For the second straight year, the Dayton Dragons finished one victory short of qualifying for the Midwest League playoffs, completing their season with an overall record of 71-68 under third-year manager Jose Nieves.  The 2015 season was the 16th year of operation for the Dragons as they extended their all-time sports record for consecutive sold-out games to 1,121.

In 2014, the Dragons season came down to the final game as they needed a win and a Fort Wayne loss to reach the post-season.  The Dragons got their win, only to see Fort Wayne notch a victory to keep the Dragons out of the playoffs.  In 2015, the Dragons finished the first half at 39-31, in a virtual tie with Great Lakes for the second East Division playoff berth, but the Loons edged the Dragons by two percentage points.  The Dragons fell to 32-37 in the second half and were unable to effectively enter the race.

The Dragons 2015 season will be remembered for the strong starting pitching rotation that kept the club in most games.  Four Dayton starting pitchers finished among the top-10 in the Midwest League in earned run average, and a fifth would have been there if not for a promotion that left him short of the minimum number of innings to qualify.  Various other league leaderboards included Dragons pitchers.  The team shattered the club record for fewest home runs allowed in a season and also broke the club record for fewest walks over a single season.  Until the final week, the Dragons were also on pace to also break the club record for team ERA, but a rough final few days caused them to miss that mark.

The Dragons opening night starting pitcher, Tyler Mahle (pronounced to rhyme with Rally), enjoyed an outstanding season that included multiple honors.  A 20-year-old native of Westminster, California who was selected in the seventh round of the 2013 draft, Mahle was voted by Midwest League managers as the top right-handed starting pitcher in the league on the end-of-season all-star team.  It was the second straight year that Mahle was named to his league’s full-season all-star team (one player per position) after earning the same honor with Billings in 2014.  Mahle was also one of three Dragons pitchers selected to play in the mid-season Midwest League All-Star Game (joining fellow starting pitcher Tejay Antone and reliever Brian Hunter), and he was named as the league’s Pitcher of the Month for July, when he went 4-0 with a 0.58 ERA in five starts, allowing just three runs (two earned) in 31 innings.  For the year, Mahle went 13-8 with a 2.43 ERA.

In a 16-team league, Mahle impressively finished in the top-five in six major categories.  He ended the season ranked second in the circuit in victories, second in ERA, third in strikeouts, third in innings pitched, fourth in fewest walks per nine innings, and fifth in fewest base runners per nine innings.  Mahle walked just 25 batters in 146 innings.

Mahle was ranked as the #26 prospect in the Reds organization by Baseball America when the season began, and he is virtually certain to move up at least 10 spots or more entering next season in a very pitching-rich farm system.  Mahle’s fastball typically topped out at 94 mph in most starts, but he did reach 96 several times.  His key to success was outstanding command of all of his pitches and the ability to consistently keep the ball down and away from the middle part of the plate.  He walked one or none in 20 of his 27 appearances and his season-high for walks in a start was three, which occurred only once.

Mahle was followed in the Dragons rotation by another native of the Los Angeles metro area, Wyatt Strahan.  The former University of Southern California star grew up only five miles from the Angels stadium and was drafted by the Reds in the third round in 2014.  Strahan led the league in innings pitched, finished fourth in strikeouts, and eighth in earned run average (2.79).  His record of 9-10 was not indicative of how well he pitched as he was regularly victimized by a lack of run support.  Twice, he was on the losing end in 1-0 games, and three other times, he allowed only one run but came away with no decision.  Strahan allowed two earned runs or less in 19 of his 28 starts and never more than four earned runs in any start.  He worked at least six innings in 18 starts including 14 of 15 over one stretch.

Strahan’s key to success was the tremendous natural movement on his 91-94 mph fastball, coupled with a devastating curve that looked as if it was falling off a table, straight down.  If he can continue to show more consistency with his command, he should add his name to the list of top pitching prospects in the Reds organization.  Strahan began the season as the #23 prospect in the Reds organization according to Baseball America, and his performance in 2015 certainly showed progress.

Tejay Antone was also part of the Dayton starting rotation throughout the entire season and finished 10th in the Midwest League in earned run average at 2.91.  His record was only 6-10 as he suffered from the same lack of run support as Strahan.  Six times, Antone left a start having allowed only one run (pitching into at least the sixth inning in each game) but came away with no decision.

Antone was a ground ball machine in 2015, leading all of Minor League Baseball in double plays with 26.  A fifth round pick by the Reds in 2014, Antone spent his freshman season at TCU in 2013 before transferring to Weatherford College for one year before entering professional baseball.  He is still a youngster at 21 years old.

Antone’s sinking fastball was his key to success.  He usually threw the pitch at 89-90 mph, but he showed the ability to reach back and throw a fastball 93-94 if he felt the situation called for it.  Antone had a knack for pitching to the game situation, so his overall numbers were a bit misleading (other than the fine ERA).  He allowed only 33 walks in 158 innings, and when he did walk a batter, it often came with a weaker hitter on deck.  Only seven times all year did he walk a lead-off hitter in an inning.  He allowed a high number of hits, but many were harmless singles as he was willing to challenge hitters in most situations.  He did not post a high number of strikeouts, but when he had to have one, he could get it.  He surrendered only two home runs all season, a testament to the difficulties that hitters had in elevating his sinking fastball.  In the toughest spots, he rose to the occasion as he allowed just a .244 opponents’ batting average with men in scoring position and two outs.

In 1980, Reds pitcher Mario Soto was given the nickname, “Mr. Eight and Two-Thirds” after he came out of the bullpen to replace Bruce Berenyi to record the final 26 outs of a Reds victory, then worked another eight and two-thirds in his next game.  In 2015, Antone came within a strike, twice, of tossing the first nine-inning shutout by a Dayton pitcher since 2008, but he came up short both times. On June 17, Antone and the Dragons led South Bend 3-0 with two outs in the ninth, but Tejay gave up a two-out, two-strike RBI hit. He still earned the win in a 3-1 Dragons victory. Then on July 23 at Fifth Third Field against West Michigan, Antone dominated West Michigan and was within one strike of a 1-0 win. With two outs in the ninth, the bases were empty, and Antone had not even allowed a runner past first base in the game. But incredibly, Mike Gerber belted a game-tying home run on Antone’s 100th pitch of the night. Antone did not face another batter. The Dragons eventually won the game in 13 innings.

Tall, lanky, six-foot, seven-inch right-hander Jake Paulson might have actually been the most consistent of all the Dayton pitchers.  Paulson spent the first half of the season in the Dayton bullpen and then moved to the rotation after promising youngster Mark Armstrong suffered an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery.  For the year, Paulson was 8-5 with a 2.60 ERA that ranked fourth best in the league.  His first outing of the season was his worst.  From that point forward, he made 32 appearances and never surrendered more than three runs in any of them, including 14 starts.  Paulson’s ground ball rate was even higher than Antone’s and he would often get on rolls when the ball would not leave the infield for multiple innings.  In his final start, Paulson tossed eight sparkling innings in South Bend and amazingly, no Dayton outfielder recorded a putout.  It was a performance reminiscent of the legendary barnstorming pitcher Eddie Feigner, who traveled the Midwest for decades as “the King and his Court.”  Feigner’s team, featuring only himself as the pitcher, a catcher, a shortstop, and a first baseman, would travel from town-to-town, playing the local all-star softball team, and despite having no outfielders on the field (and only two infielders), Feigner’s team would almost never lose.  Paulson’s game in South Bend would have made Feigner proud.

Seth Varner, a native of the Cincinnati area, spent the first half of the season in the Dayton rotation, and his outstanding performance earned him a promotion to Daytona.  Varner was 7-4 with a 2.88 ERA.  He walked only five batters in 78 innings, and three of the five actually came in one inning after he got a bit out of sync while facing Major Leaguer Ian Gomes on an injury rehab assignment and walked him, then walked two more.  Varner featured an excellent three-pitch mix including a change-up that could be virtually unhittable.  His fastball, though only in the 87-90 range, was so well-located that hitters rarely got the good part of the bat on the ball.  A left-hander out of Miami University, Varner has made himself into a prospect.

The Dragons struggled to score runs in 2015, but they were able to raise their performance in dramatic moments in front of the home fans at Fifth Third Field.  The Dragons posted 12 “walk-off” wins during the season, three more than they had during the previous two years combined.  Their record in extra innings games at home was 8-0.  In fact, the Dragons overall home record was an outstanding 43-27.

First baseman Paul Kronenfeld was Mr. Dramatic at Fifth Third Field.  In his very first home at-bat with the Dragons, he hit an inside-the-park home run.  It seemed that every late-inning Dragons rally featured Kronenfeld in the middle of the madness.  The game of the season took place on July 12, a Sunday afternoon battle with Lansing.  The Dragons trailed 6-5 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth when Kronenfeld lined a single to left field to drive in Jonathan Reynoso to tie the game. On the same play, Luis Gonzalez was tagged out at the plate attempting to score from second with what would have been the winning run, sending the game to extra innings. Lansing broke the 6-6 tie with a run in the top of the 11th, only to see the Dragons, again down to their final out, score once in the bottom of the 11th to send the game to the 12th. Lansing loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the 12th, but Dragons pitcher Jacob Moody got out of the jam. The game appeared to be lost in the top of the 13th when Lansing broke through for two runs to take a 9-7 lead. But in the bottom of the 13th, Kronenfeld again came through with a game-tying two-run triple, and Argenis Aldazoro drove in Kronenfeld with a single to right to give the Dragons a 10-9 win in the 13-inning marathon that finished one minute short of four hours.

The Dragons most memorable inning at the plate took place on June 13 at Fifth Third Field, when three consecutive Dragons batters blasted home runs against the Beloit Snappers. In the second inning, Jose Ortiz started the back-to-back-to-back home run barrage with a two-run shot to center field. Jimmy Pickens hit the very next pitch for a home run to center, and Luis Gonzalez made it three in a row when he hit the second pitch for a home run to left. Four pitches–three home runs. It was the first time in franchise history that three straight Dragons batters connected on home runs.

Outfielder Brian O’Grady was selected as the Midwest League Batter of the Month for June.  Twice in an eight-day period, O’Grady blasted two home runs in one game.  O’Grady promotion to Daytona in late June was a loss that the Dragons offense was never able to recover from as the team’s run production dropped significantly in the second half.  The loss of dependable all-star reliever Brian Hunter to Tommy John elbow surgery was another tough blow for the Dragons and a factor in their second half drop in the standings.  O’Grady and Hunter were also tremendous team leaders in the clubhouse and dugout, and their departures were felt in multiple ways.

The Dragons coaching staff in 2015 was led by Nieves, with former Reds all-star Tom Browning serving as pitching coach and former Dragons player Luis Bolivar as the hitting coach.  Popular former Reds catcher Corky Miller was with the Dragons in a coaching instructor role for most home games and some road games.  Twice during the season, hall-of-fame shortstop Barry Larkin spent a week with the Dragons in an instructor role.  Still legendary former Big Red Machine star Ken Griffey Sr. also spent some time with the Dragons in a hitting instructor role.

At the gate, the Dragons finished eighth in all of Minor League Baseball in average attendance per date at 8,212 with a season total of 574,830.  Nine of the top 10 clubs in the final rankings were Triple-A teams with the Dragons as the only exception.  The Dragons final attendance total ranked first among the 130 teams below the Triple-A level. The Dragons have finished in the top 10 among all Minor League Baseball clubs in each of their 16 seasons and have finished # 1 among all Single-A and Double-A teams for 10 straight years.  The Dragons 16 seasons of operation represent the top 16 single-season attendance totals in Single-A baseball history.