Erie SeaWolves manager Gabe Alvarez summed up his team in one sentence Wednesday.
“I want this team to be remembered as a team that cared about each other and it was a special group to be a part of.”
From thrilling walk-off wins to a playoff run that Erie fans won’t soon forget, the SeaWolves crafted a memorable 2022 season just a year after nearly losing the team to contraction. The fans paid back the players by creating an atmosphere in two home playoff games that rivaled a Game 7.
The SeaWolves put together their fifth 80-win season, earned their first playoff series win and went from four playoff wins in franchise history to three more wins this year, including one in the Eastern League Championship Series.
“This was something special and I’ll always remember this season,” Alvarez said. “A lot of people had a hand in what we did this year. We had a great coaching staff and a hard-working coaching staff. We had an administration in Erie that provided everything we needed, and they helped make this a winning environment. I’m very grateful for this year.”
The highlight came in the playoffs when the SeaWolves drew playoff-record crowds of 4,739 and 5,040. The crowds were not only big but they were invested, creating an electrifying UPMC Park environment.
“Erie really showed up for both games and the players fed off it,” Alvarez said. “I can’t thank Erie enough for what they did.”
The Alvarez effect
One of the big unknowns coming into the season was the new manager. Alvarez, a former major-league player, had never been a manager or even a head coach coming into the season. The parent Detroit Tigers, however, recognized his ability to connect with players as a longtime recruiter and assistant at USC.
“Gabe is a very smart, hard worker, and we knew what we were getting with him when he got here last year,” said Ryan Garko, Tigers vice president and head of player development. “He’s very good at developing relationships with the players and they trust him. He buys into everything we’re trying to do as an organization and he’s a great communicator with our staff. We’ve asked a lot of him as a first-time manager in a higher level and he has been great.”
The SeaWolves players, staff and fans responded to Alvarez’s personality. Each player’s face would light up when asked about playing for him.
“Gabe is a beauty,” pitcher Yaya Chentouf said. “He’s awesome. He’s serious when he needs to be serious, he’s awesome when he needs to be awesome and sometimes we need tough love, and he knows exactly the times when we need it.”
On the final day of the regular season, the ‘Wolves were on the interstate back to Erie from Richmond, Virginia, when they found out Bowie had lost, clinching Erie’s entry to the postseason. Alvarez had both buses pull off at a convenience store so the team could celebrate.
Alvarez said he’s loved his time in Erie and would love to be back next year. Don’t be surprised if the Tigers promote him to Detroit in some sort of development role.
“My message to Erie this year is thank you for welcoming us this year. I know for me, personally, everyone in Erie welcomed me from the moment I got here, and I’m very appreciative of that and hope to see them next year,” Alvarez said.
Two MVP races
Steven Moya is the only Eastern League MVP in SeaWolves history, and Erie had two likely candidates this season. Kerry Carpenter played 63 games in Erie and hit 22 home runs to go with 48 RBIs and an OPS if 1.005 to lead the league in all three categories. In any other year, he would have lasted maybe two months before being promoted to Triple-A Toledo. The Tigers, behind Garko’s leadership, kept Carpenter in Erie until the first half of the season ended to try and get the SeaWolves into the playoffs.
Once the SeaWolves came up short, Carpenter was promoted and Quincy Nieporte picked up the MVP baton. Nieporte finished the season with 31 home runs and 91 RBIs, both best in the league. He had a batting average of .270 and OPS of .867 to make a strong case for being named the league MVP.
The league awards will be announced in the next few weeks. The biggest hurdle for Nieporte could be Yankees elite prospect Anthony Volpe. It will come down to pure numbers against the best prospect in the league.
The SeaWolves shattered all kinds of team playoff records, but the most notable records to fall came during the regular season. The ‘Wolves hit 175 home runs to break the team record of 167 set in 2002. Nieporte led the way with 31 homers followed by Dane Myers with 25, Carpenter with 22, Andrew Navigato with 18 and Parker Meadows with 16.
The SeaWolves also struck out 1,373 batters to smash the team record of 1,262 set in 2019. Reese Olson led the way with another franchise record of 168 strikeouts; he broke the record of 153 set by Seth Etherton in 1999. Chance Kirby added 116 strikeouts followed by Gerson Moreno with 96, Wilmer Flores with 95, Austin Bergner with 93 and 92 by Adam Wolf.
Olson had one last big-time performance at UPMC Park as he struck out a playoff-record nine batters to help the SeaWolves earn a win over Richmond.
The SeaWolves had several exciting wins to stay in the playoff races during the first and second halves.
“This was a relentless group and there were a lot of times we had games that could have gone sideways but these guys rallied and picked each other up,” Alvarez said. “They fought the whole year and winning was important to this group. That isn’t always the case in the minor leagues, and our goal is to get these guys developed and ready to play for A.J. Hinch in Detroit. We always want to create an environment of winning and these guys bought in.”
Some of the highlights:
April 21: The SeaWolves had an early-season doubleheader with Richmond and led 2-1 after six innings. San Francisco prospect Will Wilson doubled in a run in the top of the seventh inning to tie the game, but Luis Carpio ripped a walk-off single in the bottom of the inning for a 3-2 win in Game 1.
May 7: In typical Erie-Altoona fashion, the teams played a close game that went 10 innings. The Curve tied the game in the ninth inning but Luis Castillo kept Altoona’s placed runner from scoring in the 10th. Navigato then crushed a walk-off single down the right-field line for the 2-1 win.
June 1: The SeaWolves put together another thrilling win to stay in the first-half playoff race against Harrisburg. Erie tied the game in the eighth inning on a Myers double before Navigato blasted a walk-off home run in the ninth for a 5-4 win.
June 22: Right at the end of the first half, in the midst of the playoff race, the ‘Wolves almost suffered a brutal loss to Bowie after the Baysox tied the game at 4 with two runs in the ninth inning. Nieporte ripped a walk-off RBI single in the 11th inning of a 5-4 win.
June 28: The SeaWolves trailed 9-5 heading into the bottom of the eighth when they scored five runs to take a 10-9 lead. Akron forced extra innings, but the SeaWolves got a Wenceel Perez walk-off double in the bottom of the 10th for an 11-10 win.
July 3: The July 3 game at UPMC Park usually has some sort of magic for the SeaWolves, including walk-off home runs in 2018 and 2019. In front of 5,513 fans, the ‘Wolves trailed Akron 4-1 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Meadows led off with a triple and scored on Dillon Dingler’s sacrifice fly. Perez followed with a walk and Myers flew out. Navigato then struck out for what appeared to be the third out, but he beat the dropped third-strike throw to first base. After Chris Rabago was hit by a pitch to load the bases, Gage Workman singled in two runs to tie the game and force extra innings. The fired-up crowd kept the momentum going in the 10th inning as Billy Lescher didn’t allow the placed runner to score and Andre Lipcius hammered a two-run walk-off home run to right-center for the 6-4 win.
July 26: Reading scored in the top of the ninth to force extra innings, then took a 6-5 lead in the top of the 10th. The SeaWolves tied the game when Myers singled in a run to center field. Myers moved to third on a Navigato base hit before scoring the walk-off run when Daniel Cabrera beat out an infield single.
Aug. 18: Akron and Erie were battling in a doubleheader and neither team could figure out a way to score. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Cabrera ripped a walk-off single to right field to give the SeaWolves a 1-0 win.
Sept 4: The SeaWolves were in a true must-win situation against division-leading Bowie. Bowie tied the game at 4 in the top of the ninth inning. In the bottom of the ninth, Erie loaded the bases and Nieporte ripped a line drive to right field. It turned into a walk-off sacrifice fly when Bryant Packed slid around the tag at home to give the ‘Wolves a crucial 5-4 win.
Sept. 11: The home finale proved to be crucial in the razor-thin playoff race. Erie and Altoona were tied at 3 after nine innings and each team scored once in the 10th inning. The Curve took a 5-4 lead in the 11th inning before one last SeaWolves rally. Navigato reached on an infield single to the pitcher and Meadows walked to load the bases with the placed runner moving to third base. Nieporte followed with a ground ball that was misplayed to allow the tying run to score. Myers lifted a sacrifice fly to give the Erie crowd one last thrill in the regular season.
Numerous SeaWolves made their major-league debuts this season. From the 2022 SeaWolves team, pitchers Garrett Hill and Luis Castillo reached Detroit along with Carpenter. A.J. Ladwig, a longtime pitcher for the ‘Wolves, pitched for Erie this year and was released by the Tigers. He was picked up by Miami and made his MLB debut.
From the 2021 SeaWolves, hitters Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Josh Lester and Ryan Kreidler debuted along with pitchers Beau Brieske, Angel De Jesus, Elvin Rodriguez and Joey Wentz.
Other former SeaWolves to make their debuts this year include Kody Clemens and Alex Faedo with the Tigers; Jose Azocar with San Diego; Wynton Bernard with Colorado, and Jason Krizan with Baltimore.
The 2023 SeaWolves roster could have some familiar faces as Flores, Ty Madden, Perez, Josh Crouch, Meadows and Brant Hurter were additions throughout the season and could start next season in Erie.
In addition to possibly losing Alvarez to a promotion, the ‘Wolves could also lose prospects Olson and Dingler to Toledo. Nieporte, who was on a one-year contract, should get plenty of phone calls this offseason while players like Navigato, Danny Serretti, Workman and Myers could all be a big part of the team a year from now.
The 2023 season could also be big for prospects in Erie. Detroit’s No. 1 prospect, pitcher Jackson Jobe, could reach the SeaWolves along with No. 2 Jace Jung, a second baseman. Jobe was the third overall pick in the 2021 draft by the Tigers while Jung was the 12th overall pick in the 2022 draft.