The Grass is Greener in the Second Half for the Lake County Captains

The first half of the season is over, and it’s time for a clean slate for the Lake County Captains. In the Low-A Midwest League, a first-half winner is crowned for both the Eastern and Western Divisions, and the records are then wiped, paving the way for a second half of the season with completely new possibilities.

For the Captains, that restart could not have come at a better time.

Lake County finished at a Midwest League worst 27-43, a .386 winning percentage. They were 14 games back of the Eastern Division first half champions, the West Michigan Whitecaps (41-29), who are at least giving their parent organization, the Detroit Tigers, some wins and bragging rights (Justin Verlander’s younger brother, Ben Verlander, is on the Whitecaps roster, likely making family dinners a little tense). Being in first, the Whitecaps secured a playoff spot for the September post-season, with the South Bend Silver Hawks (40-29) also clinching a spot for the Eastern Division. In the Western Division, the Kane County Cougars finished first (45-25), followed by the Burlington Bees (38-31).

In order to improve in the standings and have a shot at securing a playoff spot based on their second-half standing, the Captains will need to step up in virtually every facet of the game. They have shown glimmers of promise on the field, in their pitching, and with their bats, but the overall result has been rough, to say the least. Yes, the Captains have fallen victim to a number of close games and games that have gone into extra innings, games that really could have gone either way. However, they have also been part of blowouts, in which they have lost by scores of 12-2, 10-2, 7-0, 14-4. They lost 19 of 26 games in April, including two eight-game losing streaks.

The team fared nearly the same in May, winning only 12 of their 30 games, though they were more even spaced throughout the month. The team is 8-6 so far in June, including a 13-6 win in South Bend on June 12.

The team, manager Mark Budzinski, and their coaches do not seem too worried about the chances of the Captains going into the second half of the season. They remain optimistic, using phrases that have echoed around the big league team for quite some time this season – “Our best baseball is in front of us.”

Luckily for the Captains, it has started to truly seem that way.

“The way we’ve played in the last three or four weeks, I’ve been very pleased with,” Budzinski said of the way his team ended the first half of the season. “The effort before the game, and the guys are in their routines and they know what they are and work at it and believe in it, so that comes into fruition on the field. The last couple nights we’ve done a much better job of getting in fastball counts and hitting the ball. From a pitching standpoint, we’ve done well all year. Defense has continued to improve and hitting is coming around, too.”

The end of the first half of the season also brought about a number of players who seem to be settling into a groove, and who will serve to be strong asserts to the team moving into the second half. The players who performed well to start the season are still present and improving, as well, which gives the Captains nowhere to go but up.

Players who contributed heavily to the first half hopefully will show no signs of slowing down as the season continues. Paul Hendrix was one of the Captains top performers early in the season, with a team-high .318 average and a .907 OPS. He also boasts a team-high 62 hits.

Eric Haase was another strong first half performer, and was selected as a reserve for Tuesday’s Midwest League All-Star game. Haase leads the Captains in home runs with 12 and has knocked in 26 runs on the year. He is the most-used catcher on the team, having appeared in 44 games this season. If Haase continues at this rate, there is very much a chance that the second half could also see a promotion to High-A Carolina for the 22 year-old catcher.

With eight home runs, Nellie Rodriguez also had an impressive first half for Lake County. Rodriguez played 47 games in a Captains uniform last season, hitting .194 with one home run. This season, he boasts a .221 average and already has eight home runs on the season. He has 52 hits and 12 doubles, as well, making his bat a necessity in the team’s lineup.

From a pitching standpoint, a number of pitchers emerged in the first half as strong members of either the starting rotation or the Captains bullpen. Coming off a subpar 2013, Robbie Aviles quickly rose to be one of the strongest starters on the team. He has started eight games for the Captains, and has appeared in later innings in five games. Aviles posts a 2.16 ERA and a 1-1 record in his team-high 66.2 innings of work. He has struck out 41 batters and walked eight, giving up just two home runs. He was selected as a Midwest League All-Star.

Another Midwest League All-Star on the Captains roster was Jordan Milbrath, a starter who stunned fans in the first half of the season. Though his numbers do not speak to the job he has done on the field (1-8 record and 3.67 ERA), he has notched 40 strikeouts in 61.1 innings pitched. Perhaps most impressively, Milbrath’s first professional start resulted in a complete game, in which he threw a two-hit shutout against the Lansing Lugnuts. If Milbrath can get back to that form consistently, he can be nothing but an asset to the team.

Trevor Frank has asserted himself as one of the strongest bullpen arms for the Captains. With a 3-2 record and 2.28 ERA, Frank has appeared in 23 games for the Captains and has struck out 24 batters in his appearances. He has thrown a total of 27.2 innings and has four saves on the season, giving up nine runs, only seven of which have been earned.

Adam Plutko was another Captains’ standout in the first half, though he earned a much-coveted promotion to North Carolina. While with the Captains, Plutko went 3-1 in the 10 games he started with a 3.93 ERA. He struck out a career-high 13 batters on May 8 in the Captains’ 5-1 win over Bowling Green.

As for the rest of the team, many have shown promise that the second half will be their time to shine. Recently named the Indians Minor League Player of the Week for June 2-8, Claudio Bautista has begun to heat up as the season continues. He hit .381 with two doubles, three home runs, five RBI, and a 1.296 OPS in six games from June 2-8, and is currently tied for second behind Hendrix on the team with 55 hits.

Also tied for second in hits, and perhaps one of the biggest success stories as of late, is Clint Frazier. Frazier, who was off to a slow start, has used the end of the first half to show fans what they can expect from him throughout the rest of the season. He is hitting .248 with four home runs and leads the team with seven stolen bases. In his last ten games, Frazier is hittig.250 with 10 runs, two home runs, and six RBI, with a .761 OPS.

Luis Lugo has been a pitcher whose second half will certainly be one to watch. He leads the team with 69 strikeouts and a 5-4 record, despite his 4.31 ERA. He has allowed 31 runs (27 earned), in his 13 games in which he has appeared.

Budzinski has nothing but praise for his team as they move into the second half of the season. Instead of singling out players he anticipates being game-changers as the season progresses, he has optimism in the team as a whole.

“They’re all working hard, they’re all staying with themselves and doing what they have to do and working on the things they need to develop,” Budzinski said. “That’s what we ask them.”

“We continue to battle, and I’m very proud of this team for that.”

Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN Photographer

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