The Erie SeaWolves came painstakingly close to ending a nine-year playoff drought during the first half of the 2022 season.
They finished just one game back of first place.
The SeaWolves grinded through the second half in 2022 and it wasn’t until halfway through a long bus ride home from Richmond on the final day of the season that they ended that drought by clinching a playoff spot.
The 2023 SeaWolves left no doubt.
The ‘Wolves earned their 23rd road win on Friday to clinch the first-half playoff spot in the Eastern League’s Southwest Division. The first half ended Sunday as Erie (37-31) beat out runner-up Akron (35-34) by 2½ games. It is the first time in franchise history that the SeaWolves compete in the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
“We were fortunate to have a lot of guys that went through this last year and they are battle-tested,” said SeaWolves manager Gabe Alvarez. “It means a lot and it goes a long way in high-pressure games and in high-pressure situations.”
The SeaWolves will return to the Southwest Division series in September. The best-of-three series begins with Game 1 at the home of the second-half winner on Sept. 19 before Game 2 at UPMC Park on Sept. 21. If Game 3 is necessary, it will take place on Sept. 22 at UPMC Park. The winner of the series will get home-field advantage in the Eastern League Championship Series because Somerset had it last year and home-field rotates each season.
Far from easy to lock up
The playoff spot didn’t come without some adversity.
On Thursday, the SeaWolves had a magic number of two, which meant a win and an Altoona loss would end the playoff race. The Curve lost during the eighth inning of the ‘Wolves’ game and word spread in the dugout.
Erie, at the same time, had a 9-4 lead in New Hampshire.
However, disaster struck in the bottom of the ninth inning as the Yard Goats scored six runs, including a three-run, walk-off home run for a 10-9 win over the ‘Wolves.
“We met before the game (Friday) and I told them to forget about it,” Alvarez said. “We had a little laugh and a chuckle because that’s baseball. It wasn’t meant to be, but we went out there (Friday) and got after it.”
Altoona lost again Friday just minutes before the SeaWolves’ win, which ended the playoff race, but that didn’t slow down the celebration.
In front of lockers covered in plastic and plenty of champagne on ice, Alvarez addressed his team one more time.
“I’m so proud of you guys to think about where we were from the first month of the season to where we are now,” said Alvarez to his team. “You did a tremendous job. I love all you guys and let’s have fun tonight.”
The turnaround this season
The ‘Wolves had one of their worst starts to the season in franchise history as they went 8-13 in April. The only other seasons with worse Aprils happened in 2015 (6-13) and 2018 (8-14).
The ‘Wolves picked up some help as Andrew Navigato and Dillon Dingler arrived to bolster the lineup. Suddenly, Erie was hitting the ball and went 18-8 in May, which is the third-best May in franchise history behind 2001 (22-8) and 2004 (20-8).
A big part of the turnaround has been winning on the road. The ‘Wolves are 23-15 on the road this season, which puts them on a pace for 46 road wins. The franchise record for road wins in a season is 43 back in 1999.
First-half MVP moves up
Colt Keith emerged as a leader in the first half as he entered the MVP conversation in the Eastern League. He hit .325 with 18 doubles, 14 home runs, 43 runs scored and 50 RBIs in the first half.
His chase to the league MVP, however, ended on Monday as he was promoted to Triple-A Toledo. It was a whirlwind weekend as the ‘Wolves returned home Sunday night and hours later Keith moved up the prospect list to No. 1 for the Detroit Tigers. On Monday, he was promoted to Toledo and on Tuesday he earned an invitation to the prestigious MLB Futures Game. It is a game played all-star weekend for the next generation of MLB players.
Alvarez said Friday that nothing will change for the SeaWolves in the second half of the season. The rest of the division will fight it out for the other playoff spot in the division, while the ‘Wolves look to keep getting better as a team.
If Erie was to win the second half, the best second-half record would earn the second playoff spot.
The ‘Wolves begin the second half with six games at UPMC Park beginning Wednesday as they play another game as the Erie Piñatas. The ‘Wolves have fireworks set for Friday, Sunday and Monday and a patriotic jersey giveaway on Saturday. The fireworks on Monday are billed as MEGABLAST fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July.
After a six-game set in Altoona, the ‘Wolves get a four-day break because of the MLB all-star break. The SeaWolves return home July 14-16 for a quick series with Hartford before going back on the road to Binghamton.