By Dan Gilles
The Lake Erie Crushers had hoped to be playing for a berth in the Frontier League Championship Series this past week, with a chance at the franchise’s second championship.
Instead, the Crushers are on the outside looking in, having their playoff chances collapse on the final day of the regular season for the second time in as many seasons and the third time in their four-year history.
A myriad of factors played a role in Lake Erie not making the Frontier League’s postseason.
A 7-14 start including an early 1-11 record at All Pro Freight Stadium, is one reason. The team rebounded to post a 53-49 record – its best since going 57-38 in 2009 – and 27-24 at home, but the 24 losses at The Freight this season were the most they have ever suffered at home.
A 3-5 finish during the team’s final eight games against clubs that either qualified for the playoff or were in contention also hurt, capped by a 6-2 loss at Southern Illinois in the second game of a twi-night doubleheader on Sept. 2.
Veteran third baseman/shortstop Andrew Davis, the only member of the club to play all four years, believes the Crushers could have been a force in the playoffs if they had finished the job.
“Our team was way better than we showed, especially at the end,” said Davis, who led the Crushers with 14 home runs and 67 RBIs while batting .277. “We had a chance at the end, and throughout the season, that’s really the goal – to have a chance at the end of the season. We were right there and we kind of fell short of it.”
John Massarelli, the Crushers manager since the franchise was born four years ago, believes that this year’s team had one of the most talented and deep rosters he’s ever put together.
“Overall, I was very happy,” he said. “We had a strong club. We had speed, power, extra base power, a lot of ways to score runs and good arms on our staff. Do I think we could have hit better? Yeah, but we hit good enough to win the majority of our games. Overall, we did a lot of good things. I think it was the strongest club we had in our four years, but we just didn’t get it done.”
The 53 wins gave the Crushers four years of 50 wins or more. This season was the third time in the four years that they were involved in a playoff race going into the regular season’s final week. The Crushers didn’t clinch a playoff berth in 2009 until the second-to-last day of the regular season, while the 2011 team punched their ticket on the season’s final day.
“Baseball is one of those sports where if you win at the right time, that’s how you get it done,” Davis said. “We got off to slow start at home, which could have made big difference. But you’ve got to win at the end. I’d rather be winning going into the playoffs than clinch early and be lackadaisical.
“I never thought we were down very often, but I never felt we were up, either. At the end, we won a lot, but not as much as we needed to.”
Lost in the shuffle was the 200th win as a franchise – and for Massarelli as the Crushers’ manager – which came Aug. 8 in a 6-4 win at Gateway. The Crushers are 211-170 (.553) as a franchise.
“It’s just hard to believe that Florence hadn’t been to the playoffs in their 10 years in this league before this year,” Massarelli said.“What we’ve accomplished in four years, it’s a true success story from top to bottom. I don’t take it lightly or for granted what this organization has accomplished.
“Do we want to win four championships in four years? Of course, but collectively, I would think we’re in the top three in wins for franchises over the last four years.”
Davis, who plans on returning to the Crushers next season, said Massarelli is a big reason for the franchise’s sustained success.
“I’ve learned more about hitting and baseball from Mazz in those two weeks I was around him than I probably learned in my life,” Davis said. “That’s made a huge impact on me.
“Mazz brings lot of experience and knowledge to the table. I learned so much from him over last four years – way more than I learned in my two years with the (San Francisco) Giants.”
Massarelli singled out closer Jonathan “Yanni” Kountis, who was named the Frontier League’s Reliever of the Year after posting a 6-2 record with 18 saves and a 1.06 ERA.
“That’s a priority for (pitching coach Chris Steinborn) and I; we build from the back up every year,” Massarelli said. “We try to find pitchers who are starters and guys that we can develop a role. Fortunately, every year, we find a guy that steps up.
“This year, ‘Yanni’ filled that role. His only glitch was at Windy City during the last week of the season. He was a dominant reliever the entire season, and that’s why he was voted the best in the league.”
Kountis, an Akron native, was third in the Frontier League with his 18 saves, but his 1.06 ERA led all closers.
Massarelli has already started to look ahead at his roster. Experienced players such as starting pitcher Paul Fagan, outfielder Kellen Kulbacki and relief pitcher Travis Risser will go over the age limit (of 27 years old) next season and won’t be back. And many of the “Rookie-2” players will be considered “experienced” players next season.
“Of our rookies, only (North Olmsted native Aaron) Klinec, (Brad) Duffy and (Alex) Loftin are the only ones that stay rookies,” Massarelli said. “Guys like (Randy) Sturgill and Klaf (Ben Klafczynski) become vets. Our vets just went from 13 to 22 overnight.
“There are going to be a lot of decisions to where we can’t bring some of our vets back. However, that’s a good part of the league. It keeps it young, and we bring young guys in to compete and give a chance.”
Despite the disappointing ending, Massarelli is convinced that this year’s Crushers should rank among the best teams he’s ever fielded. And his veteran leader, Davis, agrees.
“As far as all the guys are concerned, everyone worked hard,” Davis said. “We had a pretty good season even though it didn’t end like we wanted. But that’s baseball for you. I think it has a lot to do with Mazz’s philosophy and the way we go through the season as a whole. The basic goal is to work hard every day and give ourselves a chance at the end.
“How many organizations have won a championship their first year and stayed consistent every single year after? Not many.”