The Southern Illinois Miners endured their roughest season in franchise history this summer.
For the first time in its 11-year existence, the club finished with a losing record. The Miners placed fifth in the West Division and ended with a mark of 39-57.
“It was really the perfect storm to have this happen,” said Miners manager Mike Pinto. “I look back, and I’m definitely one of those that believes that reasons are not excuses. I certainly will make a variety of adjustments in order to put us back where I want to be, where our organization needs to be, and where our fans desire us to be.”
The Miners endured a sizeable amount of players retiring, including Steve Marino. The team also lost catcher Toby DeMello, slugger Alex DeLeon and standout center fielder Aaron Gates from the 2016 campaign.
“You lose your three-year all-star third baseman and captain,” Pinto said of Marino. “He was the guy that kept the leadership in tact in the clubhouse. He was the one to make sure that the guys followed our system.”
The club also didn’t have quite a few good pitchers return either. Jared Miller, Rick Teasley and Adam Lopez were gone from the previous season.
Defense was also a low point this summer.
“I don’t know that we ever really got our footing this year,” Pinto said. “We had very heavy rains in the spring, and we couldn’t do much. I thought that affected us fundamentally. It ended up with us not being a very good defensive team. The year before in 2016, we set a Frontier League record with a .983 fielding percentage. We just couldn’t seem to pick up the baseball this year.”
But there were other players who never took the field this season that Pinto was counting on. Injuries played a part in that as well.
“That was the really frustrating part,” Pinto said. “I look up at the board all year as I’m building this as guys are getting released. There were so many guys I didn’t sign because we thought we had certain players.”
When looking at the Miners on paper and seeing the team finished 18 games below .500, it would appear it was just a bad team. But the biggest thing was the Miners just couldn’t win the close games.
“We played 26 games where we had the tying run at the plate or on base in the ninth inning,” Pinto said. “We went 2-24 in those games. We were in 26 games, where with the right hit, you win a ball game. I’m not embarrassed by our effort. I will give our guys credit because they played until the end. We were in games, but we were left with a team that wasn’t good enough to win those games.”
There were positives to take from this season. John Werner, the team’s closer, finished second in the league in saves with 22. Kyle Grana, the set-up man, had a 1.11 ERA in 22 relief appearances over the second half of the season.
“John Werner had a phenomenal year for us,” Pinto said. “Kyle Grana came in during the second half and had a great year. You can have guys like that, but there is no predicting it on my part.”
Young pitchers Chris Washington and Austin Dubsky will return next season along with Tyler Stubblefield.
Washington finished 3-6 with a 4.17 ERA, but he looked very good at times on the mound for the Miners.
“He was really good when he got here, but he threw 170 innings this year between college and pro baseball,” Pinto said. “There is no way he was prepared for that. As the season went on, the arm speed drops, and the changeup wasn’t the devastating pitch it was when he first got here. Chris Washington at 100 percent without all those innings is going to be really good.”
Pinto is also high on Romeo Cortina and Ryan Sluder, who will be back to help shore up the team’s offense.
During this offseason, Pinto plans to bring the maximum amount of players the league allows into camp.
“I am like a man possessed,” Pinto said. “Seeing the handwriting on the wall of where we were the last four weeks of the season, I have made copious, detailed notes on what all was going to go differently. It was similar to what I wrote when I interviewed for this job. I really have been building that for about six weeks now.”