The good news … the Southern Illinois Miners finished with a 48-47 record, the 11th time in 12 years the Miners finished above .500.
The bad news … the Miners missed the Frontier League playoffs for the second straight season.
The 2018 season presented some significant difficulties for the Miners. After suffering through their first sub-.500 season in 2017, manager Mike Pinto brought just three players back from last season’s roster.
Just two Miners’ players signed contracts with major league affiliates this year, but those players were the top two pitchers in the rotation — Williams Perez and Robby Rowland. Perez was signed by the Seattle Mariners and Rowland went to the Texas Rangers.
“Those were really good players we had the opportunity to bring in here,” Pinto said. “Is there always a chance they’ll get picked up? Yes, that’s what independent baseball has become. I’m hoping to see the guys that come here get to the big leagues someday. At the same time, it certainly puts a kink in what we’re trying to do.”
What Pinto was trying to do this season was basically start from scratch. The signings and four season-ending injuries made things more difficult.
“I really thought it came together nicely at the end,” he said. “We were playing playoff quality baseball every day for two weeks. Unfortunately, the puzzle kept getting shaken differently. Over the course of the season we had four-season ending injuries.”
The final injury may have been the most devastating. Starting catcher Ben Moore injured his knee running the bases. That forced Ben Shepard, the starting first baseman, to take on most of the catching chores the remainder of the season.
Still, the Miners found themselves just 1.5 games out of a playoff spot with six games to play. Southern Illinois had to go to River City, who was leading the West Division at the time, for a three-game set. The Miners won two-of-three, but got no help from the rest of the league.
“We had some big wins against River City,” Pinto said. “I really did love the level of intensity and urgency our guys played with the last couple of weeks. I thought there were some players I would describe as ‘warriors.’ They were there to win.”
Unfortunately, inconsistency earlier in the year resulted in the Miners entering the stretch run as the hunters, not the hunted. After putting together a six-game winning streak in late June and early July, Southern Illinois lost 12 of its next 14 games.
“It was as much of a roller coaster as I‘ve experienced as a manager,” Pinto said. “I looked around the league, it was league-wide. I’ve never seen such competitive parity. There were nine teams in playoff contention with a week to go. No one clinched a playoff spot until Thursday last week. I’ve not seen a season where it’s been like that.”
Looking toward next season, Pinto could bring back much of the existing roster. Only two players, starting pitcher Kurt Heyer and first baseman/designated hitter Kurt Wertz Jr., are aging out under Frontier League rules. Players over 27 years of age are ineligible in the Frontier League.