Dragon Tales: The Season Begins Anew, The Lansing Lugnuts

The 140 game season is over.  The table is wiped clean.  The season starts now.  When the 2011 Dayton Dragons season began there was an air of excitement in the air.  The Dragons were poised to break the record for the “Longest Sell-Outs Streak in Professional Sports History”.  Every Dayton Dragons game since the teams inception has been a sell out.  Every.  Single.  Game.  Doesn’t matter if the weather was bad, the Dragons were bad or even that the Cincinnati Reds, just 60 miles south of Dayton, were really good in 2010.  The Dragons Fifth/Third Field was filled.  2011 was intended to be a payoff for loyal fans and in perfect win-win fashion the Reds organization wanted to put a number of exciting new prospects into a situation atypical of the norm in Minor League baseball.  They assembled a team of with the intent of keeping them together for an entire season to build chemistry that will benefit the organization over the next three or four years.  Aside from injury disruptions the team has held together and the plan started has slowly coalesced and come to fruition in the second half of the season as Manager Delino DeShields honed them into an effective machine.  After these playoffs end I expect a number of players to be promoted before next season begins but I doubt any of them will ever be in a minor league situation like this again.

Now all of that is past.  DeShields’ well oiled roster will be pitted against the Toronto Blue Jays affiliate, the Lansing Lugnuts, in a three game winner take all series.  The loser will go back to practicing fundamentals while the winner will move to round two of the MidWest League playoffs.  The curious MW playoff structure works to inject a leveling device into the mix to reward teams who won in the first half of the season and give them a slight boost against the momentum of the second half winner who presumably has the better roster at this stage of the season due to call ups from those players who excelled in the first half.  The Lugnuts finished as the runner up during the first half of the season.  This finish earns them the right to either host the first game of the series or choose to host the second and third game if it is needed, granting the possibility of home field advantage presuming they can win one of the first two games.  They chose the latter of course opting for the possibility of two home game revenue streams to add in.

The series pits two very different teams against each other.  The Lugnuts peaked in the first half of the season but remained competitive all year long.  They are built around offensive ability.  They are second in the league in runs scored (691), RBI (610), triples (44) and OBP (.336).  But as a free swinging team, they lead the league in strikeouts (1160).  Players to watch when Lansing is at the plate include the 4 outfielders of RF Michael Crouse (38 SB, 73 runs), CF Marcus Knecht (77 runs, 34 doubles, 16 home runs, 86 RBI and a .851 OPS), LF Jake Marisnick (.320 BA , 68 runs, 27 doubles, 6 triples, 14 HRs, 37 SBs, 77 RBI and an .888 OPS) and finally Jonathan Jones who is a recent addition to the team and quite often assumes the DH role.  Crouse, Knecht and Marisnick formed the starting outfield for the MidWest League All Star Game and Crouse and Marisnick were also named to the Full Season MWL All Star Team.

Defensively the Lugnuts position players committed 186 errors contrasting with the 141 errors the Dragons made during the season.  The gives the Lugnuts pitching staff an immediate challenge they must overcome in order to be successful.  The Lugnuts team ERA is 9th in the league at 3.78 and they plan to throw three left handed starters against the Dragons beginning with Sean Nolin.  In 3 appearances against Dayton he has allowed 5 ER, 2 HR, and no walks while striking out 12 in 9 IP.  Lansing rarely gets 5 innings pitched out of their starters which contributes to Nolin’s 4-4 record in 25 games, 21 of which he started.  Nolin has one statistic that jumps out off of their press sheet.  He has only been stolen on 9 times in 19 attempts.  Twice, Billy Hamilton has victimized them, but the Nolin/Carlos Perez battery is a challenge to steal on successfully.  The Lansing bullpen has undergone a facelift mid season when their successful close Steve Turnbull was promoted to Class A Advanced Dunedin Blue Jays where, incidentally, he has struggled.  After recording 15 saves for the Lugnuts he was replaced as closer by Danny Barnes who is 5-1 with 13 saves and a 2.32 ERA.  He has been effective pitching 66 innings while allowing 44 hits, 20 walks and striking out 99 batters.  Only Jonathan Arias of the Clinton LumberKings (101) has more strikeouts in a relief role.

The first game of the series starts at 7:00 PM at Fifth Third Field in Dayton.

Follow me on twitter @JohnHeitz for game updates and stay tuned for a breakdown of the Dragons team.  Also follow Fansided blogger Jared McDonald who will offer insights from the Lugnuts perspective @Jared_Macdonald