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Next year’s minor league schedule still a mess

Minor League baseball went with a revised schedule for 2021 that saw teams playing six-game series against one another, and only playing teams in their division.

The stated reasoning was because of concerns over COVID. While that is partly true, don’t sleep on money being a bottom line for at least some of the changes. Teams took a financial hit when the 2020 season was canceled, but the newfound financial savings of not having to travel as much will linger into the 2022 season.

When the IronPigs schedule for next season was released last week, there they were again - six-game series. The change is that teams will now play some games outside of their own division. Quite frankly, the schedule is somewhat of a mess. For instance, take rival Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, who will host the ‘Pigs twice and will come into Coca-Cola Park twice. Upon closer look, note that the RailRiders only play six games total at Lehigh Valley and not 12. Their series right after the All-Star Break is three games, not six. Then, they return to wrap up the season in September, but again, it is a three-game series. Lehigh Valley hosts division rival Worcester twice, but only makes one trip to visit the Red Sox. Same with another divisional team in Buffalo.

The realignment of the minor league system after the takeover by Major League Baseball will result in some firsts. The IronPigs make their first-ever trip to Omaha next June, but the Storm Chasers do not travel east to play Lehigh Valley. In fact, fans here will not see any teams that they have not seen before the realignment took place. Lehigh Valley hosts former International League opponents Charlotte, Columbus, Gwinnett, and Norfolk, but will not entertain any teams from the former Pacific Coast League, like Omaha.

One problem with a six-game series is that it is easier for tempers to flare from seeing the same team for too long. With teams playing 36 games against their division rivals this season, that is exactly what happened last week when the RailRiders came to town. In the series opener, Scranton hitters were hit by four pitches and one IronPig was hit. Each game after that saw at least one player from a team hit. In Sunday’s finale, Lehigh Valley starter David Paulino hit a batter, and Scranton’s Nick Goody may or may not have been retaliating when he hit Alec Bohm with a pitch. Paulino then hit another batter and then Bohm spun away from a pitch near his head, causing him to yell at pitcher Luis Gil, who then glared at Lehigh Valley players who were yelling at him from the dugout. In the fifth, Paulino got the first two outs of the inning, and the first pitch to Scranton catcher Max McDowell went squarely off the back of McDowell’s helmet, causing the benches and bullpens to rush onto the field in the first brawl ever to have taken place in the 14-year history of Coca-Cola Park. Thankfully, McDowell was okay physically, but was ejected for charging the mound, as was Paulino for throwing at McDowell.

TRIPLE-A FIRSTS ... Pitcher Jack Perkins made his Triple-A debut Thursday against Scranton. The right-hander allowed two earned runs in four innings on five hits with one walk and five strikeouts. The outing went well enough that Perkins will start again for Lehigh Valley this Thursday against Syracuse. Catcher Vito Friscia came to the Lehigh Valley last week after playing this season with High-A Jersey Shore. Friscia’s stay was meant to be a short one, but may be extended because of injury and COVID issues among Phillies catchers. In his debut on Saturday, Friscia opened the second inning with a double to left center field. With the BlueClaws this season, Friscia was hitting .274 with six home runs and 35 RBI.

WE’RE TALKING PLAYOFFS? ... As part of the COVID changes for 2021, there are no playoffs in minor league baseball this season, and there was no All-Star Game. The playoff stance has changed. Double-A, High-A and Low-A will now play a five-game series to determine the league championship. Triple-A extended their regular season by 10 games earlier in the season and will not have playoffs this year. As for an All-Star Game and playoffs in 2022, Major League Baseball has not said whether either will take place.

RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME ... Catcher Tyler Heineman was drafted by Houston in 2012, had his contract purchased by Milwaukee, became a free agent, and signed with Arizona only to have his contract sold to Miami. Then he became a free agent and signed with San Francisco, only to become a free agent a year later and sign with St. Louis. The Cardinals released him in July, and the Phillies signed him to a minor league deal. In 14 games with the IronPigs, the 30-year-old is batting .283. He is now being mentioned for a promotion to Philadelphia should J.T. Realmuto wind up on the IL and Andrew Knapp’s stay on the COVID list be lengthy. Heineman has played in 20 MLB games – five with Miami in 2019 and 15 with the Giants in 2020 – and would at least be a warm body in the majors should the catching issues in Philadelphia linger.