“A Loon is a Loon, I suppose.” – Clayton Kershaw in 2007.
Low-A Great Lakes did not have a good team during the first half of the 2016 season. They finished 12 games under .500 at 29-41, seventh out of eight teams in their division. Then the second half came.
And so did Yadier Alvarez. And Walker Buehler. And Caleb Ferguson. And Ibandel Isabel. And Saige Jenco. And suddenly, the Loons weren’t so bad.
Alvarez became the team’s ace the moment he walked on the field. Striking out 10 batters in each of his first two starts didn’t hurt, either. He also touched 100 mph with some regularity and averaged 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings with Great Lakes.
Buehler made his much-anticipated debut this past summer after recovering from Tommy John surgery. He had an electric outing in the Arizona League, then followed that up with a pair of appearances for Great Lakes during the regular season, as well as a couple of scoreless starts in the playoffs.
Ferguson, also recovering from Tommy John surgery, had pitched in just four games as a pro prior to this season. He displayed solid stuff across the board with excellent control, walking just three batters in his 50.1 innings of work for the Loons.
Perhaps the biggest late-season addition was Isabel, who provided much needed offense down the stretch. The hulking first baseman slugged seven home runs in just 24 games and posted a team-leading .938 on-base plus slugging percentage.
Another bat that helped the Loons down the stretch run was Jenco. This year’s 24th-rounder lasted just 11 games in Rookie-level Ogden after hitting .390, and immediately became a fixture atop Great Lakes’ lineup. Jenco stole 17 bases without getting caught and posted a .370 OBP in 45 games.
The pitching staff had many strong performers. Dennis Santana led the team in innings with 111.1 and sported a 3.07 ERA. Fellow righty Imani Abdullah had a solid full season debut with a 3.61 ERA. A pair of southpaws also stood out. Victor Gonzalez matched Abdullah’s ERA mark, while Michael Boyle posted a 2.81 ERA.
So, how’d the Loons do? Well, they finished the season with a record of 65-75, which should have put them out of contention for a playoff spot.
However, a third-place finish in the second half, behind the two teams who had already secured postseason spots, afforded the Loons a playoff berth. They won their opening round series two games to one.
Their second-round series was more of the same, a loss sandwiched by wins, which sent the Loons to the Midwest League championship. The opening game of the championship series didn’t go as planned and Great Lakes was boat raced, 16-6.
But the Loons fought back. They followed the opening game drubbing with back-to-back shutouts, returning home with a chance to be crowned champions. Game 4 was a back and forth battle, with each team trying to keep up with the other.
Clinton LumberKings struck first, with three runs in the top of the second, only for the Loons to pull even in the bottom of the frame. Great Lakes scored a run in the bottom of the fourth, only to see their lead vanish as Clinton tied it in the top of the fifth.
The LumberKings tried to pull away with another three-run frame in the sixth, but Great Lakes wasn’t ready to give up. A pair of walks opened the bottom of the inning, followed by a single to load the bases.
Then two more walks brought in two runs to cut the deficit to one before Brendon Davis produced a scoring fly ball to tie the game once again. After an Omar Estevez strikeout, Logan Landon came up huge with a two-out, two-run double to give the Loons a 9-7 lead.
Clinton threatened in the seventh inning after receiving three walks and a hit batsman, but Dean Kremer limited the damage to just one run, and Great Lakes clung to a narrow 9-8 lead. After an uneventful eighth inning, the Loons were just three outs from the championship.
In the ninth, the leadoff batter for Clinton blooped a ball into shallow left field for a base hit. Aggressively, he went for a leg-double but good hustle and a strong throw from Davis nailed the runner at second for the first out.
Then a deep fly ball to center field drove Logan Landon nearly to the track for a long second out. And finally, a high popup on the infield was hauled in by Davis to give the Loons the Midwest League title.
That’s right. The team with an overall record 10 games under .500 won the league championship.
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