BlueClaws: Strong Season, Despite Lost Championship

The Lakewood BlueClaws honored the team's host families with an on-field ceremony prior to a game at FirstEnergy Park. (Photo courtesy of the Lakewood BlueClaws)

LAKEWOOD – The Lakewood BlueClaws’ season was chock full of championships.

There was a first-half Northern Division title. There was a second-half Northern Division title. There was the overall South Atlantic League regular-season title. There was a franchise record for regular-season wins (87).

However, it was a season that ended with a 2-1 loss to the Lexington (Ky.) Legends in the fourth game of the best-of-five SAL Championship Series at FirstEnergy Park on Friday night.

Lakewood, the Philadelphia Phillies’ low Class A farm team, dropped three of four games to the Kansas City Royals’ affiliate.

“It was a heck of a ride,” Lakewood manager Marty Malloy said after the Sept. 14 game. “We lost a five-game series in a dogfight. We pitched good enough to win, but that’s baseball. This team has done it all year. We just came up two runs short. It stinks that we lost. I feel for that group. Nobody is ever satisfied to finish in second place.

“This whole group believed in each other. What a good season. … what a good year. … what a good year. They cared about each other. They cared about winning. When they find they won’t have to do a 10-11 hour bus ride to play an opponent is when this loss will sink in. I can’t say enough about this group. I am proud of each of them.”

The Legends, who were 76-60 (.559) during the regular season and won the second-half Southern Division crown (39-29, .574), received the championship trophy from league president Eric Krupa in an on-field ceremony. The team held its prize aloft and exchanged hugs and high-fives in front of its dugout where it unfurled the championship banner. It was Lexington’s second SAL crown in history and its first since 2001.

Lakewood players Jhailyn Ortiz (left) and Nick Maton entertain a fan. (Photo courtesy of the Lakewood BlueClaws)

“Watching the other team celebrate is never a good feeling, ” said Lakewood’s Jake Scheiner, who played first base, third base and left field for the BlueClaws this season. “It stinks to come up short. We had a good run together. I am proud of all the guys I played with.”

With the score tied at one, Lakewood loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth.

Catcher Rodolfo Duran led off with a single to center on a 3-2 pitch and was replaced by pinch runner Matt Kroon. Right fielder Jhailyn Ortiz forced Kroon with a grounder to third. Shortstop Nick Maton went down swinging on a 98 mph fastball from Tad Ratliff, who saved each win in the series. Designated hitter Colby Fitch singled off Ratliff’s right throwing hand to load the bases.

With the announced crowd of 2,577 roaring, “Let’s Go BlueClaws,” third baseman Jose Antequera hit the first pitch for a grounder to third baseman Manny Olloque, forcing Ortiz at third and igniting cheers from a small contingent of Lexington fans as Lakewood’s season drew to a close.

“To hear the fans getting into it in the bottom of the ninth with me coaching third base. … what a good season we had,” Malloy said. “It stinks that it came down to one run, but that’s the nature of the beast and we fell short.”

The Legends took a 1-0 lead in the fifth on a run-scoring double down the left-field line by shortstop Cristian Perez. Lakewood tied the game on a two-out run-scoring single to right by Ortiz. On the play, Scheiner, who had singled, was cut down at the plate as he tried to score from second.

Lexington won it with a run in the ninth off Connor Brogdon, the third of three Lakewood pitchers.

Jake Scheiner starred for the Lakewood BlueClaws. (Photo courtesy of the Lakewood BlueClaws)

Left fielder Brewer Hicklen opened with a walk and went to second on a single to center by Olloque. With the infield in, Hicklen scored on a sacrifice fly to right, beating the throw to the plate by Ortiz with a nifty slide around the tag of Duran.

“We had two plays at the plate,” Malloy said. “One went our way. The other did not. That was the difference in the game.”

Lakewood’s Spencer Howard, who led the BlueClaws into the championship round with a 103-pitch no-hitter Sept. 7, worked five innings, allowing one earned run on three hits, striking out six and walking none. He threw 62 pitches, including 41 strikes, before leaving the game because of an injury.

“He tweaked his back a little bit,” Malloy said. “I was not going to take any chances with him – not with that arm. He is fine. He is fine.”

“It’s fine,” Howard said of exiting early. “I was just trying to get as deep as I could into the game, eat innings up and turn it over to our bullpen.”

Howard said he suffered the injury while throwing a breaking pitch at either the end of the third or the start of the fourth.

“I threw one curve and expected to finish it and follow through,” he said. “My back locked up a little bit. I felt a little discomfort in the last couple of innings and he (Malloy) took me out. I had never had trouble with my back before this.”

Howard, who pitched 126 innings, said he saw plenty of action with Lakewood this year.

“I threw far and away the most innings I have ever thrown in a season,” he said. “I threw a lot of innings. The overhand throw is not real good for the body in the first place. I threw a lot of pitches, a lot of innings. I am not worried about it. It won’t set back my off season training at all.”

Howard enjoyed playing for Lakewood.

“Team chemistry was a big reason for our success,” he said. “Everyone meshed together. We all played for each other. That is why we had so many walkoff (11) and come from behind wins – that belief that we had in each other. I have a lot of good memories from this team. At the beginning of the season, we struggled a little bit, but the bats caught up and it was a fun year.”

“Good chemistry in the clubhouse goes a long way,” Scheiner said. “We had a lot of comeback wins. We all trusted each other. We all had one goal in mind. The end goal is the big leagues. If you play to the best of your ability and help the team win. …we all still want to succeed. It’s a long season (the first full professional campaign for many Lakewood players). It’s a grind and it helps build team unity as we all go through the same thing.”

The BlueClaws, the SAL’s northern most team, endured some of the league’s longest bus trips. The team flew to Lexington for its two games.

Lakewood pitcher Will Stewart earned postseason recognition. (Photo courtesy of the Lakewood BlueClaws)

“One trip to Georgia was 14 hours,” Scheiner said. “Our average ride was 10 hours. It takes a toll on you, but this was a good group of guys. We got along. You get off a bus after a nine-hour drive and you get there (the destination) at nine in the morning. You play later that night. We had a few of those. We had a sleeper bus with a couple of beds, but it’s still tough. Our team did a good job of accommodating us.”

ALL-STAR UPDATE: Four BlueClaws made the SAL’s postseason All-Star team.

Malloy, pitching coach Brad Bergesen, Scheiner and left-handed pitcher Will Stewart were honored.

Malloy led the BlueClaws, who began play in 2001, to an 87-51 regular season overall record (.630). Lakewood was the sixth team since 2000 to win both halves of a SAL season. It won the Northern Division title in the first half (41-28, .594) and the Northern Division crown in the second half (46-23, .667).

Malloy said seven Lakewood players were promoted one level to the Clearwater (Fl.) Threshers of the Florida State League, an advanced Class A circuit.

“We were lucky,” he said. “We were fortunate. We had a heck of a group of players. They played hard each day and gave you everything they had. This was a fun group of players to be around. I had to kick them in the rear end once or twice. They get the credit.”

Lakewood led in just one of 38 innings in the series.

“Tonight was just tough as it was the last one,” Malloy said. “That’s the hardest part.”

Malloy said he will return to the Phillies’ system next season.

“I don’t know where I will be,” he said. “We will cross that bridge. I was told today I will help out in the Florida Instructional League. I will know within a couple of weeks where I will be going next season. I still enjoy Lakewood (where he completed his second season at the helm). The front office was good to me. I love the stadium. I love the fans.”

Malloy joined the Phillies’ organization last year as the BlueClaws’ manager after spending the previous three seasons managing the Gulf Coast League Astros, Houston’s rookie level team which is two levels below Lakewood.

Malloy joined 2009 Lakewood manager and current Philadelphia third base coach Dusty Wathan and 2010 Lakewood skipper Mark Parent in being recognized as the league’s top manager.

Bergesen was in his first season as a coach after playing for the Baltimore Orioles and the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2009-2012. The lefty was 19-25 with a 4.61 earned run average, appearing in 102 games, starting 59 and pitching 424 innings in his career.

During the regular season, Lakewood posted the league’s lowest earned run average (2.74). It was the best ERA in franchise history, besting the previous record of 3.04. The BlueClaws paced Minor League Baseball’s 120 full season teams in ERA. Lakewood pitched a franchise record 23 shutouts.

Stewart and teammates Ramon Rosso, Addison Russ and Kyle Dohy were named to the SAL All-Star Game in June.

Lakewood featured the South Atlantic League’s best pitching staff, led by coach Brad Bergensen. (Photo courtesy of the Lakewood BlueClaws)

Scheiner made the team as a utility infielder. During the regular season, he paced the league in on-base percentage (.372) and was second in batting average (.296). He batted 453 times.

He was fourth in OPS (on-base plus slugging, .842)), total bases (213) and base hits (134). He was among the league leaders in runs batted in (67) and doubles (30). He played in 122 games.

Scheiner was among the league leaders in walks (49) and hit 13 home runs He hit five triples and stole 10 bases in 16 attempts. He was drafted by the Phillies on the fourth round out of the University of Houston.

Malloy said Scheiner will catch in the FIL.

“We will catch a little bit to up his value,” he said.

“I had a routine, getting to the field and knowing what I needed to work on,” Scheiner said of his success. “My off season preparation was a big help, another key. I had a plan for what I wanted to do. I maintained my body physically. I maintained myself mentally. Sleep is big. Stretching helped me. This league is very spread out geographically.”

Stewart was 8-1 with a 2.06 ERA during the regular season. He was second in the SAL in ERA. He appeared in and started 20 games, pitched two complete games and tossed two shutouts. In 113 2/3 innings, he struck out 90, walked 21 and allowed 90 hits, including five homers. He hit five batters. He posted a 0.98 WHIP (walks and hits to innings pitched).

Selected by the Phillies on the 20th round in 2015 out of Hazel Green High School in Alabama, Stewart is the fifth Lakewood pitcher named to the SAL’s postseason All-Star team. He joined righty Carlos Carrasco (2006), righty Matt Maloney (2006), lefty Jesse Biddle (2011) and righty Will Hibbs (2017). Carrasco is with the Cleveland Indians. Biddle is with the Atlanta Braves. Maloney pitched for the Cincinnati Reds.

Duo cited: Lakewood pitcher David Parkinson and Austin Listi, who played for the BlueClaws last season, were named winners of the Paul Owens Award, presented annually to the Phillies’ top minor league pitcher and position player.

Parkinson opened the regular season with the BlueClaws, winning eight of nine decisions with a 1.51 ERA over 17 starts. He had a stretch of 34 straight innings from May 12-June 25 in which he did not allow an earned run. He was promoted to Clearwater where he was 3-0 with a 1.24 ERA over five games.

The lefty from Ole Miss was twice named the SAL Pitcher of the Week and threw seven scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts in a victory that helped Lakewood win the SAL first-half title.

Parkinson joined outfielder Quintin Berry (2007), shortstop J.P. Crawford (2014) and righty Ricardo Pinto (2015) as Owens Award winners who spent part of their award-winning season with Lakewood. Berry played from 2012-2017 with the Detroit Tigers, the Boston Red Sox, the Baltimore Orioles, the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers. Crawford is in his second season with Philadelphia. Pinto pitched for the Phillies in 2017.

Listi, drafted last year by Philadephia out of Dallas Baptist, hit four homers for Lakewood, including the winner in the final game of the season. He hit a combined 312 with 18 homers and 84 RBI between Clearwater and Reading (Pa.), the Phillies’ Double A Eastern League team which is two levels above Lakewood.

The award was instituted in 1986. Owens spent 48 years with Philadelphia as scout, farm director, general manager, manager and senior advisor. He died Dec. 26, 2003.

The honorees will receive their award on the field Sept. 28 prior to the Phillies’ 7:05 p.m. home game against the Atlanta Braves.

Newsy notes:  Howard finished the regular season in a three-way tie for the league lead in strikeouts with 147 and fashioned a 1.26 WHIP. … Lakewood’s Damon Jones was among the league leaders in wins (10) and notched a 3.41 ERA. … Teammate Zach Warren was second in the league in saves (15). … Lakewood catcher Rodolfo Duran and teammate Jhailyn Ortiz, a right fielder, slugged 18 and 13 homers, respectively. … Among the SAL’s 14 teams during the regular season, Lakewood was among the league leaders in batting average (.251), 10th in runs scored (543) and belted 95 homers. It was ninth in base hits (1,105) and runs batted in (492). Lakewood hit 230 doubles and was seventh in total bases (1.676). It was 10th in stolen bases (80) and sixth in being caught stealing bases (53). The BlueClaws slugged .381 for fifth and put up a .694 OPS.

Blueclaws find homes: The majority of the players stayed with host families.

Lakewood’s Spencer Howard fires a pitch. (Photo courtesy of the Lakewood BlueClaws)

Parkinson and pitchers Jonathan Hennigan and James McArthur and infielder Madison Stokes stayed this season with the Howell Township family of Mike and Emily Fahringer and their children, Andy, 14, and Erin, 10.

The family has housed 13 players over four seasons. Andy Fahringer plays in the United States Amateur Baseball League, a Lakewood sponsor.

“At the beginning, I wanted Andy to experience what it’s like to play at a higher level – not to just show up a half hour early to practice,” Emily Fahringer said. “The first year was so good that we wanted to keep hosting players. Now, we have extended families everywhere. We want to give our players a little bit of family while they are away from home.”

“It’s fun to get to know the guys and play at a higher level,” Andy Fahringer said. “They keep telling me, ‘If you are not having fun playing, there is no point of playing.’  I am a little in awe of them, but once you get to know them you see they are ordinary people not playing the game for money.”

Erin Fahringer said she enjoys the players.

“They are fun,” she said. “They like playing in our pool with me. They play board games with me.”

“They are like nice big brothers,” Emily Fahringer said as her daughter nodded in agreement.

Pitchers Austin Davis and Drew Anderson, both now with the Phillies, stayed with the family in 2016.

“We keep in touch with all of our players via texting and social media,” Mike Fahringer said. “We’re not partial to pitchers. That’s just how it worked out. Two players stay with us at one time. Hosting the players has been outstanding. They become family with us. They go to our children’s sports events.”

Stokes said he enjoyed staying with the family.

“Everything has been fantastic,” he said. “They take me around. From the first day I was with them, it felt like I was with them for a week. It has been perfect. It could not be any better.”

The family has hosted players from numerous places, including Iowa, Houston and Florida.

“Hosting the players helps our children understand how to treat people who are not family,” Mike Fahringer said.

Lakewood office manager Jo Anne Bell, who works under Kevin Fenstermacher, the team’s vice president of operations and events, in the host families program, praised its participants.

“I think the program is successful because we have a great set of families and a great application process that allows the families and players alike to know what is expected of them,” she said. “We get a sense of who they are when we do the interviews. We look at what they say. We look at the accommodations and the activities in the house. We need houses that are suitable for our players to get their rest. We need houses that are more conducive to our players when they are off.

“The families really enjoy interacting with their players. They continue to support them on their journey.”

Bell said the players stay with families that live as far as New Egypt and Freehold from our stadium. Other families live as close to the venue as Lakewood, Brick Township, Howell and Toms River Township.

“Our players enjoy the time they spend with their host families,” Bell said. “Although there is not a lot of down time, they interact with the families and can spend time on their own if needed. The families understand this.”

This year’s host families received a free blanket featuring a team photo. There was a free picnic with the players at the stadium. Lakewood supplied the blankets and the picnic.

“This is a great program that I enjoy working with,” Bell said. “I enjoy working with the families and the players alike. I have made some lifelong friendships with our families. Some of our families have hosted our players for either 10 or more years. We added new families this year.”

Bell said Helen Corr, a Howell grandmother, hosts Spanish players.

“They ask her, ‘What did you cook for us today?’ ” Bell said.

To participate in the program next season, contact Bell at 732-901-7000 ext. 100.

“I will send the family an application that it can fill out,” she said. “I will do a house visit to see the accommodations and go over questions the family may have.”

Packing ’em in: Despite inclement weather, Lakewood attracted 293,413 fans to regular season home games. The BlueClaws averaged 4,657 fans per game. There were 63 openings.

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Chris Christopher covers sports for Micromedia Publications Inc. with knowledge, pride and passion. His beats are the high school, college, professional, youth and recreational scenes. A three-time New Jersey Press Association award winner for sports writing, Christopher was inducted into the Shore Football Coaches Foundation Hall of Fame in 2015 for his work in the media. The Lakewood resident enjoys taking walks in Ocean County Park and on the boardwalks in Ocean and Monmouth counties and rooting for the New York Mets.