On Friday night, the Class A Lakewood BlueClaws locked down their first playoff berth since 2010 with a 10-4 win over Greensboro (Miami affiliate) at FirstEnergy Park.
With the win, which was the BlueClaws’ 21st victory in their last 27 contests, the team won the South Atlantic League’s Northern division second-half title. They’ll face Hagerstown, the first-half division winners, in the opening round of the playoffs beginning on Wednesday in Lakewood.
The ‘Claws (42-25 in the second half, 71-65 overall) took considerable strides to improve since a slow start which saw their record on April 30th (5-16) as the second worst in the minors.
I spoke with Lakewood manager Shawn Williams this weekend to get his feedback on the team’s position in the standings, some of his club’s leaders and plenty more. Read ahead for that interview.
-Infielder/outfielder Grenny Cumana has been a big contributor for the team in the second half, sporting a .305 batting average during that stretch. Can you talk about his contributions of late?
His contributions all year! He’s a big part of where we’re at right now. A lot of guys that we’ve had here, guys like Tobias have gone, but he’s a guy that even if he doesn’t get a hit, he’s going to help you win somehow. He’ll make a play, steal a base. It seems like every time it’s late in the game, you know, a tie game where we need a run, he’s leading off and he gets it going somehow. A base hit, bunt, double, it’s like he’s always that guy that gets everything going, gets big innings going. He’s really an absolute pain for the other team. I know he’s the hardest to strike out in the league and things like that. I know that other teams can’t stand to face him because he’s that little guy and he can hammer anybody’s fastball. He’s just a gamer.
-Outfielder Jose Pujols recently set the BlueClaws’ single season home run record, passing Jim Murphy and Juan Richardson with his 23rd of the year. Was there any sort of recognition or celebration when he did that?
The best thing was that he didn’t think a whole lot of it and that’s why in the next game he continued on. I think in the next game he hit his 24th. You know and he kept going and he’s been on a mission here especially in the second half and definitely the last month, he’s had very good at bats and I think he’s in the mindset of he’s having good at bats and he’s seen the average come up and, obviously, the power numbers, but he’s having really good at bats.
-Did his teammates acknowledge the achievement?
Oh yeah, they definitely did, they knew, but he didn’t. He was very calm and he wasn’t too excited, very professional. Not that you can’t show any emotion, but that’s just how he is. He’s on a mission.
-I know the starting pitching has been integral for you guys in the second half. What can you tell me about how much of a difference that group has made, or strides toward remarkability versus the first half?
It’s crazy because, obviously, they’re a big reason why we’re at where we’re at right now, I mean pitching and defense, but even early in the year, there were so many things that happened that if things were to get turned around– and I was very positive thinking that they were– but there were so many things happening when we weren’t winning, it seemed like we were in every single game and a lot of little things weren’t going our way, but we were right there every game and all of a sudden it started to turn around right there at the end of the first half where some things started going our way. Getting out of some big innings, getting some walk offs, things like that to where they translated in the second half.
The competition these guys have, whether they’re conditioning, they’re always competing, so that’s the main reason why our starters have been so good. They’re close knit, they get on each other in a good way and they kind of—it’s all about beating the guy they saw pitch the night before.
-Over the weeks leading up to clinching the division this weekend, have you noticed a different vibe in the clubhouse?
Yeah, definitely. They’re feeling it. Even a couple weeks ago, when we’re that close. The thing I love is that they’re relaxed right now. They go out there and keep playing well like that have and good things are going to happen.
Talking about starting pitcher Seranthony Dominguez:
I just know that more importantly (he was) having long innings and long at bats, you know, where he’s facing four guys and he’s throwing 25 pitches to where now, he’s had many games where (he’s gone) six innings and 80 pitches. We had a game in Kannapolis where we had a rain delay after three and he was cruising through that games and it was one of those where he’s got a chance to go seven or eight innings, which is always nice to see. I know it’s a big thing that (pitching coach Brian) Sweeney preaches to these guys- every time I take the ball, I’m going nine innings.
On what has been the biggest difference in regards to Dominguez’s results:
Strike one. Getting ahead of hitters. The thing I like that he does is a lot of times he’ll go 0-1 and he’ll come back with another heater and he’s 0-2, and he’ll pitch from there. His breaking ball has definitely gotten better through the course of the year and that makes him even better to go 0-1, 0-2 on hitters. The best pitch in baseball is strike one and he’s been doing a very good job of strike one on first pitch. It’s hard to hit 0-1. It changes the whole at bat, you know, that first pitch how important it is.
The Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs also clinched a playoff berth in Friday night, with a 7-1 win at Rochester (Minnesota affiliate).
Right-hander Ben Lively notched his 18th victory of the season while striking out 10 batters in six scoreless frames. In 29 starts combined with Lehigh Valley and Double-A Reading, the 24-year-old has tallied a 2.69 ERA along with a .192 batting average against.