CLINTON — It was a struggle, but the Clinton LumberKings made it into the Midwest League playoffs.
Despite losing seven games in a row down the stretch, and winning just three of their final 12 games in the second half, the LumberKings held on to earn the final playoff spot in the Western Division.
While one might think that a team that didn’t play .500 baseball in either half of the season would have little chance against the team with the fifth-best overall record in the entire league, the LumberKings aren’t thinking that way.
“We have a good shot at going deep in the playoffs,” catcher Tyler Marlette said.
Clinton opens the best-of-three first round against Beloit, an affiliate of the Oakland Athletics. The Snappers won the West title in the first half and have a 77-63 record overall this season. But, Clinton has had its share of success against them.
“I think it’s going to be a good matchup,” Clinton manager Eddie Menchaca said. “In a lot of ways we’re similar. It’s just a matter of whose going to execute when it counts.”
Before getting swept in a four-game series at Beloit in late August, Clinton led the season series 8-5. They were 7-3 against the Snappers at Ashford University Field, where the playoffs open with a 6:30 p.m. game today. Victor Sanchez (6-6, 2.78 ERA) gets the start for Clinton.
“We played them well all year,” Menchaca said. “It’s just that last series — we had some stuff that just happened, guys were trying to fit in to different roles.”
Statistically, there isn’t a great deal of difference between the clubs.
Clinton led the Midwest League with a .268 batting average (Beloit hit .254), but Beloit hit a league-best 120 home runs (to Clinton’s 72). Beloit has a slight edge, 658-629, in runs scored and both teams ranked in the bottom five in stolen bases, where Clinton holds a 106-97 advantage.
As for pitching, Beloit’s team earned-run average (3.88) ranked 10th in the league, while Clinton was right behind at 3.90. Beloit pitchers allowed 612 runs, Clinton’s 625. Neither team is overpowering. Beloit’s strikeout total of 943 ranked 14th in the league, while Clinton was last at 883. The one area where there is a decided edge is saves, where Beloit tied for second with 43, 14 more than Clinton.
“Their (bull)pen is pretty good,” Menchaca said. “If they take the lead, it’s going to be tough for us. We just have to make sure we score early and try not to get into their pen, and if we do get into their pen, have the lead.”
No matter how things turn out, though, it’s been an interesting journey for the LumberKings.
Only 11 players remain from the opening-day roster, and two of them are on the disabled list. Between promotions to High-A High Desert and injuries, the roster has turned over a great deal. No pitcher has spent the whole year in the rotation, and much of the team’s power has been lost.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Menchaca said. “It’s definitely a different group, that’s for sure, but as a coach, as a manager, you can’t really read into that. You have to go with what you have.”
The LumberKings did get one key player back recently. Dylan Unsworth, who had arm problems shortly after being selected for the All-Star Game and missed that game and much more, returned to the club last week and made his first start since early June.
“It feels great to be back in the clubhouse,” said Unsworth, who spent about three months in Arizona rehabbing. “The coaching staff told me just get ready for the playoffs, so I’m here now, I’m ready and I’m good to go. I’m excited.”
While he’s happy to see one of his star players return, Menchaca said there also was an intriguing element to all the roster turnover.
“It’s kind of good to have a different roster and still manage to kind of make a little playoff push,” he said. “It says a lot to these guys.”
Marlette, whose .304 batting average trails only Dario Pizzano’s .311 among the handful of players who have been here all year, feels good about the team.
“We’ve accomplished a lot,” he said “We’ve had a lot of big games this year; we’ve lost a lot of close ballgames. We’ve had a lot of big performances out of a lot of these guys. Sanchez threw a no-hitter early in the year, helped us out big. This whole team is collective.”
With one thought on its collective mind.
“We’re all family here,” Marlette said. “We’re close. You can go along and ask everybody in this clubhouse and everybody’s going to say the same thing. We want a ring. That’s what we’re worried about. We want to wear a ring around.”
Outfielder Gaby Guerrero, another of the five position players left from the opening-day roster, agreed.
“We have a great team, and we (knew) we (could) make the playoffs,” he said. “Now we have to try to win this game and get to the finals.”