Burlington's right fielder Alex Newman returns to first safe as Cardinals' Justin Ringo reaches for the ball. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
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Down the stretch, the Johnson City Cardinals matched the efforts of the Kingsport Mets.
They needed to do a little more.
Both teams were 7-3 in the 10 games prior to Thursday. Unable to make up any ground on the Appalachian League West Division leaders, the Cardinals were eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to Burlington on Wednesday night.
“When we would win, they would win,” Johnson City manager Joe Kruzel. “When they would lose, we would lose. But, you have to give these kids a lot of credit. They put together a pretty good August. We went 18-9 and what they created was an opportunity to have meaningful games at the end of the season.”
While the primary goal of the Appalachian League is to develop players, Kruzel admitted the Cardinals got a little caught up in pennant fever. For the last week of the season, winning the West Division title and the wild-card became a four-team race between Kingsport, Greeneville, Elizabethton and Johnson City.
Although the Cardinals (35-30 prior to Thursday’s game) ultimately fell short of their goal, Kruzel was pleased with his team’s efforts.
“They way they prepared each day and the way they battled for nine innings each night, I liked the make-up of this ball club,” he said. “The thing is the kids gave themselves that chance to make the playoffs. We clawed our way back when we were eight games out by taking care of what we needed to do on the field.”
Three players -- Kenny Peoples-Walls, Vaughn Bryan and Rowan Wick -- were named Appalachan League All-Stars.
Peoples-Wall, a 20-year-old infielder from Los Angeles who was picked in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, had a .294 batting average with 10 doubles, seven home runs and 33 RBIs heading into Thursday’s contest.
“He strung together a good season offensively,” Kruzel said. “He was the (league) player of the month for July and that’s not easy to do when there’s 15 guys per team and 10 teams. He’s put himself back on the radar in St. Louis with the kind of production he had.”
Bryan had eight doubles, a team-best five triples and three home runs in addition to 42 runs scored. Wick, a catcher, hit a team-high 10 home runs and added 11 doubles. With a reputation as such a dangerous hitter, he was walked 29 times.
First baseman Justin Ringo posted the highest batting average .297 on the team, and had solid numbers all the way around. A left-hander who played college ball for Stanford, Ringo had six home runs, 34 RBIs and 26 walks with a .387 on-base percentage.
“He’s a pretty even-keeled kid where nothing really rattles him,” Kruzel said. “He strings together some quality at-bats whether he’s facing a right-handed or left-hander pitcher. During the course of the season, he’s started to hit with some power and he’s getting better at first base. He solidified the middle of our order by taking over the 3-hole.”
Kruzel believes every guy in his clubhouse brings some value to the Cardinals. He said how much work they’re willing to put in, both during the season and the offseason, will determine how far most will go.
A good example is Steve Bean, who was a back-up to Wick after breaking his finger the first game of the season. Determined to get back on the field, the 19-year-old Texan ended up playing 31 games and showing vast improvement.
“He’s on the right track in regards to being a catcher,” Kruzel said. “He’s blocking the balls in the dirt, throwing guys out and handling the pitching staff. Sometimes, that’s not easy with 16-18 guys, all with different types of deliveries. He’s really taken that challenge and done a good job with that.”
One of the pitchers is the much bally-hooed Alexander Reyes, who celebrated his 19th birthday Thursday by throwing against the Royals.
Reyes entered the game with a 6-3 record and a 3.21 ERA. In 53 1/3 innings, he only gave up one home run, and had 62 strikeouts compared to 26 walks.
“I’ve seen some maturity in the young man,” Kruzel said. “When he started the season, he didn’t get off to the greatest start. Now, he’s won five in a row. That’s not easy to do in any league.
“He has a bright future ahead of him. He’s always had a fastball, curveball and change-up, but he’s developed where he can throw any of them in an any-count situation. His ability to mix speeds, his sharp breaking ball and a young man able to throw three plus-pitches for strikes, you get excited about that.”
Zach Loraine, a 6-foot-3 hurler from the St. Louis area, has been a top reliever. He suffered the loss to Burlington on Wednesday, but still sported a 3-1 record with three saves and a 2.04 ERA. Like Reyes, he had a very favorable strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“He’s made a lot of appearances and has eaten a lot of innings,” Kruzel said. “He’s a two-pitch pitcher with a fastball and a slider. The slider is a plus-pitch with a sharp late break and a some depth to it. It’s a difficult pitch to hit. The time he gets into trouble is his fastball elevates a little and flattens out. All total, Zach’s had a great season and has done a great job for us.”
Prior to Thursday, Blake McKnight led the team with 60 1/3 innings pitched. He had a 3-1 record with a 2.69 earned run average.
Fernando Baez with good spin on his breaking ball is another hurler whom Kruzel is excited about. He has six saves since joining the team, while Norge Paredes, Anderson Gerdel, Will Anderson are a few others who’ve shown promise.
All in all, Kruzel felt good about his first season in Johnson City.
“We have to realize even though we didn’t make the playoffs, we were in it until the end,” Kruzel said. “If you can finish above .500 with a group of kids starting their first year, that’s a positive sign. Even though these kids didn’t get to play into September, they had a great year.”