ML Drama threatens Iowa City's chances to join the post-season party

This was supposed to be the season where the Iowa City Bison's aging stars compromised the team's chances to a third consecutive postseason appearance. This was supposed to be the season where early season injuries to Vinny Funaki and prospect Tyler Merrick spelled Bison burgers. It was also supposed to be the season where a pitching staff rounded out by dubious pitching veterans Jose Amaro, Darrin Lloyd and Pedro Saenz failed to withstand the powerful Blizzard's assault.

Instead, young slugger
Norberto Fernandez started out on the verge of a breakthrough season, Funaki and Merrick bounced back from their injuries with strong performances, 36 yr old veteran Mike Burrell and 34yr old team captain Bo Wells slugged their way out of the gate, and Amaro and Saenz made their first all-star appearances. And then... mayhem ensued on the Iowa prairies, leaving the Bison trailing by 12 games behind the Blizzard and struggling in a 3-team race for a wild card berth that is more likely to be nailed down by the cousins from the North, the Columbus Flatlanders or the Portland Rain.

The reason for the Bison's collapse has been hard to pinpoint, but an overtly fatigued bullpen, and lack of clutch hitting has left them with a 22-29 record in one run games, and 9-10 in extra-inning games. An inside pitch by Brett Clark fractured Norberto Fernandez' hand, landing him on the DL for the rest of the season. Lacking in offensive power, notably against right-handed hitters, the Bison have struggled mightily. Trying to boost their offense after the trade deadline, the GM tried to trade for slugging infielder
Paul Hunt, who has struggled with the LA Diamond Kings (.230 AVG, .306 OBP with 25 HRs). But Bison management reportedly balked at a package that would've included British import pitching Glenn Hall , while citing concerns with Hunt's health, durability and next year's contract ($7.6 million). The Bison then worked out a deal sending veteran slugger Howie Buckley (and his large $6.2 million a year contract for the next 3 years) for a trio of minor leaguers (AAA C Rey Hubbell, speedy AAA CF William Tanaka and HiA wild pitching "prospect" Josias Johnson). But Josias Johnson suffered an injury to his groin while (prematurely) moving boxes out of his apartment, failing a physical exam and nulling the trade. (Although speculation has arised that Johnson had actually suffered the undisclosed injury during the offseason while riding horses in his native Panama, which explains his atrocious 0-12 record and 6.28 ERA in High A).

Seeing the Bison continued struggles, a few veteran minor leaguers were promoted when the rosters expanded to bring some relief to the fatigued team, but this has done little to change course. Veteran and all-time career stolen base leader
Carlos Rincon, who was released earlier this year after a short stint between AAA and ML for the Detroit Shuffle, was plucked from the Mexican Independent league as a left-handed bat off the bench. CF RickyTerrell, in his 5th tour of duty with the organization, was promoted from AAA as a backup to Aaron Bailey and occasional pinch runner. But these minor additions have done little to change course, and the Bison's fate relies on a final home stretch against Cincinnati, Louisville, Columbus and Buffalo (against all of whom they have struggled).

The Bison have shown several strengths, most notably a starting pitching rotation (Cookie Ramirez: 12-8, 3.33 ERA, Ismael Alvarado: 12-3, 2.64 ERA, Jose Amaro: 13-4 2.79 ERA, Rick Cobb: 12-8, 3.33 ERA and Brandon Freeman 8-12, 3.63 ERA) and a stable bullpen despite a closer by committee approach. Mike Burrell has provided the bulk of the offense while rookie Tyler Merrick has shown his skills despite an early season injury. The team lacks a legit power threat at the plate, and the bullpen has shown signs of fatigue. These Bison have a few tricks left in the tank, and, as team captain Bo Wells said "we will go down swinging. We will play through aches and pains but we will not lay down and give up. People wrote us off as too old or too fragile or vulnerable to injury or what not, but we are going to the end".

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