Chattanooga's first-half finish gives promise for the second half starting tonight against Carolina
By: David Paschall
After a feeling-out process, the Chattanooga Lookouts are feeling good.
Chattanooga began this season with new manager Mike Goff and new pitching coach Chris Bosio. There was an adjustment period and several stints below .500, but the Lookouts closed the Southern League’s first half with 12 wins in 18 games for a 37-33 record.
The Lookouts finished behind Huntsville (41-29), West Tenn (41-29) and Carolina (38-32) in the North Division but enter tonight’s second-half opener against visiting Carolina as the league’s hottest team.
“I think, overall, that we played pretty well in the first half,” Goff said Monday. “There were a lot of games early that we let get away defensively, but I think we have shored up our overall team defense in the last three or four weeks, which has really helped us become a little more consistent on a nightly basis.
“We have a lot of different faces here from the ones that started the season, but it seems to be a pretty good bunch. We’re a pretty young ballclub for a Double-A team, which is fine with me. I’d much rather have some young, hungry guys than some old, complaining guys.”
Chattanooga’s winning half did not go as projected.
At the close of spring training, Cincinnati Reds farm director Terry Reynolds promised a Double-A team that would be solid defensively though lacking in offensive firepower. Yet the Lookouts led the Southern League in home runs for most of the half and continue to lead in errors.
The Lookouts committed 60 errors in the first 43 games (1.4 per game) but only 18 in their last 27 (0.67 per game).
“To be honest, I have been a little surprised,” Reynolds said. “The last three weeks or so, everything has started to come together. The defense has improved. The pitching is pitching the way we’ve all expected, and they’re getting some timely hits.”
The Lookouts had the luxury of 17 returning players from a year ago, but infielders Luis Bolivar (.306 in 18 games) and Michael Griffin (.289 in 38) were promoted to Triple-A Louisville after solid starts. The team’s closing stretch came without top starting pitcher Daryl Thompson, top reliever Danny Herrera and closer Josh Roenicke, each of whom got promoted.
Thompson had a 1.76 earned run average in 10 starts before his departure, while Herrera became the first opening-day Lookout to reach the big leagues with Cincinnati.
Among the players who have been with the Lookouts all season, the most dominant has been starting pitcher Ben Jukich. The 25-year-old lefty from Minnesota is 7-2 with a 2.82 ERA through 14 starts, and his 71 strikeouts are tops on a team that leads the league with 548.
“He’s been Mr. Consistent for us,” Goff said. “We’ve had him going in the fifth day of that rotation, and he’s had some pretty good matchups against opposing pitchers. Any time you’re on the road and you’ve got Jukich going for you, it makes that road trip that much shorter coming home. He’s been outstanding.”
Offensively, the Lookouts have been rolling behind Shaun Cumberland, who hit .308 in 62 first-half games, and Eric Eymann, who hit .302 in 60. There are others within reach of .300, including Tonys Gutierrez (.298 in 66 games), Chris Valaika (.282 in 37), Sean Henry (.279 in 50) and Daniel Dorn (.274 in 32).
Chattanooga’s .265 average as a team ranks fourth in the league.
“I’m very happy and pleased,” Lookouts hitting coach Jamie Dismuke said. “Coming into the season, a lot of people didn’t give these guys any credit as far as going out there on a daily basis and hitting .300. Eymann is known for his defense and is playing tremendous offensively, and it’s just a matter of time with Valaika and some of these other guys. Hopefully they will keep working hard, because the league will make some adjustments.”
Goff is pleased with the batting averages but is more concerned with run production, pointing out, “When you get the big two-out hits with guys on base, those are the at-bats people remember.”
The Lookouts are hoping they can be remembered for a second-half championship that could potentially lead to a first league title for the franchise since 1988. A relatively young roster in April has become even younger with the arrival of pitchers Travis Wood and Jordan Smith and infielders Valaika and Justin Turner, but significant additional player movement is not expected.
That could translate into stability and better days ahead.
“That’s what I would anticipate, but you never know what’s going to happen,” Reynolds said. “Those guys need the time there. There are some pitchers who may not make it through the whole season, but the regulars, unless there is an emergency or something, are going to get a lot of time there.”