Erie MLN: 'Wolves Caught Cruising

You'd think that sweeping the best team in the league would be a momentum builder. After something like that you'd be riding high, ready to take on the world. The last thing you want to do is rest on your laurels, because now you have the juice and everyone is coming for it.

A big victory like that is supposed to be validating, but far too often such success can backfire.

Look at last season's World Series. The Rays spent everything they had to get past the Red Sox and by the time they squared off against the Phillies they had nothing left - mentally or physically. Philadelphia had their bags packed, sent to the airport, and checked before Tampa ever got settled in, eliminating them in five quick games.

Or, sometimes you start to coast and then impale against the team you are supposed to beat. In this year's NBA playoffs the Cavaliers completely manhandled the Celtics and by the time they squared up against a lesser foe in the Orlando Magic, they just couldn't get it together. They were sloppy at times, squandered leads, and made a ton of mental mistakes that left them hanging their heads by series end.

The SeaWolves suffered a combination of both scenarios this week. After they swept Akron to end last week, they were riding high, but it took everything they had to do it. So they went on cruise control and got caught by Altoona this week.

If you had never saw either team before and knew nothing about them, you would have walked away thinking that Erie was the team with the best record in the Eastern League, not Akron. They pitched well that series, played excellent defense, and the bats were firing on all cylinders.

Then Altoona came to town.

There's good baseball, there's bad baseball, and then there's the kind of baseball that you only see on Little League fields – the kind of baseball that is bereft of fundamentals, and robust with poor pitching and full of the sloppiest fielding that you'll ever see. That's exactly what it felt like watching Erie play defense this week: like you were at a Little League game.

These games were absolutely painful to watch because of the mental funk that the SeaWolves were in all week. Altoona has become known for their lack of fundamentals this year, but Erie ranked second in fielding percentage as little as a week ago, they were better than this. It was Erie, not Altoona, that looked like the team that committed two throwing errors on a bunt and allowed the hitter to make it all the way home on the same play. You'd never know it judging from these games, though.

"After the way we played Akron we expected to sweep them," Michael Hollimon said after the series was over. "I think they're a little better than their record suggests."

Altoona didn't come in and steal three of four. I could live with that, but Erie didn't even make them wrestle the series away. It was like they saw them coming and decided they didn't want any trouble and figured it'd just be easier to hand the games over.

Over four games, Erie committed 12 errors - including a season high five on Wednesday in a 10-8 losing effort- and allowed six unearned runs to cross the plate.

The starting pitching combined for a combined 7.89 ERA over the four game series, in large part because of Jon Kibler's poor performance on Tuesday (2.2 innings, eight earned).

The offense, however, scored 27 runs. When that many runs cross the plate the pitching has to keep you in the game and get you out of there with a couple wins. No exceptions. It was a disgraceful series after what should have been a momentum-changing week; hopefully they get it together next week.

Singing Out of Tune

Sorry about the headline, I couldn't help it. Every time I hear Alfredo Figaro's name I think of that old Bugs Bunny skit. You know, the one where he sings the Figaro song. If not, YouTube it. Then again, it's probably not worth your time.

Anyways, earlier this season Alfredo Figaro didn't look like he'd be in Erie long. He ended April with a 0.96 ERA, pitched seven innings of no-hit ball in one game, won the Eastern League Pitcher of the Week award, and was starting to make people rethink his future with the organization.

Then he hurt his back and was forced to the sidelines, missing ten days between starts. All of the sudden he was a different pitcher. He couldn't get guys out, he was laboring through innings, his fastball wasn't as sharp, his slider wasn't biting and his quickly developing change-up was no longer effective. In short, this wasn't the same pitcher that everyone was clamoring over in the first month of the season.

He ended May with a 5.52 ERA.

Here's the puzzling part, though. His control hasn't really diminished. He was struggling with his stuff at the beginning of the month but, for the most part, his stuff is there now. No one really has an explanation as to why this happened.

Take a look at the numbers:
April: 0.96 ERA, 18.2 IP, 5 BB, 17 SO
May: 5.52 ERA, 29.1 IP, 9 BB, 20 SO

The strikeouts are down. Way down from 8.40/9, but still respectable at the6.13/9 ratio in May, and his walks have remained relatively the same, rising slightly from April 2.48/9 to 2.76/9 in May.

His groundout to fly out ratio has risen slightly from 1.60 to 1.78. His velocity is still the same, he isn't walking guys, but for whatever reason he gave up 9.82 hits per nine innings in May compared to the stingy 3.86 ratio he allowed in April. His batting average against also rose from .131 to .278.

The guy still ranks in the top ten in WHIP at 1.19.

It's really kind of mind boggling.

The only explanation that really makes sense is that the back injury is still lingering, but both Brookens and Figaro are quick to dismiss that.

"My back is fine, that's over," Figaro said. "My control is there, it feels good. I'm putting [the ball] where I want. I don't know what is going on."

Neither do we.

Is Kibler turning a corner? Or not? Or is He? Keeping up with the up and down's of Jon Kibler's season is exhausting. One day he's hot, then the next he's not.

Take his two starts this week:
2 2/3 IP, 8 ER, 11 H, 1 BB, 1 SO against Altoona
6 IP, 1 ER, 3 H, 3 BB, 2 SO against Bowie

"I was just telling Jon [Matlack] about how good he's been looking recently. Then Kibler goes and does that," Brookens said of Kibler's performance against Altoona. "He'll be fine, it's just one outing."

In May, Kibler tore the league up to a tune of a 1.53 ERA and it looked like he was turning a corner, so maybe Brookens has a point.

Or maybe, just maybe, the real Kibler was the one that we saw in April and he was extremely lucky in May.

Don't get me wrong, that's a great number but, as I've written previously, his SO to BB ratio doesn't sit well with me. How long can he possibly get away with walking more hitters than he strikes out (23 to 21)? How long can he win games while opposing batters are hitting .312 off of him? How long can he succeed with a 1.62 WHIP, the eighth highest total in the EL?

Since 1995, among pitchers who have qualified for the MLB ERA title, only 41 have posted a WHIP of 1.62 or higher. Only one of them, Chris Bosio of the '95 Mariners, had an ERA under 5.00. None were under 4.00.

Go back to 1950 and that number jumps up to 75. Now, I know that the game has changed drastically since then, but one thing hasn't: you can't put that many men on base and expect to succeed. This time ten men had sub-5.00 ERA's. None were under 4.00.

Just for fun, let's go to the way back machine and look at numbers since 1901. 211 men qualify for our experiment. 47 had sub- 5.00 ERA's and we finally get our first sub-4.00 man, Lefty Gomez of the '41 Yankees.

Gomez finished the season 15-5 with a 3.74 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, and 103 walks against 76 strike outs over 156.1 innings.

The point is, Kibler, the Tigers' 2008 ML pitcher of the year, needs to get more consistent and cut down on the walks and hits before he becomes an exciting prospect.

Hopefully Kibler did turn that corner, but the early June results have shown us the good and bad, so we'll have to wait and see if he can succeed at this level. Quick Hits

- Check out Brennan Boesch's line this week: .416, two homers, six RBI, two steals. Maybe the most important part of that line is this: two walks, one strikeout. This marks the first time this year that he finished a week with more free passes than strikeouts. Progress, however small, is still progress.

-Ryan Strieby is back swinging a big stick, making me look real stupid for dogging him last week. I'm sorry Ryan! Last ten: .390, two homers, three doubles, 11 RBI, two walks, eight strikeouts. For the season he leads all comers in HR (14) and RBI (43) and ranks third in OPS (1.002).

- This from Matt Walback: "This Erie team is great. They have a ton of great prospects. They're well coached and they play great fundamentally sound baseball. I think they'll do really well this year."

-In his second start with his new three-quarters delivery, Jonah Nickerson looked good allowing only two earned runs over seven innings.

-Since May, Josh Rainwater has only allowed four runs in 17.1 innings and has struck out ten against two walks. He's 1-0 over that span.

Erie will host Portland from Tuesday to Thursday, and then New Hampshire comes to town on Friday and stays through the weekend.

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