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Albuquerque Isotopes 2016 season review: From the lowest of lows to the highest of highs

Albuquerque overcomes a miserable first half and nearly gets back to .500 with an amazing second-half surge

David Dahl helped ignite the Isotopes' second-half surge that nearly propelled the team to the playoffs.
David Dahl helped ignite the Isotopes' second-half surge that nearly propelled the team to the playoffs.
Albuquerque Isotopes / Tim March for MOJI

The Albuquerque Isotopes had a weird season.

It included a record 13-game losing streak, followed less than a month later by a record-tying nine-game winning streak.

There were stretches where the whole team seemed to forget how to hit. Then came stretches where no one could pitch.

Yet somehow, against all odds, the Isotopes were alive in the playoff chase until the last week of the season. They finished 71-72, emphatically sweeping the division champion Chihuahuas in El Paso to finish the season.

Albuquerque bottomed out at 34-53 on July 7. From there the team was 37-19. Sure, a lack of too many call-ups by the Rockies helped, but a club that was once listless and left for dead staged one of the more remarkable turnarounds anyone could see.

Manager Glenallen Hill was asked if he felt that his team’s performance outshone the final total of wins and losses.

"It doesn’t tell the story but it does tell the story," he said. "It depends on the story you’re trying to look at. We’ve had a good year in terms of player development. To a man, you can ask them yourself if they got better and they would be honest with you. I think the majority of them did get better. It’s been a good year in terms of that."

The Isotopes sent reliever Carlos Estevez to Colorado in April, starting pitcher Tyler Anderson in June, outfielder David Dahl in July and starter Jeff Hoffman in August. They joined 2015 graduates such as Jon Gray and Cristhian Adames.

More players went up late, from the incredibly unlikely — outfielder/first baseman Stephen Cardullo — to the more-than-deserving, from catcher Tom Murphy to outfielder/first baseman Jordan Patterson to outfielder Raimel Tapia and more.

All of those players did their parts in a roller coaster season.

The Isotopes were 14-9 in April, then fell into a 9-20 funk in May, flopped at 8-20 in June (including the aforementioned record losing streak from June 17-30 where they scored a whopping 23 total runs), then came to life with a 16-11 July and 20-11 August before finishing with four wins in five September games.

"What the players should take away is that is our second year here and we have put a very good product and a very competitive product," Hill said. "Through the ebbs and flows of Triple-A we’ve had some exciting games and some not-so-exciting games. One of the things we haven’t had this year was we haven’t had very many games that you could say are typical PCL games. … In that regard, it’s been outstanding."

Hill was right. Despite playing in a hitter-friendly league, Albuquerque only allowed double-digit runs 11 times in 143 games. The toughest losses were a 13-1 defeat at Tacoma on April 10, an 11-0 thrashing at Iowa on May 30 and a 17-7 drubbing versus Las Vegas on June 9. Even during the record losing skid, the Isotopes never gave up more than seven runs in a game.

This all came despite having one of those typical-looking stat lists for pitching at the end of a Triple-A season. Including rehabbing Rockies, a total of 16 different pitchers made at least one start for Albuquerque. None of them picked up more than eight wins; yes, a fairly worthless stat for evaluating performance, but still telling of the fluidity of pitching staffs at this level.

Hoffman was named pitcher of the year, as anyone could look past his 6-9 record and see the more important and impressive statistics. He led the team with a 4.02 ERA, 22 starts, 118.2 innings pitched and 124 strikeouts for a 9.4 K/9 rate.

Other prospects managed to survive the crucible of Isotopes Park as well. Harrison Musgrave went 8-7 with a 4.30 ERA in 113 innings of work. Kyle Freeland finished 6-3 with a 3.91 ERA in 73.2 innings. German Marquez’s five-start cameo saw the right-hander go 2-0 with a 4.35 ERA, striking out 29 in 31 innings.

Even retreads like Eddie Butler (8-3, 4.45) and Christian Bergman (3-3, 3.66) and organizational guys like Matt Flemer (6-4, 3.74) had surprisingly good seasons at high altitude. Isotopes pitching Darryl Scott earned his wizard robes this season.

The relief corps was not nearly as successful, or else it would have likely been plundered by the bullpen-battered Rockies. Still, there were a few bright spots like Scott Oberg (2.43 ERA, 9 saves, 36 Ks in 29.2 innings), Brian Schlitter (3.64, 8 saves, 43 Ks in 42 innings) and the perpetually jubilant Simon Castro (3.38, 10 saves, 58 Ks in 53.1 innings), who was probably the most deserving player left off the Rockies’ September call-up list.

As far as the position players went, it was a lineup that went from lacking power or any real hitting ability outside of the human metronome, Patterson, to one of the more exciting and entertaining groups around by the end of the season.

The midseason offensive revival was mainly credited to two players, Dahl and Murphy, but it was really the whole group that picked it up from July 1 onward.

Dahl was amazing, batting a ridiculous .484/.529/.887 with five home runs and 16 RBI in just 16 games from July 4-23 before he was deservedly called up to start what should be a long and productive Major League career.

Murphy, though, pretty much went out and followed the famous J. Robert Oppenheimer quote and became Death, The Destroyer of Pitchers. (A quote said in New Mexico, naturally.)

In July alone, the Rockies’ catcher of the future hit an insane .540/.586/1.079 with eight home runs and 21 RBI in 17 games. He "cooled off" in August and hit "just" .391/.430/.690 with four homers and 15 RBI in 23 games.

Even though he was reducing the Eastern League to rubble, it appeared Tapia would remain with the Yard Goats after he was not promoted to fill Dahl’s spot. Then the Rockies surprised everyone, even Tapia himself, and brought him to Albuquerque on Aug. 9. In 24 games, he hit .346/.355/.490 while earning himself a spot on ESPN’s top 10 SportsCenter plays for back-to-back insane catches on the infamous Topes Slope. Like Dahl before, Tapia was an Energizer Bunny who fired up the entire team.

The rest of the lineup followed suit. Cardullo, who was signed out of an independent league in the offseason, ended up batting .308/.367/.522 with 17 homers and 72 RBI to earn the unlikeliest call-up in the history of, well, everything. A Disney movie may be in the works with the soft-spoken Florida State alumnus.

Patterson (.283/.376/.480, 14 HR, 61 RBI) was steady as could be, no matter if he was playing right field or first base. Catcher Dustin Garneau (.292/.367/.595, 15 HR, 35 RBI) managed to not get completely lost in Murphy’s shadow. Outfielder Mike Tauchman (.286/.342/.373, 51 RBI, 23 stolen bases) finished the year with a team-record 25-game hitting streak.

Even the guys who lacked the lofty stats found ways to contribute. Tim Smalling and Joey Wong helped lead one of the best infield defenses in the league. Chris Nelson quickly emerged as the heart and soul of the clubhouse, never letting anything get him down, even when he could not keep up with his younger teammates in the Pokemon Go competition.

There was the raucous "Club Topes" that Nelson and Brandon Barnes created to celebrate the wins down the stretch. Think flashing lights, booming music, and players dancing with abandon in the dark (it was remarkable no one suffered one of those truly unfortunate injuries, when one thinks about it).

Hill, Scott and hitting coach John Shelby deserve a lot of credit as well. They were a constant calming and positive influence on the players.

Ten years from now, to most observers the record will appear mediocre and the little things will be forgotten, but for those who experienced it up close, whether in uniform or just in the trenches, it was a hell of a fun season.

Well, at least the second half.