August 21, 2014

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Crushers have their usual first half … slow start and late surge

AVON — The more things changed, the more they stayed the same for the Lake Erie Crushers in the first half of the 2013 season.

Gone are longtime manager John Massarelli, hitting coach Dave Schaub, pitching coach Chris Steinborn, general manager Dan Helm and 70 percent of last season’s roster.

First-year manager Jeff Isom and pitching coach Chris Mongiardo didn’t waste time putting their imprint on the franchise. However, as the team had done the last two seasons under Massarelli, the Crushers got off to yet another slow start.

The team was 6-7 after May, 6-11 on June 5 and 10-16 on June 15 before turning it around. The Crushers ended June at 17-21 before going on a 9-4 run to finish at 26-25 at the All-Star break.

The Crushers reached the .500 mark four times during the first half and were within a game of it five other times, but never got over the hump until last Friday. A doubleheader sweep of the Frontier Greys finally did the trick.

While the Crushers are a game off their pace from last season, this year’s team is actually in better position to make the postseason for the third time in their five-year history. The Crushers are in fifth place in the seven-team East Division, but are only five games behind division-leading Traverse City (31-20) and just three games behind the Southern Illinois Miners (29-22) for the fourth and final wild-card spot.

Here’s a look at some of the highlights and lowlights from a rollercoaster first half for the Crushers:

First-half MVP

Andrew Davis — At 29 years old, Davis is one of the oldest players in the Frontier League and is three years older than anyone else on the roster (closer Dale Dickerson is 26). As he’s done in his four previous years with the Crushers, Davis continues to produce offensively and defensively while providing solid leadership in the clubhouse.

His 12 home runs lead the Frontier League and are just three off his previous season-high of 15 set in 2009. He’s on pace to break Gordon Gronkowski’s franchise record of 19 set in 2009.

He leads the team — as he has the past three seasons — with 34 RBIs, and has only committed three errors while turning 11 double plays, although Isom has been using him at DH more to help keep him fresh for the second half.

Honorable mentions: Starting pitchers Matt Rein and Dave Middendorf, reliever Mickey Jannis and outfielder Daniel Bowman. Davis, Rein, Middendorf and Bowman were four of the team’s franchise-best six All-Stars, joining second baseman Max Casper and catcher Emmanuel Quiles.

Best starting pitcher

Rein — The pitcher had a brief cup of coffee with the Crushers in 2011, making history as the club’s first player to have his contract purchased by an affiliated team. Two seasons later, Rein is back in Avon and showing why he earned that distinction.

Rein already has a one-hitter and two-hitter — both thrown at home — under his belt in the first half, which has highlighted a 5-4 season. His 1.92 ERA in 70 innings puts him third in the league and his 52 strikeouts are tied for the team lead.

Honorable mention: Middendorf (7-4, 2.75 ERA).

Best relief pitcher

Jannis — The closer usually gets this honor, as Ruben Flores (2011) and Jonathan Kountis (2012) were the top bullpen performers the past two seasons.

Jannis is a middle reliever and has provided a boost since his return in June. His 0.84 ERA in 32 innings leads the team, and he’s gone 4-0 with one save in 10 appearances (one start).

Isom plans to move Jannis to the rotation in the second half.

Honorable mentions: Dickerson (3.47 ERA, nine saves) and Jordan Wellander (1-2, 2.80 ERA).

History made

Massarelli tried to sign several Lorain County natives during the last four years, but those players rejected his offers and signed elsewhere.

Twice within the last month, Isom ended the drought, signing Keystone grad Kyle Shaw and Vermilion grad Adam Beach — both pitchers — to help his depleted staff. Shaw was the first, but was cut after just one start on the road. Beach (1-0, 3.47 ERA) became the first to start at home, combining with three relievers on a two-hitter Friday in the win that put the Crushers over .500.

Isom did not rule out re-signing Shaw at some point.

Biggest surprise

The release of Longfellow — Last season, Trevor “Deeds” Longfellow became the Crushers’ jack-of-all-trades pitcher, going back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen.

Longfellow led the team in wins — 11-2 — with a 3.35 ERA, and Isom was so impressed with Longfellow that he immediately tapped him to be his Opening Day starter.

However, Longfellow struggled to a 2-2 record with a 6.95 ERA in five appearances (four starts) and was released. Longfellow has since caught on with the Fort Worth Cats of United League Baseball.

Honorable mentions: The release of catcher Brian Erie on the eve of the regular season, Max Casper’s emergence as the everyday second baseman and the return of relief pitcher Ben Klafczynski.

Biggest disappointment

The fall of Matt Suschak — Isom singled out reliever Matt Suschak, a Broadview Heights native, as one of the bright spots of his first training camp. Isom loved the way he had been throwing and envisioned him as one of the contenders to fill the role of the team’s closer.

Instead, Suschak’s career with the Crushers ended almost as quickly as it began, with one of the worst performances in team history. Facing just five batters, Suschak gave up two hits, an earned run, walked one and uncorked four wild pitches while recording just one out. He finished with a 27.00 ERA in one-third of an inning, and was released a day later.

More was expected out of the former seventh-round choice of the Atlanta Braves, and his demise did not help a bullpen that struggled through the first few weeks of the season.

Honorable mentions: Alex Kaminsky’s 4-4, 4.09 ERA performance during the first half, Matt Smith’s flameout as the closer and struggles since moving to the rotation and Gauntlett Eldemire’s continued struggles with injuries.

Top moment

Rein’s one-hitter — The Crushers had just picked up back-to-back 4-3 wins over the visiting Normal CornBelters and were seeking their first sweep of the season June 20. Rein got all the run support he needed when Russell Moldenhauer hit a two-run home run in the first inning, and the left-hander cruised from there.

Santiago Chrino’s one-out single in the sixth, which snapped a run of 16 straight hitters retired, turned out to be the only hit Rein allowed. He struck out a season-high 11 and walked only one in the Crushers’ 5-0 win.

The win was the fourth in a five-game win streak that may have served as the turning point of the season — improving the Crushers from 10-16 to 15-16.

Second-half prediction

The Crushers have saved their playoff appearances for odd-numbered years, qualifying as a wild card in 2009 and ’11. They won the Frontier League championship in their inaugural season, and were swept by eventual champion Joliet in 2011.

Going into the All-Star break with a winning record and on a 16-9 run since June 16 should provide momentum and confidence for the second half. The team has stayed true with its slow start, so why shouldn’t anyone expect the historic second-half surge the Crushers have patented in their four previous seasons?

The starting rotation has solidified, the offense is producing, the bullpen has sorted itself out and the defense is performing very well.

I’ve predicted playoffs every year at the break, and I’ve been right half the time. Why deviate from another tradition? I expect them to continue their hot streak through July, August and into September with another second-half surge for the ages.

Tonight

  • WHO: Lake Erie Crushers vs. Gateway Grizzlies
  • TIME: 7:05
  • WHERE: GCS Ballpark, Sauget, Ill.

Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or dangilles73@gmail.com.