The Lansing Lugnuts season came to an end on Thursday, September 6th as they bowed out in the first round of the Midwest League Playoffs against the Fort Wayne Tincaps. Even though the team came up short in their championship run, they provided us plenty of positive memories to keep us warm through the long winter months. Franchise record after franchise record fell with this team and individual recognition was given as well as Kevin Pillar was named the Midwest League MVP and John Tamargo Jr. was named manager of the year. This season was one full of memories for everyone involved including Lansing radio voice Jesse Goldberg-Strassler.
“One of the fun things on this season was seeing all those wins mount up,” stated Goldberg-Strassler. “They won ugly, they won pretty, they won quick, they won slow. Every once in a while they won by a blowout, usually they won by a shutout. It was a really special first half”.
When you think about this years crop of Lugnuts, the first thing that pops into your head is the pitching. Top rated prospects Aaron Sanchez, Justin Nicolino and Noah Syndergaard anchored a rotation that was the talk of not only the Midwest League, but in all of Minor League Baseball. The first half for these guys was full of piggy back starts and cutesy nicknames such as Sancholino on nights that the piggyback tandem of Justin Nicolino and Aaron Sanchez would start. Still, it was an undrafted free agent by the name of Jesse Hernandez that may have pitched the game of the year for Lansing in a 1-0 loss to Fort Wayne where the only hit he allowed was an infield single, something that radio color man Keaton Gillogly will take away as a memory from this season.
“Jesse Hernandez’s near no hitter in which he gave up just one hit and ended up losing 1-0, that was a heartbreaker”, stated Gillogly. “That one stung for him, I felt for Hernandez on that one.”
From an offensive standpoint, the most impressive performance was delivered by a 32nd round draft pick by the name of Kevin Pillar. Pillar was the Lugnuts Mr. Everything as he hit for average (.322), wreaked havoc on the base paths (35 stolen bases), drove in runs (57 RBI) and did generally anything the team asked him to do. Pillar was recognized for his efforts by being named the Midwest League MVP even though he had been promoted to Dunedin in July. Pillar’s success is something that did not surprise Lansing hitting coach Kenny Graham.
“I saw Kevin Pillar all last year (in Bluefield)”, stated Graham. “He shows up an competes on every pitch in every at bat. We tell the guys as soon as they’re drafted that it doesn’t matter what round they’re in, they all have a uniform on and they all have a chance. Him being drafted in the 32nd round is daily motivation for him to prove everyone wrong.”
Some other notable post season awards (well as awarded by me) from this team are as follows:
Most Improved Player: I boiled this down to two people. One is KC Hobson and the other is Gustavo Pierre. Hobson was a guy that didn’t have the offensive production that the organization was looking for out of him during the 2011 season, but he certainly stepped up this year by improving his batting average from .250 to .276 and hit for more power by improving his OPS from .670 to .778. He also set a new franchise mark for doubles as he hit 43 on the season.
“KC Hobson has had just a tremendous second half. He drove in a lot of runs and he hit a lot of doubles”, stated Graham. “He’s done what a clean up hitter is supposed to do and he really established himself as one of our offensive leaders.”
As impressive as Hobson’s year was, I have to give the most improved player award to Pierre. To say Pierre struggled in his 2011 season in Lansing would be an understatement. The game seemed to be moving too fast for him at times as he committed 36 errors in 53 games for the Lugnuts. He also struggled at the plate as he hit just .187 with an OPS of .506. A position change later, Pierre looked like a new player this season. Manning the hot corner he dropped his error total to 16 over 76 games and improved at the plate to post a .252 average with an OPS of .716.
“Pierre has done a good job of playing both sides of the ball”, stated Graham. “If he strikes out once or strikes out twice, he goes out and plays hard on defense. In the past, if he struck out in his first at bat, you may not get anything out of him the rest of the game”.
Top Offensive Player: Who am I to go against the Midwest League coaches? Kevin Pillar wins this as he did everything this season. He had the ability to drive in runners in scoring position and had the ability to put himself in scoring position by stealing bags. He also hit for timely power and highlighted his season with a 6-6 day at the plate against West Michigan in which his sixth at bat was a grand slam.
Top Starting Pitcher: I’m going to award this to Justin Nicolino. Nicolino is the first Lugnut pitcher to win a Midwest League ERA title and was recognized as having the best change up in the Midwest League as voted on by Baseball America. Of the three prized pearls in the collection, Nicolino is the most polished as he is able to command all his pitches to both sides of the plate and works down in the zone. He added a slider to his repertoire and will be refining that this fall in the Instructional League.
“He’s just outstanding”, stated Lansing manager John Tamargo Jr. “He finished first in the league in pitching numbers wise. He was the best pitcher in the league.”
Top Reliever: Ajay Meyer gets the nod for top Lansing reliever. He set a franchise record for saves in a season with 33. Meyer features a fastball that tops out at 88, a curve ball and a change up, but throws from a low ¾ arm slot that makes picking up his release point difficult on hitters. He was signed as a non-drafted free agent out of Division II Ashland University.
Team MVP: I’m going to give this to someone that spent the entire year in Lansing and that is Justin Nicolino. He was the most consistent performer and was named a midseason and post season All Star. If you haven’t seen Nicolino throw, he kind of has the makings of a Tom Glavine type.
Top Prospect: I’m giving this to Aaron Sanchez. Sanchez had trouble with his command at times, but features a fastball that routinely hits 96 to 97. He also features the best curve ball on the team and a good change up. Even in some of his not so impressive outings this season, he wowed scouts with how easy the ball came out of his hand and it was reported that he was the most sought after prospect out of the Blue Jays system. If he stays healthy and improves his command, he is going to be special.
“Sanchez out of everyone probably had to go through the most changes in his delivery”, stated Lansing pitching coach Vince Horsman. “With him it is the evolution of his delivery and throwing strikes consistently. If we would have known that we were going to get this out of Aaron at the beginning of the year, everyone would have been ecstatic.”