The South Bend Cubs know how to keep you 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, the Cubs 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.
To begin the game, Manager Jimmy Gonzalez went with starting pitcher Kyle Miller. The tall, lanky Miller was only making his third start of the year. Miller arrived in South Bend in late April making 11 relief appearances. As a starter, Miller had gone 11 innings, allowed 2 ERs, and struckout 4. Miller works off his fastball and uses mainly a cutter. He has good command down in the zone.
Miller did his part on the day. Miller gave up a lone run in the third.That was it. He gave up four hits, walked two, and struck out 5. The problem was the Cubs did not have a hit until Eloy Jimenez doubled to lead off the fifth. The next inning, though, the Cubs finally got to Lake County starter Brock Hartson.
To begin the sixth, recent acquiree 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. The Cubs were looking to take the lead. PJ Higgins struck out leaving it up to Ian Rice. Rice, fortunately, walked to bring up the Cubs most dangerous hitter, Eloy Jimenez.. Eloy got the pitch he liked, turned on the ball, and sent it screaming to the left center field wall. Sepulveda scored from third while Ian Rice hustled in from first. The Cubs were now up 3-1.
Miller came back out for the seventh inning. He gave up a leadoff single and then calmly got the next three hitters in order. Fireballing Pedro Araujo came in from the pen for the eighth and ninth innings and struck out four of the next six batters to get the save and, ultimately, the championship!
The Cubs had to wait to see the outcome of the West Michigan/Lansing.game. 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 ninth. In the 11th, Lansing won it after a single, wild pitch, and then a double by Ryan Hissey toppled West Michigan from first place.
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 lead 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). They scored 319 runs and allowed 290. Truly, though, this was 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 lead 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 happily 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 HRs and 45 RBIs. Andrew Ely and Daniel Spingola were also excellent as both hit near .300 before their promotions to Myrtle Beach two weeks ago. 2B 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. However, Ian Rice, also a catcher, has been a beast leading the team with 9 HRs despite missing almost all of April and only playing in 35 games (half the season). Donnie Dewees lead the team in RBIs for most of the first half before being passed by Eloy.
The bullpen actually turned about to the only consistent force all year. It was buoyed by Craig Brooks, Pedro Araujo, James Norwood, Scott Effross, John Williamson and Greyfer Eregua. Players shifted roles nightly and Manager Jimmy Gonzalez and pitching coach David Rosario got them ready for every situation. Kyle Twomey, Kyle Miller, and Casey Bloomquist were three pitchers who moved in and out of the pen and starting 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. They score runs in bunches. If they were behind by 4-5 runs, they could come back and did several times in early May. You can tell this team takes direction well. Each player made small adjustments to improve their game throughout the season. That is a testament to the coaching staff and the players.
Watching each aspect of the team work in concert with the others to win was the most rewarding part of the season. It’s a simple concept. South Bend did it really well. Congratulations!