Wild Things can take pride in this season

September 11, 2017

Those who are knowledgeable about the Wild Things’ 16-year history are well aware of the franchise’s playoff disappointments.

For all the good things the Frontier League team did – record-setting win totals, division titles – during the regular season in its first six seasons, they didn’t add up to a championship. The playoffs were an annual exercise in frustration. There were agonizing defeats, hard-to-believe collapses and some one-sided blowouts in series finales.

So when the Wild Things were eliminated from the playoffs Saturday night at West Division champion Florence in a semifinal series, you couldn’t have been surprised that the ouster came with some stinging losses.

Washington squandered a 14-strikeout performance by pitcher Trevor Foss and a ninth-inning lead while losing Game 1. Still, the Wild Things were only four outs away from taking a 2-1 lead in the best-of-5 series Friday night before Florence tied the score in the eighth inning and won on a walkoff home run in the ninth. That home run came off the bat of Taylor Oldham and was his second of the game. Oldham, by the way, was one of four players the Wild Things jettisoned to the London Rippers late on a July night in 2012, only one hour before the Rippers folded. The Wild Things took advantage of the Rippers playing that night in Washington and knowing the franchise was about to cease operations. Oldham and three of his teammates were deemed expendable and traded to the doomed London team.

On the surface, it seemed like just another maddening postseason for the Wild Things. Or was it?

While the celebration Saturday night was centered on the home team’s clubhouse, where the Freedom were making plans to play in the Frontier League championship series, the Wild Things should have had disappointment mingled with a fierce sense of accomplishment. They should have been content in the belief that this Wild Things team was different from its 15 predecessors.

This wasn’t a team that ran roughshod over the competition during the regular season then failed to meet expectations in the playoffs. This was a team that had several strengths but also some major flaws and had to scratch and fight to win a lot of close games. It also had to come from behind to secure a wild-card spot. Washington trailed Windy City and Evansville for almost all of the season’s final two months, only to make a charge over the last week to pass both the ThunderBolts and Otters in the standings. The Wild Things had to play their way into the postseason during the stretch drive, which is something Washington teams have rarely been able to do.

There was much to like about this team. It had a terrific one-two punch in Foss (12-5, 3.06) and Chase Cunningham (10-3, 3.45) at the top of its pitching rotation. Relievers Zach Strecker and Davis Adkins were reasons why Washington had the fewest blown saves in the league.

The defense was good in spots. Center fielder Rashad Brown displayed tremendous range, and when he threw out Schaumburg’s Andrew Brodbeck at home plate for the final out of a 6-5 victory Aug. 23, it might have been the most important play of the season.

Catchers Kyle Pollock and John Fidanza were the unsung heroes of the team. They were the reasons opponents attempted fewer stolen bases against Washington than any team. Windy City, which was second in the league in stolen bases with 151, swiped only five in 12 games against Washington and had eight baserunners thrown out attempting to steal. Those outs loomed large at season’s end.

The offense, however, was inconsistent, much as it was for the past six years. Left fielder Bralin Jackson and first baseman Kane Sweeney were very good. Jackson was second in the league in RBI and MVP of the all-star game. Sweeney seemed to always reach base as he led the league in both walks and on-base percentage.

The offense received a boost at midseason when outfielder James Harris was signed. Harris became the first former first-round draft pick to sign with Washington. After taking a few weeks to adjust to Frontier League pitching, Harris became the impact hitter the Wild Things desperately needed. He belted five leadoff home runs, including two in the four playoff games.

Even with many good traits, the Wild Things didn’t have the look of a sure-fire playoff team until season’s end. Having only a few productive hitters made every game a challenge, especially at home, where they batted only .244 and had a 25-23 record. Washington hit 18 points higher on the road and had a better record (28-20) away from Wild Things Park.

The pitching rotation, for much of the season, was Foss, Cunningham and then hope for the best. The Wild Things had 37 quality starts – at least six innings pitched and no more than three earned runs allowed – and 27 were by either Foss or Cunningham.

Several pitchers who were being counted on didn’t pan out. Hunter Williams, who began the year in the rotation, became the first player drafted after playing for the Wild Things. He was selected in the 11th round by Colorado and pitched better as a reliever in rookie ball than he did as a starter for the Wild Things.

Washington made several smart roster moves that improved the team during the season’s second half. Harris helped the offense, Ethan Gibbons and Tyler Garkow gave the rotation some depth and lefty relievers Jake Eaton and Frank Trimarco pitched important innings down the stretch. For those moves, Tony Buccilli, the director of team operations, deserves credit. The moves were the difference between making and missing the playoffs.

Buccilli and manager Gregg Langbehn appear to have things headed in the right direction. After a forgettable 42-54 season in 2015, the Wild Things brought in Langbehn as manager. His calming presence seems to be exactly what the franchise needed. He is signed through the 2019 season.

Every year brings plenty of roster changes and new challenges. To take the next step, and win the organization’s first championship, the offseason priorities must include retaining as many of the current players as possible, upgrading several positions and improving the defense, specifically in the middle infield. Of course, finding a way to hit better and win more often at home will go a long way, too.

Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at dugan@observer-reporter.com.

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