchers for the four teams in the playoffs and compare them to ours, ours were a lot worse,” Massarelli said. “We lost a lot of games before the fifth inning this year. A lot of them, we were down by five or six. When you give up big innings early, that hurts.
“Did we blow a couple of games in the late innings? Yeah. But the pattern of being out of games early, especially down the stretch, was disturbing.”
Massarelli pointed to the team’s final regular-season game — a 6-2 loss at Southern Illinois that clinched a playoff berth for the Miners – to illustrate his point. The Crushers needed to win to set up an all-or-nothing game on Labor Day that could have determined the fate of Windy City and expansion Schaumburg as well.
Instead, a six-run fourth sank the Crushers.
“Our last game at Southern was the perfect example of that,” he said. “We gave up a six-spot and that’s all they score, and it happened in six batters. We were we inconsistent in a lot of areas, sure, but so were a lot of teams in this league. Overall, we did a lot of good things. I think it was the strongest club we had in our four years, but we just didn’t get it done.”
The five pitchers the Crushers used as starters during the final month of the season — Paul Fagan (7-9), Eric Gonzalez-Diaz (7-10), Pat Arnold (0-0 in 10 starts), Matt Smith (1-0, but no wins in three starts) and Josh Hungerman (0-1 in four starts) — were a combined 15-20.
Trevor “Deeds” Longfellow led the Crushers with an 11-2 record. One problem: He’s a middle reliever.
“It was a great year for Trevor,” Massarelli said. “I can’t talk enough about what he meant to this club. But that also points to the weakness of our club. When a middle reliever leads the team in wins, that shows how weak the starters were.
“He did a great job coming into that role. He was effective as a starter, but he’d be at 100 pitches at five innings all the time. I could throw him three innings and give him a day off and let him go two or three again, and that way I could use him a lot more. I could give him seven or eight innings in five days instead of five innings every five days, and it maximized his value to us.”
Longfellow’s 11 wins were tied for second most in the Frontier League behind Gateway’s Tim Brown, who went 12-2 with a 2.28 ERA.
A winning tradition
The 53 wins gave the Crushers four years of 50 wins or more and was the third time in the four years that they were involved in a playoff race going into the regular season’s final week.
The Crushers didn’t clinch a playoff berth in 2009 until the second-to-last day of the regular season, while the 2011 team punched their ticket on the season’s final day.
“Baseball is one of those sports where if you win at the right time, that’s how you get it done,” Davis said. “We got off to slow start at home, which could have made big difference. But you’ve got to win at the end. I’d rather be winning going into the playoffs than clinch early and be lackadaisical.
“I never thought we were down very often, but I never felt we were up, either. At the end, we won a lot, but not as much as we needed to.”
Lost in the shuffle was the 200th win as a franchise — and for Massarelli as the Crushers’ manager — which came Wednesday, Aug. 8, in a 6-4 win at Gateway. The Crushers are 211-170 (.553) as a franchise.
“It’s just hard to believe that Florence hadn’t been to the playoffs in their 10 years in this league before this year,” Massarelli said. “What we’ve accomplished in four years, it’s a true success story from top to bottom. I don’t take it lightly or for granted what this organization has accomplished.
“Do we want to win four championships in four years? Of course, but collectively, I would think we’re in the top three in wins for franchises over the last four years.”
Davis, who is planning on returning to the Crushers next season, said Massarelli is a big reason for the franchise’s sustained success.
“I’ve learned more about hitting and baseball from Mazz … than I probably learned in my life,” Davis said. “That’s made a huge impact on me. To be around Mazz and the whole staff has made me more experienced and I understand a lot more about baseball than I did than I was younger.
“Mazz brings lot of experience and knowledge to the table. I learned so much from him over last four years — way more than I learned in my two years with the (San Francisco) Giants.”
Closer Jonathan Kountis was a clear standout for the Crushers and, in fact, was named the Frontier League’s Reliever of the Year after going 6-2 with 18 saves and a 1.06 ERA.
“That’s a priority for (pitching coach Chris Steinborn) and I,” Massarelli said. “We build from the back up every year. We try to find pitchers who are starters and guys that we can develop a role. Fortunately, every year, we find a guy that steps up.
“This year, ‘Yanni’ filled that role. His only glitch was at Windy City during the last week of the season. He was a dominant reliever the entire season and that’s why he was voted the best in the league.”
Kountis, an Akron native, was third in the Frontier League in saves, but his 1.06 ERA led all closers.
Ben Klafczynski, who spent his Kent State career and his first professional year as an outfielder before converting to pitching this year, was Massarelli’s most pleasant surprise of the season.
The Medina Highland grad and former Chicago Cubs prospect went 4-1 with a save and a 2.22 ERA. His ERA was the second lowest on the team. He even singled in his lone at-bat.
“He’s a guy that broke camp with us and we rushed him a little bit,” Massarelli said. “He struggled during the first couple of weeks and got into a little rut. That pushed him into a secondary role, where he was our 10th or 11th guy on our staff, for about a month.
“He took it positively and worked his butt off and put himself in a situation where he was a go-to guy in the back end of our bullpen down the stretch. I look forward to having him back next year.”
Tough decisions ahead
Massarelli has already started to look at ways to improve the roster. Experienced players such as Fagan, outfielder Kellen Kulbacki and relief pitcher Travis Risser will go over the age limit next season and won’t be back. And many of the “Rookie-2” players will be considered “experienced” players.
“Of our rookies, (Aaron) Klinec, (Brad) Duffy and (Alex) Loftin are the only ones that stay rookies,” Massarelli said. “Guys like (Randy) Sturgill and Klaf (Klafczynski) become vets. Our vets just went from 13 to 22 overnight.
“There are going to be a lot of decisions where we can’t bring some of our vets back. However, that’s a good part of the league. It keeps it young and we bring young guys in to compete and give a chance.”
Outfielder Daniel Bowman is one of the young guys who may not be back, however. Bowman, who led the Crushers with a .312 average in just 54 games, while adding five home runs and 37 RBIs, will certainly have a spot if he returns. However, Massarelli is trying to help him sign with an affiliated team.
“Bowman is as good of a Rookie-1 hitter that I’ve seen in this league,” he said. “I’ve never had a guy coming straight out of college where I put him in the 3 hole to end the season, and I’ve never seen it happen in this league in my nine years.”
Despite the disappointing ending, Massarelli is convinced this year’s team ranks among the best teams he’s ever fielded. And Davis agrees.
“As far as all the guys are concerned, everyone worked hard,” Davis said. “We had a pretty good season, even though it didn’t end like we wanted. But that’s baseball for you. I think it has a lot to do with Mazz’s philosophy and the way we go through the season as a whole. The basic goal is to work hard every day and give ourselves a chance at the end.
“How many organizations have won a championship their first year and stayed consistent every single year after? Not many.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or email@example.com.