Crushers look to overcome inconsistency, play better in second half
In a tweet that will not be linked to this article because of its vulgarity, recently released right-handed reliever Doug Shields wished good riddance to the Lake Erie Crushers organization.
The remaining players on the Crushers roster, along with manager Jeff Isom, begin the second half of the season with a similar yet less crude goodbye to the first half. The first half of the season saw the Crushers achieve a record of 25-25, which isn’t a bad mark considering they were as many as six games under .500 in the month of June.
What was bad, however, was the inconsistency. Until their last stretch of baseball before the all-star break, the Crushers were unable to bring all elements of the game together on a nightly basis. Some nights they would pitch but not hit. Some nights they would hit but not pitch. Some nights they would do neither. Other nights they would do both, only to see it go to waste when their bullpen could not finish the job.
In an effort to stay afloat in a league full of roster turnover, the Crushers rejuvenated their team with a flurry of roster moves. The bullpen specifically has seen the most turnover, as there are three new faces in the pen from the start of the season.
Mickey Jannis and Ben Klafczynski were acquired to stabilize the relieve corps. They have teamed up with closer Dale Dickerson and reliable eighth-inning set up man Jordan Wellander to lead its resurgence. That core four is joined by another new addition, Connor Whalen, along with Brad Duffy, and Michael Jahns. So far in the month of July, the Crushers have had perhaps the best bullpen in the Frontier League. In the last five games before the break, the relieve corps did not allow a single run. In a league where the objective is to force the opposing starter out of the game by the fifth inning, that kind of dominance can propel a team to the post season. The Crushers will need to see this kind of success for a longer stretch of time, but can certainly be encouraged that the inconsistent relief is a thing of the past.
The starting pitching has done its part to make things easier on the bullpen, too. Matt Rein and Dave Middendorf have been the team’s top pitchers all season, and it was recognized as they were both named all-stars. Rein has pitched at least five innings in all but one start, and given up three runs or fewer in all but one start. Those were is third and fourth starts of the season. In his last five starts, Rein has pitched two complete game shutouts, and one seven and one-third inning shutout. His dominance has set the tone for the rest of the staff.
Middendorf mentioned after one of his starts that he was disappointed that he didn’t pitch as well his teammates had been pitching. In that start, he allowed just two earned runs over seven innings. That just goes to show how good the starting pitching has been over the last few weeks for the team. The starters embrace competition, and after each quality start from a teammate, they want to do one better. Along with dominance from Rein and Middendorf, the end of June and beginning of July has seen Alex Kaminsky find more consistency, and Matt Smith contribute quality innings as the fourth starter. Adam Beach was recently signed to be the fifth starter, and in his first start he pitched five innings of two run baseball to get the win. The team has been searching for a fifth starter since the release of Longfellow, and Beach may get at least one more chance to prove he’s the guy.
The surprising part of the rotations success has been how good it has been since the release of its ace. Longfellow never figured it out at the beginning of the year, and the team lost patience with him, eventually releasing him. It would be easy to assume that because the team’s ace performed so poorly, that the entire starting staff would be struggling, but that is not the case with this team. Behind Rein and Middendorf, the Crushers rotation combines with their bullpen to give them plenty of optimism on the pitching front heading into the second half of the season. If both groups can continue to perform well, then the Crushers could easily make a run up the East division standings.
The improved pitching as definitely done its part, but one other move that has flown under the radar yet is a big part of the team’s newfound success is the acquisition of Craig Hertler. The Crushers had used three different players in the leadoff spot before Hertler, and none of them found consistency there. Guantlett Eldemire started the season hot, but then he vanished into thin air. He was barely able to get on the field, stuck behind a surging Kevin Berard. Berard took his turn for a few weeks, before he too started to struggle. When he lost his spot, it was handed over to the Crushers’ hottest hitter, Max Casper. Casper didn’t disappoint, but he did fall victim to a cold spell of his own. Then Hertler arrived.
Hertler is only hitting .226 in the nine games since he joined the squad, but he has an on base percentage of .375. He has drawn seven walks, while only striking out six times. He provides the presence the Crushers have been lacking at the top of the order in someone who will work the count and find ways to get on base. His average will only go up as he continues to grow more comfortable with his new team, and he will provide plenty of RBI opportunities to the likes of Andrew Davis, Anderson Hidalgo, and Daniel Bowman. The Crushers had been the top hitting team in the league for stretches this season. While they are falling slightly in the rankings, they continue to put together good at bats and provide solid run support for the pitching.
With Hertler at the top of the lineup, and four all-stars in the 2-6 spots, the Crushers lineup is still as good as any other teams’ in the league. The offense was the first thing that the team was able to find to find consistency with, and it is the aspect that they can be most comfortable with going forward.
At 25-25, the Crushers are 5.5 games behind Traverse City in the East division, and only four games out of a wild card spot. As long as they continue to play with the consistency they are starting to find, this is a team that can make its way back into the playoff race. They will have plenty of opportunities, as 24 of their remaining 45 games are against teams ahead of them in the standings. The Crushers can play with any team in this league on any given night; the problem in the first half was that they did only sometimes. In the second half, the goal will be to say goodbye to the word “sometimes."