Saturday, February 06, 2010

Sierra Nevada Goldens Enter Final Month with Playoff Aspirations and Copper Division Title Within Reach After Wild Month of August

The month of August started out very humbling for the Sierra Nevada franchise as they entered the month in a 1st place deadlock with the SoCal Knights. Sierra Nevada had stood alone in 1st from April 24, 2090 until July 30th when SoCal joined them atop the Copper Division and shared the division lead at month’s end. Two weeks into August, the Goldens suddenly found themselves 4 games behind the Knights as management wondered if the storm was ever going to subside. The swoon began on July 22nd when Sierra Nevada lost the final two home games against the feisty Washington Crossing Generals and it carried on against the Zinc Division leading, San Jose Scorpions as the Goldens lost 6 of the final 9 games of July. August started out even worse as the Montreal Sunsets & Dayton Dragons, the top dogs in the Iron Division, battered Goldens’ pitching winning 10 of 14 and outscoring them 92-74. The bad stretch included a 7 game losing streak and losses in 9 of 10. For that 3-week stretch, the clouds over Sierra Nevada were extremely ominous and management was feeling perplexed as a run into the playoffs that had once appeared to be a sure thing had now become questionable.

Fortunes soon changed for the Goldens when the skies parted as the Goldens looked up at the 1st place SoCal Knights, suddenly 3-Games back following the thrashing by the Dayton Dragons. After losing the series opener at the Meridian Trojans, the Goldens went on a roll by winning 5 of the next 6 versus Meridian and by piling up a 7-Game sweep of the cellar dwelling Southtown Misers. The stretch included a 9-Game win streak and the Goldens won 12 of the final 13 games of August and it launched them back into 1st, a game up on the 2nd place SoCal Knights! The bats had reawakened and the pitching gelled again as the Goldens outscored Meridian and Southtown 102-39!

The down-and-up month pointed out a couple of interesting facts for Sierra Nevada. It has become clear that the Goldens struggle against teams .500 and above while they demolish teams below .500. As of the end of August, the Goldens are 54-16 (.771) against teams with losing records, while they are 32-38 (.457) against teams .500 and above. The Goldens also handle their business quite well at home as they are 49-21 (.700) in the comfortable setting of Great American Ballpark, but they are also respectable on the road with a winning record of 37-33 (.529). The facts stated above suggest the importance of the Goldens winning the Copper Division crown. It appears clear that the 2nd place finisher of the Iron Division will be the top wild-card entry, either Montreal (96-44) or Dayton (93-47), while the 2nd place finisher of the Copper Division, either Sierra Nevada (86-54) or SoCal (85-55), will be the 2nd wild-card entry. The Goldens’ World Series dreams could rest on avoiding a wild-card matchup against Montreal or Dayton since they were (2-5) against each opponent and a division crown would secure a 1st round bye.

The other observation for the Goldens is that the starting pitching is less than dominating, especially against top clubs. Meanwhile, the bullpen has been especially solid all season long and it appears that Sierra Nevada has some advantages as the game reaches the final innings. Starters Josh Beckett, Gil Meche, Scott Feldman, Mark Buehrle, Jeff Karstens, Jamie Moyer, & Kyle Kendrick have combined for a record of 56-42 while the bullpen has a combined record of 30-12. The early season trade of Scott Feldman to the Plainsfield Hitmen for veteran lefty starter Jamie Moyer hasn’t exactly panned out as he is only 5-5 with a 6.00 era since the trade. Since the starting rotation is a little soft, management acquired some more relief pitching as the Goldens try and shorten games and leave it up to the bullpen. Taylor Buchholz was acquired from the Meridian Trojans and comes to the Goldens with a 6-1 record and a miniscule 1.45 ERA. He will fit in nicely with the other bullpen arms who are having outstanding years. Closer Brian Fuentes is 2-4 with a 1.34 ERA and 30 Saves, Jared Burton is 5-0 with a 1.88 ERA, & Carlos Marmol is 7-1 with a 2.23 ERA and 7 Saves. Heath Bell has been formidable versus lefty hitters, holding them to a .228 BA.

All in all, the success of the Goldens this fall will lie at the feet of the big boppers throughout the Sierra Nevada lineup. The quartet of Adam Dunn (.243, 40 HR, 87 RBI), Jason Giambi (.271, 40 HR, 105 RBI), Jermaine Dye (.321, 38 HR, 36 2B, 110 RBI), & Dan Uggla (.301, 38 HR, 82 RBI) have been devastating and have been terrorizing opponent’s pitching, especially at Great American Ballpark. Mike Lowell missed time in the opening two months of the season, but he too has enhanced the power numbers with his (.305, 15 HR, 21 2B, 47 RBI) in 84 games. As a team, the Goldens have walloped a league leading 260 HR’s. The home park has assisted in these numbers, but the pitching staff has managed to hold its own while limiting the opposition to 146 HR’s. Sierra Nevada ranks 6th in team batting average at .284, and ranks 7th in team ERA at 4.27.

The month of September will start off with a bang as Sierra Nevada and SoCal square off for 8 games as they try and gain superiority over one another, separated by only a game going in. Both figure to beat up on the other two division rivals Phoenix Phoenix (57-83) and Duluth-Superior Dukes (53-87), but anything can happen when September call-ups come into play in the final month and while managers are resting overused players. It will be a true test for the Goldens to see if they can continue their torrid power numbers against a tough SoCal pitching staff (3.61 Team ERA) while continuing to lean on Fuentes, Marmol, & Buccholz to close out games. The x-factor will be whether Beckett, Buehrle, and Meche, & Moyer can keep the Goldens in games during the early innings.

The Silver League playoff spots seem set, unless the Cream City Pirates (78-62) make a last minute surge. With the San Jose Scorpions (97-43) about to clinch the Zinc Division and either Montreal or Dayton winning the Iron, Sierra Nevada and SoCal will be fighting for that Copper Division title as they desperately fight for the 1st round bye and avoid the mighty Sunsets and Dragons.