If you had told me four months ago that I’d still be writing about the Lake County Captains this late in the year, I would have laughed. Yes, I’m an optimist, but the first half of Lake County’s season led even the most eternal of optimists to shake their heads. The team won 27 out of their first 70 games — that’s a .386 winning percentage. They were, to be blunt, bad.
They about broke-even at home, going 18-17 in the first half while playing on the new field at Classic Park, but could not pull it together on the road. As they explored the Midwest, the Captains went a paltry 9-26.
Yet, somehow, they turned it around. And here I am, in the middle of September, writing a recap about a season that ended on Saturday, the 13th, when that same under-.400 team played for the Midwest League Championship.
And it was, for the most part, the same team that fans watched in Eastlake all season. The roster did not change all that much from April 4 through the end of the Captains season; instead, the Captains used the second half of the season to improve the players already on their roster, and had players coming into their own and showing glimpses of the players they were drafted in hopes of becoming.
The season started with excitement, as the roster boasted the Indians 2013 First Round draft pick Clint Frazier, a Georgia teenager noted for his power at the plate. Though he was off to a struggling start, Frazier was one of the many players who used the second half of the season to propel himself into a successful momentum that (hopefully) will be carried into seasons to follow. Starting his Lake County season, Frazier’s crowning glory was the 63 home runs he hit over his four years in high school. It took him some time to adapt to the professional baseball stage, in which he had to remind himself that every at-bat did not have to be a home run to be considered a success.
“I have to think to myself, ‘These guys got here for a reason, they’re good. I got here for a reason and I’m not going to hit a home run every single time.’ I have to tone down my approach a bit,” Frazier said at the start of his season. The mindset seemed to work, as Frazier ended the year with a .266 batting average in 120 games. He had 126 hits, 18 doubles, six triples, and 13 home runs, knocking in 50 runs and stealing 12 bases.
Frazier moved on to become an invaluable member of the Captains’ playoff squad. His home run in the Captains’ first playoff game against the South Bend Silver Hawks on September 3 gave the Captains a two-run lead in the bottom of the third inning, propelling them to their first victory of the playoffs. Frazier said that the late-season surge was extremely satisfying, as it showed him that he has the ability to be the sort of player in was in high school at the big league level.
Frazier wasn’t the only player to begin to make a name for himself in Eastlake this season. Nellie Rodriguez, who struggled in Lake County last season (he hit .194 with one home run in 47 games), become the most reliable hitter in the Captains order this season, hitting .268 on the season with an OPS of .832. He led the club with 22 home runs and 88 RBI, and was one of the few Captains players to be intentionally walked because of his prowess with the bat.
Manager Mark Budzinski said it best when he acknowledged that Rodriguez had been the Captains “MVP all year.”
“He really has,” Budzinski said. “He’s driven in a ton of runs, has good at-bats, he’s kind of a team leader out there, always helping the guys out.”
Another team leader, infielder Grant Fink, was a consistent contributor for the team. Described earlier in the season as a quiet but steady leader, Fink flew under the radar for much of the season, likely due to his unassuming nature and not-flashy play. Fink spent most of his playing time at third base, with some appearances at first, though he saw less action there once Rodriguez was given more time on the field after stepping up his game. Though he ended the season hitting .225, Fink hit 13 home runs for the Captains, including three grand slams, to drive in a total of 60 runs for the Captains.
Other infield contributors whose play went more unnoticed were shortstop Ivan Castillo and third baseman/shortstop Paul Hendrix. Hendrix hit .287 on the season, with 119 hits, 21 doubles, five triples, and 12 home runs. Castillo, at 5’11” and 150 pounds, used his lithe frame to his advantage on the bases, as he posted 11 stolen bases in 84 games.
Behind the plate, Eric Haase was the team’s every-day for most of the season, assuming the same role he had played for the 2013 Captains, until he earned a much-deserved promotion to the Carolina Mudcats in August. He hit .270 in Lake County and mashed 16 homers before moving up, leading the team before the hot streak of Rodriguez. Haase also had the added excitement of welcoming his first child this season, making his 2014 one of the most memorable on the team.
Richard Stock took over catching responsibilities for Haase once he was off the roster, though he suffered from a lack of playing time during the rest of the season, much as was the case in 2013. Stock has the potential to hit for power, though his true abilities were again not fully realized. He did continue to improve in his struggle spots, however, as he went from hitting .154 against lefties in 2013 to .241 this season.
The pitching prowess of the Captains this season, however, is where much of their true talent can be found. The second half showed the Captains pitching staff, both starters and relievers, to be the backbone of the team’s successes. Mitch Brown had one of the strongest turn-arounds of the season, as he went from a 4.43 ERA in the first half to a 2.32 in the second half, and was arguably the most reliable starter on the roster. 20 year-old Luis Lugo also had a breakout season, leading the team in strikeouts with 146. Despite a 7-14 record, Dace Kime pitched the game that secured the Captains their title as Midwest League Eastern Division champs and gave five-plus innings of strong, effective pitching, which Budzinski noted was one of the pitchers better outings of the season.
Relievers Justin Brantley and Trevor Frank were also incredibly reliable members of the pitching staff, with Frank acting as the team’s closer and earning 18 saves in 21 save opportunities. He walked only nine batters in 54.2 innings of work. Brantley was equally as impressive, having joined the Indians as a non-drafted free agent in the winter and posting a 1.31 ERA and a 4-1 record in his first professional season.
The numbers, however, can only say so much. For all their success on the field, the true winning aspect of the 2014 Lake County Captains is their camaraderie, their sportsmanship, and their attitude. When asked what they would most remember about their time in Eastlake this season, the players were in agreement:
“The group of guys we had,” Brown said. “We all had fun playing together throughout the season. I think the growth that everyone made and the way we grew as a team over the course of the season, it’s incredible.”
“The turnaround and the progress we made as a team from the first half of the season,” Hendrix echoed.
“We’re a team that’s united,” Rodriguez said. “The team chemistry is great and that’s gotten us far.”
“It’s hard to be disappointed in the season we had,” Brown said. “[Losing the championship] doesn’t mean we all had bad seasons. I think there was tremendous growth in everyone; I don’t think anyone didn’t improve and, at the end of the day, that’s the point to being here.”
Budzinski, who a year ago was working in the real estate business, agreed to the testament that this team, was an impressive group of young men, adding that their turnaround and progress throughout the season were reasons enough to be proud of them, championship or not.
As for what was more satisfying, closing on a multimillion-dollar housing deal or earning the title of Midwest League Eastern Division champions, Budzinski laughed, saying both were exciting in their own ways.
There must have been something in the real estate experience, though, that prepared Budzinski for his impressive managerial debut. Whether it was honing the ability to work with other people or giving him a different understanding of how to approach difficult situations, Budzinski rose to the challenge and accomplished it with grace.
“It was a lot what I expected it to be,” Budzinski said of his first year as a professional manager. “I made a lot of mistakes and will continue to do so and hopefully learn from them. But to go from the beginning of the season to where we are now, it shows the kind of people we have in this organization, from the coaching staff, from a player standpoint, from a front office standpoint. They are second to none.”
Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN photographer