In recent seasons, July 4 wouldn’t represent much of a milestone for the Northwest League, since play traditionally started in mid-June.
But with the transition to full-season baseball, the holiday presents an opportunity to evaluate the Spokane Indians’ first half and look ahead to the second.
Technically, the first half of the season drew to a close after play on May 24, and the Indians have played eight games toward the season-half title. The club finished in second place (34-30) in the first half, 41/2 games behind the Eugene Emeralds (38-25), who qualified for the NWL postseason championship series.
The Indians are off to a 3-5 start in the second half after dropping three of five last week to Vancouver on the road before getting rained out Sunday.
Overall, the Indians stand two games over .500 this season. They have played much better at home (24-13) than on the road (13-22) and if they want to challenge Eugene for the league title, they will have to figure out a way to play better when they’re away from Avista Stadium.
The Indians led the league for several weeks in the first half until a brutal road series at Eugene where they lost five of six games, including three-straight one-run games they lost on runs in the ninth inning or later.
They’ve dominated left-handed starting pitching (11-5) but have struggled mightily on turf fields (8-16). Thankfully, just two of their remaining five road series are on turf.
Their expected won-loss record, based upon run differential, is 39-33, two games better than their actual record.
Outlook: The Indians have played very well at home and that needs to continue, but they have to find a way to win a few more road games. The team is young, even for this level, so some of that may be contributed to growing pains. But we’re 72 games into the schedule so they have to figure it out in order to contend.
Here’s the good news. The Indians have one of the most potent offenses in the league, leading the circuit in runs, hits, average, triples and stolen bases, and are second in doubles, RBIs, on-base percentage and slugging.
They are one of just two teams in the league – along with Eugene – with a positive run differential (plus-32).
Grant Lavigne leads the league in average (.305) and OBP (.402), while Drew Romo stands third in average at .292. Colin Simpson’s 10 home runs puts him seventh in the league while Zac Veen (48), Romo (46), Lavigne (38) and Julio Carreras (35) are all top 10 in RBIs.
Veen leads the league in stolen bases with 32 and has been thrown out just once. Eddy Diaz is second with 28 and Romo is just outside the top 10 with 13.
Outlook: The team is hyper-aggressive on the basepaths and with the good (stolen bases) comes the bad (outs taking extra bases). In the Vancouver series last week alone, they had three runners out at home, two by so much they didn’t bother to slide. They’ll need to temper the mistakes without dulling the aggression.
The Indians have several capable defensive players in key positions, with a particular nod to their throwing arms.
Carreras hasn’t had a day off at shortstop all season. The wiry 22-year-old from the Dominican Republic has good range and a great arm and makes difficult plays look easy on a nightly basis. His arm helps bail him out on the occasional instance where his focus falters.
Lavigne at first base has been making good strides since the beginning of the season. He’s a big target with soft hands around the bag and is constantly working on his footwork before games.
Veen has a cannon in right field, Bladimir Restituyo is solid in center – considering he’s a converted infielder – and Romo is thoughtful and dependable behind the plate with a strong arm to nab would-be base stealers.
Outlook: The Indians have rotated players at third and left field all season. Settling those playing situations would help the overall defense, but sometimes a player with a bigger offensive upside is needed in those spots. The team’s best defender might be part-time utility player Cristopher Navarro.
The rotation has been injury free and remained consistent throughout the first half of the season. The team has four of the 13 starters in the league to qualify for the ERA title, with Tony Locey leading the way at 3.09.
Locey (4-1) has a pair of games this season where he’s gone six innings without allowing a hit. He was off to a great start in June, allowing two runs over his first three starts, but gave up five and four in his last two outings.
Lefty Joe Rock (6-5, 3.73) is a workhorse averaging better than nine strikeouts per nine innings (78 Ks in 721/3 innings). Batters are hitting just .198 off Rock, the 68th overall pick in the 2021 draft.
Outlook: Health has been the key, and the pitch clock has gone a long way to helping this group maintain pace and allowing them most nights to get through six innings. Will Ethridge, making his second trip through the NWL, sports a 5.51 ERA and has allowed 15 homers, which leads the league by a wide margin.
The bullpen has been a work in progress all season. Luke Taggert has been solid, with a 2.32 ERA and five saves over 21 appearances, but he can’t pitch every night.
Shelby Lackey, who returned from an arm injury last year for his second season with the Indians, is 4 for 4 in save opportunities, but has an ERA of 4.44 and three losses to go with those saves.
Recent addition Adam McKillican has been good (0.52 ERA in 13 appearances), as has lefty Austin Kitchen (4-1, 3.38). But after that, it’s hit-or-miss on any given night.
Outlook: The grade is on the strength of Taggert, Lackey and Kitchen. As pitching coach Ryan Kibler said earlier this season, there’s a lot of opportunity for others to step up and while there have been some highlights, on most nights when the team falters it’s because the pen was unable to make the most of that opportunity.