Editor's Note - We will be publishing a series of "Year in Review" stories that look at each half, position groups, and some of the best moments and promotions from the 2017 season. This is the first in this series.
You can't come any closer to winning a half than the BlueClaws did in the first half, unfortunately finishing in a virtual tie for first place with Kannapolis and losing on percentage points, but it was still a very successful start to the season for Lakewood.
Lakewood jumped out to the best start in franchise history, heading to Kannapolis and winning the first four games of the season. Still, they were just 11-12 after their first 23 games before they embarked on one of the most successful weeks in team history.
Trailing Kannapolis 3-0 on April 29th, the BlueClaws got two runs in the seventh inning, one run in the eighth inning, and then the winning run in the bottom of the ninth to pick up a walk-off 4-3 win and spark a franchise-record tying eight-game winning streak. The winning streak included two games against Kannapolis, a three-game sweep at Charleston, and the first three games of a four-game series in Columbia, the BlueClaws first visit to Spirit Communications Park.
Perhaps the highlight of the first half came May 6th in Columbia, when Nick Fanti and Trevor Bettencourt combined on what was the fifth no-hitter in BlueClaws history (Fanti would throw another in July).
Leading 1-0 into the ninth inning, Fanti walked a batter to put two-on with two-out (the lead-off man had reached on an error). With Fanti at 113 pitches, manager Marty Malloy summoned Bettencourt out of the pen, and he struck out Michael Paez to end the game.
The BlueClaws were sparked by the Darick Hall's return to the lineup. After missing three weeks in April, Hall, the eventual South Atlantic League MVP, came back to the lineup on April 27th and hit 10 home runs and drove in 45 runs over the last 45 games of the first half.
The Box Office highlight of the first half came in a four-game, three-day series against Columbia and Tim Tebow at FirstEnergy Park from May 14-16. After the May 13th game was rained out, the BlueClaws welcomed over 23,000 fans over the next three days, though the Fireflies won three of four.
Lakewood had back to back walk-off wins over Greensboro on May 22nd and 23rd, winning one game on a Hall RBI single and one game on a throwing error on Grasshoppers third baseman James Nelson as the BlueClaws won five games in a row.
The BlueClaws played a memorable morning game against Kannapolis on June 6th, though it was one in which they would lose 2-1. The 16-inning game was the longest of the season and included a 12th inning power outage. Because the game took place in the afternoon, the game was not even delayed - though for about seven minutes there were no scoreboard graphics, music, or PA-announcements.
After that series with Kannapolis, the BlueClaws went to Hagerstown and lost three one-run games in a four-game series, falling to 3.5 games behind the Suns with six games left to play.
Lakewood returned home for two three-game series, one with Delmarva and one with Hickory. Likely needing to win all six games, the BlueClaws responded. The second game of the stretch was their biggest offensive game of the season, scoring 14 runs on 21 hits, a game that featured home runs by Darick Hall, Brett Barbier, and Carlos Duran. Raul Rivas and Mickey Moniak each had four hits.
Hickory came in for the weekend and JoJo Romero started that series by throwing eight scoreless innings in the Friday night win. On Saturday, the BlueClaws registered one of their most dramatic wins of the season. Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth, Raul Rivas hit an RBI triple to score Arquimedes Gamboa with the tying run. Then in the 10th, David Martinelli scored on Gamboa's base hit to give the BlueClaws a 2-1 win in a game that would have eliminated them with a loss.
Lakewood went into Sunday needing a win and a loss by Kannapolis, and unfortunately went 1 for 2. The BlueClaws beat Hickory 4-1, scoring three runs in the eighth inning, but Kannapolis topped West Virginia to clinch the division.
Two days after the first-half ended, the BlueClaws were very well represented in the South Atlantic League All-Star game at Columbia, sending six players and trainer Taka Sakurai. Five members of the BlueClaws pitching staff - Will Hibbs, Trevor Bettencourt, JoJo Romero, Ranger Suarez, and Nick Fanti - were there along with catcher Edgar Cabral. Fanti was the starting pitcher for the SAL Northern Division All-Stars, becoming just the second BlueClaw (David Buchanan in 2011) to be the starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.
Hibbs, who did not allow an earned run until his 33rd inning of the season, was the BC South Atlantic League Relief Pitcher of the Month for May. His 32 scoreless innings to open the season were within seven of the league record for consecutive scoreless innings.
The BlueClaws finished the half at 40-30, a winning percentage of .571. Kannapolis, who had two games cancelled, one due to rain and one due to a power outage at Augusta, was 39-29, for a winning percentage of .574. Even though the two teams were "tied" in the standings, meaning no games separated the clubs, the head-to-head tiebreaker, which the BlueClaws would have won 7-4, was not applied. Kannapolis was the first-half champion on winning percentage.
Nonetheless, and despite missing the post-season by just one game, it was a very successful first-half for the BlueClaws.
- BlueClaws -
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.