A record-setting season for the Cortland Crush has culminated with the club’s first New York Collegiate Baseball League Eastern Division regular season title and a second straight trip to the playoffs.
The Crush went to the playoffs in 2015 after a 26-20 record that earned them a third-place finish and they lost to division runner-up Oneonta in three games in the division semifinals.
Crush manager Bill McConnell immediately went to work after the season ended and retooled a team preparing for its third year in the NYCBL — which has produced this year’s 29-17 regular season success that will have Cortland hosting the Eastern Division playoff finals on Wednesday night.
The Crush will begin that best-of-three series at 6 p.m. on Greg’s Field at Beaudry Park, to face the winner of tonight’s contest between the second-seeded Syracuse Junior Chiefs and the third-seeded Syracuse Salt Cats.
McConnell brought back five players — outfielder Luke Gilbert (who batted .286) and infielder George Haaland (.265 in 2015) as position players along with pitchers Nate Verst, Shae Edmonds and Tyler Saundry.
After a slow start, Gilbert raising his batting average to .286 this season with three doubles, three triples, 26 runs scored,11 RBIs and four stolen bases. Haaland has shown a slight improvement in his second campaign with a .269 average, to go along with 10 doubles, one triple, five home runs, 24 runs scored and 21 RBIs.
“I am happy about this and it’s good for the guys,” Gilbert said of coming back to help Cortland’s pennant run, “The coaching staff have been a key to our success. Coach (Jonathan) Buczek has been a great addition. He has really pushed me. The guys really jelled this year.”
“It’s been cool to see the progression of this team,” Haaland added. “The first year was rough and we had a good season last year. It’s been cool to see all the hard work pay off. This team has bonded very well.”
On the mound last year, Edmonds was 3-2 with a 1.68 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 48 and one-third innings pitched. Verst went 2-1 with a 2.35 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 38 and one-third innings.
Saundry was the closer with a 2-0 record, eight saves, 2.08 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 17 and one-third innings.
Saundry went home early in the season with an injury while Edmonds and Verst were going to be limited due to increased work this past year at college. Also, McConnell brought in more arms this year to combat the grueling schedule of 46 games in 55 days.
Their leadership has been invaluable to the newcomers. Verst is 1-0 with a 3.38 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 40 innings while Edmonds is 4-2 with a 3.57 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 35 and one-third innings.
“WE HAVE HAD a great season so far,” Verst said. “Winning that first championship is a sigh of relief and takes a weight off your shoulders. Coach McConnell had been pleased with our overall performance this season. It’s nice to have those extra days off. Our pitchers can rest their arms. We’re not scratching for players like last year. We are healthier this year and I think we will come back with a vengeance and make a strong run.”
“Shae threw 70 some innings in school and I threw 56,” he added. “Coach (Daniel) Payne came in with a plan and everyone will be fresh coming into the playoffs. Pitching wise, no one has really been overworked. That will be huge.”
“Making the playoffs is huge,” Edmonds added. “We had a plan to make the playoffs and win a championship. Now we need a playoff championship. It’s not one thing that has made the improvement in this team. Hot bats and good pitching should win a championship.”
Stephan Witkowski has been the ace of the starters this season, posting a 3-0 record and 2.37 ERA with 30 strikeouts in 38 innings. Dylan Leahy adds a 4-1 mark with a 3.48 ERA.
Matt McCuen has seen a spot start or two, but really has become the closer as the newcomer is 3-0 with five saves and an ERA of 3.42. He has 28 strikeouts in 23 and two-thirds innings. Blake Demeter has a 2-0 record and 0.57 ERA while Jacob Kinney has worked 10 and one-third innings in relief with 21 strikeouts and no runs allowed.
“I’m proud of how we jelled of the team,” Witkowski said. “It’s fun to be around this guys. We are enjoying a little time to relax before the final push. Coach Payne is great and he has done a lot it to help me. He really helped my both mentally and physically. He gets a lot of credit for what I have done.”
The Crush had another pitcher go down before he threw an inning and McConnell went out and brought in three additional arms in Dylan Crossley (2-2), Matt Dietrich (0-1) and most recently Danny Hayden (1-0).
These are not all the pitchers, as Cody Shelton (0-1), Tommy Hyland, Tommy Seaver (1-0), William Ginsberg (1-2), Tom Taplin (0-1), Andrew Cartier (2-2) and Clayton Jeffries (3-1) have all chipped in in relief roles and/or spot starters. The Crush staff as the second-best team ERA of the three years at 4.22 in 403 innings while setting a new team strikeout record of 346 and still going.
THE CORTLAND OFFENSE has taken a huge jump, rewriting many of the team records in the process. New records including batting average (.273), hits (416), home runs (24), triples (15), doubles (60), runs scored (298) and RBIs. In 2015 those numbers in comparison were.241, 368, 12, 9, 48, 181 and 147.
The most team stolen bases are 77 set by the 2014 team, the 2016 Crush have 75.
A big reason for the jump in offense production comes from the M&M boys — rightfielder Derek Martina nd shorstop David Murphy.
While Gilbert has the career record for hits with 70 and runs scored with 40 and Haaland has the career doubles mark at 14 and is second in runs scored at 36, Martin and Murphy have established many single-season marks.
Martin is hitting .341 and holds the team lead and single season bests in hits (59), doubles (12), home runs (7), RBIs (45) and is second in runs scored with 31.
“We took to the limit in the regular season,” Martin said. “Most of us came in fresh from our college seasons and ready to win games. We knew if we played well together as a team and meshed well that we could have a great season. We want to keep improving now and do well in the playoffs.
Murphy had a batting average of .327 with seven doubles, five home runs, 33 runs scored (season best) and 40 RBIs.
Josh Lopez as a team-leading .395 average in 15 games, but his season was also cut short by injury, but, with that injury, the door opened for Greg Mula who is hitting a solid .311 (32-for-103) with 24 runs scored, 19 RBIs and eight stolen bases. As good as Lopez (second base) and Murphy were, Mula and Murphy have been just as solid. Brody Santilli shares the lead in runs scored with 33 as he is hitting .272 (34-for-125) with 15 RBIs and a team-leading 13 stolen bases.
“I can think back to a bunch of games where we struggled at the top of the line-up and guys like George and Andrew Taft had monster games,” Martin said. “They would pick us up. Our whole line-up gets into the box and is ready to hit. When everybody is clicking, we are a tough team to beat.”
“We were lacking production in the one through nine spots,” Haaland added.” Last year the top half of the line-up was good. We are more complete from top to bottom this year.”
Factor in starting third baseman Paul Ludden (.265) and back-up infielder Patrick Messinger (.269), Cortland has a good hitting infield and a solid one defensively.
Andrew Taft has shared time with Haaland at first base and Ethan Moore with all three also playing the role as designated hitter. Joey Assenza has been reliable in the outfield when called on.
“IT HAS BEEN awesome,” Murphy said. “We have a great line-up that produces. It’s easy to win with these guys and coaches. Lopez and I played together at college and had a chemistry. Greg has played very well. We have stayed consistent and continued to win ballgames.”
“We really have meshed well in the infield,” Messinger said. “It seems that whoever we have out there are able to make the play. We’ve been able to turn double plays and that’s a big help. The guys can hit in the lineup and the plays are being made on defense.
“This is big and I am very happy to be in Cortland this summer,” he added. “We knew we had a good group of players and some really great guys. The coaches had been great. Coach Mac challenged us eight from the first day. We have worked hard together as a team. That hard work has played off with a championship and now we are ready to go to the playoffs and bring the NYCBL championship back to Cortland.”
Cortland has used three catchers this season and each has brought something different to the team.
Anthony Searles (.208) is the best defensively. Evan Moore (.200) has shown a lot of promise and is a sold backstop as is T.J. Wegmann (.273) who graduated from Vestal High School June 25 and continued to improve even more as he makes the transition from high school ball this spring to college ball this summer.
“T.J. and Evan have played well and make it easy for us as a group,” Searles said. “We have jelled well with the pitchers really well. It’s been awesome and these are really great guys. It’s been nice to come to a winning team.”
was good. We are more complete from top to bottom this year.”
A game plan since day one has netted a regular season championship, Cortland is now ready to take that next step — a playoff crown.