The first half of the season has officially come to a close and the East Division champs have put on a show.
Peninsula finished with the second-best record in the Coastal Plain League at 17-5, only trailing the West Division-winning Savannah Bananas. In that time the team has shown a lot about the team they can be, so here are five takeaways — in no particular order — from the first half of the year to watch as the Pilots get ready for the playoffs.
1. ALDEN MATHES IS A WEAPON AND SHOULD BE THE FRONT RUNNER FOR THE LEAGUE MVP
Manager Hank Morgan has a few two-way weapons at his disposal and they have all done their job when called upon, but Alden Mathes has assumed a Shohei Ohtani-esque role with the team.
He has fit nicely into the leadoff spot in the Pilots’ lineup, serving often as the team’s designated hitter but also logs some time in the outfield when Hunter Hart is the team’s DH for the day.
His aggressive approach at the plate has led to a .341 average with the second-most hits in the league at 29 — trailing Morehead City’s Jack Harris by two knocks.
Five of those base hits came against Tri-City June 19 which tied the franchise single-game record with a controversial call in the top of the ninth robbing him of standing alone on the top of the mountain with a 6-for-6 performance.
The Broomall, Pennsylvania, native has displayed the most pop in Peninsula’s lineup, leading the team with nine extra-base hits at — five doubles, one triple and two home runs. His 18 RBIs in 2021 lead the team and are tied for third most in the Coastal Plain League.
That isn’t all he can do, though.
The left-hander has silenced batters on the mound in his 14 innings in 2021 — five of which came in his lone start of the year June 5 against Martinsville.
The Pilots’ southpaw currently holds a 3-0 record with a 1.92 ERA and a team-low .109 opponent batting average and his 0.64 walks and hits per inning ranks second behind right-handed ace Chris Ludman — who Mathes has followed in three of his four relief appearances this season.
In the most literal definition, Mathes has been Peninsula’s all-around most valuable player with his Swiss-Army-knife skill set, ranking third in the league in offensive runs created and top-20 in component ERA at 0.66.
2. A WALK IS AS GOOD AS A HIT
Though it has been 19 years since Billy Beane’s “moneyball” approach to assembling and running a team, the principles and metrics used then are still alive and well.
Batting average is an overrated statistic due to the fact that a player can hit a ball hard and be robbed of a hit by a great defensive play, hurting his batting average despite scorching the ball. On the other side of that coin, dropping down a bunt against the shift — which I am a huge fan of — helps a player’s average while all he did was stick the bat out and push it down the third-base line.
What the bunt also helps is on-base percentage which is the name of the game because, if runners aren’t on base, then they can’t be driven in to score.
The Pilots have done a good job of taking the free passes when they come, walking an East Division-best 97 times, averaging 4.4 walks per game.
Center fielder Trey Morgan leads the Coastal Plain League in walks with 18 with teammate Trevon Dabney at 10. Every player who has appeared in a game for Peninsula has drawn a walk.
Second baseman Carson DeMartini — who graduated from Ocean Lakes High School a couple weeks ago — is currently batting .077 still adjusting to the pace of college pitching. He has already walked six times in 20 plate appearances, though, contributing to his respectable .350 on-base percentage.
In Peninsula’s 6-4 win over Tri-City Friday, DeMartini was 0-for-0 with three walks, a run scored and an RBI on a sacrifice fly.
That may get overshadowed by catcher Zach Lass’ 2-for-4 performance in which he tied the game on a bunt single — which Lass should get all the praise in the world for doing his job when needed — but hits are something, not everything.
Each team gets three outs in an inning and should be playing to win that inning. The way to do that is by scoring more runs than the opposition in each frame, and the way to score runs is by getting on base by any means necessary.
3. CONTINUE THE DOMINANCE OF TRI-CITY
One familiar foe for Peninsula this season has been Tri-City who it has squared off with 10 times in the first 22 games of 2021.
The Pilots have owned the Chili Peppers, holding a 9-1 clip against them while winning eight in a row to round out the first half.
Peninsula on the year has outscored Tri-City 78-48 with 18 of those runs coming June 19 which tied June 18, 2018 at Edenton for the second-most runs scored in a game in franchise history. In that game, the Pilots led the whole way — a common theme in the two teams’ meetings as Peninsula has trailed in just 15 innings against the Chili Peppers this season.
In each of the previous two games, Peninsula trailed for five innings before making a comeback to win 9-7 and 6-4, respectively. Tri-City hurt itself in the two blown leads with 14 walks, six wild pitches, two passed balls and an error.
The Pilots capitalized in the first meeting of the season on June 6 by forcing back-to-back flinches from left-handed reliever Elijah Parks to win 6-5 on a walk-off balk.
The mistakes have benefitted Peninsula, but it will be something to watch in the second half assuming Tri-City cleans them up in time. If it can keep up this success — putting together complete efforts like it did in the first half — then the Pilots will be in a good position to win the second half as the two face off 10 more times this season.
4. HOME SWEET HOME
Yes, like the Mötley Crüe hit, the Pilots are on their way home sweet home to start the second half — a place they have had overwhelming success at in the early going.
Peninsula jumped out to the best start in franchise history at home, starting out 9-0 at the friendly confines of War Memorial Stadium.
It took until June 21 for the Pilots to lose their first game at home in a when-it-rains-it-pours type game against Wilson. Peninsula still managed to collect nine hits and score seven runs in a 14-7 loss.
The Pilots have outscored opponents 54-34 despite their team average dipping below its season mark of .267.
Pitching and defense has been the blueprint for victory, as Ludman — who went the first 20 1/3 innings without giving up a run and holds the third-lowest ERA in the Coastal Plain League at 1.58 — has made all four of his starts at War Memorial Stadium.
There are external, off-the-field factors that come into play with Peninsula’s success.
Hank Morgan and every player I ask says it’s because of the fan base — which comes out loud and proud each night — but another thing that contributes to winning is the players’ routines.
Players can sleep in a little longer than normal, arrive at the ballpark a couple hours later than for a road game, they don’t have to ride hours on the cramped team bus and can use their own facilities that they are familiar with, including the indoor batting cage underneath the pavilion down the left-field line.
Peninsula went 10-1 in its first 11 home games of the 2021 season and, with 11 still to be played at War Memorial Stadium, it is necessary to the team’s continued success that secured a playoff spot.
5. CONSISTENCY IN THE BULLPEN IS KEY
The Pilots’ bullpen has had a top tier of arms who leave no doubt that they will come in and get the job done.
The others, however, have struggled so far in the season and the difference between the two comes down to walk rates.
The walks per nine innings for the six relievers in the upper tier of the ‘pen is below 3.86 for all but two pitchers — Trey Morgan and Marcus Olivarez.
But Trey Morgan has shown time and time again that his fastball command coupled with a slow change of pace to the breaking ball has gotten him out of trouble, coming in some of the most high leverage situations this season and getting out of them.
Olivarez has a 95-mph crutch in his back pocket that he can turn to at any time and blow by most hitters in the Coastal Plain League, as he’s allowed just one hit to four walks in his three innings of work this year.
As for the group who has struggled so far, four of the six pitchers own the four highest walks per nine innings.
The two pitchers whose ERAs are above five but have sub-three walks per nine innings are right-handers Michael Falco and Blake Purnell.
Falco has worked just five frames in 2021, surrendering two in an inning against Wilson June 21 which drove up his ERA. Take away that outing and Falco is looking at a respectable earned-run average of 2.25.
In his most recent outing against Tri-City, the St. Joseph’s right-hander was called on in the 10th inning to preserve Peninsula’s two-run lead. Regardless of the two runners placed on first and second as part of the league’s international tie-breaker rule, Falco worked a scoreless inning while striking out a batter, earning his first save of the year.
As for Purnell, he has just gotten hit around in the early going, surrendering five runs in his first 4 1/3 innings of the year, but just three in his last seven frames of work.
These are Purnell’s first innings of competitive baseball since pitching at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as he did not pitch in 2021 at the University of Florida.
Come playoff time, pitching roles are out the window and the best arms are called upon in the most high-pressure situations. Therefore, if more guys want to have that window of opportunity opened during the postseason, they will need to lower their walk rates and show Hank Morgan they can hang some zeros.