Optimism around Coca-Cola Field was high at the end of June and rightly so. The Buffalo Bisons had put together a nine-game winning streak pulling them two games back in the ultra-competitive International League North Division and putting them in the wild card mix as well.
The offense was active. The pitching staff was on fire. The defense was steady.
And the front office staff started thinking about that elusive word in Buffalo pro sports – playoffs.
The last time the Bisons were in the playoffs was 2005. That appearance capped a run of nine post-seasons in 11 years. Those halcyon days seem a lifetime ago, but the Herd was in striking distance to end the drought.
Then came July. And it all came crashing down so quickly, most people at the downtown ballpark are still a bit stunned.
Even after Saturday's 8-2 win over Syracuse, the Herd is just 8-19 in July, a month which included a brutal nine-game losing streak. The Bisons were outscored, 36-14, in that stretch and have sunk to 13 1/2 games out of the IL North and 11 ½ games back in the wild card.
It ain’t over til it’s over but the prospects for postseason are now bleak at best and the Herd will miss the playoffs for an 11th straight summer, spanning three affiliations (Cleveland, New York Mets, Toronto).
“When we signed with the Jays we had gone through some tough years with the Mets and we had said to them we want to be able to be competitive, play meaningful games at the end of the year, have a chance to make the postseason and I think the thing that’s been so frustrating about this year is it’s been so sudden,” said Bisons general manager Mike Buczkowski.
“A couple weeks ago we’re a couple games out, we’re right in the wild card and now we’ve gone from that to being 10 games back. Anytime you lose nine in a row it’s not fun but when it’s sudden at this time of the year. We were ready to talk about planning for playoffs and when are the games going to be and when do the Bills play and you get into the fun of planning it and now we’re looking and saying, let’s still do some planning but when you’re this far out the chances are dwindling as the days go by.”
What caused the collapse? Pick your explanation and you can make a case, but three things worked against the Herd this July – their division, the current state of the Blue Jays minor league system and the frustrating art of baseball.
IL North Division
The Bisons are in the toughest division in the International League which complicates things. Remember when the Herd was on that nine-game winning streak? They still were in third place in the IL North because the other teams, well, they kept on winning too. The problem is compounded when that flips to a nine-game losing streak.
“All the best teams are in our division so when you lose nine in a row and you’re in the best division with three or four or five other teams that are wining you just lose ground every day,” Buczkowski said. “Take our record and move it to another division and we’re right there with a chance to make it.”
With their 54-54 record, the Bisons would be in first place in the IL South ahead of division leader Durham (50-58) and in the hunt in the IL West behind the Columbus Clippers (60-48).
Instead they trail in an IL North that contains hot teams – Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (67-40), Lehigh Valley (65-42), Rochester (62-47) and Pawtucket (56-52).
Lack of prospects
When the affiliation with the Toronto Blue Jays began, the Bisons roster was loaded with prospects. Ryan Goins, Kevin Pillar, Marcus Stroman were among the names to play at Coca-Cola Field.
Now the organization’s top prospects are playing Class-A ball – a few years away from advancing to the Triple-a level.
Part of that came last year when the Jays traded away a bunch of prospects to get big names for a World Series push. Three promising pitchers – Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro and Jesus Tinoco – were part of the trade with Colorado for Troy Tulowitzki. Then Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd were off to Detroit in exchange for David Price.
“When I look at the years we’ve had our biggest successes on the field, sometimes we started out with a team that’s a little older and then you have an infusion of guys coming up from Double-A that joined the team and kind of give you that boost when you need it when you get into July and August,” Buczkowski said. “But we’ve known that. They traded a lot of guys and they’ve been honest with us that the next couple of years we’re probably going to have a more veteran team with minor league six-year free agents. We’ll have more of them than they’d like to have until the system can catch up with the drafts and they can start developing more players to move through. From the Jays standpoint … you can see why they did it but it does leave a little bit of a hole for the minor league system for a couple of years.”
The frustrating art of baseball
It’s the cliché heard every day in every ballpark at every level. “That’s just baseball,” players and managers say. Because baseball is a game of failure and attrition. A fantastic swing of the bat one day may be a home run while another day the ball dies a slow death in the right field wind. What worked in June may not work in July and the answers are rarely clear.
For the Bisons, the unraveling has been most evident at the plate where their nine-game losing streak featured a frustrating 11 for 66 with runners in scoring position. For the season, the Herd has hit into 120 double plays – by far the most in the league.
“We went through this same stuff earlier in the year but we did still win some games,” manager Gary Allenson said. “We kept our head above water. There were a number of times we were 1 for 11 with guys in scoring position but we won 3-2 and that’s not happening right now.”