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Thompson’s signing, mass injuries, playoff run that ended one win from title series among team’s biggest stories of season


Staff writer

If the 2012 season for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs was an actual rollercoaster, thrill seekers from far and wide would have been lining up to take a ride.

And yet, amid the extreme downward spiral during the first half of the regular season — finishing with a franchise-worst 30-40 record — and the sharp upward surge during the second half to win the Liberty Division with a 39-31 mark, the Blue Crabs somehow remained consistent with seasons gone by during their commemorative fifth-year of existence.

For the fourth straight year, the Blue Crabs clinched a playoff berth courtesy of going from worst to first in the division from the first to second half.

But for the fourth straight postseason, the Atlantic League championship still eluded them.

The Blue Crabs were knocked out of the postseason in the Liberty Division Championship Series for the third straight year in a heartbreaking 5-4 shortcoming of an all-deciding Game 5 at Long Island on Sept. 30.

The same underdog Long Island team the Blue Crabs owned during the regular season with 14 wins in 20 meetings, including a 9-1 tab in the second half.

And the same Long Island team that pulled even a bigger upset in the league championship series by shocking heavy favorite Lancaster by the same 5-4 outcome in another all-deciding Game 5 Sunday, as the New Yorkers’ revamped pitching rotation for the postseason paid huge dividends.

“In all the dreams you have as a kid, you never give up a home run,” half-jokingly said Blue Crabs starting pitcher Ben Moore, who was brought into Game 5 versus Long Island as a reliever and had the team five outs away from moving on to the championship series with a 3-2 lead before surrendering the game-winning two-run shot in the eighth on a pitch he threw in his desired location. “I didn’t feel horrible about it because I did the best I could. I feel bad for the other guys on the team, especially ‘Ozzie’ [Blue Crabs manager Pat Osborn]. Nobody cares more about the team than ‘Ozzie.’

“Maybe next May, I’ll look back and say, ‘We should’ve kicked their butts,’ but we felt evenly matched [in the series against Long Island].”

In the middle of the 2012 rollercoaster ride for the Blue Crabs was one of the most improbable stories for the region’s baseball followers, as Southern Maryland native Daryl Thompson was signed by the Blue Crabs in late July after previously pitching for the Cincinnati Reds during the 2008 and 2011 seasons.

Thompson, who grew up in Hughesville and graduated from La Plata High School in 2003, was the third Southern Maryland native to don a Blue Crabs uniform, but none of the two before him in previous years came with as much pomp-and-circumstance.

Thompson emerged into one of the Blue Crabs’ best pitchers by the end of the season, starting Game 5 against Long Island. He finished with a 2-2 record in seven starts during the regular season with a 2.93 ERA.

Up-and-down season still meaningful

Coming off his first season as manager in 2011 that saw the Blue Crabs rally with a late second-half surge to steal the wild-card berth from Bridgeport, Osborn entered the 2012 campaign with utmost confidence in the roster he assembled, feeling the pitching staff and lineup depth were the best in team history.

The mound-oriented Blue Crabs had led the league in pitching in three of their previous four seasons.

In March, about a month before the season started, Osborn — in a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy — said, “Barring any injuries, this could be the best team we’ve had in Southern Maryland. I like how our lineup sets up. I know I’m biased but our starting rotation is the best in the league.”

Unfortunately for the Blue Crabs, those injuries came in fast and furious fashion shortly into the season.

“This team went through a lot behind the scenes,” Osborn said about his second season leading the Blue Crabs. “People have no idea how difficult that first half was, and that speaks to our team’s character.”

A rash of injuries to major players combined with an array of blown saves and offensive unreliability were the leading components in the Blue Crabs’ woeful first half, plummeting them to an uncharacteristic last place in the division — a far cry from a season that began with such great expectations.

It was the first year that none of the Blue Crabs were signed by a major league organization.

“This year overall was more difficult than last year just because of the first half we had with the type of losses earlier in the season and all the injuries,” Osborn said. “It was a tough task to keep the guys together. We had a lot of new guys in the clubhouse, and you don’t know how they’re going to react [to that type of losing]. I grew a lot as manager, as did our team character-wise.”

Third baseman Travis Garcia (elbow spur), who epitomized the Blue Crabs injury woes as one of the most-feared bats in the league, played in just 39 of 140 games. Garcia was less than full strength for most of the games he got action in, evidenced by his .193 batting average and only five homers with 18 RBIs.

In contrast, he walloped 18 homers with 57 RBIs in just 69 games for the Blue Crabs last year while boasting a .305 average.

Injuries also derailed the seasons of starting fielders Paco Figueroa and Javier Colina along with keeping counted-upon starting pitcher Michael Schlact from breaking a sweat in the rotation, tossing just three games.

The Blue Crabs mound staff, though solid with a 3.98 ERA, was only third best in the league in 2012, the lowest ranking for the team in that department after finishing no worse than second in its previous four years.

The Blue Crabs offense meandered around the bottom of the league the entire season before finishing sixth of the eight teams with a .259 average, just five points better than league-worst Camden.

“Of course, I take it a little bit more personal because I’m the hitting coach,” said Osborn’s right-hand man Jeremy Owens, also the Blue Crabs All-Star center fielder. “We don’t have to bring in a bunch of power guys because of our short porch in left [at Waldorf’s Regency Furniture Stadium]. We just have to put the ball in play.”

The speedy Owens moved to the leadoff spot in the lineup for the second half and cut down on his all-or-nothing swing and that made a big difference in sparking a Blue Crabs offense that mightily struggled in the first half. Owens also saw great improvement in his own numbers.

“I’m a guy that loves to dig in, take a big rip at it. I swing big, I swing hard and usually when I hit it, something good happens,” said Owens, the Blue Crabs leader with 22 homers and 151 strikeouts. “In the second half, I had more hits because I gave myself a little bit more opportunity. I think I’m going to stick with that [approach] next year.”

Owens’ improved second half did have a rippling effect on the rest of the lineup and enabled the Blue Crabs to more adequately support their pitching.

Driving back to his Southern Maryland home after the heart-wrenching Game 5 setback to Long Island, Osborn reflected on a year where his club eventually overcame all the first-half adversity to take the top spot in the division by the end of the second half to make the playoffs, just holding off Bridgeport during the final week of the regular season.

“I was just telling myself over this last year just how special of a feeling it is when you know you had guys buy into what you’re doing,” Osborn said. “That’s all you can ask for. It was a great year.”

Owens was disappointed in how the postseason ended, falling for a second straight year to Long Island. But he viewed the season on the whole much differently.

“I look at this year and it was one of the more successful seasons for the trials we had to go through,” Owens said. “We stayed quite healthy in the second half. Bridgeport made a run at us, and we kept putting ourselves in situations [to hold onto to our division lead]. That speaks volumes to our organization and what we have achieved here.”

He added, “We give ourselves that opportunity to win a championship year end and year out. Does it hurt to come up short? Yes. But it gives us that much more of an incentive to step it up next year.

“I know [a league championship] is going to happen [here in Southern Maryland].”