With catcher Nick Cieri leading the way, the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts entered the All-Star break five games over .500 and looked poised to earn their second straight postseason berth.
Cieri, one of seven Thunderbolts all stars, ranked in the top 10 of the league in home runs (five) and RBIs (24). His team was two games better at the break than last year’s bunch, which made the program’s first playoff appearance since 2009.
But after defeating D.C. Grays 6-4 in their next game, the Thunderbolts’ fortunes, along with Cieri’s, went south down the stretch. Cieri was injured while weightlifting at the University of Maryland, forcing him to miss the final six games. It was the latest setback for a team that lost a lot of talent throughout the season.
The Thunderbolts lost eight of their final 10 regular season games before bowing out in the first round against the Gaithersburg Giants.
“Like we’ve lost six guys in the last two and a half weeks that were huge bats for us,” T-Bolts coach Doug Remer said after his team’s loss to the Giants. “I’m not saying other guys couldn’t do it, but you’re talking about impact players.”
The Thunderbolts’ success through the first two-thirds of the season came from a combination of returning players and talented newcomers.
Outfielder Zachary Racusin set a Thunderbolts record for hits in a season (59) in his second year with the program. Right-hander Nick Leonard responded from a mediocre 2015 season with an all-star campaign this summer. In total, the Thunderbolts brought back eight players from last year.
It was a core Remer could build around, and he did so with several players who also went on to become all-stars. Right-handers Chih-Yuan Lai and William Brown became the two best Thunderbolts starters, combining to win nine of their 11 decisions.
Future Duke first baseman Matt Mervis led the league in batting average (.411) during his time with the club, while second baseman Grayland Fowler led the team in RBIs (27) and stole 10 bases. Outfielder Roberto Rivera, despite playing six games, hit .474 during that stretch.
“We were the team to beat for a while,” Remer said, “and it definitely flipped.”
The morning after left-hander Tayler Stiles (Maryland) earned his first win in the Thunderbolts’ second game of the year, Remer said he “blew out his back” weightlifting on campus. He was done for the season.
Catcher Ty Friedrich, who will join Terps in the fall, was batting .351 before he went down. Infielder Arturo Archie (Anne Arundel) and Hunter Medine (New Orleans) also dealt with injuries throughout the year.
But perhaps the most significant blow for the Thunderbolts came when Mervis departed for Duke to take summer classes in the beginning of July.
The Washington Nationals drafted Mervis out of Georgetown Prep in the 39th round, and the 6-foot-4, 230-pound player from Potomac appeared to warrant their decision this summer. Batting in the middle of the Thunderbolts lineup, Mervis belted two homers and drove in 21 runs.
All of these absences added up, limiting the Thunderbolts’ depth down the stretch.
“Everybody’s important, and over the course of the year, you see that the difference in talent is not so much,” Racusin said. “What it comes down to is you got to get the most out of every single player.”
But the multitude of injuries didn’t stop the Thunderbolts from making the playoffs or from finishing third in the league in runs scored.
Even in the first round of the playoffs, when the Giants jumped out to a 6-0 lead after three innings, the Thunderbolts responded, bringing the winning run to the plate in the final frame.
No matter what the situation, Remer said his team’s resiliency never wavered.
“But…the fight,” Remer said. “The fact that guys were still out here playing ball and showing up. You can’t ever get mad at that, and you can’t say what could have been or what you wanted.”