AKRON Postseason baseball has been a staple since the Akron RubberDucks moved to Canal Park two decades ago, but the stadium is silent this September.
A rough final month of the season kept Akron out of the playoffs and from the pursuit of its sixth Eastern League title, with the year coming to a close with a four-game homestand against Erie. First-year manager Mike Budzinski saw his team finish 69-71, one win away from going .500 and three games out of the wild card spot in the Western Division.
"Right now, just take a breather and rest for a few days, but you always kind of evaluate things you could do better and learn from mistakes you’ve made," Budzinski said after the last game of the season. "I’ll certainly think about that, but these guys have worked hard all year and they deserve to take some time off and they’ll crank it back up in a few weeks to get ready for spring training next year."
The veteran manager noted that even though playoff hopes were dashed prior to the last series, players and coaches "talked about being professional, grinding it out and giving the fans something to cheer about … respecting the game and finishing it out."
That message seemed to resonate as a roster missing many key pieces from earlier in the season due to promotions and injuries won the first three games of the Erie series and nearly pulled off game-winning rally in the bottom of the ninth of the series finale to finish .500 for the year.
Some of the layers who were promoted are now with the Cleveland Indians and have played parts in the Tribe’s record winning streak. Seeing those players succeed and realize heir big-league dreams is a positive for Budzinski and his staff.
"Excited for the guys that got called up and guys like Greg Allen and (Francisco) Mejia to get called up and know that feeling of what it’s like to get into the big leagues and stay there. They’ve earned it and we’re happy to see them up there," Budzinski said.
As his first year at the helm in Akron came to a close, Budzinski credited the front office and ownership with continuing to be committed to player development while also making the fan experience at Canal Park enjoyable. Still, missing out on the postseason left a bitter taste behind and should provide the necessary motivation for the organization as it heads into the long offseason eager for a chance to return to the playoffs next year.
"We’re a little disappointed not getting to the playoffs because that was one of our goals at the start of the season, but these guys worked their tails off and we just didn’t play quite well enough down the stretch," Budzinski said.
As players and coaches packed up and headed out of town, the reality for many is that they won’t be on the same team again. Some will move up or down within the organization next season, others are free agents and will end up with new teams and a few will return to Akron in the spring. It’s one of the realities of professional sports, with an ever-changing landscape making permanence hard to achieve.
Two members of the organization were named to the 2017 Eastern League All-Star Team as voted on by respective Eastern League managers, coaches and media personnel. Both Mejia and Eric Haase ended the year elsewhere, but both catchers spent the majority of their seasons with Akron.
Mejia, who batted .302 with 13 HR and 49 RBIs, was selected for the season ending all-star team in his respective league, as he was a Carolina League All-Star last year with the Lynchburg Hillcats. He is with the Indians and was rated by MLB.com as the top prospect in the Cleveland organization. Additionally, Mejia was a member of the World Team at the 2017 MLB Futures Game in Miami was named to the Western Division roster for the 2017 Eastern League All-Star Game in New Hampshire. The native of Bani, Dominican Republic, was also selected as the 2017 Eastern League Rookie of the Year.
Mejia is the fourth Akron player (dating back to 1989) to win the award, joining Grady Sizemore (2003), Jordan Brown (2007) and Wes Hodges (2008).
Haase, who played both catcher and designated hitter for Akron, was the 2016 Eastern League Playoff MVP last season and batted .259 with 15 doubles, five triples, 26 home runs, 59 RBI and 56 runs scored in 90 games for the RubberDucks this season. He led the EL in slugging percentage (.588) and OPS (.941) and his 26 home runs tied for second in the league. During his time in Akron, he won the Eastern League Player of the Week Award for the period of July 3-9, a stretch which included a pair of two-home-run games.
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