Sunday, July 24, 2016

Epic loss

The Wild Things have had plenty of low points/lowlights in their 15-year history.

They have been up 2-0 in the league championship series and then lost three in a row, the last in game in one-sided 10-3 fashion.

They have lost as many as 57 games in a 96-game season.

They have finished a season 20 games out of first place.

They have used a coach-by-committee approach instead of employing a manager.

They have lost games after they were leading and within one strike of a victory.

Like every team that has ever played the game, they have lost games in blowout fashion. Heck, even the 1927 New York Yankees lost a game by 10 runs.

However, the Wild Things have never lost a game like they did Sunday at Southern Illinois.

There is nothing surprising about losing to the Miners. Southern Illinois is the best team in the league and is going to cruise to the West Division title. The Miners are 6-0 against the Wild Things and have beaten Washington in 10 of the last 11 meetings.

So a 12-10 loss for Washington to Southern Illinois is nothing new. What is different is the manner in which the Wild Things lost Sunday night.

They led 10-1 in the fifth inning.

Then they gave up 10 runs over two innings.

I cannot remember another game in which the Wild Things blew a nine-run lead and the game.

The only thing I can compare this game to was back in 2005, in a game at Rockford, Washington led 20-2 before settling for a 20-16 win.

That game, however, was a win. This was a punch-to-the-gut loss.

We keep being told that this is a good Wild Things team. It's in second place in the East and currently holding what would be a playoff spot.

Good teams don't blow nine-run leads.

And the Wild Things did so in what was actually less than two innings. The Miners scored 10 runs during a stretch in which they made only four outs.

There is plenty of room left for second-guessing. The Wild Things made only one pitching change during Southern Illinois' 10-run outburst.

The bullpen was depleted, you say, because long reliever Brian O'Keefe was making a spot start and Luke Wilkins, a starter, threw two innings of relief Saturday night. Only late-innings relievers were left in the bullpen.

Well, that's what happens when you play for weeks with only 22 active players, which is two under the Frontier League limit. Another pitcher or two might have come in handy Sunday.

After scoring 10 runs in a little more than three innings off Southern Illinois ace Rick Teasley, the Washington hitters were shut out for the final six innings by five Miners relievers. Just one run off the Miners' bullpen might have changed the way the game played out over the final two innings.

Maybe Southern Illinois doesn't have a five-run fifth if the inning didn't start with a walk. And maybe the Miners wouldn't have a five-run sixth if the inning didn't start with a booted routine grounder.

That's all a lot of ifs and buts. You can second-guess, replay games and replay scenarios all you want. It changes nothing.

The fact is, the Wild Things lost a game they should have won with ease.

It was a loss like no other in the franchise's history. It was the lowest of lows.

And it will be interesting to see how this team reacts to such a landmark loss. Does the ill-effects linger? Does the roof fall in on this team, which is only 2-7 since the all-star break? Does the team use the loss as inspiration because making the playoffs might mean a first-round series against and another shot at Southern Illinois?

We'll find out over the next few weeks.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

West is best

Anybody who has followed the Frontier League doesn't need me to tell them this, but if you haven't been paying attention, then you should know that the West Division is much better than the East this season.

Much, much, much better.

The difference, at this point in the season, is significant.

Think varsity to junior varsity different.

Think Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns different.

Think prime rib and cereal different.

If the result of the all-star game -- a 11-4 win by the West -- didn't tell you that the West (shouldn't it really be the South, if you're going to base the divisions on geography?) is vastly superior, then I have some other numbers:

* As I write this, no East team has a winning record against West opponents. Lake Erie has the best record at 11-11, but the Crushers are 5-11 in their last 16 against the West.

* Traverse City is 11 games under .500 against the West at 6-17.

* The league has been playing East vs. West since returning from the all-star break. No East team has a winning record in this period. Joliet, the first-place team in the East, is 2-7 against the West since the break. The record of the East against the West since the break is 15-34.

* Each of the last two nights, the Wild Things had a chance to move into first place with a win over West leader Southern Illinois. Both times Washington lost. The Wild Things are 0-5 against the Miners, and 2-6 since the all-star break with all of those games against the West. They are 10-14 on the year against the West.

* Florence, the last-place team in the West at 26-33, has a winng record (12-11) against the East.

Friday, July 15, 2016

How I spent my Thursday night ... and enjoyed it

The week of Major league Baseball's all-star break probably is the worst for a "staycation."

Outside of the all-star game, I usually find nothing interesting at night on the 200 or so channels on my cable television package from Monday through Thursday of this week. Last night, while my wife and youngest son were binge watching "Practical Jokers," I decided to boot the old desktop computer and watch some baseball, the independent variety.

The American Association and Can-Am League both do a great job of live streaming games, unlike the Wild Things' web streams that look like they are produced by a second grader. I went to the American Association site thinking maybe former Wild Things pitcher Shawn Blackwell might be on the mound for Sioux Falls at St. Paul. No such luck. Blackwell wasn't pitching.

For some reason I still can't explain, I visited the Can-Am homepage and clicked on a game between the New Jersey Jackals and Rockland Boulders. Rockland was up 3-0 in the sixth inning and who is on the mound for the Boulders? Former Wild Things relief pitcher Pat Butler. I decided to watch half an inning and saw New Jersey score six runs, five charged to Butler.

That was all I could take from that game, so I went into the family room and began watching "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" for about the 10th time in my life. By the way, doesn't an aging Mick Jagger now look like Don Knotts circa 1966?

During a commercial break about 40 minutes later, I returned to my computer and realized that I had left the live streaming of that Jackals-Boulders game running on the screen. The next pitch I see, Marcus Nidiffer, a catcher for Rockland who once played for Wild Things manager Gregg Langbehn at Traverse City, gets plunked by a pitch. That's when all the fun started. Benches emptied. Rockland comes back from down 8-3 in the ninth to force extra innings, having the potential winning run thrown out at the plate. Then some ejections. Then in the top of the 10th, a person in a red jersey (at the time I thought it was a bat boy) goes running behind home plate just as the inning is about to start. It's the New Jersey pitcher who plunked Nidiffer charging the Rockland dugout.

Though football season doesn't start for a few weeks, our old friend Pat Butler makes the first tackle of the 2016 season as benches empty again. There are more ejections, though no punches are thrown.

The crazy thing about the ejections is, the booted players from New Jersey must walk through the seating area to get to the visitor's clubhouse. That, obviously, is not a good situation but it made for some great entertainment.

In short, it was a fun Thursday night watching the shenanigans going on in another independent league. Below is an entertaining 10-minute video of the highlights/lowlights.

Back in action

The Wild Things (27-22) begin the second half of the season tonight by opening a three-game series against West Division-leading Southern Illinois at Consol Energy Park.

It seemed that after a win Sunday over Schaumburg the staff (not the coaching staff) was ordered to make a big deal out of moving into a tie for first place in the East Division with Joliet. As far as I know, nobody has ever won a Frontier League division title at the halfway point in a 96-game schedule, but maybe we can learn a little from history.

This is the fourth time in 15 seasons that Washington has been in first place at the all-star break. The last time was two years ago when the Wild Things were 32-19 at the break. That 2014 team finished 57-39 and in third place in the East. It went on to win a wild-card game at Evansville but lost a semifinal series to River City. The current team, though four games off the pace of the 2014 squad, seems to be in better shape. Remember, that 2014 team had manager Bart Zeller resign the day before the all-star break after a dustup in the dugout with the pitching coach, then right fielder Stewart Ijames had his contract purchased by Arizona minutes before the first game after the all-star break.

The 2007 team was sitting in first place with a 28-17 record at the all-star break and cruised to the East title by 8 1/2 games with a 55-40 record. That team beat Gateway in the first round of the playoffs before losing to Windy City in the finals.

The first time Washington was in first place at the all-star break was in 2004. That team went on to win the East at 62-34, eight games better than second-place Evansville. The Otters then swept the Wild Things in three games in the first round of the playoffs.

So history tells us that the three Wild Things teams that were in first place at the all-star break all made the playoffs, with two winning division titles. That doesn't guarantee this year's team anything but, hey, so far the season has been more fun than in 2012, when Washington was buried in seventh place in the East with an 18-29 record and 13 1/2 games out of first place at the break.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Halfway home

The Wild Things reached the halfway point in in their season Saturday night with one of their best games, a 5-0 shutout of the Schaumburg Boomers (the second 5-0 win over the Boomers this season). Washington matched its season-high with 14 hits and allowed only five, three of which didn't leave the infield.

The win came one night after one of Washington's most disappointing losses, a 5-4 setback to the Boomers in a game the Wild Things led 4-1 in the seventh inning. A hit batsman, a walk, an infield dribbler that went for a single and two wild pitches (on consecutive pitches) contributed to a three-run most seventh. Schaumburg won the game with two doubles in the eighth.

Washington has a 26-22 record at the midway point. The Wild Things trail first-place Joliet by only one game in the East Division. They have made up 2 1/2 games in the last week.

The Frontier League has changed its playoff format this year by eliminating the wild-card games, which trims the number of postseason qualifiers from six to four. The two division winners will qualify along with the two remaining teams with the best records. Entering today's series finale against Schaumburg, which is the final game before the all-star break, Washington currently holds the final playoff position.

This begs the question: Do you consider the Wild Things contenders or pretenders?

And plenty of other questions, such as:

Can this team stay in playoff contention if they continue to be last in the league in team batting average (currently ,235 -- it has gone up .007 in the last week)?

Will the hitting improve?

Are center fielder Chris Grayson and second baseman Jamodrick McGruder the impact players the Wild Things' offense needs?

Only two teams have more quality starts than the Wild Things' 25. Can the starting pitching hold up over the final 48 games?

The bullpen was the most dependable part of this team for the first 39 games but it has two blown saves since June 29. Is it just a bad stretch or is the bullpen beginning to leak oil?

These questions will be answered over the 48 games. Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Austin retires; more roster moves expected

Jamal Austin (5)

The first of what could be a flurry of roster moves for the Wild Things happened Sunday when starting center fielder Jamal Austin was placed on the retired list.

Austin was Washington's third-leading hitter with a .273 batting average out of the leadoff spot. He had seven doubles, two triples and a team-leading 13 stolen bases.

Washington's active roster was at 22 -- the league minimum -- for Sunday's game against the Florence Freedom.

The scuttlebutt is that more roster moves -- and they are likely to be significant -- will happen before the Wild Things begin a series Tuesday at East Division leader Joliet.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A championship Wild Things fans can enjoy

Coastal Carolina -- NCAA national champion

Coastal Carolina won the College World Series championship Thursday afternoon, defeating Arizona, 4-3, in the decisive game.

Why is that news on a blog about the Wild Things?

Well, you might recall that Coastal Carolina used to be the favorite feeder system for the Wild Things. That was back during the days of managers John Massarelli, Greg Jelks and even Mark Mason.

When I heard that Coastal had won the championship -- I didn't get to see today's telecast -- I couldn't help but think about two guys who were (maybe they still are) Wild Things season-ticket holders who sat in the upper bowl in the section in front of the press box. One day during the Massarelli era, I was walking from the clubhouse to the press box about 45 minutes before game time. In that day's edition of the Observer-Reporter, I had written a one-sentence note that the Wild Things signed a player the previous day who was fresh out of Coastal Carolina.

As I was walking up the upper bowl steps, I overheard one of the gentlemen say to the other, "I don't know why they keep signing guys from places like Coastal Carolina. What the Wild Things need is to sign players from places like USC."

I guess that's the USC in California that is currently a middle-of-the-pack team in the Pac-12.

There wasn't a bad player who ever came from Coastal Carolina and pulled on a Wild Things uniform. Outfielder Chris Carter is still involved in Coastal Carolina's program as its Director of Baseball Operations. You have to feel good for him because Chris is a first-class guy.

Those other Coastal Carolina-to-Washington players included guys like Brett Grandstrand, Randy McGarvey, Travis Risser, Chris Raber, Ryan McGraw, David Anderson (he played all of two games with Washington before being signed by the Baltimore Orioles) and Alex Buccilli. Matt Sutton even spent some time at Coastal Carolina before transferring to North Carolina-Wilmington. There probably were a few other Coastal players who have come through Washington but slipped my mind, All of those guys, however, should pour a few cold ones tonight and remember that they helped put down the foundation for a program that can be called national champion.

Up in smoke

The Wild Things' 2-1 loss to Gateway in the second game of a doubleheader Wednesday night was probably their most frustrating setback of the season.

Washington was within one strike of sweeping a twinbill and extending its winning streak to three games when Gateway shortstop Logan Davis swung late and poked a Zac Grotz pitch the opposite way, just inside the third-base bag and up the line for a two-run single.

The loss left manager Gregg Langbehn open for criticism for going to the bullpen to start the seventh when starter Chase Cunningham was working a two-hit shutout and had thrown only 75 pitches. That criticism comes with the territory when the bullpen doesn't do its job. And what Langbehn was doing was playing to his team's strength.

Let me explain: My seat at Consol Energy Park is located within earshot of the visiting radio broadcaster. Almost all of those broadcasters, at some point during the series, will mention that the Wild Things are last in the league in team batting average "but somehow is around/above .500, which is amazing."

The biggest reason -- other than being 7-2 in Trevor Foss' nine starts -- why Washington is 21-19 with a batting average of only .226 is the reliability of the bullpen. The two runs given up by Grotz Wednesday doubled his season total. That's in 17 outings.

While bullpens around the Frontier League have been blowing up like cheap fireworks sold in mall and grocery store parking lots, Washington's has been amazingly good. Here is a look at the number of blown saves to date for each Frontier League team:

8 -- Joliet
8 -- Lake Erie
7 -- Southern Illinois
6 -- Evansville
6 -- Florence
6 -- Gateway
6 -- Normal
6 -- Traverse City
5 -- Schaumburg
4 -- Windy City
2 -- River City
2 -- Washington

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Wild Things' worst trade ever

Trades are always a roll of the dice, even in the Frontier League. Sometimes you strike it rich in a trade, such as when Washington acquired record-setting pitcher Aaron Ledbetter from River City. Most trades make little impact one way or another, and many involve teams sending players who are ticketed for the unemployment line to another team for the every-popular player to be named.

Then, sometimes a trade simply makes no sense. One such deal was made by Washington last summer when it sent pitcher Matt Sergey to the Laredo Lemurs of the American Association. Sergey, who might recall, pitched the only perfect game in Frontier League history in August of 2014 against the Gateway Grizzlies, the team the Wild Things will be hosting in a doubleheader tonight.

Sergey made 11 starts for Washington last year and had a 3-4 record with a 2.76 ERA. With any kind of offensive support at all (sounds like a line used when describing every Washington pitcher in the last five years), Sergey's record could have been 7-2. But Sergey had fallen out of favor with manager Bob Bozzuto for sure, and apparently also with pitching coach Ben Moore. A cranky arm was part of Sergey's problem, but when Sergey was healthy and on, then he was almost hittable.

Bozzuto wanted to clean house and plan for 2016, so he traded Sergey to the Laredo Lemurs of the American Association in exchange for two players to be named. Washington did get catcher Alex McKeon from Laredo this spring, but he was likely the player owed to the Wild Things in the Jeudy Valdez trade from last year.

So Washington still has nothing to show for the Sergey trade. Meanwhile, all Sergey did for Laredo was pitch 20 innings late last year for Laredo. They were 20 scoreless innings. Then, in the postseason, Sergey went 1-0 in two starts with a 2.79 ERA and helped the Lemurs win the American Association championship.

This year, Sergey picked up where he left off by going 4-0 in seven starts with an 0.81 ERA for Laredo. If you're counting, that's 73 2/3 innings pitched with a Lemurs and only seven earned runs allowed in 12 starts. That's an ERA of 0.86.

Think the Wild Things could have used that kind of production?

By the way, Sergey, who was ready to be put on the scrap heap by the Wild Things, had his contract purchased Tuesday by the Oakland Athletics.

Monday, June 27, 2016

First managerial change

Chris Mongiardo (36)
The Frontier League's first managerial change of the season happened Monday when the Lake Erie Crushers dismissed Chris Mongiardo and replaced him with Cameron Roth, who was the Schaumburg Boomer's pitching coach.

Mongiardo was in his third seasons as Lake Erie's manager and in his seventh season as a manager in the Frontier League. With the Crushers, "Mong" had a 106-120 record including a 17-19 record this year.

Mongiardo was the manager of the Richmond Roosters from 2003-05 and spent seven games as manager of the Canton Crocodiles in 1999. He also was the pitching coach for Richmond in 2002, when the Wild Things and Roosters played in the Frontier League championship series.

Mong's trademark was he has never seen a pitching change he could not make. In 36 games this season, Mong made 159 pitching changes, an average of almost 4 1/2 per game. Lake Erie, by my count, has made more roster changes this season than any Frontier League team. I'm not sure if the ever-changing roster of the Crushers had anything to do with its new owner wanting to change managers.

The Crushers are in fifth place in the East Division but only 4 1/2 games games out of first place.

Owner Tom Kraming told the Lorian Morning Journal“We had run into a situation where we felt like we needed to move now,” Kramig said. “I didn’t like the direction the ball club was heading on the field.
“And it was primarily a communication issue between ownership, the front office and Chris. That’s pretty much as far as I’ll go.”
Roth, 27, is a former Schaumburg player who is a native of Virginia. He has no managerial experience.

Lake Erie's next game is Tuesday night at home against Florence.