The 2014 Great Lakes Loons season could be defined by what might have been, but that wouldn’t provide a complete picture.
Yes, the Loons came within a half-game of qualifying for the Midwest League playoffs, and it’s a half-game that might not have existed except for a late-season rainout, but it was also a season filled with peaks and valleys, individual and team accomplishments, and, of course, highlights.
So what follows is one observer’s list of highlights, while knowing full well that a host of others could have qualified, as well.
The Wild Chase For A Wildcard
With West Michigan and South Bend having already clinched Eastern Division playoff berths in the first half, the second half became a battle among six teams for two remaining postseason spots. And what a battle it was.
The chase for the final wildcard spot went down to the final day, with the Loons trailing Fort Wayne by a half-game and needing a win against West Michigan and a Fort Wayne loss to Bowling Green. The Loons took care of their business by beating the Whitecaps 3-1, but Fort Wayne defeated the Hot Rods 4-0 to advance to the postseason.
As mentioned, a rainout in Bowling Green on Aug. 23 didn’t help the Loons’ cause. They were leading 4-0 when the game was called before it was official, and because they were heading to Dayton the next day – and weren’t scheduled to play Bowling Green again – there was no chance of finishing the game. And that’s how the half-game difference between the Loons and Fort Wayne was created.
Pitching coach Bill Simas talked about his staff “pitching to contact,” and it made perfect sense considering the Loons had one of the league’s best defenses. But with Loons pitchers piling up strikeouts at a record pace, contact was often non-existent.
The Loons staff led all full-season minor leagues with 1,256 K’s, which easily eclipsed the previous franchise record of 1,177 set in 2010. The bullpen played a huge part, but it was an all-hands-on-deck effort.
How good was it? In July and August combined, the Loons struck out at least 10 batters in 32 of 57 games.
Right-handed pitcher Jose De Leon joined the Loons in mid-August after dominating the Pioneer League with Ogden. He didn’t miss a beat at the next level.
Pitching at Fort Wayne on Aug. 19, De Leon set a Loons record with 14 strikeouts, eclipsing the old mark of 12 held by two-time National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and two others. De Leon struck out nine consecutive batters at one point, which was just one shy of tying the Midwest League record.
De Leon finished 2-0 with a 1.19 ERA with the Loons and struck out 42 batters in 22 2/3 innings. He struck out a total of 119 in 77 innings between Ogden and Great Lakes.
By the time South Bend’s Daniel Palka took the field at Dow Diamond on July 3, he’d hit eight home runs off of Loons pitching. And while it may or may not have been a coincidence that pitcher Scott Barlow plunked Palka on the batting helmet, it set the tone for what became a very contentious evening.
In all, Loons pitchers hit five Silver Hawks batters – South Bend’s Stryker Trahan broke his bat on the ground in frustration after getting hit – before things came to a head in the bottom of the eighth. South Bend reliever Tom Jameson threw behind Loons batter Jesmuel Valentin, and then hit him with the next pitch.
Valentin and Jameson, apparently discussing the latter’s sudden inability to throw a baseball anywhere near the strike zone, exchanged opinions as both benches emptied. No punches were thrown, but five participants were dismissed for the night, including both managers.
Wait, They Won How?
The Loons were down to their last breath against Lansing on Aug. 3 at Dow Diamond. Trailing 3-2 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Josmar Cordero whiffed on a third strike, but the ball sailed past Lugnuts catcher Daniel Klein to the backstop.
With Cordero, not to be confused with Usain Bolt, running to first base, Klein calmly retrieved the ball, and fired it … into rightfield (Cordero would have been out by a step). That allowed Jacob Scavuzzo to score from the second base, while Brandon Trinkwon moved to third.
That brought up Jesmuel Valentin, in his first game back off of a stay on the disabled list, and he rapped a single up the middle for the win.
And They Missed A Field Goal
The Loons returned home on May 12 from a three-game sweep at the hands of South Bend and took out their frustrations on West Michigan. They scored six runs in the fourth inning and five in the seventh on their way to a 17-1 win.
The 17 runs were one run shy of the team record while the 16-run margin of victory set a record. Every player in the Loons lineup had a hit while six players had at least two. Newcomer Josmar Cordero went 4-for-5 to raise his average to .550.
The Loons were represented by three players at the Midwest League All-Star game played at West Michigan’s Fifth Third Ballpark: Catcher Kyle Farmer, rightfielder Joey Curletta, and reliever Mark Pope.
Farmer and Curletta were starters while Pope – at the time the Loons closer – entered the game in the early innings and retired both batters he faced. Farmer was hit by a pitch and walked in his two plate appearances, while Curletta was 0-for-2.
Let it Rhame
For almost the entire second half of the season, Loons reliever Jacob Rhame was like a hired gunslinger brought in to clean up a corrupt town before riding off into the sunset.
Seems only fitting, since Rhame is from Texas, but also for how lethal he was for enemy batsmen. The hard-throwing right-hander set a Loons record with 32 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings, and piled up strikeouts with a fastball that topped out at nearly 100 mph.
Rhame finished the season with 90 strikeouts in 67 1/3 innings – while giving up only 14 walks – an ERA of 2.00, and a 0.921 WHIP.
Best In Show
Again, they represent only one person’s opinion, but here are my individual awards of 2014:
MVP – Jesmuel Valentin
Traded to the Philadelphia Phillies organization during the heat of the playoff race, Valentin led the Loons in runs scored and triples, was second in batting average, OPS and stolen bases, and was third in hits, RBI and total bases despite playing only 108 games with the Loons. Was also a solid defender at second base.
MV(Pitcher) – Jacob Rhame
Tough call here, because several pitchers – especially those in the bullpen – had excellent years. Starter Jonathan Martinez was consistently good before being traded to the Cubs’ organization in late July, but the nod here goes to Rhame. He tied for the team lead in saves, led all non-starters in strikeouts, and didn’t give up an earned run for nearly the entire second half of the season.
Best Defender – Brandon Trinkwon
A natural shortstop, Trinkwon also played second base and third. He had a flair for the spectacular but made the routine plays, too.
Player(s) to Watch – Curletta and De Leon
Curletta cooled off some after ranking among the league leaders in batting average for the first two months of the season but still led the team in hits and RBIs. But he’s a beast physically and has a gun for an arm in the outfield.
De Leon provided only a small sample size with the Loons, but what a sample it was. He was named the Pioneer League’s Pitcher of the Year for his work in Ogden, and he’s averaged 11.9 K’s per nine innings in two professional seasons.
The Loons won their first game of the season, at Fort Wayne, 9-0, and then again on Opening Day at Dow Diamond (April 8) with an 8-4 victory over Cedar Rapids.
Jonathan Martinez pitched six shutout innings in the season opener and struck out 12 batters, while Greg Harris gave up one earned run in five innings in the home opener and Justin Chigbogu homered.
It’s worth noting that the Loons’ Malcolm Holland led off the season with a walk and promptly stole second base. That was the first of 65 steals the Loons had in April to set a new team record.
Saying Goodbye In Style
The last of the Loons’ 70 home games may have been the best.
Playing in front of a record crowd of 6,191 at Dow Diamond, and in the final sprint of the wildcard chase, the Loons posted a dramatic 2-1 win over Lake County when Alex Santana delivered a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth.
The win temporarily gave the Loons a half-game lead in the wildcard race, and was followed by not only a Fireworks Loontacular, but also Loons players greeting fans as they exited the stadium.
“No matter what happens from here on out, it’s been a great summer with a lot of great memories,” Loons manager Bill Haselman said after. “The ballpark is one of the best, if not the best, in the minor leagues, and the fans came out in droves once the weather warmed up.”
- Bruce Gunther
But what’s the question to ask?
- What’s it like to be from the Ivy League?
- Is baseball very good in the Ivy League?
- What’s a smart Ivy League guy like you doing in a sport like this?
But, rather than appearing dumber than you really are, you fumble out something along the lines of: “You’re from the Ivy League. Not a lot of guys come from the Ivy League.”
Johnson, who’s low-key in conversation but to the point, gives a low-key, to-the-point answer.
“Well, there are definitely guys that can play (at Ivy schools),” he says. “Kyle Hendricks, one of my teammates (at Dartmouth) is playing for the Cubs. Joe Sclafani is a shortstop at Triple-A for the Astros.
“The overall talent might not be the best, but there are guys that stand out, too. I mean, I think all us had the idea that we wanted to play in the major leagues.”
Johnson played four years at Dartmouth, earning All-Ivy honors, before being selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 14th round of the 2013 draft. He’s a left-hander with a good fastball and slider who has pitched very, very well at the Single-A level.
He’s been a key component in a Loons bullpen that has been one of the team’s strengths all season, if not the No. 1 strength. He’s contributed heavily to the Loons strikeout assault on opposing hitters (the Loons rank near the top among all minor league teams in K’s).
But there’s still the Ivy thing. The Ivy is all but academic excellence. Presidents and other world leaders went to Ivy League schools. Business leaders. The guy who invented Facebook.
But baseball? Consider this: The Ivy League has produced, according to unofficial research, 555 professional baseball players (major or minor league). Arizona State University has produced 433 all on its own.
It is worth nothing, however, that Lou Gehrig went to Columbia. Current Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, like Johnson, went to Dartmouth. And there are others. Currently, there are five players in professional baseball that played at Dartmouth, Harvard also has five. It just might not be what you think it is.
Johnson graduated with a degree in economics from Dartmouth and made the dean’s list. He also pitched four seasons on the varsity and went 7-0 with a 1.82 ERA his senior season.
“I loved it there,” he said. “Those were some of the best days of my life.”
Before that, Johnson went to the private Brooks School in North Andover, Mass, where he played baseball, hockey and ran cross country. The school’s motto, translated from Latin, is “We, who are about to be victorious, salute you.”
Johnson has been able to back that up, even on the pro level.
In 67 professional games, all in relief, Johnson has a 2.35 ERA and has averaged 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s struck out 86 batters in 61 1/3 innings for the Loons this season.
“Every league you move up to there are going to be guys who can hit your mistakes,” he said. “So you have to adjust and adapt to the level of competition.
“I think one of the bigger things is that I’ve been able to do is throw my slider for strikes against lefties. I have a much better command of that pitch and it’s helped.”
Johnson’s focus on consistent improvement paid off in college as he gradually became a player who showed up on MLB scouting reports. He worked with a strength and conditioning coach between his junior and senior seasons with an emphasis on better flexibility.
“The things I did then really helped get my velocity up,” he said. “I’d had a pretty good junior year and I thought I might have a chance to get drafted. Then I had a good senior year, so it was definitely in the back of my mind that I had a shot.”
And if baseball doesn’t work out? Well, Johnson will have his Ivy League degree to fall back on.
Not that he’s thinking that far ahead.
“I’m really not sure what I’d get into,” he said. “I guess I haven’t thought about it.”
Given his success in his current profession, it might be something Johnson won’t have to think about it for a while, anyway.
By most accounts, Tommy John surgery has become as commonplace in baseball as an umpire brushing dirt off of home plate.
Loons pitching coach Bill Simas had it. So did Loons right-hander Scott Barlow – and hundreds, if not thousands, of others. It has been estimated that the procedure has increased by 700 percent in the last 10 years, an alarming statistic that compares with the NFL’s concussion epidemic.
The problem is, no one is quite sure what to do about it. Who knew that the then-radical surgery performed on former MLB pitcher Tommy John in 1974 would become so commonplace 40 years later?
“It’s hard to explain why they’re having more surgeries,” said Simas. “Maybe they’re diagnosing it better, and maybe it’s because of the success they’ve had with the surgery that more people are willing to have it done.”
Yahoo Sports columnist Jeff Passan wrote, “Researchers and doctors believe the correlation of high velocities and arm injuries may well be causative, and pitchers today throw harder than ever.”
But, as Passan notes, it’s not that nearly that simple. There are pitch counts, types of pitches thrown, and the fact that pitching, by its nature, causes unusual, repetitive stress on the arm.
For the record, Tommy John surgery is less commonly known by its medical definition, which is Ulnar Collateral Ligament Reconstruction. It’s a surgical graft procedure in which the UCL in the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from somewhere else in the body. Holes are drilled in the ulna and humerus bones of the elbow to accommodate a new tendon.
Barlow, who had Tommy John surgery in 2012, was a shortstop in high school until his coach realized he had more potential as a pitcher. After that, Barlow admits, he pretty much threw year-around – not that he’s pinpointing a specific cause for his own elbow breaking down.
“It was actually a gradual thing,” said Barlow, a sixth-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2011 draft. “I felt that something wasn’t quite right in the off-season, then in the spring (of 2012) I threw a couple of bullpens and it still didn’t feel right.
“Then I was pitching in extended spring training – second batter, second inning – and it just went on me. I just knew there was no way I could throw another pitch.”
Barlow, then 19, had his surgery on May 3, 2012 and didn’t pitch again for a year. But that’s the standard recovery time for anyone who’s had the surgery.
“You spend one month just straightening your arm out,” he said. “They put you in a brace and your arm is kind of locked in that position, so you have to make it straight again. You gradually get it straight, but at the end it’s so tight it feels like you can’t get through it.”Barlow appeared in 15 games (all starts) for rookie-level Ogden last season, pitching 69 2/3 innings. He was 4-3 with a 6.20 ERA. He’s made 16 appearances for the Loons this season – 14 of them starts – and has thrown 76 innings while compiling a 4-5 record and 4.74 ERA. He’s averaging over two more strikeouts per nine innings this season than last.
“I actually think next year is when you’ll really see the increase in velocity (for Barlow),” said Simas. “In his case I think it’s just going to take a little longer.”
In Simas’ case, the injury to his right elbow originally occurred when he wasn’t even pitching.
“I was trying to stop a door and I felt it,” said Simas, who pitched six seasons in the major leagues, all with the Chicago White Sox. “I’m not sure if I tore it then, or when I pitched a whole year with it. But I basically pitched the whole (2000) season with a torn ligament.
“It would take me about an hour and a half to get ready for a game.”
Oddly enough, it was one of Simas’ best seasons statistically in the majors. It was also his last.
“I was throwing 84 to 86 miles per hour,” he said. “It was just a little below the hitting speed and I could command the ball.”
Simas was still under contract with the White Sox in 2001, but didn’t pitch as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. He said it took him two years for his velocity to return, but he never made it back to the MLB.
Now in his second season as the Loons pitching coach, Simas has been around long enough as both a player and a mentor to young pitchers to develop his own theories on why so many arms are breaking down.
“I think there are three or four factors, for me, that need to be looked at,” he said. “First, kids when they’re young, at 12 and 13, are throwing curveballs and stressing their arms just to get batters out. Little League has done a good job looking at pitch counts, but kids are also stressing their arms pitching all year around.”
Recent studies aren’t encouraging. Famed orthopedic surgeon James Andrews and his colleague, Glenn Fleisig, say that the group with greatest increase in Tommy John surgeries is high school age players. Andrews also said the success rate of surgery on youth players is lower than for adults.
“I would also look at weight training and pitching deliveries,” Simas said. “I mean, everyone has a guru in their town that knows everything, and kids are going to them at an early age. Parents are paying thousands of dollars to send them to these clinics, but are they really learning the right techniques in the weight room and with the throwing motion?”
Professional baseball lowered the pitcher’s mound from 15 to 10 inches in 1969 as a way to increase offensive productivity. They’ve also – unofficially – lowered the strike zone, and Simas said the combination of the two is taxing on a pitcher’s arm.
“Now we’re throwing pitches that are starting low and have to go lower, with some bite and angle on it,” he said. “Your fingers have to be right on top of the ball and you’re putting a lot of pressure on your arm to keep the ball low with some movement.”
And there are many other factors that Simas touches on, including the idea that young pitchers would be better served by working in manual labor occupations in the off-season to strengthen themselves. After all, Nolan Ryan – who threw 95-mph fastballs in his 40s – spent his down time working on a cattle ranch.
There’s also the matter of proper delivery. A pitcher’s windup and delivery is a carefully-timed, rhythmic sequence of events in which stress is distributed in various areas of the body during the often violent throwing of a pitch.
“You can see pitchers with certain deliveries and at least have an opinion that they’re going to have (arm) problems down the road,” said Simas. “If there’s a red flag on a guy, then we as an organization can say, hey, we need to address this. Is it something we can tinker around with?
“If it’s arm action, it can be kind of hard to fix. If it’s a delivery flaw, then you can do something about it.”
But like teaching different tackling techniques in football to help lessen the risk of concussion, breaking old habits is easier for some than others.
“A lot of the guys we see at this level our 18, 19 and 20-years old, sometimes right out of college, and they’ve been pitching like that for years,” said Simas. “You want them to show you why they were drafted, and they want to show you.
“It’s tough to change a guy when they’re trying to show you that they were drafted for a reason.”
As a minor league baseball employee, I’m both a newbie and an oldie.
So old, in fact, that I’m not even sure if anyone says “newbie” anymore, but so new that it wasn’t until the eve of our team’s first homestand that I truly understood what “Tarp Pull” meant.
But more on that later.
I’ve now been with the Loons for seven months after having decided to leave my fledgling financial career – after several hundred house calls and annuity sales pitches, few of which I remember now for some reason – for a gig in baseball (which, even if it ended tomorrow, I doubt I’d forget any of it).
Not that I’m new to the sports business. I’ve spent more than half of my life as a sports writer and editor. There are some similarities – with the emphasis on some. At least now I can hope the home team wins (although not outwardly), disregarding my journalism school mantra of Objectivity, Objectivity and More Objectivity.
What follows below is a very brief list of various aspects of this job. Not all of them, of course, but some of the main ones that seem to define the in-season experience, at least from my own rookie’s perspective.
Oh, naïve me, I took this job while thinking nothing about things like how a tarp gets on an off the field – at least not at this level of pro ball. There must be a grounds crew of a few people who handle that, right?
It wouldn’t involve me, of course.
And then one day word spread through the office: “Tarp Pull in 15 minutes.”
“This will be cool, “I thought. “I’ll go out and see how they do it.”
And, yes, the grounds crew is there. But so are we – every other able-bodied employee in the building – to help drag that tarp on and off the field.
Tarps aren’t light. Or, small. You could get rolled up in one and no one would have a clue where you were. The Greek word for tarpaulin means “Large Canvas Covering Half The Earth.”
“Tarp Pull” means all-hands on deck. Veteran employees hear the phrase and reach under their desks for boots, or cheaper shoes. It can be a messy job. And when the wind blows … well, I’ll let this video do the talking.
Last month, the Tarp Pull was rudely inundated by a sudden thunderstorm. Rain fell in relentless waves. Soaked to the bone, we trudged back to the office. We borrowed T-shirts and shorts from our team store while our clothes were sent to the home clubhouse dryers. We sat back down at our desks and wondered if any of us had been lost at sea.
Or, in the tarp.
As a fan, I came to Loons games every summer, usually with my son. One of his birthday parties was held here, and he and his friends roamed the park, over-indulged in hot dogs and Dippin’ Dots, before proclaiming it one of their best times “ever.”
Moreover, I knew a few things about the organization because of my previous life in sports journalism. But I really hadn’t put a lot of thought into how it – the game, the event, the everything – came together.
Now I know. And it’s an amazing thing to watch unfold. I have neither the space nor time to mention all of it because there are a million steps leading to an event that involves so many different aspects. Think of it as putting on a party for several thousand people, several nights in a row.
It starts early and ends late. Same for the players – who are typically at the stadium by 1 p.m. for a game that won’t be played for another six hours.
Even when the gates open, an hour before game time, the pieces are still coming together. What the fans see is already in place. What they don’t see is the promotions planning, the video production and stadium sound prep work, or the crew of people in our kitchens. I’m missing several dozen other jobs and tasks here, not by lack of importance, but because it’s a list too long.
Somehow it all gets done.
“That’s cool,” people often say to me, “You show up for the game, ‘work’ (they use the two-finger quote marks here), and go home. Nice gig.”
It’s time to dispel that myth.
During the off-season, we work from 9 to 5, just like millions of others. “Bankers hours.” We also start at 9 a.m. on game days. The only difference is that we work until the game is over, and beyond. Most games start at 7:05 p.m.
So, your typical 9 to 5 becomes 9 to, say, midnight during a homestand. You drive home, collapse into bed (at least I do, but I’m older – considerably – than most of my co-workers), wake up, shower, and do it all over again.
In the area where I sit in our office, we talk about coffee as if it is a magic elixir, with each cup accompanied by angels singing. That’s because it is. Coffee is serious business over here. Go ahead, steal our pens, notepads, laptops, car keys, identities. But don’t you dare touch our coffee.
On the other hand, it’s baseball. When the 9 to 5 part of the day ends, the baseball is soon to begin.
Your workplace becomes a stadium.
Your background noise is the incomparable sound of a wooden bat cracking into a baseball.
And fans cheering.
Nice gig, indeed.
- Bruce Gunther
Kyle Farmer has made a smooth transition from college shortstop to professional catcher – smooth enough that he’s just earned a promotion.
But the former Great Lakes Loons catcher, now with Rancho Cucamonga, also has another transition under his belt, that of real-life high school football quarterback to a fictional one.
Even if it was only for a day.
Farmer had a cameo role in the 2009 movie “The Blind Side.” A prep football star at the Marist School in Atlanta, Ga., Farmer played quarterback during a scene that depicted a practice session.
“I was at my friend’s house when another friend of mine who was in the movie called and said they needed a quarterback. I guess the guy they had didn’t know what he was doing,” Farmer said. “He told me they were shooting a scene the next day at a high school near my house and asked if I wanted do it.
“I told him I did and he told me to be there at 6 a.m.”
Farmer was a recent high school graduate and had signed a baseball scholarship with the University of Georgia. He had no acting experience, but he knew what a quarterback should do after running Marist’s potent wishbone offense.
“I showed up and they gave me a playbook and told me to learn the plays,” said Farmer. “There were like six plays, and I had to get them down in a hurry.”
Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, “The Blind Side” is about the life of Michal Oher, following him from his impoverished upbringing to his adoption by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. Oher, went on to star at the University of Mississippi and now plays for the Tennessee Titans of the NFL.
The movie stars Sandra Bullock, who went on to win an Academy Award for Best Actress, and grossed over $300 million.
Not that Farmer got a penny of it.
“I couldn’t get paid because of NCAA rules,” he said. “I told them that right up front. What’s funny is that, while we’re shooting the scene, a woman comes running down the hill and she’s yelling.
“Well, it was my mom. She wanted them to know all about the NCAA stuff.”
Those rules prevented Farmer from showing his face during filming, even when he was wearing a helmet. So when the “quarterback” is pulled aside by Bullock during the scene, it’s actually another actor.
Farmer said filming went from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the hitting between players was real.
“We were there all day and it was a grind, just like a real practice,” he said. “And guys were just laying wood out there. The hitting was pretty intense.”
Farmer also got to meet Bullock during a break in filming, albeit briefly.
“She walked by and tapped me on the shoulder pads and said I looked a little big to be a quarterback,” he said. “I was just an 18-year-old kid and I didn’t know how to react, so I kind of blushed and smiled at her.”
The movie premiered in November, 2009, and Farmer went with his father to watch it when became available to theaters in Atlanta.
“I had no idea when my scene was going to be, but all of a sudden I hear my voice on the big screen and it’s just awesome,” he said. “My dad couldn’t get over it. He couldn’t believe it.”
You won’t find Farmer’s name in the credits as there’s just a word of thanks to all of the area high school football players who participated.
It’s been a lot harder to hide Farmer from the public eye as an athlete, however. A four-year starter at shortstop for Georgia, Farmer signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers after being drafted in the eighth round of 2013 MLB Amateur Draft.
The Dodgers immediately converted Farmer to catcher, and the transition has been a smooth one. Loons manager Bill Haselman, who played 13 seasons in the MLB, said that Farmer is farther along defensively than he was at the same stage of his career.
The position switch certainly hasn’t hurt his offense. Farmer hit .347 in 41 games with Rookie-level Ogden last summer, and he was hitting a team-high .310 with the Loons before being promoted to Rancho on June 20. He was the starting catcher for the Eastern Division team in the Midwest League All-Star game.
But if baseball doesn’t work out, Farmer could have a fallback plan, given his experience on the big screen.
“Who knows?” he said, smiling. “Maybe I could get into movies, or soap operas, or something.
”But I doubt it.”
- Bruce Gunther
Even after over 40 games and four homestands, it’s hard to form definitive opinions about the 2014 version of the Great Lakes Loons.
Yes, we’re already well into May, but things really haven’t heated up – weather or baseball-wise. Especially the weather, as our loyal but bundled-up fans can attest.
Yet it’s time enough to have formed a few impressions of this year’s team, which started fast with a flurry of offense, hit a lull, then has battled to stay in contention for a first-half divisional playoff spot.
That said, here are a few observations:
The starting pitching is about potential and promise
With a youthful rotation that has, at times, included at least three 19-year-olds, we’re seeing some works in progress. That’s made for a few bumps in the road, but it has also demonstrated a serious upside.
Opening Day starter Jonathan Martinez has been a strike-throwing machine. The Venezuelan right-hander walked just six batters in his first 51 innings while also leading the team in strikeouts. Not a bad combination.
As one visiting scout put it, “All he (Martinez) does is throw strike one.”
Zachary Bird, another 19-year-old righty, has had his ups and downs, but he’s also demonstrated the ability to pitch out of serious trouble – or at the least, a propensity for damage control. Bird may work his way into messy situations, but’s been good about not letting them turn into full-blown disasters.
Best starting pitching performances, 1A and 1A
It’s hard to say which start was better – Martinez’s Opening Day shutdown of Fort Wayne, or Scott Barlow’s near perfect outing against Dayton on May 5.
Despite winter-like weather, Martinez got the season started with six shutout innings against Fort Wayne on April 3. He allowed just two hits, struck out 11 and – of course – walked none.
Barlow, a former 6th round pick of the Dodgers who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012, made his first start for the Loons against Dayton, and breezed through five perfect innings. The Dragons’ led off the sixth with a single, but Barlow wrapped up his night by retiring the next three batters in order.
If all Martinez does is throw strikes, then all Joey Curletta does is get base hits
Curletta has acted like he’s been here before in his first season in the Midwest League. The rightfielder from Arizona has either led, or ranked among the leaders, in the MWL batting race all season.
Curletta hit .345 through his first 42 games while leading the league in hits.
He wasn’t kidding
Loons manager Bill Haselman emphasized from the start that he wanted his players to be aggressive on the basepaths, and that it was important for them to learn how to steal bases at this level of their development.
He’s meant what he said – and then some. The Loons stole a record number of bases in April and have led the MWL in that category virtually from the beginning.
Malcolm Holland led off the season by drawing a walk against Fort Wayne. He immediately stole second. The next night, the Loons stole four bases. The night after that, they stole four more. And on it went, until they set a franchise single-game record with eight steals against Fort Wayne on April 22.
The infielder turned catcher is the real deal
Kyle Farmer holds the University of Georgia record for games played as a shortstop. But pro scouts projected him as a catcher, and he hasn’t been seen in the infield since his college days.
Like most young catchers still learning the position, Farmer’s biggest challenge has been pitches in the dirt, but overall he’s been very good defensively. His arm certainly ranks among the strongest in the Midwest League.
“He’s farther along defensively than I was at the same level,” said Haselman, who played catcher in the major leagues for 13 seasons.
And, don’t forget, Farmer can hit. He’s ranked among the league leaders in RBI and batting average almost the entire season.
Brandon Trinkwon can pick it
Trinkwon was a slick-fielding second baseman at UC-Santa Barbara, but has been used all around the infield as a pro. He’s already made some highlight-reel defensive plays, none more impressive than his no-time-to-react diving stab of a rocket down the third base line against Bowling Green on May 17.
Trinkwon was playing in for a bunt, but Bowling Green’s Johnny Field swung away. Field’s ensuing laser shot should have been a run-scoring double, but Trinkwon turned it into a force out at second instead. Not bad for a guy who never played third base professionally until this season.
Likes His Yard
While Paul Hoenecke’s batting average has been higher on the road, it seems that no one has made more solid contact at Dow Diamond than he has. If nothing else, Hoenecke has had more loud outs – line drives directly to an outfielder, or to an outfielder who catches up with his drive on the warning track – than anyone.
But not everything he hits at home as been an out. His three home runs at Dow Diamond (through May 18) led the Loons.
They’re just kids, or are they?
Martinez and Josmar Cordero both wear braces and both have the (very) youthful appearance of someone who should be preparing for driver’s ed rather than a game of pro baseball.
Martinez’s impeccable control and poise are beyond his years, however, while Cordero came to town in May and delivered a hailstorm of line drives across the horizon.
As the song goes, the kids are alright. Indeed.
Loons manager Bill Haselman caught a perfect game but can say it wasn’t the best pitching performance he was part of.
Haselman, after all, was behind the plate when Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens struck out 20 Detroit Tigers on Sept. 18, 1996. Clemens allowed five hits in a 4-0 win, but the way Haselman describes it, the Tigers really didn’t have a chance.
“He had it all going that night,” said Haselman. “He had a 96 mph fastball and a split finger that was just nasty. I mean, that thing came to the plate and just dropped. It was basically unhittable.”
Haselman caught a perfect game thrown by Bronson Arroyo of the Pawtucket Red Sox in 2003. Arroyo was so sharp that day that he only went to a 3-ball count three times. Haselman certainly doesn’t diminish Arroyo’s gem, but he still thinks Clemens’ masterpiece at Tiger Stadium seven years earlier was a cut above.
“Don’t get me wrong, (Arroyo’s perfect game) was special,” Haselman said. “But I think Clemens was more dominant even though he gave up some hits.”
The 20-strikeouts in nine innings tied Clemens’ own MLB record that he’d set 10 years earlier. It would be tied again by the Cubs’ Kerry Wood in 1998, as well as lefty Randy Johnson , who also struck out 20 in nine but in a game that went into extra innings.
Clemens had 19 K’s entering the ninth against the Tigers. He’d struck out at least two batters in every inning, and fanned the side twice. The game meant nothing in the standings – both teams were out of playoff contention – and only 8,779 fans were in attendance, but a dialed-in Clemens had plenty of incentive.
“It was an emotional time for him,” Haselman said. “He was a free agent and I think he knew that the Red Sox didn’t plan on bringing him back. He also knew that he was closing in on some records held by Cy Young.”
Clemens entered the game one win and one shutout shy of Young’s Red Sox records. He was also looking to throw his 100th complete game. The possibility of breaking his single-game strikeout game probably never crossed his mind, says Haselman.
“I don’t think he knew how many strikeouts he had,” Haselman said. “I didn’t know until after the eighth inning when someone told me he had 19. But I didn’t want to tell him and blow his focus.”
Haselman said he’s convinced the Tigers knew. The possibility of being involved in a record they wanted no part of affected their hitting approach in the ninth.“I’m pretty sure they knew. It sure seemed like it,” said Haselman. “They were just trying to put the bat on the ball.”
Detroit’s Alan Trammell led off the ninth by popping out to first base. Ruben Sierra followed with a single to center, and then Tony Clark flied out to left. That left it up to Travis Fryman, who’d already struck out three times. Clemens made it four with a split-finger – and 20 overall.
“When I went out to the mound he said, ‘I think we got it,’” Haselman said. “But he was talking about the shutout. So, I said, ‘Do you realize what you’ve done? You’ve struck out 20 batters.
“And he’s like, ‘I did?’”
Haselman, who caught 13 years in the majors, worked well enough with Clemens that he became the right-hander’s only catcher for the second half of the ’96 season.
“He was an intense guy, very well-prepared, and a very emotional type of person,” Haselman said. “He went after guys, I tell you. He was comfortable working with me and we really worked well together.”
He was also, said Haselman, the kind of guy you wanted on your side.
“He was an awesome teammate – one of the best I’ve ever had,” said Haselman. “With him, it was always ‘we.’ It was, ‘We did this.’
“After the 20-strikeout game he called me out to do an interview with him. That’s how he was.”
Haselman also did his part that night on offense. He went 3-for-4 and drove in two runs against a team he would join three years later.
“I did OK,” he said. “I always hit well in Tiger Stadium. It was one of my best ballparks to hit in.”
Clemens finished the ’96 season with a 10-13 record, 3.63 ERA and a league-high 257 strikeouts. He signed with Toronto after the season, and won 20 games in each of the next two years.
“He was probably the best I ever caught,” said Haselman. “Him and the Big Unit (Randy Johnson). Those guys were something else.”
South Bend, after all, is home of Notre Dame University and its rich football tradition. And the Loons inaugural game on April 5, 2007, was played in football weather – November football weather.
“It was unbelievably cold,” said Loons play-by-play broadcaster Brad Golder.
So cold, says Golder, that Loons leadoff hitter Trayvon Robinson stepped to the plate wearing a ski mask. Then Robinson added to the surreal nature of things by dropping a drag bunt on the first pitch and legging it out for a single.
With that, the Loons were off and running, literally and figuratively.
The Loons have played nearly 1,000 games since, but the first one will always remain a cornerstone of franchise history. For the record, the Loons beat South Bend’s Silver Hawks that day, 10-3, under the guidance of manager Lance Parrish – a former Detroit Tigers star.
The Loons starting pitcher was a highly-touted lefthander from Texas named Clayton Kershaw. He was opposed by another talented Texan, Brett Anderson. Neither pitcher fared well in the bitter cold, however.
“Kershaw wasn’t very good at all, but neither was Anderson,” says Golder. “It was so cold, though, it wasn’t fair to judge either pitcher.”
Kershaw pitched two innings and walked six batters. It was hardly a sign of things to come, seeing how he’s gone on to become a two-time National League Cy Young Award winner and the highest-paid pitcher in baseball.
Anderson has had better days, too, as his five years of MLB experience with the Oakland Athletics would attest. He hasn’t enjoyed Kershaw-like success, mind you, but few have.
Robinson would finish the Loons Inaugural with two hits, as did Matt Berezay, Josh Bell and Carlos Santana. Berezay, Bell and Australian David Sutherland each drove in two runs. Doug Brooks, one of four Loons pitchers called to action, pitched 3.2 innings of scoreless relief and got the win.
The Loons lineup, meanwhile, included four players who would eventually play in the MLB: Kershaw, Santana, Bell and Robinson. Not in the lineup were backup catcher Kenley Jansen – who switched to pitching a couple of years later and is now the Dodgers closer – and outfielder Scott Van Slyke and pitcher Steve Johnson, two additional Loons who reached the majors.
But in looking at the Loons 1st game lineup – and pitchers used – it reveals varying degrees of success of those involved. Kershaw, as mentioned, has reached the mountaintop of professional baseball careers. Others have gone on to entirely different professions.
Here’s a look at that first lineup and what road each has traveled since the Loons first flight:
Trayvon Robinson, CF
The Loons leadoff man provided speed at the top of the lineup and a defensive presence in centerfield. He played the entire 2007 season with Great Lakes, batting .253 with two home runs and 31 RBIs. A 10th round pick of the Dodgers in 2005 – and a Los Angeles native – Robinson was eventually traded to Seattle and made his big league debut with the Marines on Aug. 5, 2011.
He’s played in 90 MLB games, compiling a .215 batting average and .314 on-base percentage. He was traded by the Mariners to Baltimore in 2013, but is back in the Dodgers organization after signing a free agent deal this winter.
Preston Mattingly, SS
The son of MLB legend and current Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, Preston played two full seasons with the Loons and part of another. The first-round pick of the Dodgers in the 2006 MLB draft, he played six minor league seasons in all, never advancing beyond the high Single-A level. He had a .232 career MILB batting average, with 25 home runs and 75 stolen bases.
He’s now a freshman at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, and a member of the basketball team.
Matt Berezay, LF
Berezay, a University of Pacific standout, was one of the more productive offensive players for the Loons in their first season. He appeared in 116 games in ’07, and batted .276 with 13 home runs, 64 RBIs and a .344 OBP. He advanced to Double-A Jacksonville in 2008 and batted .128 in 33 games. That was Berezay’s last professional season.
Josh Bell, 3B
Bell was one of the Loons more highly-touted players at the time, as he’d been ranked as the 37th overall prospect by Baseball America. He did nothing to tarnish that reputation with the Loons, as he batted .289 with 15 homers, 62 RBIs and an OBP of .354.
Yet Bell’s career seemed to stall after making his MLB debut in 2010 with the Orioles. He played parts of three seasons with Baltimore and Arizona, compiling a .195 batting average in 100 overall games. He then signed free agent contracts with the White Sox and Yankees, before the Dodgers re-signed him this winter. But Bell opted out of the deal, choosing instead to sign with the LG Twins of the Korean Baseball Organization.Carlos Santana, C
Santana put up mediocre offensive numbers for the Loons in 2007, but caught fire the next season when he hit .326 with 21 HRs and 117 RBIs for three minor league teams. By then, he was part of the Cleveland Indians organization and his career path was following a fast lane to the MLB.
Santana is now a fixture in the Cleveland lineup. He has a career .367 OBP and hit 27 home runs in the 2011 season. His first grand slam was a walk-off shot against the Detroit Tigers in April of 2011. Like Kershaw and Jansen, Santana has carved out a very nice MLB career.
David Sutherland, 1B
A native of Brisbane, Australia, the 6-foot-6 Sutherland played five minor league seasons in the states. Had very modest offensive production with the Loons – in his last season in the U.S. – but his career MILB average was a respectable .274.
Sutherland now plays with the Brisbane Bandits of the Australian Baseball League, where he’s maintained his childhood nickname of “Goofy” (because of his awkward play as a kid). He’s worked for Alderley Hire, an equipment and party hiring service in Brisbane.
Eduardo Perez, DH
Perez played two seasons with the Loons, and was one of the team’s most consistent hitters in 2007 when he batted .311 with 14 HRs, 60 RBIs and a .362 OBP. He was a Midwest League All-Star that season along with teammates Kershaw, Francisco Lizarraga and Miguel Ramirez.
The Venezuela native made it as high as Double-A in both 2009 and 2010, but was a corner infielder without typical corner infielder power numbers. He’s played his last two seasons in the independent Atlantic League.
Justin Fuller, 2B
Fuller will always be able to tell his grandchildren that he was traded straight up for a potential Hall of Famer. On Aug. 31, 2009, Fuller was traded to the White Sox in a deal which brought slugger Jim Thome to the Dodgers.
Fuller, a native of Alaska, never made it to the big leagues, climbing only as high as Double-A in 2010 with the Birmingham Barons. He played in 45 total games for the Loons over parts of two seasons. He was selected by Baseball America as the best defensive player in the 2006 Dodgers draft class.
Clayton Kershaw, LHP
Kershaw averaged 11.3 strikeouts and had a 1.121 WHIP in a brief minor league career before the Dodgers brought him on board in May of 2008 (at age 20). Since then, all he’s done is win two National League Cy Young Awards and three consecutive ERA titles, while leading the league in K’s twice.
Kershaw’s current contract pays him $30.7 million per season. Enough said.
Doug Brooks, RHP
Brooks, a home state product who prepped at Taylor Kennedy High School, pitched in 75 minor league games but never advanced further than Single-A. His victory in South Bend was his only win with the Loons. Brooks – who has been out of professional baseball since 2009 – had an 8-11 career MILB mark with a 5.68 ERA.
The home plate collision is baseball’s version of a running back and linebacker meeting head-on at the line of scrimmage. Or, a board-rattling check in hockey.
It’s also one of baseball’s most dramatic, and exciting, plays. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s a stunning – if not shocking – moment when what’s basically a non-contact sport becomes a high-impact one.But when Major League Baseball’s rules committee voted recently to legislate home plate collisions, it placed a clear emphasis on player safety. In a sports landscape colored by a concussion crisis, the MLB has put its most dangerous play under scrutiny, and rightfully so.
The new rule doesn’t eliminate the play entirely, but makes it clear that it can be part of the game in only a few scenarios.
Simply put, a baserunner cannot just steamroll a catcher if he has a better option. And the catcher can’t block the runner’s direct path to home plate unless his teammate’s throw puts him in that position.
The rule will be enforced at all levels of professional baseball, including the Midwest League. While it may not eliminate home plate collisions at Dow Diamond, for example, it will make it clear that certain conditions must be met for the play to be legal.
Specifically, rule 7.13 states “a runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate).” A runner violating the rule shall be declared out, even if the fielder drops the ball.
Collisions may still occur if the catcher has the ball and is blocking the runner’s direct path to home plate, and if the catcher goes into the basepath to field a throw to the plate.
On the flip side, a catcher cannot block home plate without possession of the ball. If he does, the baserunner will automatically be called safe.
What will never be a violation is a runner sliding and a catcher providing an open lane to the plate. Home plate then becomes like every other base, sort of.
In any case, it’s up to the umpire to decide what constitutes an acceptable collision and what crosses the line. It’s worth noting that the new rule is considered “experimental” and is in place for the 2014 season only.
It’s also worth noting the MLB umpires will have the benefit of replay to determine if a collision is legal or not; minor league umpires won’t have such technology. What they see (in a split-second) is what they get, so to speak.
Again, the rule is all about safety. High-profile collisions such as the one that seriously injured Giants catcher Buster Posey in 2011 provide a worst-case scenario, but many others – like the one which left Tigers catcher Alex Avila dazed in last year’s ALCS – are just as violent.
In MLB lore, few home plate collisions have captured the public’s imagination as the Pete Rose-Ray Fosse high speed crash during the 1970 All-Star game.
Rose, playing on his home field at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, ran over Fosse with the force of a locomotive to score the winning run for the National League. Fosse went down in a heap with what was later revealed to be a fractured and separated shoulder, though he continued to play when the regular season resumed a few days later.
Ironically, Fosse said that he and his wife socialized with the Roses the night before the game. Who knew they would meet again so suddenly, and violently, under such circumstances 24 hours later?
Fosse also said that he wasn’t really blocking the plate, but positioned where outfielder Amos Otis’ throw took him.
“I was up the line,” Fosse said. “Because if I’d stayed on home plate, I miss the ball by three feet and we wouldn’t be talking today. Because they would have said, ‘Geez, why did you ole’ it?’”
But, under rule 7.13, would the play be deemed legal? Considering that Fosse ended up in Rose’s path while fielding a throw, it would seem to be within the boundaries of fair play. And, given his hard-nosed brand of play – plus the fact that it happened in front of his home fans – Rose earned his share of style points.
Did he have other options? Fosse suggested that Rose initially meant to slide, but instead went for the knockout. In today’s world, replay would hopefully indicate fair or foul play. Or, necessity.
Baseball has certainly entered a new era – or even, a few eras – since the Rose/Fosse collision, not that players compete at a different intensity, or aren’t as tough. But with the growing data concerning concussions in every sport, the notion of what constitutes player safety is ever-evolving.
“It’s almost insane to have a catcher standing in front of home plate like a sitting duck and a baserunner just plowing him,” says Giants outfield Hunter Pence. “Even in football, they have pads on and they don’t just let him hit the guy trying to catch the football.”
Famed baseball historian/writer Bill James has argued that home plate collisions are more common to the modern era of baseball - even more common to the past few decades. Part of his conclusion is based on research of old baseball photographs, none of which show collisions at the plate.
Home plate collisions aren’t forbidden in college baseball, but the NCAA’s “Collision Rule” states that the baserunner can’t “initiate” contact above the catcher’s waist, and if he does it’s not considered a legitimate attempt to reach the base.
Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, a former catcher, told the New York Times that he doesn’t want to see the play eliminated, but would rather the rule define what specific kind of contact is allowed.
“This is a run. This is the difference between possibly making the playoffs and not making the playoffs. It should matter a little bit more,” Ausmus said. “In my mind, I’d love to see something that if there’s a collision, any hit above the shoulders, maybe the runner is out.”
In any case, even if the rule is for 2014 and then going to be re-evaluated, it’s likely here to stay. Whether collisions are one day eliminated completely, is another matter. In terms of player safety, however, it’s a step in the right direction.
Until our Loons ground crew commenced snow removal operations today, the question of whether Dow Diamond’s grass would actually be visible at some point was as much rumor as fact.
The snow removal confirmed the rumor as true, but when you consider that we’ve been stuck in the aptly-named Polar Vortex – an inhuman mix of cold, snow, and worn-out snow blowers – it wasn’t easy to just accept it as gospel.
The fact is, no one really remembered when the ground wasn’t covered in layers of snow. There certainly was no dreaming of a white Christmas, because it was right there in vivid reality.
It’s been more than snow, though. It’s been weeks of wicked cold, which has made a brisk 7-degree morning seem like the new normal. A day in the 20s is reason enough to roll down car windows. And people who emerged into the bright sunlight of a recent 40-degree afternoon had the same gloriously stunned expressions of lottery winners.
But baseball will be played here. Make no mistake about it. The Loons home opener is April 8, and barring some last, evil tentacle reaching out of the Vortex, a game of baseball will commence at 6:05 p.m. against the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Unless it rains, of course, but that’s another matter entirely.
This isn’t, after all, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where in 1978 nearly 356 inches of snow was reported by students of Michigan Technological University in Houghton. It’s been said of the U.P. that there are two seasons: 1) winter, 2) A few months of bad skiing. Just for the record, Michigan Tech does not have a baseball team.
Despite the obstacles, these two Wisconsin colleges in the following video do play baseball, however, and probably should have paid their hot chocolate vendors by the mile during this brisk outing at the ballpark.
Not that Michigan, and the Great Lakes Bay Region, has exclusive rights to the Vortex, or fierce winters in general. Truth is, we’ve had a string of mild ones (which didn’t necessarily translate into mild springs and summers, mind you) until getting hit with this season’s frosty haymaker.
For instance, Kansas City was nailed with a snow surprise last May, which certainly put a damper on that day’s Royals-Rays game at Kauffman Stadium.But then there was last April’s doubleheader in Denver between the Rockies and Braves, in which temperatures at Coors Field bottomed out at 23 degrees. That didn’t stop Atlanta pitcher Mike Minor from wearing short-sleeves. Said Minor, “I don’t know what it is, but with (long) sleeves on, I feel restricted. It’s just a feeling and you want to feel comfortable out there.”
As a non-baseball aside, this state’s long-suffering Lions fans (yes, long-suffering may be redundant) won’t soon forget this past season’s game at Philadelphia in which eight inches of snow fell during the course of the game. The Lions’ loss was somewhat more tolerable because of the sheer fun of watching a game played in a blizzard.
But baseball’s rich history is certainly filled with cold and snowy tales, including those that took a wrong turn in the flurry-filled proceedings. The 1907 opener between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies was called when frustrated Giants fans pelted the field – and umpire – with snowballs when their heroes fell behind 3-0.
Still, in the course of a season rainouts will always lead the way, leaving snowouts in a category all of their own – one that is, thankfully, rarely accessed. After all, winter can’t last forever.