It was a nervous couple of hours for manager Joe Kruzel and the Peoria Chiefs (Cardinals Class A). But after their own late rally and a loss by Clinton, the Chiefs won the first half eastern division Midwest League title and will return to the playoffs.
The title was as improbable as it was satisfying. “We left Clinton after losing all three to them,” Kruzel said, effectively making any chance at the title a longer shot than the young Chiefs had hoped. But Clinton lost three of four to Kane County and the Chiefs ran off four in a row to win it on the last afternoon, finishing with a 40-30 record.
“We did a lot of things well,” Kruzel said. “Our starters went deep in games and our bullpen kept us in the ballgame. Our defense was solid and gave us a chance to win.” And that chance was all they needed. Down 1-0 in the seventh inning on the last day of the first half, Peoria pushed across a run in each of the final two frames to defeat Burlington 2-1. Kane County thumped Clinton 6-1 later that day and the Chiefs were champs.
“Our starting pitching has been better than we anticipated,” Kruzel said. “Not that they didn’t have the ability, but young pitchers usually are not consistent from game to game. These guys have been.”
The Chiefs are led by Ryan Helsley (8-1, 1.77 ERA), Derian Gonzalez (4-0, 2.91) and top Cardinal prospect Jake Woodford (4-3, 2.93, currently listed as the 12th best prospect in the organization). Starter Sandy Alcantara, number 19 on the Cards’ prospect list), features a 95+ mph fastball and has 83 whiffs in 60 innings but also 32 walks.
Kruzel has a delicate balancing act because the Chiefs are currently carrying three catchers, all of who are hitting well. The three-headed monster has seven home runs, 76 RBIs and an OPS over .800. Kruzel said he has been able to get all three the plate appearances they need to stay sharp, using them as designated hitters or at first base. “All the catchers are swinging well and giving us great at-bats,” he said. “But they’re all a different kind of hitter. Chris Chinea (.326) hits for average and drives the ball, Jose Godoy (.304) is a guy who gets on base a lot and Brian O’Keefe (.277) is a slugger with gap power. Those three join Magneuris Sierra (.291 and currently number four) on the Cards’ prospect list) as offensive sparks for the young Redbirds.
“These guys have great character,” Kruzel said. “They play hard, they never get too high or too low. They are just such an enjoyable group of players to be around. And a lot of the credit for their success goes to the staff who has put in so much hard work.”
The Chiefs will participate in postseason play at season’s end with the Midwest League champion to be crowned in September.