GENEVA, Ill. - The Peoria Chiefs are at the finish line. An extra inning game that lasted until 1 a.m. preceded a three-hour bus trip for the season’s final series at the Kane County Cougars over Labor Day weekend.
They’ve fought hard all year - perhaps even overachieved - and given themselves a chance to play in some meaningful games as the season draws to a close. But they would need a lot of help to make the play-offs; a sweep of the Cougars (Cubs), the best team in the Midwest League and three losses for Wisconsin (Brewers affiliate).
The Cougars are just too good. The Chicago Cubs affiliate finished 91-49, champions of both halves in the Class A Midwest League. And even though the Chiefs (72-67) took two of three including an extra inning win in the season’s final game, they missed the play-offs by a game. Still, it was a successful season. They made an impressive second half run without some key players who were promoted mid-season.
“It’s a real credit to the kids,” said Chief skipper Joe Kruzel. “They battled, they hung in there both halves and we still (had) a chance to make the play-offs.”
But an instant after the last out was recorded, the team’s performance is no longer important. As it is every year in minor league baseball, it will soon be moving day, at least for some players. Whether their careers advance steadily until they reach The Show, or whether their careers wither and die having hit their ceiling, every player looks to where they will be assigned for the next season.
Kruzel is circumspect about the progress his club made during the year. “Progress is defined in many different ways. (One way) is whether the guys we sent up to the next level were ready to compete there. (Another) is how have the guys done who have stayed here all year? We’ve seen some tremendous improvement.”
Two guys who have battled all year, Kruzel said, are pitchers Arturo Reyes and Blake McKnight.
“Arturo has been very steady for us. He’s an intelligent kid who goes out there with a game plan.”
“You always want to do better,” Reyes said. “I really learned a lot (from Chiefs’ pitching coach Jason Simontacchi, himself a former St. Louis Cardinal starting pitcher). I learned to command my change-up and to trust my stuff. I think my best outing was against South Bend, even though it was not the best results. But I made a lot of good pitches and gained a lot of confidence.”
But a pitcher is evaluated on how he finishes, not how he starts and Arturo Reyes faded into the stretch, going 1-5 over the last 10 starts with an ERA of 4.39. “Arturo just hit a wall,” says Simontacchi. “His stuff is good enough to get people out and having played a whole season will help him next year.”
McKnight also praised the learning experience, despite an up and down year that saw him shuffled between starting and relieving.
“Blake is fatigued,” Kruzel said. “He was asked to do a lot and he responded well. In spots, he really excelled and ran off four or five straight wins.”
Shuffling between the bullpen and the rotation has added to the stress. McKnight was visibly tired at Kane County.
“It’s a challenge mentally,” the 23-year-old right-hander said. “You prepare differently for each role.”
Still, McKnight, of O’Fallon, Mo. feels the experience was very beneficial. “This season showed me what I need to work on. There were stretches when I did really well. I have to work on my consistency, location and movement. I get in trouble when I leave the ball up. I’m a two-seam sinker ball pitcher and I will not be successful if I leave the ball up.”
Simontacchi says McKnight is still learning who he is as a pitcher and will benefit from a fresh start next year. And a fresh start is what some of the Cougars need. It’s a long season for players unused to 140 games over five months and a lot of bus trips. McKnight’s numbers over the last 10 games tell a story of fatigue - 0-3 with an ERA north of 11, a clear sign that there is no more left in the tank.
Both pitchers, like everyone else in the minor leagues, hope to move to the next level - to continue the advancement toward the ultimate prize of wearing a major league uniform. The odds are long and the obstacles great.
But life in Class A baseball is sustained by those dreams.