Halfway through the 2011 season, nobody can deny that it’s been a rough start for the Cyclones.
In an embarrassing run for new skipper Rich Donnelly, a string of humiliating losses saw the mini-Mets fall below .500 for the first time since July, 2008.
But as the team reached its rare mid-season day off on Tuesday, the Clones appear to have turned a corner and found some focus. At 21-16, the Clones are now second in the McNamara Division, trailing the hated Staten Island Yankees, who are 28-9, and they’ve tallied a few major wins in the past week.
Right now, a wild-card berth appears to be a distinct possibility — provided this team can get its mid-season grades up:
The team is currently leading the New York-Penn League with a .970 fielding percentage thanks to quick glovework in its infield, including shortstop Ismael Tijerina, who has a fielding percentage of .951. His counterpart Danny Muno leads the team in flubs with six errors, but has made up with it with his bat.
The Cyclones outfield has shown its sloppy side, but outfielders Charley Thurber, Travis Taijeron and Javier Rodriguez are settling in and have become a smooth-fielding unit: Thurber has a .984 fielding percentage and Taijeron is at .963, having committed two errors. Taijeron has been perfect in the fieid.
The once-mighty bats of the 2010 McNamara division champs were all but silenced until recently, as the team flirted with the dubious honor of having the most strikeouts of any team in the New York-Penn League.
But the beloved Clones have started to pull themselves out of the K-hole. As of Tuesday, they had tallied 286 strikeouts — still embarrassing, but only the sixth highest in the league.
Muno has established himself as a star, leading the league with a .375 batting average — though he only recently tallied his first home run.
As of Tuesday, third baseman Richard Lucas was the hottest player in the league, batting .441 over the previous 10 games. He’s third in the league with a .350 average.
Brandon Brown and Taijeron lead the team in homers — and are tied for fifth in the league — with five dingers.
Hitting coach Bobby Malek struggled to get the Cyclone sluggers to do their job — and the team has started turning it around, scoring 42 runs in their last five games. Now the Cyclones have the fourth highest batting in the league, with the fourth-highest number of hits, the second highest number of homers, the third-best RBI numbers and the third-best slugging percentage.
The Clones pitching staff is best in the league. With 43 Ks, Eduardo Aldama currently leads the league in strikeouts, though his 3.16 ERA is a bit concerning. New pitching phenom Jeff Walters pitched a gem on July 21, giving up only a single hit in six innings, though on the season, he’s been more mortal, going 2-2 with a 3.45 ERA. And when he lets a runner on base, he falls apart, allowing opponents to ring up a .325 batting average vs. the .125 average when the bases are empty.
The bullpen has been inconsistent, blowing several key games. Jeremy Gould, for example, is 0-2 with a 4.20 ERA — too high for a reliever in pro ball. The key is learning to not overthrow, said Donnelly. That was the problem over the Fourth of July weekend, when Hunter Carnavale literally threw a game away at Staten Island.
“A lot of these kids have terrible concentration,” Donnelly said after a July 21 shutout at home. “I don’t know if it’s ADD or what.”
But taken overall, the pen has been pretty solid, thanks to a respectable 2.23 ERA.
The Cyclones may have a good defensive lineup and their batting is improving, but they’re last in the league when it comes to stolen bases — compared with last year when they were third.
The Clones so far have stolen only 16 bases all season, compared with the Lowell Spinners, who lead the league with 59.
Brown is the least cowardly of the base runners, but has still only stolen a laughable three bases all year.
If the Cyclones want to live up to their former glory, they’re going to need to dig in and grab some bases. The question is: Do they have the guts?
It remains to be seen whether Donnelly can live up to legendary manager Wally Backman, the Cyclones’ most popular coach.
But he has the support of his team, and the beloved mini-Mets are making progress by digging themselves out of a sizeable hole.
“We’re treading water right now,” he admitted after a recent game. “I understand that this is a winning franchise and they expect to do well here.”
Hitting coach Malek, a fan favorite from his playing days in Brooklyn, hasn’t gotten the sluggers entirely on track, and pitching coach Frank Viola, a Met legend, has not produced a breakout starter — which has been a Cyclone tradition dating back to Scott Kazmir in 2002.