Only able to play five games, one that was started on Sunday but was completed late Monday, Lakeland was unable to make up some ground in the FSL North and finished with a mediocre 2-3 record. They are still only 5 games out of first place, but with streaking Clearwater taking sole possession of first after defeating Tampa late Wednesday, the 28 remaining games leave Lakeland with a small and quickly shrinking doorway to the playoffs.
"We have a tough division," first baseman Tony Plagman said while taking cover from some pre-game rain, "and everybody's playing everybody well."
"We're close to the bottom, but we're also close to the top."
And while time is indeed running out for closing the gap between that bottom and top, the schedule fortuitously calls for, starting Tuesday and after a break on Monday, six straight games vs. their rivals atop the division—three straight vs. Tampa and then three straight vs. Clearwater.
Furthermore, 14 of Lakeland's 28 remaining games are against either Clearwater or Tampa.
But, while the shape of the rest of the schedule yields a decent opportunity for late momentum, there are a few aspects of Lakeland's play that need to be fixed or improved for the proverbial ball to begin rolling.
Starting pitching is one of them.
Unfortunately, being a high-A team with three levels above them, at this point in the season, Lakeland has seen their top-producers (Smyly, Voss, for example) upgraded to Erie, while having them replaced with Erie relegates and newcomers from West Michigan. This, obviously, tends to yield higher ERAs.
Lakeland's team ERA for the week was a high 5.71—a number that, if Lakeland has is to have a shot, should probably shed about two runs.
Actually, the only comforting performance by a Tiger pitcher this week was that of auspicious prospect Luke Putkonen. The 6'6, 200 pound pitcher has, heretofore, had a disappointing season.
Starting the season with Double-A Erie, Putkonen posted 1-7 record as a starter with a 7.57 ERA and then, upon his demotion, is 1-5 with a 5.96 ERA in 14 appearances. On Tuesday, though Putkonen easily had his best outing of the year. Relieving Shawn Teufel in the sixth, Putkonen dominated Brevard County for 3.2 innings. He didn't allow a hit and struck out three.
"If we just go in there with the same attitude everyday, and play our game… we should keep that approach going," Plagman explained in regard to his team's chances, "we've been hitting the ball well."
He's almost dead on.
While Lakeland's pitching still has much to improve on, its offense, fueled by staples like Plagman and a handful of newcomers, has continued to hit powerfully,
In the week's five games, Jordan Lennerton tagged another two homers while Wade Gaynor and Corey Jones each added one of their own. With the four dingers and five RBI from both Lennerton and Plagman, Lakeland scored 34 runs with an average of 6.8 per game.
5.71 ERA, 6.8 runs per game, but a 2-3 record?
The offensive numbers were there, but the timely hitting wasn't.
Twice, Lakeland lost by one run, and one of those games was a 13-inning marathon vs. Brevard County.
In that game Lakeland didn't score for the final nine innings, while the pitching didn't surrender a Brevard run between the 2nd and 13th inning.
So, like Eric Roof said reminded us a few weeks ago, the timely hit is often more important than the numbers.
As stated before, next week marks Lakeland's best opportunity to thrust itself back into the hunt. They play six straight vs. the top of the division, but before that, play seven games in four days to make up for missed time this past week.
Lakeland acquired 2B Carlos De Los Santos from the GCL Tigers and reliever Ryan Robowski from Double-A Erie.