It was a rough year. And that might be putting it mildly.
The Buffalo Bisons closed up the 2016 season at Coca-Cola Field Thursday night with a 6-1 loss to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. They head to the road for four more games before the season mercifully comes to an end.
The Herd will finish with a losing record both at home (34-38) and overall (66-74).
Once there was optimism, back when the Bisons went on a nine-game winning streak and closed out June tied for second in the International League North Division two games out of first place. Then the offense disappeared, the defense was merely adequate and the pitching staff couldn't hold it all together alone forever. By Sept. 1 the Herd fell to fifth in the division, 20 1/2 games behind Scranton.Wilkes-Barre.
"We had some expectations, some veteran guys. We were probably a little older than we’d like," Bisons manager Gary Allenson said. "We were consistently inconsistent.
"I played on some Red Sox teams that had a lot of power but were streaky. When the team power went in a slump we struggled because we weren’t getting anyone first to third, first to home or scoring from second base on a straight-away single." This Bisons' team "is kind of like a poor man’s one of those."
Among the statistics that best encapsulate the Bisons season is the number of double plays hit into. Heading into Thursday's game they've hit into 155 double plays, nine more than any other team in affiliated baseball. And what hurt was lack of team speed. Players had trouble disrupting the throw from second base and hitters were slow getting out of the batter's box and down the first-base line.
"I just think the lack of speed has hurt us this year," Allenson said. "It's hitting, defense, pitching and also base running because you score runs by stepping on all four bases. It doesn’t always go out of the ballpark so you’ve got to be able to run the bases. Sometimes guys aren't fast but are very intelligent base runners. But you get to a point where the speed’s not there and you have to string too many hits together to get a lead, to back in the game and we haven’t done that."
Grounding into double play after double play has prevented the Bisons from scoring runs. They entered the game ranked last in the International League in runs with 492 over 139 games and their slugging percentage of .372 is one of the lowest in the IL.
"You can’t win every game 2-1. We rode the pitching for too long and never really got hot with the bats," Allenson said, as he meandered through his typical train-of-thought answer. "You know what two years ago we were a game and half, two games out of the wild card and we had really good defense. The defense has been pretty good this year but at times it’s been spotty. It’s hard to say, do you blame it on the offense?
"I haven’t looked to see where we are in home runs." The Bisons had 94, ranking middle-of the IL pack. "Matt Dominguez had a nice year, had 18 homers and 67 RBI. Matt Hague led our club last year with 90 RBIs. So it just goes to show you. Jesus Montero’s hit .320. Been nice if his power numbers were up a little bit but the power numbers is the difference between making contact about half an inch lower on the ball. I mean he hits line drives all over the ball park. Here’s a guy that doesn’t run very well hitting .320. that tells you he’s been hitting the ball pretty good.
"But we don’t get the three-run homers and it’s nice to be aggressive on the bases and I am aggressive but probably had a few too many guys thrown out at the plate. Too many times with two outs, there’s no guarantee the next guy’s gonna get a hit. Too often you hold somebody up and that’s what happens, you beat yourself up for not sending somebody."
Pitching was the bright spot for the Herd, particularly the bullpen. The Bisons lead the league in saves with 45. That's 45 saves out of 66 wins which means rarely have the Bisons maintained a comfortable lead late in games. But the Herd's talented relief staff, including Ryan Tepera, Dustin Antolin, Danny Barnes and Chris Smith, have pitched well and turned heads at the Major League level.
Speaking of turning heads at the Major League level, outfielder Dalton Pompey has spent the entire season with the Bisons, partly because of a series of injuries (toe, heel, concussion) which have sidelined him. Each return means more time necessary for Pompey to adjust to live pitching. But in Allenson's opinion, Pompey has still had a decent Triple-A season.
"He’s doing all right. He hit .270 but he’s got the speed and the tools to hit .300 down here," Allenson said.l "That didn't happen. He’s been a little streaky with that stuff there but he’s got a lot of talent and I’m sure he’ll do well.
"This is the toughest sport there is because there’s so much mental stuff involved. Football’s a physical game. Basketball is an athletic game. This is a game that takes a little piece out of you every day, playing for five months down here, six months because of spring training, seven months in the big leagues. So it takes a little piece out of you when you come to the ballpark and you’re tired and you’ve just got to mentally get over that. Hopefully he'll do that."