Great Western Lightning league — Round Three

The inaugural season of the Great Western Lightning League is one third complete, and the pitchers are dominating — none more than Jeff Ducote, who threw the second perfect game in the young league’s history! Thanks in no small part to Ducote’s heroics, the Reno Silver Sox slashed their way into first place in the league, thanks to their sweep of Santa Cruz.

Cambria Otters 2-2El Centro Imperials 2-2
Santa Cruz Crabs 0-4Reno Silver Sox 4-0
Ventura Gulls 2-2Las Vegas Wranglers 2-2
Sacramento Solons 1-3Fresno Tigers 3-1
Merced Bears 2-2Mesa Moons 2-2

Ventura Gulls vs. Las Vegas Wranglers

No sooner does the league press praise the Wranglers pen than Tod Hampa is lit up for the loss. Hampa would recover to earn the save — and secure a split — in the final game of the series in Ventura. In between the two teams played a sloppy and sometimes chippy series, alternating blown games with poor concentration and bad defensive plays in the late innings. Series felt like a lost opportunity for Las Vegas to make headway in the standings at the expense of an inferior Ventura squad.

Merced Bears vs. Mesa Moons

Fumi Suzuki stays red-hot for the Bears, leading a combined shutout for the Merced staff. Kent Brunner’s 3-run bomb woke up the Moons bats to earn the split in Mesa. The teams split again in Merced, in a pair of games where power bats had a bit more say; both Kent Brunner (Mesa) and Jayson Mroczka (Merced) are off to monster starts for their teams.

Fresno Tigers vs. Sacramento Solons

With the league approaching the one-third mark of the schedule, this series between Great Western Lightning League cellar-dwellers feels like an elimination round. And it was the punchless Solons who saw the sun go down, fortunate to scrape out even a single win in a series that saw them score five runs in four games, including twice being shut out in Fresno. The fourteen runs plated by the Tigers in this series might not seem like much, but Fresno had scored only ten runs in total coming into this match-up — thanks to that comparative offensive explosion, the Tigers managed to claw their way back to .500 and forestall irrelevance for at least another round.

Santa Cruz Crabs vs. Reno Silver Sox

Sox manage only four hits in the opener in Santa Cruz, but two of them are solo shots from Alex Imbrogno, which was just enough to win a bullpen duel. The second game followed the same script, as the Sox showed they can win with pitching, too, holding the Crabs to just two runs in as many home games. Back in Reno, the Silver Sox shut down the Crabs again, but another fine pitching performance was a just a preamble to the greatest outing of them all, as Jeff Ducote threw the second perfect game in the young history of the Lightning League in the final game of the series. Ducote was otherworldly, striking out fourteen, including the first nine batters of the game! Almost as an after-thought, the league office noted Reno completed the first sweep of the season, putting the Silver Sox atop the standings with a commanding 10-2 record.

El Centro Imperials vs. Cambria Otters

Imperials twice came from behind to edge the Otters in Cambria, but the Otters didn’t panic, returning the favor in El Centro to split the series. Cambria was admirably calm under fire to retain second place in the Lighting League, but observers can’t help but feel that manager Vic Kalustian’s boys are doing it with mirrors. 

Lightning Strikes — Reno Silver Sox

The Sox stormed to the top of the Lightning League this round thanks to a sweep of the Santa Cruz Crabs. At 10-2, they lead the Cambria Otters by two games (and no one really believes Cambria is as good as their record). The hopeless Sacramento Solons, meanwhile, trail Reno by seven after having only played 12 games, which is a sign of ugliness to come.

The rest of the league will find themselves as helpless as the Solons, if early-season trends hold in Reno. The Silver Sox are not only winning games — they’re winning them with ease. Their .307 team batting is 70 points better than the Lightning League’s woeful average, and Reno’s 2.28 ERA/9 is likewise the best on the circuit. With a +26 run differential, the Sox have posted a better scoring margin than Cambria, Merced, Las Vegas, El Centro, and Mesa combined … and those other teams just happen to be the only other teams in the league with a positive run differential.

It might be pointed out that Reno has built their record at the expense of Ventura, Santa Cruz, and Sacramento — the bottom three teams in the league. But in this early going, those teams might well be at the bottom because they’ve had to face the Silver Sox. Reno surely won’t maintain their .833 pace for the League’s full 36-game schedule, but at the one-third mark of the season, they are threatening to run away with the pennant. 

The ingredients aren’t hard to identify. The Sox are knocking the cover off of the ball — Larry Borrego, Billy Bechtel, Karim McCarthy, and Ricky Guerra all have OPS well north of 900 — and the team has managed 34 walks, which is a lot in a league where whiffs are up everywhere. Combine that production with a pitching staff that allows only a .197 batting average against, and you start to wonder how the Sox managed to lose two games. The answer is the bullpen, which blew the two games Reno has lost, but it seems premature to brand this a Sox weakness. They’ve also managed six saves, Led by three for Adam Gorman, who has yet to allow a run.

From the Commissioner: Lightning League teams are averaging only 2.95 runs per game. It would stand to reason that scoring will be down in this format — with seven-inning games, that’s 33% fewer innings where runs can be scored, versus a nine-inning league. Seven-inning games also reduce the load for pitching staffs, keeping bullpens fresh and ensuring that fewer workmen and strugglers take the mound. But even normalizing for nine innings, offense rises only to a bit less than four runs per game, which has more in common with the Deadball era than modern MLB.

The pitchers are definiitely ahead of the hitters. With a league average hovring around .238, we are talking “Year of the Pitcher/1968” numbers, but it is still early in the year. And I don’t much mind if offense stays at this level — I like dominating pitching, and there’s no arguing that games go faster when batters stay off the bases, which comports with the Lightning League’s ethos for speed-of-play. No intervention is coming from the league office — no one will be moving the mound in this league — so the batters will just have to claw back on their own, and maybe show a bit more discipline at the plate, where Lightning League batters are managing to strike out once per inning or more.

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