South Florida - If you’d been paying attention to the Charlotte Stone Crabs the past few weeks, the Tampa Bay Rays High-A affiliate has been blazing a fire through baseball. No, not just the Florida State League they play in, but all of baseball. Carrying the lowest ERA in all of baseball two weeks ago (2.12), they bested every team in the minors and majors.
Many things have gone right for the team to bring them to the point they reached Friday night, when they clinched the South Division and a playoffs spot. They won their 41st game, giving them a 41-20 record in the first half.
There was a looming question about the rotation and whether they had enough to succeed. But the rotation showcased guys who'd been around, and had enough of a veteran mindset to overcome obstacles. Their 1.18 team WHIP is tied for 1st with Clearwater.
In the early part of the season, Stone Crabs manager Michael Johns explained that a few of the guys playing for him were well-known to him. He’d seen what distance they’d grown as players and people. The first name he mentioned when asked who’d grown the most, was starting pitcher Jacob Faria.
Faria was on the hill last night for the big game, and turned in the kind of quality performance that’s expected of him right now. He worked through 6 innings of work, allowing no runs, 3 hits, and, walked just two batters. He has the lowest ERA in the league (1.33), the lowest WHIP on the team (0.98), and the most strikeouts on the team (63). Johns lauded Faria’s ‘maturity’, both on the hill and off.
Second in strikeouts to Faria on the team, is Chris Kirsch. Kirsch leads in a category that he led in previous seasons, innings pitched. A big lefty with a big, lively fastball, his 4-3 record doesn’t tell the whole story, but record rarely does. His 44 strikeouts is also 2nd to Faria’s. He lacked run support in some of his better starts, and pitched deep enough in several outings to give the team a chance. He’s not been given enough attention the last two seasons, remaining more of an under-the-radar type player. With more of a spotlight on him, he continues to prove he has the stuff to pitch deep and keep guys off base. Here's what he had to say in August of 2014 - http://www.heelsonthefield.net/my_weblog/2013/08/rays-prospect-chris-kirsch-finds-his-way-in-latest-start-for-renegades.html
Ryne Stanek’s ERA is 5th in the league (1.78). Stanek’s arm is highly regarded, despite past medical questions. It’s early in his career, having been drafted in 2013 in the 1st round, but an industry source said that should a starting role not work out, he has “closer stuff.”
Worth mentioning is one of the Rays top pitching prospects, Taylor Guerrieri, who’s been on the road back from Tommy John surgery, and a separate suspension for testing positive for a ‘drug of abuse’. Guerrieri has been pitching for the Stone Crabs with mixed, but mostly positive results. In 5 games, 13 IP, he’s allowed 7 earned runs (five of them in his worst outing of the season), has kept the walks to a minimum (3), with 7 strikeouts. People have wondered about his maturity, and when he made his professional debut, sure, that was clear. But the Rays first round pick was also the quickest learner in a short span of time such as the Short-Season New York Penn League is. His ability to grow with each outing, and to re-focus during a difficult start improved vastly from the start of the season to the end. While he may not have the biggest hand in the Stone Crabs success, every arm matters. And his continued development matters a lot to the Rays.
Out of the bullpen, Brad Schreiber has been a gem, leading the league in saves with 16. He hasn’t allowed a run since May 27th and hasn’t surrendered a walk in his last 6 opportunities. For a late rounder (40th, 2012), Schreiber is making a case for himself.
You can also read a recent interview reliever Kyle McKenzie did with this blog. He has a 2.37 ERA in 19 IP, allowing 6 walks in 11 games. He was a late addition to the roster, and has so far made a good adjustment. - http://www.heelsonthefield.net/2015/05/kyle-mckenzie-talks-about-stone-crabs-personal-ccess.html
The Stone Crabs offense has also been strong. The team leads in AVG (.269), runs scored (262), and RBI (242). Their biggest rival (North Div.) Daytona Tortugas leads in home runs (38), while Charlotte has lacked the same power with 21 home runs. They’ve been solid in drawing the free pass, with 201 walks, good for 3rd in the league.
First baseman Jake Bauers leads the team in that category with 28, fourth overall in the league. He also leads the team in home runs, hitting 6 which is 7th in the league. http://www.heelsonthefield.net/2015/04/spotlight-onrays-prospect-jake-bauers-.html
The two-punch of Bauers and Willy Adames has been a huge spark. Adames leads the club in hits (60) and doubles (14). 2013 4th round pick Kean Wong has led the charge in the past week, as the team reached this pivotal point, putting together a 7-game hitting streak. In those seven games, he’s had three back-to-back multi-hit games, reaching base safely four times on Wednesday.
Centerfielder Braxton Lee has also been consistent in the last two weeks, hitting in four games straight last week (with a pair of RBI and stolen bases in one game) and has now hit safely in the past three games. In the same game as Wong on the tenth, Lee got three hits, crossed home plate three times, knocked in a run and stole two bases. STORY
The Stone Crabs have a tough stretch ahead, as the weather warms up and the schedule starts to bring on a little wear and tear. But they have a cohesive unit, that has accomplished more than most expected. With all of that success, it’s worth wondering who among them may not be there come playoffs time.
RAYS ORGANIZATIONAL NOTES: The Triple-A Rays affiliated Durham Bulls lead their own South division of the International League, going 37-26. The Norfolk Tides are on their tail, back just two games. Durham is second in saves with 24, just one behind the Indianapolis Indians…The Class-A Bowling Green Hot Rods have the second best record in the Midwest League (Eastern Division) at 35-26. They have one more loss than division rival Lansing Lugnuts. The team offense leads in Average (.272) and home runs, knocking out 45 this season.