The Calgary Inferno are already having a rocky season, currently 7½ games out of first place in the AEL West, and 4 games out of a wild card.
But the 2017 Bull Cup champs could see their season completely collapse in the second half as they hobble to the midpoint with eight of their players on the disabled list, the highest of any team.
The Inferno have frequently relied on a strong offense rather than good pitching, even in their past three highly successful seasons in which they won the Bull Cup twice. But even in those seasons, their pitching has done enough to get the job done.
In 2015, their first championship year, the pitching and defense held opponents to just 4.1 runs/game on average, fourth best in the AEL, while run production was 2nd in the league at 5.5 runs/game. Their defense fell dramatically in 2016, but they were still good enough to leverage a wild card entry and go all the way to the Cup again, falling eventually to the Ohio Oxen.
Last season, when they won their second championship in their third straight Bull Cup finals appearance, they were the dominant powerhouse run production team with 5.3 runs/game scored, and 186 total home runs, both AEL-leading numbers. Their runs/game allowed stayed steady from the prior year at 4.7.
This season, however, as we move into the interleague games today, the Inferno are dead last in AEL runs/game allowed, at 6.3. They have failed to register a single shutout, and opponents are batting nearly .300 against them. This time, their 2nd in the AEL offense, with 5.6 runs/game and 101 homers to again lead the AEL, just isn’t enough to ensure success.
Signs Point To Injuries As Biggest Problem
Calgary came out of the gates hot with a 10-7 record through May, but as injuries mounted up, especially in the pitching staff, the team’s success dropped steadily. So far in July, they are 2-7, worst in the AEL. Only Boston, at 1-8, has had a worse month.
The loss of RHP Connor Pearce at the end of June has been one factor. The 39-year-old has been a solid contributor in the rotation, putting in consistent starts and making few mistakes. He was 5-2 with a 5.43 ERA as of his last start, when he departed in the first inning against California on June 28. While the numbers don’t seem impressive at first glance, he has only allowed opponents to score 5 or more runs in four starts this year.
Pearce is still on the mend from chronic back soreness, suggesting that his playing days will soon be behind him, though he is under contract through to the end of 2019.
A more devastating blow to the Inferno rotation was the loss of RHP Enrique Nunez, who was instrumental in the club’s playoff success last season. A workhorse in the top of the rotation, Nunez went 10-5 last season with a 3.58 ERA. In 4 starts this year he accumulated a 2.00 ERA and 2-0 record. The 31-year-old was well on his way to contending for the AEL’s Sandy Koufax Award, until he departed in the 6th inning against Miami on May 31, complaining of shoulder problems. The Venezuelan was diagnosed with rotator cuff inflammation and is expected to miss the rest of the year.
As if two of the team’s top starters being out was not bad enough, All-Star first baseman and 2017 playoff MVP Logans Run was injured back on June 4. The 31-year-old was on track to hit about 17 home runs this season, and had been batting .282 at the time of his injury. Not only was that a loss to the Calgary offense, but Run has been a solid plus-plus defensive piece with a career zone rating of +19.1 and a generous range factor of 8.78, putting him among the best first basemen in the Bull League.
Some of the other position players have pulled up their socks to take up the slack, Israel Medina for example leads the team in home runs with 25, and could hit 45+ to set a new Bull League single-season record. But even he is day-to-day at the moment, recovering from shoulder tendinitis.
The club did sign a handful of international free agent pitchers that were expected to make an immediate impact. One of those was RHP Takahide Higuchi, who inked a 4-year deal worth $44.7 million last November. He has done what he can to keep the team in some sort of contention for a wild card, and leads the team in ERA at 4.87, as well as strikeouts, with 87.
Watanabe To The REscue
Realizing that time was running short to get back into the swing of things, the Inferno wrapped up a trade recently with Chicago that brought in RHP Masato Watanabe, who had been otherwise holding things together for the Pit Bulls during their collapsing season, with a 2.92 ERA that whetted Calgary’s appetite for pitching.
But it’s too early to tell if the move will have a lasting impact, and many pundits have already sealed the book on Calgary’s 2018 season, believing the team needs at least one more Watanabe-grade starter and a complete bullpen shakeup to compete going into the last half.
With just 48 games left on Calgary’s schedule, they enter the back half of the season with several tough match-ups, including a 4-game set against the high-flying St. Pete’s Admirals right after the All-Star break, and three series against division leaders, Nevada Speeders, for ten total games, all of which are “must win” for Calgary. Even Arizona has already caused the Inferno some concern, they dropped 5 of 7 to the last-place Cowboys so far, and still have to play them another 7 times.
One thing is certain, if the Inferno miss the playoffs this season — as is likely to happen — there will be a massive shakeup in the Inferno front office, and on the roster, come October.