Matt Michael - Staff Writer
Syracuse - A Syracuse SkyChiefs' season that started with so much promise in spring training ended with disappointment. Again. The SkyChiefs went 12-1-1 against Triple-A teams in spring training. They opened this season with seven of the Toronto Blue Jays' best 11 prospects. And the International League's most feared middle-of-the order in 2005 - left fielder JOHN-FORD GRIFFIN, first baseman KEVIN BARKER and right fielder CHAD MOTTOLA - was back at the start of 2006.

“We had pretty high goals coming in,” Mottola said. “Leaving spring training and doing as well as we did, and with the number of prospects we had, we kind of expected some things.” Instead, the SkyChiefs turned in the kind of season that longtime fans have come to expect.

Syracuse finished 64-79 and in last place in the IL's North Division, 20 1/2 games behind the first-place Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons. It was the SkyChiefs' sixth consecutive losing season and their 20th losing season in 29 years as the Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Syracuse has now gone 30 years without a Governors' Cup championship and eight years without a playoff berth - the longest droughts in the IL.

“We competed hard all year, but it was one of those years where you can’t put your finger on it,” catcher MIKE MAHONEY said. “We played a lot of close games, and maybe a call here or a play there and it would have been a different story.”

Record-wise, the SkyChiefs played their best baseball early in the season. After beating Rochester on 13 May at Alliance Bank Stadium, Syracuse was 18-17 and only 3 1/2 games out of first place. But that was the time Syracuse could have established itself as a playoff contender.

The team that left spring training was still pretty much intact, but 12 of the SkyChiefs’ first 17 losses were by one or two runs. If they win half of those games, they’re 24-11 and in first place and who knows ?

“We had things set up pretty good at the beginning of the year,” first-year manager MIKE BASSO said. “We were in a lot of games and we could have won a lot of those close games early and that would have helped our confidence."

Rochester, which earned the IL's wild-card playoff berth, swept a doubleheader from the SkyChiefs on 14 May, sending the SkyChiefs into a 5-17 tailspin. And once injuries ( Griffin, outfielder JUSTIN SINGLETON, relief pitcher ADRIAN BURNSIDE ) and call-ups to Toronto started to take their toll, the SkyChiefs were doomed.

“When we did have the people here, we should have won,” Mottola said. “And then when they started needing people in Toronto, it was kind of too late because we had already dug ourselves too big a hole.”

The shuttles between Syracuse and Toronto, and Syracuse and Double-A New Hampshire, never stopped running. With 145 transactions, the SkyChiefs averaged nearly one player move for each day of the season. Syracuse used 47 different players, including 27 pitchers and 16 starting pitchers.

All of the movement, combined with decisions made by the Blue Jays' front office, prevented the Syracuse players from settling into defined roles. Pitchers were shifting from the starting rotation to the bullpen and back again, and position players were bouncing from position to position and from one spot in the batting order to another.

All Triple-A teams are hit by call-ups and injuries. ( Scranton, the IL North champion, had more than 100 transactions ) The successful Triple-A teams, it seems, are the ones that develop some sense of chemistry by keeping most of their players in defined roles.

“It’s hard to get good chemistry when so many guys are going down, up, everywhere,” said DUSTIN McGOWAN, one of the SkyChiefs’ pitchers who boomeranged between the bullpen and starting rotation. “You never get comfortable.”

That would explain the SkyChiefs' maddening inconsistency. Three times during an 11-game stretch from 30 May to 10 June, the opposing team scored 13 or more unanswered runs against the Syracuse pitching staff. After setting a modern franchise record with 23 runs against Richmond on 16 July, the SkyChiefs were shut out in three of their next six games.

And after sweeping four games from Charlotte, which at that time had the IL's best record, and winning three of five at Pawtucket from 29 July through 6 August, the SkyChiefs lost five consecutive games at home to Scranton and Ottawa.

“There were times the hitters couldn't make an out and the pitchers couldn't give up a run,” pitcher JOSH BANKS said.   “Other times, the hitters couldn't get a hit and the pitchers couldn't get an out. We just couldn’t put it together on a night-to-night basis.”

The SkyChiefs were consistent in one area: They finished each month of the season in last place, dropping from 5 1/2 to 8 to 11 to 14 to 18 1/2 and finally 20 1/2 games out of first place.

“We didn't put it together for two days,” Mottola said. “Just when we’d have a big hit (to win a game), you’d say, ‘OK, let’s keep it going tomorrow.’ But tomorrow never came all year.”

Statistically, the SkyChiefs' offense ranked in the middle of the pack in the 14-team IL. Syracuse finished sixth in runs scored with 599 ( 4.2 runs per game ) and eighth in batting average at .258. But the SkyChiefs were a poor situational hitting team, meaning they often failed to move runners into scoring position or score runners from third base with less than two outs.

The pitching staff finished 10th in ERA at 4.09. But the SkyChiefs' pitchers ranked second in strikeouts ( 1,046 ) and first in fewest walks ( 370 ). The real back-breaker was Syracuse's defense. The SkyChiefs' .974 fielding percentage was tied with Buffalo for 11th, and their 138 errors ranked 12th. Syracuse allowed 93 unearned runs, which was second worst in the IL behind Durham ( 101 ).

Only Durham’s B.J. Upton made more errors at shortstop than Syracuse’s Sergio Santos, who had 27. And Syracuse’s catchers - Mahoney, JASON PHILLIPS, CURTIS THIGPEN, ERIK KRATZ and JOHN SCHNEIDERE - combined to throw out only 17 percent ( 26-of-156 ) of runners who attempted to steal.

“We did not play good defense here,” Basso said. “And to have guys hurt and go up and come down and have different roles when they came back, that puts added pressure on everybody, especially the bullpen. And then we had the injuries.”

Of course, a Triple-A team's No. 1 priority - as the Blue Jays remind us every year - is to help the major league team. To that end, the SkyChiefs sent 18 different players to the Blue Jays during this season, many of whom are finishing the year in Toronto.

Seeing so many former SkyChiefs with the Blue Jays remains the consolation prize for Syracuse fans that are accustomed to cheering for a team that's usually out of the playoff race by June.

“Everybody here wants to play in Toronto, so you can’t get mad when guys get called up,” Mottola said. “But when you are here, you want to win, and I don’t think we had that mentality. I think after spring training guys expected just to win and didn’t do the things it took to win.”


6 September 2006

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