A PROSPECT-LADEN ROSTER COMES TO CHARLESTON
The Power returned to Charleston in 2018 heralding a strong group of prospects, headlined by outfielder Lolo Sanchez, 2016 and 2017 second-round draft picks Travis MacGregor and Calvin Mitchell and 2017 Gulf Coast League MVP Mason Martin. The crop of 2018 players also included three second-year Power players in Blake Cederlind, Oneil Cruz and Dylan Prohoroff.
West Virginia opened its regular season slate at Appalachian Power Park April 5 against the defending South Atlantic League champion Greenville Drive. The Drive flummoxed the Power, 8-1, in the season opener in front of 2,842 loyal fans who braved the cold, rainy weather to cheer on the new Power club.
After starting the season off slowly, the Power rounded into form on the road in the middle of April. The Pirates affiliate left Appalachian Power Park for Hickory, N.C., sporting a 3-4 record, but the Power would find themselves victorious in seven of their ensuing eight games thanks to three consecutive series wins. Two wins from lefty Braeden Ogle bolstered these victories that moved West Virginia from fourth to second place in the Northern Division standings.
Mitchell led the early charge for West Virginia, getting a hit in 20 of his first 22 games for the Power, including his first six and a stretch of 13 consecutive from April 14 to April 27.
THE COMEBACK OF THE SEASON
The run was sparked by an incredible come-from-behind win at L.P. Frans Stadium April 14. The Power trailed 10-6 after five innings and entered the ninth down 11-8. The scoring started when Dylan Busby lined a single to center to plate Chris Sharpe. Cruz grounded into a force out that scored Mitchell and placed runners on the corners for Deon Stafford. Stafford doubled in Busby and Cruz next, and the Power took a 12-11 lead. A Kyle Watson homer and a Sharpe triple would cap the Power's seven-run frame, tied for their biggest scoring inning of the season, and West Virginia would walk away with a 15-11 win over the stunned Hickory Crawdads.
The Power continued to pace themselves among the top three teams in the Northern Division standings. Much of West Virginia's success was due to a strong starting rotation. MacGregor led the Power arms through April, wringing up 28 batters in 17.1 innings while maintaining a 2.08 ERA. Ogle followed MacGregor in the rotation. After a tough first start, he allowed just two runs in 14 innings of work while punching out 17 batters in his next three April outings. Gavin Wallace earned wins in his only two decisions in April, keeping West Virginia in the game each time he took the bump. Domingo Robles also became a force in the rotation, chewing up 21 innings in five starts while maintaining a 3.86 ERA.
INJURY BUG LEADS TO NEW FACES, ROLES IN WEST VIRGINIA
As the calendar moved from April to May, the Power's five-man rotation grew murky. Ogle, MacGregor and Sergio Cubilete were all sent to the disabled list, prompting a big shake-up that led to Evan Piechota and Hunter Stratton moving from the bullpen to the starting five. In addition to that, West Virginia called up prospect arms Max Kranick and Cody Bolton to help fill out the 25-man roster.
The month of May brought heroics to Appalachian Power Park. West Virginia faced off with the Augusta GreenJackets in a three-game set to kick off the second month of the season. In the first game of the series, Ryan Peurifoy smacked a walk-off two-run homer to left to give West Virginia their second walk-off win and first walk-off home run in 2018.
Two days later, May 3, West Virginia played the longest game in MiLB in 2018, a 15-inning, 4:44 contest. Nine pitchers were used between the two teams, including two starters from Augusta and a position player from West Virginia. Peurifoy tossed the 15th inning, stranding the extra innings runner at second and earning his first career win. The walk-off heroics belonged to Watson, who poked a single into right field that ended the series with an 8-7 win for the Power. That game also worked its way into the Power record books, marking the seventh-longest game in Power history in terms of time of game and tying the sixth-longest game in terms of innings.
A ROLLER COASTER ENDING TO A PROMISING FIRST HALF
The team kept right on rolling in the early portion of May, ripping off six straight wins against Hickory, Hagerstown and Lakewood that included their first sweep of the season when they broomed the Suns from May 9-11. However, their good fortune did not last long, as West Virginia then fell in 12 of its next 17 ballgames as the season worked its way towards June.
The Power headed into the final month of the first half with a 25-23 record after having three straight games rained out against Lexington, but then the team went on a tear. From June 5 to the end of the first half, West Virginia claimed 11 of its final 15 match-ups.
Two players, Cruz and Bolton, helped launch the Power into a race for first in the Northern Division. Cruz finished the month with a .375 average while collecting 15 extra-base hits and driving in 19 RBI in 25 games. Bolton, on the other hand, started his South Atlantic League career on the right foot. The Virginia native hurled 19.1 scoreless innings before allowing a run. In his first five starts, he twirled 26.1 frames to the tune of a 1.03 ERA.
The Power's hot June could not move them past the Kannapolis Intimidators. The White Sox farm team came to Appalachian Power Park at the end of May for a four-game set and took three of four from the Power. The team finished the first half 2.5 games behind the Lakewood BlueClaws for first place in the Northern Division and just a half game back of the Intimidators for second place.
West Virginia's first half efforts were not all wasted though. The team was recognized with two South Atlantic League Mid-Season All-Stars, Mitchell and Stafford, who represented West Virginia at the Midsummer Classic in Greensboro, N.C.
Mitchell finished the first half with a .316 average, seven homers and 36 RBI in 63 games. The right fielder was among the top five averages in the league for much of the first half. Stafford boasted a .286 clip, driving in 27 runs in 49 games for the Power in the first half.
FINISHING OUT A HISTORIC MONTH
After missing out on a first half Northern Division title despite a 37-29 record, the Power surged out of the gates in the second half, blowing by the Crawdads in a three-game series at L.P. Frans Stadium. In that three-game sweep, West Virginia outscored Hickory 22-11 and completed their third brooming of the season. The Power carried that momentum to one of their best monthly records in club history at 19-8 while headlining the South Atlantic League in quite a few categories (1st with 12 saves; T-2nd with 22 stolen bases; 3rd with five runs per game and a 3.21 ERA).
Individually, Cruz had his best month of the season, boasting a .375 average with three home runs and 19 RBI along with a 1.025 OPS. His efforts earned him South Atlantic League Player of the Month honors for June, the first monthly league award for a Power player since RHP Mitch Keller in April 2016. He hit safely in 20 of his 25 contests and put together a 12-game hitting streak from June 8-23.
ALL-STAR GAME ANNOUNCEMENT SHINES AS BRIGHT SPOT IN ROUGH MONTH ON THE FIELD
The biggest announcement of the season came July 12, as the Power unveiled that they would play host to the 60th Annual South Atlantic League All-Star Game Tuesday, June 18, 2019, at Appalachian Power Park. This event will mark the second time in Power history, and third for the city of Charleston, that the team will host the SAL Midsummer Classic. West Virginia last hosted the game in 2009.
The team, however, fell on hard times as the calendar turned to July. The Power did not win a series until their final set of the month against the Asheville Tourists, in large part due to the fact that they were 6-17 through 23 July contests before a late turnaround. The worst part of that stretch came on the club's final road trip of the season, when West Virginia went winless in seven games against eventual playoff teams Lexington and Kannapolis from July 19-26. At that point, the Power had dropped eight straight road contests and went winless in a multi-series road trip for the first time since the inaugural seven games in Power history in 2005.
Things weren't all poor for West Virginia though, as Hunter Stratton continued his 180-degree turnaround in the second half during that skid. Stratton tossed the lone complete game for the Power in 2018 against Kannapolis July 26, when the righty hurled six innings and scattered five hits in the loss. That start was the second of eight consecutive outings to end the season for Stratton where he would hurl at least five innings and allow two earned runs or less.
Another individual who shined as the final month of the season reared its head was right-hander Max Kranick. After not earning a win since June 15, Kranick dominated in his final start of July against the Asheville Tourists. The Valley View High School product took a perfect game into the sixth inning before it was broken up by a lead-off double. He would nearly replicate that effort in his first August outing, retiring the first 12 Augusta GreenJackets he faced en route to his second straight quality start and win.
A STRONG FINISH
Following a 4-1 finish to July, the Power soared into August and played like a team on a mission down the stretch. West Virginia did not lose a series in the entire month and rode a 16-11 August record towards a potential postseason berth that was in the cards until the final day of the regular season.
After a series split with Augusta and dropping a rain-shortened opener to Greensboro, West Virginia gained new life, sweeping the Grasshoppers in a twin bill to claim the series and firing the team's first one-hitter in nearly a calendar year in Game 1. MacGregor, Elvis Escobar and Beau Sulser combined for the one-hit gem in a 5-3, seven-inning victory, which ended up cueing four wins in the next five games for the Power.
Among those four wins was a career night for Deon Stafford, as the backstop collected six RBI August 11 in an 8-2 win over the Rome Braves. Stafford posted all six runs batted in over the final two frames, plating two with a bases-loaded double in the eighth before smacking his first career grand slam in the ninth. The Pirates prospect became the first Power batter to notch a six-RBI effort since Chase Simpson in 2015.
A TURNOVER FOR THE AGES
Heading into August 15 and the start of West Virginia's final multi-series homestand, the Power sat 1.5 games behind Kannapolis in the Northern Division Wild Card standings with 19 games to play. With a playoff push in full swing, the Pittsburgh Pirates elevated three of the team's 2018 draft picks to the Power, first-rounder Travis Swaggerty, third-rounder Connor Kaiser and 25th-rounder Luke Mangieri, while also bringing back Busby after a three-month stint on the disabled list.
That day also marked the end of the season for the eventual SAL Annual All-Star and Most Outstanding Major League Prospect Oneil Cruz, who was placed on the disabled list and never left it. However, even without their "Most Valuable Player", the Power was boosted by their new wave of talent.
Starting on August 15, West Virginia won 10 of its next 14 games, including seven straight at Rome and against Hagerstown to put themselves in prime position for a Northern Division Wild Card spot. The seven-game win streak was the team's longest of the season. All that remained was four games against the sub-.500 Charleston RiverDogs. West Virginia needed to win at least two games to clinch their first playoff berth since 2015.
Unfortunately, that never materialized.
Charleston won the first game in walk-off fashion, claiming a 4-3 extra-innings win and handing the Power its sixth walk-off loss of the second half (only had one in the first half, while the Power walked it off five times). The club then turned the tables on the RiverDogs, shutting them out, 8-0, Saturday for the team's 11th and final shutout win of the season, tied for third-most in the South Atlantic League.
With the magic number sitting at two entering Sunday's play, all eyes were glued to the Hagerstown-Kannapolis game playing three hours prior to the Power's contest with Charleston. Hagerstown held on for a 4-1 win, and all things looked promising for West Virginia. One win in their final two games and they were in.
On the mound Sunday was Oddy Nunez, who was nothing short of exceptional in his brief second stint with the Power. In seven appearances (five starts), Nunez went 1-1 with a 2.71 ERA in 37.1 innings, tossed four quality starts and struck out 24 batters. In his final outing Sunday, he recorded his 2018 Power-high 7.1 innings, but the RiverDogs eked out a 3-2 win, the fifth time West Virginia lost to Charleston in 2018 by one run.
So it all came down to the final day of the regular season. A win, and West Virginia was in. A loss, and it was up to Hagerstown.
The RiverDogs took an early 3-0 lead, but West Virginia managed to storm back for a 4-3 edge in the sixth. However, Dermis Garcia struck in the bottom of the sixth, slamming a home run to left-center that tied the game. All stayed quiet until the eighth, when reliever John Pomeroy, who had not surrendered a hit since joining West Virginia from the Black Bears August 8, entered the game. Pomeroy allowed two hits and only recorded one out before Wyatt Toregas went to Sulser, who had been the Power's go-to reliever basically all season. However, it was not to be. Garcia came up again and replicated his same feat, a three-run blast down the left-field line that hooked itself, and the Power's playoff hopes, out of the ballpark. A 1-2-3 ninth and a 9-4 loss from Hagerstown later, and the season was complete in a stunning, gut-wrenchingly quick fashion.
The Power finished the 2018 season 71-62 thanks to a 34-33 second-half mark, sitting nine games above .500 at years end. The Power registered a winning record of at least nine games above .500 for the first time since 2015 and the sixth time in Power history (2005-present) Four of the previous five teams who finished at least nine games above .500 made the postseason (The 2006 club did not).
The pitching staff posted a 3.40 ERA, slotting in as the fourth-best earned run average in the South Atlantic League. The Power finished both halves with nearly equivalent ERAs, closing out the first 66 games with a 3.42 ERA while locking in a 3.41 ERA from mid-June through early September. Robles led the team with nine wins, 21 games started, 115 innings pitched and 88 strikeouts. The Dominican native's ERA was also the seventh-lowest in the league. Sulser took charge as the team's closer, making a team-high 36 appearances and converting eight of his 10 save opportunities.
One of the biggest surprises in 2018 on the mound was the conversion of left-hander Elvis Escobar. A 2015 All-Star outfielder with the Power, Escobar made a very successful conversion to pitching in 2018. The southpaw appeared 15 times out of the bullpen for West Virginia, going 3-2 with a 2.08 ERA over 26 innings while striking out 28 batters and holding opposing sluggers to a .187 average.
On the offensive side, West Virginia recorded a .245 stroke, the ninth-highest clip in the league. The Power scored the fourth-most runs in the league (611) and drove in the fifth-most runs (619). Cruz was the club's offensive leader in almost every major category, headlining the Power in homers (14), average (.286), triples (7) and OPS (.831), while Mitchell led the way in RBI (65). Fittingly, both Cruz and Mitchell were honored as SAL Annual All-Stars, with Cruz as the shortstop and Mitchell as the designated hitter.
The 2018 baseball season was jam-packed with promotions, starting in April with the third installment of BrewFest CharlieWest, which hosted 21 different breweries and had a postgame concert following the April 21 game. The Power also put on several themed nights, including Legends of Wrestling Night with Jim Ross, Purple Power Night with a special postgame jersey auction and Faith and Family Night. The promo schedule was additionally highlighted by several incredible giveaways, including Ryan Switzer and Trevor Hoffman bobbleheads, a bucket hat and a Bluetooth speaker.
The West Virginia Power was extremely active in the Charleston community in 2018 through the Pirates Community Commitment Program. A community service-oriented initiative inspired by the late Roberto Clemente, the PCCP helps Pittsburgh's minor leaguers become integrated into their local communities. Power players dedicated 345 hours during the 2018 campaign. Ryan Peurifoy was awarded the Pirates Community Commitment Award for most outstanding service on the Power's roster after contributing 36 hours of community service to the city of Charleston throughout the season.
WRAPPING THINGS UP:
Sometimes, it just wasn't meant to be, and that seemed to be the case for the 2018 West Virginia Power. However, there was a ton of talent displayed on the field, a lot of camaraderie built and an immense amount of exciting moments this season. Fans of the Power and the Pittsburgh Pirates have a lot to look forward to in 2019, and we cannot wait to be a part of it at Appalachian Power Park.
Until April 4, 2019, Power fans…..thank you for a great season, and as always, Power Up!
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.