It was a very happy year for the Milwaukee Bear Claws. They claimed the Western lead in the first month of the season and never relinquished it, winning the division by a dozen games. The Bear Claws then won the inaugural Patriot Series over the Knoxville Smokies in 6 games. They suffered few injuries, and almost all of their players met or exceeded expectations. Milwaukee’s High Life Field even hosted the Patriot League’s first All-Star Game, with the Claws sending 10 of their players to the game.
“No complaints about the way this season went, definitely!” said Bear Claws owner/GM Jennifer Petitt. “Everything about this year was wildly better than my expectations.”
Petitt admitted that she never foresaw her team’s dominant performance. “My biggest surprise this season was just how damn good we were,” the owner said. “Going into the draft, I was just hoping to put together a team that wouldn’t be embarrassing. After the draft, I felt like we were a solid club, a definite contender, but I didn’t take it for granted that we would take the division. Never mind winning it all. I wasn’t even thinking about that.”
Bear Claws manager Poss Horton had an inkling of great things at the start of the season. “In spring training, I thought we might see something special,” said Horton. “Our arms were looking really strong, and our bats had plenty of pop. I felt like with hard works and a couple breaks, we could really do some damage. And we sure did!”
Milwaukee’s pitching staff was the key to their success. Their 3.99 team ERA was second only to Knoxville, while their .718 OPS allowed was best in the league. The rotation was both strong and consistent; the biggest surprise was that their strongest performers were the two southpaws, Benicio Torrenueva (16-5, 3.48, .679 OPS against) and Zack Perriman (14-4, 3.89). Righty “Stormin’” Patrick McNorman (17-9, 4.05) was arguably the league’s best fifth starter.
The starters had the luxury of handing off the ball to a rock-solid bullpen, anchored by virtually unhittable closer Oscar Buenaventura (8-0, 37 saves, 1.16 ERA, .437 OPS). “Bunny was just silly good,” said Horton. “He made the hitters look like fools.” The Bear Claws also had a pair of durable and effective setup men: lefty Olen Abernathy (4-5, 6 saves, 3.96) and righty Timmy Almon (10-7, 3 saves, 3.98). “When we had a late lead, it was almost automatic that we’d get the W,” said Horton.
That staff was backed up by a top-notch lineup. Milwaukee’s .282 team average was second-best in the league, behind Jackson. The offense was built around 1B Felipe Mateo, the league’s best batter and the Patriot Series MVP. Mateo led the league in OPS (1.121) and RBI (162), and was in the top five in average (.325), doubles (40), triples (15), and homers (50).
But the Bear Claws lineup was strong from top to bottom, with SS Red Petitt (.320, 50 doubles, 134 runs) setting the table atop the order and CF DeRonde Maxwell (.310, 28 doubles) providing a spark in the ninth slot. “There’s no letup in our lineup,” said Horton. “You could just see the pitchers’ shoulders sagging because we had no easy outs.”
Milwaukee’s strong roster was guided by one of the league’s most admired coaching staffs. Horton led his team with a light hand, going easy on discipline while ensuring that the Bear Claws put forth a quality effort every night. “Poss was like a father to us, or a fun uncle,” said Mateo. “He kept us loose and made sure we had a good time, but he always had our respect.”
The pitching staff came under the tutelage of Zane Stafford, who came to spring training hoping to make it as a player but stayed on as a highly successful coach. The left-hander was famous for an unorthodox but effective approach; he was more likely to prescribe a couple of stiff drinks instead of an extended throwing session for a struggling pitcher. “God, I loved it when Zane would come to the mound during a game,” said Perriman. “Sometimes, he’d have a suggestion to fix your mechanics, and those were always good. But a lot of times, he knew you just needed a breather. So he’d come out and talk about some pretty girl in the stands or whether the pike were biting. You’d start smiling and laughing, and before you knew it you’d struck out the side.”
You could count the chinks in Milwaukee’s armor on one hand. DH Gilberto Fleitas overcame considerable adversity to make the opening roster, but proved overmatched by Patriot League pitching, batting under .100 for the season. The Bear Claws benched him in favor of Rodolfo Raine a month into the season, eliminating the lone soft spot in their lineup. Long relief was another weak point for the Bear Claws early on, but Chris Karnik (4-4, 4.73) and Avery Lavine (3-0, 3.57) bounced back to post respectable year-end numbers.
Given the Bear Claws’ incredible success in their maiden voyage, it comes as no surprise that the front office largely plans to stand pat in the offseason. “Why should we mess with what’s working?” said Petitt. “My focus for next season is on retaining as many of our awesome players as we can, and continuing to bring top-notch baseball to our fans in Milwaukee.”
One area where the Claws are likely to focus is on improving their depth. The bench, although rarely used, put up paltry numbers in their limited appearances. Milwaukee’s rotation depth could also prove to be an Achilles’ heel if the team struggles with injury next season. When Perriman went on the DL in late July with elbow trouble, the team was forced to plug in Karnik, who was unable to get out of the 5th inning in any of his starts.
Still, these are minor concerns at best. The Bear Claws established themselves as the team to beat in the league. If California or Silver City is going to knock them off in the West, or if one of the Eastern contenders is to dethrone them in the next Patriot Series, they’ll have to find a way to beat a well-balanced team with few apparent weaknesses. “I kind of feel sorry for the other teams,” said Horton. “I sure wouldn’t want to play us next year.”