December 18, 2014

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Crushers at the break: Midseason report

The Lake Erie Crushers rush the infield after Kevin Franchetti hit a walk off home run against the Evansville Otters. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTOS

The Lake Erie Crushers rush the infield after Kevin Franchetti hit a walk off home run against the Evansville Otters. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTOS

For once, the Lake Erie Crushers actually got off to a strong start.

Under past managers John Massarelli and Jeff Isom, the Crushers would stumble out of the gate in May, begin to heat up in June, go into the All-Star break playing well and carry that over into a strong second half.

This year, under new manager Chris Mongiardo and hitting coach Joe Charboneau, Lake Erie began the season with a sweep for the first time in franchise history — at home — ended May with a record of 9-6, won seven of its first nine games at All Pro Freight Stadium and seemed poised to exorcise the demons of the past five seasons.

But an 11-4 loss at home on June 1 against Isom’s Joliet Slammers set the tone for a June swoon. The Crushers went 11-14 in June to suddenly fall to 20-20 and slip in the standings.

When the Crushers hit the ball, their pitching and defense seemed to fail. When the Crushers got good outings on the mound, which was more often than not, the offense tended to struggle. And the midseason stats reflect that.

The Crushers are 12th in the 14-team Frontier League with a .243 cumulative average and 18 home runs, but lead the league with a 3.24 ERA and are third with 382 strikeouts.

A 10-inning, one-run win Sunday over the Evansville Otters put the Crushers at 27-24 heading into the All-Star break. Not bad, when you consider the 2011 Crushers that reached the playoffs were just 21-26 at the break, the 2012 Crushers that came up a game shy of the postseason were 25-23 at the break and last year’s East Division champions and Frontier League runners-up were just 26-25 at the break.

The Crushers enter the second half five games behind the Washington Wild Things (32-19), whom the Crushers defeated in the season series and now hold the tiebreaker against, for the top spot in the East Division and are four games out of the final wild card spot behind Evansville (30-19). It’s a similar spot to where Lake Erie was at this time last season, and it wound up with a season for the ages.

The Crushers have gone 7-5 in July thus far and open the second half tonight with six straight home games.

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

First-half MVP

Todd Kibby pitches against the Normal CornBelters on June 10.

Todd Kibby pitches against the Normal CornBelters on June 10.

Todd Kibby — For the first time in recent memory, the Most Valuable Player award goes to a pitcher instead of a position player.

And, when the Crushers have the best ERA in the Frontier League, that choice is deserved.

Kibby has been the best pitcher on the best pitching staff in the league. The former Chicago White Sox prospect went 5-1 with a 1.73 ERA, giving up 15 runs — 11 earned — in 57 innings with 55 strikeouts and 15 walks. He leads Lake Erie starters in all categories — including starts (10), wins (tied with reliever Jason Wilson), complete games (tied with two others with one apiece) and strikeouts (tied with fellow starter Zac Treece).

Kibby has been rumored to be on the radar of a few affiliated clubs and could very well be the first Crushers player to have his contract purchased during the regular season. If that happens, it will be a huge loss for the team, but a big gain for the profile of the franchise.

Starting pitcher Zac Treece, relievers Jordan McCoy, Trevor Longfellow and Brad Duffy, catcher Emmanuel Quiles and infielder Vincent Mejia are honorable mentions. Kibby, Treece, Quiles and Mejia were four of the team’s five All-Star selections, joining shortstop Juan Sanchez.

Best hitter

Catcher Emmanuel Quiles has been one of the Crushers' most consistent hitters so far this season.

Catcher Emmanuel Quiles has been one of the Crushers’ most consistent hitters so far this season.

Emmanuel Quiles — Since the MVP went to Kibby, who gets best starting pitcher by default, it’s best to break out the hitting category. And while most of the Crushers hitters have struggled, two have really stepped up and been consistent all season — Quiles and Mejia.

Quiles beats out Mejia by virtue of his being the only Crushers batter with an average of .300 or better (at .300 exactly) and adding a team-best 29 RBIs to go with two home runs, six doubles and 13 runs scored. He’s become a two-time Frontier League All-Star after coming over with Isom from the Milwaukee Brewers organization and has emerged as one of the team leaders this season — due to his offense and his handling of the pitching staff from behind the plate.

Mejia (.282, six HRs, 20 RBIs), Ryan Hutchison (.275, three HRs, 18 RBIs) and Craig Hertler (.267, 18 RBIs, seven steals) are honorable mentions.

Best relief pitcher

Jordan McCoy — It’s odd that the Crushers bullpen has been bolstered by the guys who do the setting up and not necessarily the closer.

Mongiardo has lived and died by his bullpen this season, as several of the veteran starters (namely Mickey Jannis and Matt Rein) have struggled getting through five innings.

McCoy, who came over in an early season trade from the Joliet Slammers after one scoreless appearance, has quickly earned Mongiardo’s trust as a back-end bullpen guy, going 1-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 22 appearances. He’s struck out 22 and walked 12 in 22⅓ innings pitched, but has yet to pick up a save.

If closer Jason Wilson (five saves, 2.52 ERA) continues to struggle, McCoy could be a candidate to fill the role during the second half.

Duffy (1-1, one save, 2.13 ERA), Ryan Connelly (2-0, one save, 0.00 ERA) and Trevor Longfellow (4-2, one save, 2.05 ERA) are honorable mentions.

Biggest surprise

The struggles of pitcher Matt Rein have been one of the season's biggest surprises.

The struggles of pitcher Matt Rein have been one of the season’s biggest surprises.

Matt Rein’s struggles — Last season, Rein returned to the Lake Erie Crushers after two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals organization and showed the promise that then-manager John Massarelli thought he found in 2011, going 8-6 with a 2.37 ERA, 89 strikeouts, 34 walks and two shutouts, including a one-hitter. He also went 2-0 with a 1.35 ERA during the Crushers’ run to the FLCS.

Joining the team late due to a college coaching commitment, Rein hasn’t seemed to find the magic he had last season.

Also serving as the team’s pitching coach, Rein has been his own worst pupil, going 0-4 with a team-worst 6.63 ERA in nine appearances (eight starts). He’ll enter the second half on the disabled list, placed there Saturday to make room for recently activated Brandon Smith.

Rein has proven he can coach the pitchers, but perhaps we’ve seen the end of his playing days.

The struggles of Andrew Davis following his injury, the struggles of Jannis, the emergence of Treece as a starting pitcher and the release of Jose Rosario — despite his 1.66 ERA in five starts — are honorable mentions.

Biggest disappointment

The offense as a whole — Last season, Isom went without a hitting coach, and part of the reason was because his first choice — Charboneau — wasn’t green-lighted by ownership.

This season, Charboneau — the 1980 American League Rookie of the Year with the Indians — was brought on board with some instant credibility. However, his students haven’t exactly picked up on his teachings.

Mongiardo has struggled to find the right lineup combination this season. Only three regulars — Quiles, Mejia and Hutchison — are hitting above .275. The 30-year-old Davis has been limited to just 27 games and is hitting just .227 with two home runs.

Rookies like Adam Ford and Trevor Stevens, who began the season with such promise, have been mired in slumps as the summer wears on.

If the Crushers want to make another postseason run, they can’t rely solely on their pitching.

The team’s defensive struggles, Wilson’s struggles as the closer, Kevin Berard’s release following a .114 start and the franchise-low average of 1,920 fans per home game are honorable mentions.

Top moment

Treece’s gem — The Crushers had dropped a disappointing 7-5 game to the hapless Frontier Greys in front of 5,000-plus fans on July 4, which put them at 22-22. Leave it to Treece, who finished the first half at 2-2 with a 2.30 ERA and 55 strikeouts and was only making his fourth start of the season, to stop the bleeding.

Treece, who only lasted three innings in his previous start, gave the Crushers nine innings of four-hit ball and came two outs away from pitching a shutout in an 8-1 victory. He struck out 10 and only walked one in nine innings.

Treece was bolstered by an offense which battered Greys pitching for 11 hits and eight runs, including Mejia’s team-leading sixth home run of the season.

The win propelled the Crushers to four wins in their next five games and six wins in their last 10 games to end the first half and could end up being the turning point of the season.

Second-half prediction

The Crushers, historically, have seemed to save their playoff seasons for odd-numbered years.

They qualified as a wild-card team in both 2009 and ’11 and won the division in 2013, winning the title the first time, being swept by eventual champion Joliet the second and being swept by Schaumburg in the FLCS last season.

There have been times the Crushers have looked really bad this season and others where it seems like everything’s coming together and they look like the team that made a run for the championship last season.

Going into the All-Star break three games over .500 and putting together a 14-9 record since June 18 could serve as a barometer for the second half.

Mongiardo, who was the pitching coach under Isom last season, has been a winner in his previous stops and the players love him, so why shouldn’t anyone expect the historic second-half surge that the Crushers have patented in their five previous seasons?

The fact that they are only four games off the postseason pace at this point should only help that cause.

They have the pitching to make some noise, they just need to be a bit more consistent in all phases and get the solid performances from their veterans that those players have shown capable of in the past.

I’ve predicted playoffs every single year at the break, and I’ve been right the majority of the time. Why deviate from another tradition.

I’d expect them to continue their hot streak through July and August and into September with another second-half surge for the ages and break that even-numbered year playoff jinx.

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

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