The South Bend Cubs know how to keep fans in suspense. For the better part of four days, the Cubs were in a knock-down, drag-out affair with the Lake County Captains for one of two playoff spots in the Eastern Division of the Midwest League. The Cubs won on Thursday night behind Preston Morrison’s 7 IP, 9 K performance. On Friday evening, they were four outs away from clinching the division when an error lead to three unearned runs and, eventually, a loss. On Saturday, the Cubs blew a three-run lead only to lose in extra innings. It all came down to one final game on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Manager Jimmy Gonzalez went with lanky pitcher Kyle Miller, who was making only his third start of the year. Miller arrived in South Bend in late April and began his A-ball career by making 11 relief appearances. As a starter, Miller had gone 11 innings and had allowed two earned runs while striking out four. Miller works off his fastball but mainly uses a cutter and has good command down in the zone.
The young pitcher did his part on the day, giving up a lone run in the 3rd inning. He allowed four hits, walked two, and struck out five. The only problem was the Cubs did not have a hit until Eloy Jimenez doubled to lead off the 5th. The next inning, though, the Cubs finally got to Lake County starter Brock Hartson.
To begin the 6th, recently-acquired Josh Silver got aboard on a bunt. After Bryant Flete failed to move him over, Carlos Sepulveda drilled a double to center to score Silver and tie the game at one. Sepulveda advanced to third on a throwing error, but PJ Higgins struck out. Ian Rice then walked to bring up Jimenez, the Cubs’ most dangerous hitter. He got the pitch he liked, turned on the ball, and sent it screaming to the wall in left center. Sepulveda scored from third while Ian Rice hustled in from first to put the Cubs up 3-1.
Miller came back out for the 7th inning and gave up a leadoff single before calmly setting down the next three hitters in order. Fireballing Pedro Araujo came in from the pen for the 8th and 9th innings and struck out four of the next six batters to get the save and, ultimately, the championship.
The Cubs had to wait for the outcome of the West Michigan/Lansing game to know their fate. If West Michigan won, the Cubs got the wildcard spot. If Lansing won, the Cubs got the Division title. When the Cubs won, Lansing was winning 3-1. West Michigan tied it in the top of the 8th, Lansing scored one in the bottom to take a one run lead, and then Cam Gibson (Kurt’s son) singled to tie it back up in the 9th. In the 11th, Lansing won it after a single, wild pitch, and then a double by Ryan Hissey toppled West Michigan from first place.
So how did South Bend win the first-half title?
South Bend finished the first half with a 41-28 (.594) record. They were 16-17 on the road and an amazing 25-11 at home. They led the league in hitting at .268 and were second in OBP at .338, their team ERA was at 3.53 (10th in the league, up from 14th at one point), and they scored 319 runs while allowing 290. This was truly a team effort.
The Cubs begin playing good ball in late April, relying on their offense and bullpen. At one point, the team was hitting .283. In early May, the starting pitching began to come around, led by Preston Morrison, Carson Sands, and Adbert Alzolay. In early June, Casey Bloomquist and Kyle Miller began starting and lengthening the rotation. Ryan Kellogg, who was amazing in April, struggled in May and rebounded in June. The pitching came around at the right time as the offense began to struggle a lit bit at the beginning of June.
For the first two months of the year, the story of South Bend was the offense. Eloy Jimenez was the star, finishing the first half with a .341 average, 8 homers and 45 RBI. Andrew Ely and Daniel Spingola were also excellent as both hit near .300 before their promotions to Myrtle Beach two weeks ago. Second baseman Carlos Sepulveda has been on fire since returning from the DL. PJ Higgins has been a stalwart in the #2 hole and behind the plate. Ian Rice, also a catcher, has been a beast and is leading the team with 9 home runs. That despite missing almost all of April and only playing in 35 games (half the season). Donnie Dewees held the RBI lead for most of the first half before being passed by Jimenez fairly recently.
The bullpen actually turned about to be the only consistent force all year, buoyed as it was by Craig Brooks, Pedro Araujo, James Norwood, Scott Effross, John Williamson, and Greyfer Eregua. Players shifted roles nightly as Gonzalez and pitching coach David Rosario got them ready for every possible situation. Miller, Bloomquist, and Kyle Twomey were moved the pen and the rotation and performed when called upon for each duty.
Having watched most of the televised games this year, this really is a fun team to watch, in large part because they score runs in bunches. If they were behind by four or five runs, they could come back and did several times in early May. You can tell this team takes direction well too. Each player made small adjustments to improve his game throughout the season, which is also a testament to the coaching staff.
Watching each aspect of the team work in concert to win was the most rewarding part of the season. It’s a simple concept and South Bend did it really well. Congratulations!