By Dan Gilles
It’s been a tale of two halves for the 2012 Lake Erie Crushers during the first 48 games of the regular season.
The Crushers, who overcame a 7-17 start to their season to finish 51-44 and qualify for the Frontier League playoffs for the second time in their three-year existence, stumbled out of the gate for the second-straight season.
This time, it was a 7-14 start to their season, which was marred by a disturbing 1-11 record at All Pro Freight Stadium. Consider that, in each of the last two seasons, the Crushers lost 21 games at home each time, and the home struggles were a definite cause for concern.
On June 10, the Crushers had just dropped a 5-4 loss to the visiting Gateway Grizzlies to cement a Grizzlies three-game sweep. The loss was Lake Erie’s fifth-straight at home, dropping it to 1-11 at All Pro Freight Stadium, and its fourth-straight overall, which dropped it to 7-14 overall.
In a rare moment of frustration, manager John Massarelli publically expressed his doubts that his team’s fortunes would turn around postgame.
“They’ve got to find ways to win instead of finding ways to lose,” he said. “Walking a leadoff hitter in the ninth and hitting the next guy, there’s a factor. Not covering first base on a ground ball to the right side, there’s a factor. Throwing a ball into the stands from right field, there’s a factor. Those things don’t win games.”
When asked if he sensed that things are on the verge of turning for the better, he succinctly answered, “No.”
“But as long as I believe in the ability in the clubhouse and they keep working every day like they did last year – and I am seeing that,” he said. “They’re busting their hump every day trying to figure out how to get on track. And they have the ability. Those two ingredients are key.
“If we didn’t have the ability, it doesn’t matter how hard you work. But they have a lot of ability in the clubhouse. They’re a very talented team. They’ve just got to figure out how to win. As long as they’re working to do that, they’ll eventually get on a roll. We’ve just got to keep working and find that right mix.”
Almost as if a light switch turned on, the Crushers responded by sweeping the Washington Wild Things at home, which kick-started a four-game home-win streak and an 11-4 home record that not only gave the team the home-field advantage they enjoyed the previous three seasons, but also lifted the team to a winning overall record at the break.
The Crushers went 13-6 to end the month of June and opened July with a 5-3 mark, which included a five-game win streak, for a total run of 18-9.
At the Frontier League All-Star break, the Crushers sat two games over .500 at 25-23. However, they were seven games behind the Traverse City Beach Bums (32-16) for first place in the East Division and four games behind the Southern Illinois Miners – who just took 2-of-3 from the Crushers just before the break – for second place in the division.
Shortstop Jodam Rivera, who missed the first 30 games last season with travel issues, has not reported to the team yet and, likely, won’t be playing professional baseball again. To fill that void, Massarelli has used perennial All-Star Andrew Davis and newcomers Wally Correa, Brandon Decker, J.C. Figueroa and the since retired Gered Mochizuki at short, second and third, with Davis and Correa getting the bulk of the time at short and third.
Eric Gonzalez-Diaz, who wasn’t able to report to the team last season until August due to visa issues, has been with the team all season this year. However, he has struggled, going 4-4 with a 4.33 ERA after a slow start.
However, the way the Crushers ended the first half, winning seven of their last 10 games and putting together winning streaks of four, six and five since June 10, have Massarelli and his players confident going forward into the second half, which began on the road on Friday, July 13.
“I’m excited about how good this team can be over these last 48 games, especially with our younger guys” Crushers manager John Massarelli said. “If they produce like they have over these last 10 games, it’s going to be a very fun second half.
“I think they believe in themselves. They’ve seen every team in the league and I don’t think they’re intimidated by any team in the league. They believe they can play with anyone and they’re tough to beat every night.”
Davis, who leads the team with 31 RBIs and has batted .253 with three home runs during the first half, is one of those players who believes the final first-half flourish can carry over to the second half.
“It’s kind of early to start talking about the playoffs, but it’s never too early to talk about the playoffs, really,” Davis said. “At the same time, we still have half a season left. Right now, even the last-place teams could get hot and make things interesting. I don’t know what the standings are, but we’re playing good right now.
“We aim to keep it going in the second half and hopefully have a playoff run. Hopefully, we’re there and we can have a chance.”
Davis, who is only member of the Crushers to play with them all four years, was one of 10 players the Crushers retained from last season to open the season. With the release of former All-Star reliever Kelyn Schellenberg in June, that number is down to nine.
Starting pitcher Paul Fagan, who was 14-3 during the 2009 championship season and won the Frontier League’s Pitcher of the Year Award as a result, is having his best professional season since that season. He is 4-3, but was plagued by a lack of run support in some of his early outings.
Fagan, a former fourth-round draft choice by the Seattle Mariners, leads all Crushers starters with an ERA of 2.75 and two complete games lead, and his 47 strikeouts and 72 innings pitched are team-bests in both categories.
Massarelli has said time-and-time again that this year’s Fagan reminds him of the 2009 version after a disappointing 7-11 campaign last year.
Jason Taylor, who was the first pick in the second-round of the 2007 Major League Baseball Draft by the Kansas City Royals, was plagued by a slow start last season – his first with the Crushers – before rounding into form.
Taylor, despite missing 14 games with a hamstring problem, has been the offensive MVP of the first half this season. Taylor enters the All-Star break leading the team in batting average (.309), home runs (6) and walks (16). He’s only made one error in the field and has stolen six bases, which is good enough for third on the team.
Since he returned for good on June 14 with a 3-for-4 day, the Crushers are 13-8. Despite those numbers, Taylor was snubbed for the Frontier League All-Star Game.
Fagan was joined by two new arrivals this season – designated hitter Russell Moldenhauer and closer Jonathan Kountis – as the three Crushers representatives on the All-Star team.
Fagan, who started the All-Star Game, earned the win for the East, which defeated the West Division, 9-6, last Wednesday in Normal, Ill. He tossed a scoreless first inning without allowing a hit, a walk or a strikeout.
Moldenhauer, who was originally drafted in the third round in 2006 by the Los Angeles Angels but chose to play for the University of Texas instead, came to the Crushers after two seasons in the Washington Nationals organization. He only has four home runs, but all four have been “tape-measure” jobs. His 18 doubles lead the team, and his 29 runs scored are tied for the team lead. He is hitting .287 with 22 RBIs at the break.
At the All-Star Game, Moldenhauer won the Home Run Derby the night before, and then went 1-for-5 during the game.
Kountis, an Akron native originally drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 2009, has taken the vacant closer role left behind from Ruben Flores, who is now playing very well in the Boston Red Sox organization, and become even more dominant.
Kountis’ 0.61 ERA leads the Crushers and would be tops in the Frontier League if he had enough innings pitched. He’s only allowed two earned runs in 29 2/3 innings pitched and his 10 saves is tied for third in the league and is just two behind the league leader.
Kountis tossed one scoreless inning at the All-Star Game, allowing one walk and striking out one batter.
Ironically, Kountis got his spot because Travis Risser, who’s been with the Crushers since 2010 and served as a very good set-up man last season, had to miss the first month of the season recovering from hernia surgery. Risser is 2-2 with a 3.06 ERA in 11 appearances.
Mickey Jannis, who began the season as a starter, was moved to the pan after going 0-2 with a 7.15 ERA in three starts. He has reinvented himself as a reliable back-end reliever, compiling a 3.38 ERA with two saves.
The Crushers lost All-Star catcher Joel Collins to retirement, but rookie Brian Erie, who gave the Crushers a glimpse of his potential with a .337 performance in 25 games last season, has emerged as a reliable bat in the order. Erie struggled in the early going platooning with fellow second-year player Kyle Shaffer, but Shaffer was released after hitting just .107 to start the season.
Outfielder Daniel Bowman, despite batting .411 at Coastal Carolina this past spring, was ignored by all 30 major league teams in the 40-round draft.
Together, both Erie and Bowman have formed a formidable 1-2 punch in the bottom half of the batting order.
Bowman, who could be the next Crusher picked up by an affiliated team, has hit .333 with four RBIs in eight games and has taken playing time away from former Padres first-round selection Kellen Kulbacki.
Erie made Shaffer expendable and has raised his average to .272 with a home run and 18 RBIs. Since his game-winning grand slam on July 1 in Florence, Erie is hitting 10-for-23 (.434) with seven RBIs.
Another rookie midseason acquisition who has excelled is University of Akron product Alex Loftin, a Stow native. Loftin has gone 3-0 with a 3.12 ERA and 17 strikeouts in his first five starts this season.
Trevor “Deeds” Longfellow, acquired in the offseason for veteran pitcher Josh Roberts, has emerged as one of the Crushers’ most reliable starters. Longfellow is 4-2 with a 3.73 ERA with 39 strikeouts – third-most on the team behind Fagan’s 47 and Gonzalez-Diaz’s 41. He was tapped by Massarelli to start the second-half opener on Friday.
Massarelli is excited to see what the second half holds. The Crushers have become a traditionally strong second-half team in all three of its past seasons, and they are setting up to make another run at it over July and August and, potentially, into September.
“Every team has to find its chemistry, so to speak,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when they do it. You’ve got to face adversity and deal with it. Once teams overcome that adversity, it can go one way, or the other. I think we turned it into a positive and started playing our best ball from the middle of June until now.
“We’ll take a little break that everyone’s looking forward to. After that, we’re looking forward to getting back to work these last 48 games and finishing right where we want to be.”
Whatever happens, it should be an interesting second half for the Lake Erie Crushers.