With only a few games remaining in the first half of the Northwoods League season, the La Crosse Loggers are are still focused on finding enough footing to make a run in the second half.
A tale of contrasting narratives from the North Division set the scene for Monday night’s matchup at Copeland Park, between the first-place Waterloo Bucks and the Loggers, who entered the contest a game-and-a-half out of last place in the division.
But Brian Lewis had reasons to be optimistic, with the Loggers’ pitching staff getting its ERA under 5.00 for the first time in a while, a stable defense, and seeing potential in a lineup that’s only produced in streaks to this point.
Defensively, the Loggers have been establishing a reliable lineup with Lewis by running the same infield — David Villar and Grant Judkins in the corners, Cameron Cannon and Jake Hirabayashi up the middle, and Korey Lee and Nicholas Kahle rotating games at catcher — for the past couple of weeks.
Lee credits communication and time for the infield to find a groove together, along with having a solid relationship with their pitchers as confidence is built. The Loggers have played every team in the league, and that has allowed them to better utilize scouting reports and make adjustments.
“Our pitchers are getting more confident throwing to batters, since we’ve played (all) of the teams in the league,” Lee said. “We’ve formed a good base as far as who we can pitch to, and what kind of pitches to throw to them.”
But the core of the Loggers’ defensive strategy for pitchers just comes down to accepting contact at times and trusting the defense to make the right plays.
“We have a really good pitching coach (Tom Kinney), and he really likes pitching to get guys out, any way you can,” Lee said. “Pop out, ground out, anything that leads to the defense making a play, because that’s what the defense is there for.
“Just pitch and let them hit, and see if we can make some plays.”
As stable as the Loggers’ infield is, it will be under pressure to remain healthy. Matt Morales, one of the only other infield options, is currently out with a pulled hamstring.
While Morales’s absence is temporary, the Loggers will lose Judkins for good in a few days. That’s when he reports back to the University of Iowa to start preparing with the Hawkeyes for the World University Games held in Taiwan at the end of August.
Lewis’ philosophy to rotate players in the order, but keep those on a roll in the everyday lineup, is being employed with Lee, who’s been performing well. Two-at bats into Monday night’s game, he had two hits and an RBI.
“The thing about the league is that you gotta get everybody in there,” Lewis said. “You’ve got to develop them — that’s what they’re here for, to get their reps. So I tell the guys, if they’re swinging a hot bat, I’m gonna keep them in there, and if not, they’ll be in the rotation.”
Luke Rasmussen, batting .421 in his first seven games with the Loggers, is also falling into the hot-bat category, and was in the cleanup spot as the designated hitter Monday night.
Ryan Mantle, on the other hand, is looking to find a balance in the rotation. Mantle, who is already five walks away from breaking the Loggers’ single-season record for walks, is likely to be hitting leadoff every other night he’s in the lineup. Lewis decided to put Mantle in the top of the lineup because he thinks that’s where Mantle will end up next year at Creighton, Mantle was in the middle of the order in junior college.
“He’s probably the most unorthodox leadoff hitter I’ve ever used, but he gets on base at almost a .460 clip,” Lewis said.
When Mantle is not in the lineup — as was the case Monday — the role shifts to Kennie Taylor, a much more prototypical leadoff hitter.