Last season, the Silver City Outlaws were one of the Patriot League’s biggest disappointments; tabbed as a championship favorite, they burned out after a hot start, and a harrowing second-half collapse left them 10 games under the .500 mark. In the memorable words of manager John Jarha, “the whole lineup collectively popped a squat on the stat sheet – and our record.”
This season was a different story; the offense showed improvement, the pitching remained strong, and the Outlaws cruised to a second-place finish in the West, then upset the California Sharks in the Western Division Series before losing the championship to the Knoxville Smokies in six games.
“Here I was scared we’d be eatin’ Cheetos in the basement by July,” said Jarha, “but these fellas staked our claim as the Best in the West and damn near brought it all home.”
What was the key to Silver City’s hitting revival? They learned to work with their park. The hot temperatures and high elevation of The Corral make it a launching pad, and the Outlaws’ hitters took advantage, clubbing a league-leading 273 homers. RF Nathaniel Wason led the way (and led the league) with 55 round-trippers, but he was joined by big boppers like CF Javier Cardona (41 homers), SS Danny Taylor (37), 3B Rusty Brewmaker (34), and 1B Muzz Elliott (29). Those blasts helped lift Silver City to an .824 team OPS, third-best in the league. “These boys showed a lotta grit, lotta fight,” said Jarha of his hitters.
The rotation, which was the Outlaws’ strength last season, remained stout despite the loss of Juan Carlos Lopez and Linus Pauling in the expansion draft. Lefties Pedro Rodriguez (15-7, 3.69 ERA, .708 OPS against) and Rob Tildon (13-10, 3.87, .667) provided a potent 1-2 punch at the top, and teenager David Otto proved an ideal midseason reinforcement, going 10-2 with a 3.99 ERA.
The bullpen was arguably even more impressive, with righty Emilio Abbas (5-4, 4 saves, 2.63 ERA), rookie Tim Simmons (4-1, 7 SV, 3.76), and lefty Cliff Humphrey (1-3, 3.00) providing a bridge at the back end to closer Go Matsumoto, who struggled at times but converted 28 of 34 save chances.
The team’s overall excellence left Jarha “gushin’ all over [his] guys like a moon-eyed lil’ school girl.”
However, the skipper was clear enough to see some chinks in his team’s armor. Most notably, Jarha cited “that giant [expletive] black hole in left field.” Brant “Poison” Ivey manned the position in 2015, but his questionable glove work prompted Jarha to move him to the DH slot. Instead, Jarha tried a platoon of Marlon Hintz and Tex Whittier, “a pair of guys who showed me they could hit the ball last year.” They were unable to repeat that performance in 2016. Hintz hit a mere .234 and struck out in nearly a third of his at-bats, while Whittier hit .209 with no power. “I don’t know what happened in the offseason—too many donuts, maybe somebody’s chakras got outta whack or somethin’,” said Jarha. “But let’s just say I was disappointed. Real disappointed.”
In addition to the left-field issue, Silver City struggled at the back end of the rotation. Rookie Kevin Jennings (10-10, 4.73) and veteran Cloyce “Hoss” Benson (12-8, 4.79) both struggled with inconsistency, while Matthew Frederick (3-6, 5.36) underwhelmed before suffering a mid-season injury and never making it back to the majors. If none of those three can improve, much of the Outlaws’ fate will be riding on Otto’s slender shoulders.
Looking ahead to 2017, Jarha made no secret of his expectations: “What else? We gotta get back to the series and win the damn thing this time!” The manager acknowledged that his team won’t have an easy road back to the Series; California figures to be strong, Milwaukee is likely to bounce back, and Salt Lake and Kalamazoo should be interesting with another year of experience under their belts. But Silver City has strong top-end starters, a solid crop of firemen, and a hard-hitting lineup. There’s no reason to believe that the Outlaws won’t be back in the mix next year. “Ol’ Snuffy better sleep tight with that trophy,” said Jarha, “‘cuz it’ll be westbound and down, I’ll tell you that.”