Two days after the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs ended the season by getting swept by reigning Atlantic League champion Sugar Land, manager Stan Cliburn had a chance to recover from the long trip home from Texas and reflect on the 2019 campaign that had just ended.
Southern Maryland ended the season on a five-game skid and was 33-37 in the second half of the schedule and 59-81 overall, neither of which were genuinely acceptable to Cliburn. But with two weeks remaining in the season the Blue Crabs were still in contention for the Freedom Division second-half title, but injuries to several key players, including slugger Dean Green and reliever Mat Latos, hindered their chances down the stretch.
“That last weekend of the season in Sugar Land, we didn’t have a full complement of players,” Cliburn said. “We had been without Dean Green for most of the month and we didn’t have Latos or Rubi Silva available. We took leads into the ninth inning on Friday and Saturday, but we couldn’t close them out.”
Less than one week after he established a new Atlantic League record by fanning 17 batters in a single game, Dusten Knight was on the verge of another complete-game victory in Sugar Land on Saturday night. With Latos unavailable, Cliburn opted to send Knight out for the ninth and the Skeeters rallied in the bottom of the ninth to prevail.
“Knight had pitched so well for us down the stretch that I thought I could get him another complete game in Texas,” Cliburn said. “With Latos not available, I probably asked a little too much from him coming off that 17-strikeout performance the time before. We just couldn’t hold the lead.”
Southern Maryland veteran hurler Daryl Thompson capped his first year as the team’s pitching coach by leading the Atlantic League in wins (15) and strikeouts (162) and was only two shy of equaling the league record and three from breaking it. A La Plata High School graduate and former major league pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, Thompson seems assured of the league’s pitcher of the year honors.
“You know, I just can’t say enough about the job that Daryl Thompson did for this club this season,” Cliburn said. “Not only did he pitch superbly throughout the season, he led by example as our pitching coach. Everyone on the staff had tremendous respect for what he did. He was simply outstanding and he was the pitcher of the year in the league in my mind.”
After being a reserve for the first month of the season, Southern Maryland Blue Crabs infielder Kent Blackstone had an impact for the squad both in the field, initially at second base but eventually at shortstop, and as the team’s leadoff batter. Blackstone enjoyed being with the squad throughout the summer and looked forward to playing in Australia during the offseason.
“This was a great group of guys in this clubhouse,” Blackstone said. “We had a lot of talent on this team. This was really my first full year of playing at this level. I learned a lot by watching guys like Edwin Garcia work every day. I really enjoyed watching our pitching staff work. I’m looking forward to possibly playing in Australia this winter. I just want to keep playing.”
While Blackstone plans to head down under, Southern Maryland catcher Charlie Valerio intends to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic. Valerio played key roles both behind the plate and at the plate for the Blue Crabs this season and also enjoyed every moment in the clubhouse and working with the various pitchers.
“This was a great group to be around,” Valerio said. “They all love playing and we loved playing together. I thought our pitching staff was outstanding. Daryl was the ultimate professional. He was excellent every time he went to the hill. He also did a great job working with the entire pitching staff. I’m looking forward to playing winter ball in the Dominican and I’m hoping to come back here next year and play with these guys again.”
While Blackstone and Valerio are still looking to carve out their niché in the Atlantic League and perhaps make the quantum leap to the majors, at least one Southern Maryland player is already headed to Cooperstown, New York. Back on July 13, Blue Crabs infielder Tony Thomas became the first player in baseball history to “steal” first base and his signed cleats eventually made their way to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
“How many guys who played in this league can say they have any affiliation with the Baseball Hall of Fame?” Cliburn said. “What Tony Thomas did was historic. He was the first player in the history of the game to steal first base. Of course, no one knows if Major League Baseball will ever institute the same rule. But no one can deny now that Tony Thomas was the first player ever to steal first base and his signed cleats will be enshrined in Cooperstown forever.”