Sharks Bolster Bullpen, Acquire Abernathy from Milwaukee

The California Sharks are gearing up for big things in the postseason.  They’ve had a comfortable lead in the West for most of the year, and are almost certainly headed for the playoffs.  With that in mind, the Sharks came into Wednesday’s trade deadline looking to bolster their few weaknesses and prepare for a deep run.  Their lineup is producing the most runs in the league, so there’s no need for upgrades on that score.  Their rotation also looks postseason-ready, especially once knuckleballer Todd Warrant returns from injury.   But their bullpen was a reliable arm short; closer Eugene Grace has been inconsistent, and long man Kerry Lopez has struggled badly.

The Sharks addressed that weakness on Wednesday, acquiring veteran left-handed reliever Olen Abernathy from the Milwaukee Bear Claws in exchange for lefty prospect Luke Bond.

“We’ve got one goal this season, and that’s to win a title,” said California owner/GM Colin Mills.  “We don’t have a lot of weak spots, but we needed one more good relief arm to strengthen our pen.  Olen Abernathy is the guy we wanted, and I couldn’t be happier that we got him.”

Abernathy has postseason experience, as he was a key part of the bullpen that led the Bear Claws to the PBL title in 2015.  “Last season, whenever we played Milwaukee I knew we needed to score early,” said Sharks manager Eduardo Aponte, “because I knew that Almon, Abernathy, and Buenaventura would shut the door right in our faces.”

The southpaw has been reliable again this season, going 3-5 with a 3.29 ERA.  Milwaukee, however, hasn’t been able to repeat its success from last season.  With the team struggling, they were willing to make deals to retool for the future.  “We ain’t giving up on the season,” said Bear Claws skipper Poss Horton, “but we’re looking at making our team stronger for the long haul.”

Bond is a hard-throwing arm with considerable potential.  The 20-year-old southpaw has a fastball that lights up the gun in the upper 90s and a developing curveball.  His biggest issue is control; he walks a lot of batters and is prone to firing wild pitches.  Last season, Bond was 3-3 with a 5.84 ERA in 22 appearances with the Sharks.  This season, he’s been in the minors for California.

“A guy like Luke has the kind of arm you can dream on,” said Horton.  “I’m excited to see what [pitching coach] Zane [Stafford] can do with him.”

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PBL Season in Review: Milwaukee Bear Claws

Milwaukee Bear ClawsIt 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.”

First PBL All-Star Game Goes to Milwaukee

Today, Commissioner Jeremiah Mills announced that the Patriot League’s inaugural All-Star Game will take place at High Life Field, home of the Milwaukee Bear Claws.

High Life FieldThe park offers an attractive venue for the game, one deeply steeped in the city’s history.  High Life Field was built as part of the redevelopment of the abandoned Pabst Brewery complex in downtown Milwaukee.  The park, which was designed as a tribute to Milwaukee’s beer heritage, fits in perfectly with its surroundings.  The exterior of the park was designed to resemble the faux-castle style of the old Pabst corporate office building.  The left-field wall backs up to the façade of the main factory building, which is decorated with a clock and a Pabst Blue Ribbon logo.  Fireworks shoot out of the top of the old smokestack every time the Bear Claws win.

Upon entering through the main gate, fans pass through the King’s Courtyard, in the middle of which is a statue of King Gambrinus, the unofficial patron saint of beer.  Surrounding the courtyard are multiple beer gardens, which are positioned to allow fans to watch the game while enjoying a cold one.

Although the Bear Claws have the league’s best record, Mills said the decision was not made on that basis.  Rather, he said that he intends to rotate hosting honors among the league’s charter cities.

“The Bear Claws are honored to host the inaugural Patriot League All-Star Game and look forward to welcoming you all to Milwaukee,” said Bear Claws owner Jennifer Petitt. “Join us in raising a cold Miller High Life in celebration of this great event. The Champagne of Beers is never better than when served ice cold on a prematurely hot day like today.”

The selection of High Life Field met with widespread acclaim around the league.  “Down in Jackson, we are all about the High Life,” said Jackson Hammerheads owner Steven Butler.

Snuff Wallace
Snuff Wallace

One dissident, though, was Knoxville Smokies manager Snuff Wallace.  Unsurprisingly, he believes that Commissioner Mills, who also owns the Smokies, should have selected Knoxville’s Rocky Top Park for the honor.

“I mean, what the hell good is it to be the man in charge if you don’t pull strings for your own guys?” said Wallace.

In the end, though, Wallace isn’t too upset about the decision.  “Everyone will get a real good look at our park when we’re claiming the championship trophy,” said the Knoxville skipper.  Besides, he adds, “I like beer.”

PBL Transactions, 6/1/15 – 6/7/15

The following transactions occurred in the Patriot League over the last week:

California Sharks

 

California Sharks: Signed free agents 1B Jamal Gerke, SS Grant Knepper, CF Conrad Mojica, SP Kerry Lopez, and RPs Osvaldo Barret and Jason Richter.

 

Jackson Hammerheads

Jackson Hammerheads: Signed free agents C Carlos Asperzol, 3B Elmo Milliner, LF Monty Walcott, DH Dexter Jester, SP Nico Library, and RF Cortez Petrik.  Waived 1B Coy Tighe. Activated 1B Pete Ciancarulo from the 15-day disabled list.  Placed DH Alex Jaramillo on the 15-day disabled list.  Called up LF Monty Walcott.

 

Jacksonville Dragons

Jacksonville Dragons: Signed free agents 1B Neal B. Thomas, CF Rondei Isua, DH Isaias Miguel, SP Juan Pascos, and RPs Lauren Gilpatrick and Jamel Janke.

 

 

Knoxville Smokies

Knoxville Smokies: Signed free agents 2B Danny Kurland, CF Arnold Carranza, DH Jerome Arch, and RPs Rodolfo Darville, Oscar Madison, and Norman Sater. Claimed 1B Coy Tighe off waivers. Called up CF Arnold Carranza. Demoted SS Lorenzo Arias and RP Edgar Provenza.

 

Milwaukee Bear Claws

Milwaukee Bear Claws: Signed free agents 2B Quirico Rodriguez, RF Bruce Rew, DH Hans Coghill, and RPs Rodolfo Elmonte, Mike Manigault, and Antonio Schieber.

 

 

Orlando Calrissians

Orlando Calrissians: Signed free agents 2B Jeffrey Matter, LF Sang LeLeux, DH Casey Helmers, SP Ali Godari, and RPs Shab Mickolas and Courtney Vanepps.  Activated CF Glen Madden from the 15-day disabled list.

 

Salt Lake Samurai

Salt Lake Samurai: Signed free agents 1B Lawrence Briski, 2B Gabriel Montalvo, SS Dario Rickard, DH Lazaro Matherne, and RPs Jose Mariata and Bryce Sereno.  Traded RPs Rick Wilkins, Oliver Jones, and Jose Mariata to Knoxville for SP Grant Fore, DH Matthew Weigel, and RP Norman Sater.  (See story here.)  Placed C DeAndre Turnbull on the 15-day disabled list.  Called up RPs Jimmy Okamura and Norman Sater.

 

Silver City Outlaws

Silver City Outlaws: Signed free agents 3B Narciso Rodriguez, CF Sebastian Melora, DH Charley Ingraham, and RPs Irving Godlewski, Duke Newlin, and Ron Wall.

 

 

 

Wallace Fined For Remarks

Snuff Wallace
Snuff Wallace

The Knoxville Smokies have fined manager Snuff Wallace $50,000 in reaction to a series of comments he made insulting other teams and fans in the Patriot League’s preseason prediction article.

In the article, Wallace called Milwaukee Bear Claws pitching coach Zane Stafford “Loony Zane” and predicting that the Silver City Outlaws would win the west because “the fans will kill off the other team.”

Along with the fine, Smokies owner/GM Jeremiah Mills issued a press release stating, “The opinions of Snuff Wallace are his own and in no way reflect the opinions of the Smokies organization.”

Wallace reacted to the fine was indignation.  “Hell, I was just trying to have a little fun and start some rivalries,” Wallace said.  “But I guess the brownshirts in charge of this team don’t like fun.  Well, fine.  If they don’t want me to talk, I won’t.”

Wallace announced that he has taken a vow of silence until the team rescinds his fine.  According to team sources, the skipper has requested a “glance translator” who will speak on his behalf at all media sessions. It is rumored that the Knoxville front office has reached out to the agent for Seahawks star Marshawn Lynch for advice on how to proceed.  Anonymous sources close to Wallace expect the manager to keep up the silent treatment for “five hours, maybe six if we’re lucky.”

Patriot League Preseason Predictions

We asked each of the Patriot League’s owner/GMs to offer their forecasts on how their teams would fare this season.  Enjoy their picks and predictions below:

 

California SharksCalifornia Sharks

“Well, since my manager already said we’re going to win a title, I suppose the least I can do is agree with him.  Seriously, I think our rotation is strong, our lineup is solid one-through-nine, and our fielders can cover a ton of ground.  If we have good luck with injuries, I think we’ve got a shot at this.”

Colin Mills, owner

 

Jackson HammerheadsJackson Hammerheads

“This team has the potential to be a perennial contender. With a top team batting average and on base percentage coming into the season, the opposition will be hard pressed to get anyone in this lineup out top to bottom. A young nucleus, with a few key vets make this team a force to reckon with. Look for the team’s whiz kid GM (me) to make a couple splashes throughout the season.”

Steven Butler, owner

 

Jacksonville DragonsJacksonville Dragons

“Every opposing pitcher will be sweating bullets on the mound at Tesla Field, and if the Dragons can hit as many homers as I think we will, we have a good chance to win the East.”

Eric Stetson, owner

 

Knoxville SmokiesKnoxville Smokies

“Ain’t I supposed to say my guys are the best? Hell, you want me to pick who we’ll facing? I’ll say someone from the West cause the East don’t qualify! I would have said Milwaukee but they hired that guy Loony Zane.  Give me the Outlaws cause the fans will kill off the other teams.”

Snuff Wallace, manager

 

Milwaukee Bear ClawsMilwaukee Bear Claws

“I don’t want to be overconfident, but I think we’ve got a good shot to make the playoffs.  I’m not saying we’re going to win it all, but I think we’re going to be very competitive.”

Jennifer Petitt, owner

 

Orlando CalrissiansOrlando Calrissians

“[No response, probably because he knows his team is doomed or he’s too chicken to argue otherwise.]”

Brian Aufmuth, owner

 

Salt Lake SamuraiSalt Lake Samurai

“We will finish as high as we possibly can with the talent we have. It will depend on the strength of our opponents. Success or failure might depend on the pitching. Their arms carry the answer.”

Sarah Buehler, owner

 

Silver City OutlawsSilver City Outlaws

There ain’t a gunslinger worth the silver in his belt buckle goes into a fight thinkin’ he’s ever gonna lose.  We’ve put together a set of bats to rival anyone and a couple of aces that could knock a flea off a pin at a hundred paces.  In my not-uneducated opinion, the only thing that’ll stop us from taking the Series this year is us shootin’ ourselves in the foot..”

Hank Stroman, GM

PBL Transactions, 12/13/15 – 12/19/15

The following transactions occurred in the Patriot League over the last week:

California Sharks


California Sharks:
Claimed free agent C Clyde Hawkins and LF Rucky Virella.  Waived DH Dexter Jester and RP Ron Wall.  (See story here.)

 

Milwaukee Bear Claws

 

Milwaukee Bear Claws: Named Zane Stafford as pitching coach.  (See story here.)

 

Bear Claws Hire Stafford as Pitching Coach

Zane Stafford
Zane Stafford

Zane Stafford reported to spring training with the Milwaukee Bear Claws hoping to catch on in the bullpen.  The 35-year-old lefty underwent Tommy John surgery last season, and he was considered a long shot to make the team.  After posting a 7.04 spring training ERA, Stafford realized that his playing days were over.  His baseball career will continue, however, as the Bear Claws signed him to serve as their pitching coach.

“We really liked the way he worked with the younger fellas in camp,” said Bear Claws manager Poss Horton.  During spring training, Stafford helped reliever Stu Juens improve his pickoff move and taught starter Patrick McNorman a circle change-up.  “Zane is a born teacher.  He’s forgotten more about pitching than most of us will ever know. Plus, he’s a hell of a storyteller and he can hold his liquor.  Basically, he’s everything I’m looking for in a coach.”

For his part, Stafford is grateful for the opportunity.  “Obviously, it’s not the ending I was hoping for,” he told reporters.  “But I’m just glad I’m still getting paid to put the uniform on.  And I have a new audience to tell my old war stories to, which is great.”

Stafford has traveled around extensively in his 15-year professional career.  He played at every level of the minors, from Rookie to AAA, and in three different independent leagues.  He has played in Japan, Italy, and Mexico, as well as winter ball in Venezuela and Puerto Rico.  “My favorite song is ‘I’ve Been Everywhere‘ by Johnny Cash, because it’s the story of my life,” Stafford said.  “I swear, every city in that song, I’ve either played in it or ridden through it on a bus.  I tell my family I’m a professional hobo.”

Stafford said that his primary goal is to help Milwaukee’s staff have a relaxed approach to the game.  “Nobody ever thought their way or worried their way out of a slump,” he said.  “I want our guys to stay loose and roll with the punches.”  He stressed that he will also provide instructional guidance as appropriate.  “When you’ve got a physical or mechanical issue, you need to put the reps in and fix it,” Stafford said.  “But often as not, when a guy’s in a slump, it’s mental, and doing reps won’t fix you.  If a guy’s in a mental slump, I’ll tell him to take a day off.  Have a couple beers, maybe a margarita, get some sleep, and forget about the game.  Come back the next day, and you’re a whole new man.”

Stafford is optimistic about the Bear Claws’ chances this season.  “I think we’ve got a hell of a staff,” he told reporters.  “And the lineup looks solid from top to bottom.  This team knows how to work hard, how to fight when they need to, how to have a good time.  I’m just glad to be along for the ride.”

Fleitas Welcomes Chance to Play

Gilberto Fleitas
Gilberto Fleitas

Gilberto Fleitas, who is slated to break camp as the Milwaukee Bear Claws’ designated hitter, expressed his gratitude to the Bear Claws organization and to the Patriot League for allowing him to pursue a dream he thought was dead.  “I am so lucky to be here right now,” Fleitas told reporters. “Baseball is so much to me, and I am overflowing with joy at the opportunity to play once again.”

It has been a long and winding road for the 26-year-old Fleitas.  He grew up in the Dominican Republic idolizing Sammy Sosa and dreaming of being a Major League outfielder someday.  “Where I come from, we have two industries: baseball and sugar cane,” Fleitas said.  “If you are not able to play, you will spend your life cutting cane.”  Fleitas showed promise as a young, fleet, power-hitting outfielder; scouts began talking to him at the age of 13.  “They told me I could be the next Sammy, maybe,” Fleitas recalled.

When Fleitas was 15, his family moved to America in search of a better life: “My father said that baseball was a lottery ticket, and he was not going to have his sons spend their life cutting cane.”  Fleitas proved to be a decent student as well as a gifted athlete.  He received a scholarship to the University of East Florida, and MLB clubs considered drafting him out of high school.

Fleitas starred at UEF, batting over .400 and displaying an incredible outfield arm that scouts compared to Roberto Clemente.  In his senior year, he was drafted in the 7th round by the Chicago Cubs.  But then, tragedy struck.  At the end of the baseball season, Fleitas went to Daytona Beach with his teammates for a party weekend.  He was waterskiing when his friend lost control of the boat; Fleitas wound up slamming into a dock.  “The doctors told me it was a miracle that I was not dead,” Fleitas said.

It took Fleitas over six months before he could walk again, and a year before he returned to a baseball diamond.  When he did, he discovered that his magnificent throwing arm was gone: “I could barely throw the ball back to the infield.”  He did recover his hitting stroke, however, and remained determined to live his professional dream.  Fleitas worked with family and ex-teammates over the next two years to get back into playing shape.

In 2014, Fleitas’ perseverance was rewarded with a spring training invitation from the Minnesota Twins.  Unfortunately, bad luck struck again: in his third exhibition game, he stumbled rounding first base and severely sprained his ankle.  He wound up being cut by the Twins, and when no other team took a chance, he figured his career was over.

“I cried for a week, because I came so close and it was all stolen away,” Fleitas said.  During his recovery, he had taken a job as a high-school PE teacher in Hialeah, Florida, and he returned to that position, seemingly for good.  “I figured that God must want me as a teacher instead of a player,” he said.

But his fortunes changed this spring, thanks to the Patriot League and a little help from family.  Kim Fleitas, Gilberto’s younger brother, attended PL tryouts and was picked up by the league, and he recommended Gilberto to PL scouts.  “I knew he could still play,” Kim said, “and we have always looked out for each other.”  When Gilberto was drafted by Milwaukee, he was shocked and then thrilled.  “I thought my time was done,” he said on the night of the draft.  “But thanks to God and my brother and the Bear Claws, I have one more chance.”  While he had hoped to wind up on the same team as his brother (who was drafted by the Jackson Hammerheads), “I am just grateful to be anywhere.”

With the security of a two-year deal and the support of Bear Claws manager Poss Horton, Fleitas looks forward to showing what he can do at the professional level.  “I am excited to pay back everyone who has believed in me,” he said.  “The best way for me to do that is to play well and succeed.”  And whenever the Bear Claws play the Hammerheads, he plans to have dinner with his brother beforehand.  “He can pick the place, and the meal will be my treat,” Gilberto said.  “It’s the least I can do.”