The Great Lakes Loons battled back to beat the Clinton (IL.) Lumber Kings (Seattle Mariners) 9-8 to claim the organization's first ever Midwest League Championship 3-games to-1 at Dow Diamond Sunday afternoon.
At the All-Star break in June, the Loons had the lowest team batting average in all of minor league baseball and finished the first half of the season in fifteenth (of 16 teams) place.
Manager Gil Velazquez watched the chemistry of his team morph into that of a competitor -and eventually that of a champion- as new players joined the roster, while the remaining players worked hard to improve individually, while also buying into the team-first concept.
“This is a different team from the team that actually started the season,” Velazquez said. “You know, some guys that have been here since the beginning have also turned it around, they got better as the season went on and the guys that came in, they gave us good energy. Not only good energy, they're also competitor's. So, when you have the young guys with the talent learn how to compete with the new guys who've come from college and they all come together as a team it's just unreal, the ride has been unreal.”
The Loons trailed 7-4 after Clinton scored 3 runs in the top of the sixth inning but answered with five huge runs in the bottom half of the inning, taking the lead for good.
Clinton reliever Lukas Schiraldi walked Zach McKinstry and Jake Henson to lead of the bottom of the sixth and Matt Jones singled to load the bases for the Loons. Darien Tubbs was Schiraldi's third walked batter of the inning which allowed McKinstry to score and prompt a pitching change.
Saige Jenco was the fourth walked batter of the inning as Henson scored from third. A Brendon Davis SAC fly RBI would bring in Jones tie the game, then a huge 2-RBI double from Logan Landon drove in Tubbs and Jenco for a 9-7 Loons lead.
Landon was one of the few players on the Loons' roster who was here for the dismal first half of the season, making his go ahead double in the sixth all the more special in his first championship at any level.
“It was unbelievably tough,” Landon said on staying positive after such a disappointing first half. “That's where our coaching staff comes in, you know, Bobby (Cuellar), Fumi (Ishibashi), Gil (Velaszquez), John Valentin, when he was here. Just doing everything they can to keep us up. Telling us to keep putting in the work everyday and trust the process. You know, it was tough for a long stretch there, it was cold, we were playing bad baseball and things just weren't really clicking, but we knew that at one point or another we were going to turn it around because we have a solid team here.
“I just figured some stuff out with my swing, that in the first half I had been working on a lot,” Landon continued. “Honestly, in the first half I think I found out everything with my swing that doesn't work for me, so coming in to the second half I found something that worked, you know the hitting coaches and all the coaches told me to stay up and trust my ability, you know, trust everything that I'm doing and trust all the work I put in before games and sooner or later things will start to go my way and luckily they started to go my way as the team started to turn around and we were able to put it together.”
The Lumber Kings would get to Loons' starter Yadier Alvarez early. After giving up a lead-off home run to Alex Jackson he would go on to give up two more runs on a base clearing RBI double to Clinton second baseman Chris Mariscal as the Lumber Kings took an early 3-0 lead in the top of the second.
The Loons would answer with three runs in the bottom of the second inning. Landon singled to lead off the bottom half of the inning, and D.J. Peters reached when he was hit by a pitch, followed by an RBI double from Henson. Jones cleared the bases and tied the game with a 2-RBI single to score Henson and Peters.
Alvarez finished the day giving up 3-runs on 4-hits and 3-walks while striking out 5-batters through three innings.
The Loons would pull ahead when Jones' one out double in the bottom of the fourth put him in position to score on Jenco's RBI single giving the Loons a 4-3 lead.
Loons reliever Ivan Vieitez (9.00 ERA) gave up a lead off home run to Clinton first baseman Dalton Kelly in the fifth but settled in to get out of the inning. The sixth, however, was a different story, as he gave up a two run homer to Mariscal before his exit.
Vieitez would give up 4-runs on 5-hits and 1 walk while striking out three batters through 2.1 innings. Karch Kowalczyk (3.86 ERA) replaced Vieitez getting the final two outs of the sixth inning and earning the win.
Jones, who honors two friends he lost (one to cancer and one to a car accident) during his prep baseball days in Nebraska by wearing rubber wrist-bands in their memory, had an incredible day going 4 for 4 with 2-RBI and 2 runs scored, including two doubles.
He also honors another fallen friend from the University of Nebraska, former Punter Sam Foltz, who was killed in a car accident along with former MSU punter Mike Sadler this summer. Jones felt their presence today.
“They were definitely with me today, they're on my hat, on my arms, in my heart,” Jones said. “They are definitely guys I look to when I'm struggling, I'll always look up and ask them to give me a little something, and I didn't know where we'd end up (this season), but I'm glad I could do it for them as well as everybody here.”
With three Loons' pitchers struggling, reliever Dean Kremer entered the game with one out in the seventh inning and completely shut down the Lumber Kings to secure the championship with his first save of the post season.
Kremer, who was promoted to the Loons from the shortened rookie league in early August, adjusted to the next level well as one of the best bull pen pitchers down the stretch, saving his best for last.
“I haven't been here the whole year, so it's definitely different coming from the short season-A, this level is obviously higher and the competition is better,” Kremer said “I'm a pretty calm person as it is, so, I just try to keep to myself and just do what I can do.”
The players will all head their different ways -Kremer, for instance will leave directly from the locker room and head to Brooklyn, NY where he will join the Israeli national baseball team for WBC training- but they will all meet up next year at spring training and watch a completely new group of Loons' players come to defend the 2016 MWL title.
The 2016 Great Lakes Loons had a very tumultuous start to their first professional baseball season. However, they sure finished strong, and from this moment and beyond, they will forever be known as champions.