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Huskies notebook: Duluth hopes to bounce back in second half of Northwoods League season

Duluth hopes for better second half.

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Ambren Voitik of the Duluth Huskies catches a fly ball deep in center field against the St. Cloud Rox July 3 at Wade Stadium in Duluth. Voitik, of Grand Canyon University, has played at an All-Star level for the Huskies this summer, batting .326 with 20 runs, 18 RBIs and 11 stolen bases in 34 games. “He reminds of (former NWL MVP) Augie Isaacson in the way he can do it all,” said Huskies general manager Greg Culver. (Clint Austin / File / News Tribune)

Duluth Huskies general manager Greg Culver said the team basically has a first-half pitching staff and a second-half pitching staff, changing out between three and six pitchers because of the comings and goings of Division I products.

Let’s hope for better results.

Huskies second-year manager Marcus Pointer expects his team to bounce back after a 12-22 first half. So far, so good as Duluth got off to a 2-1 start to the second half.

“The first half, it’s over, the guys understand that and flushed it,” Pointer said. “The league operates with two halves, and there’s still a chance to do something special here, and these showed up ready to go. We’ve got the guys to do it.”

The biggest area of concern is pitching: particularly throwing strikes, finding some semblance of a plate when you toss the ball that way.

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Through Wednesday, Duluth ranked 15th in the 22-team Northwoods League with a 4.98 ERA and dead last with 259 walks given up. The next closest was Kalamazoo with 221.

While it doesn’t take an analytical expert to figure out that’s not good, the Huskies will continue to use analytics in an attempt to improve in the second half. They’re analytical team is led by interns Alec Schulte and Scotty Erickson.

“They’ve been phenomenal,” Porter said. “They work hard every day. They work alongside us and do their own research, but anything we need them to look at, they get it done.”

Now that there’s more data, more at-bats, the numbers start to appear more clear to make a fair evaluation.

“There’s a lot of things you look at, recent trends, right vs. left, we like looking at the OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), quality at-bats, hard-hit balls, whether it’s a base hit or not,” Porter said.

The Huskies recently added two University of Texas players they hope help in that regard, with pitcher Jared Southard and catcher/first baseman Peyton Powell joining the fray. The Longhorns went 50-17 before getting knocked out of the College World Series with a 4-3 loss to Mississippi State June 26 in Omaha, Nebraska.

In addition, the Huskies have added left-handed pitchers Cameron Pool (Murray State) and Ben Gerl (Northern Kentucky) and could bring in more players.

“You don’t really throw away the first half, but you do get some players who need more work in the second half,” Culver said. “Then it’s the job of Marcus and this coaching staff to put that chessboard together, and all those puzzle pieces, and make it work.”

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But Culver added the team will never adopt a win-at-all-costs mentality or run arms ragged. They have built relationships with college programs and plan on keeping them.

“A lot of people don’t understand that,” Culver said. “They think we’re supposed to run this like an MLB team. That’s not how it works.”

Gerl expected to start next week

Gerl, of Joliet, Illinois, arrived in Duluth about a week ago, and the 6-foot-1 left-hander is expected to make his Huskies debut with a pitching start next week.

Gerl is the grandson of Bernie Gerl, also of Joliet, who passed away in November at age 94. Bernie, a former catcher, was the last surviving member of the infamous Duluth Dukes 1948 bus crash that claimed the lives of six people in one of the worst tragedies in professional sports.

The older Gerl relished his nearly annual trips to Duluth to take in a ballgame at Wade Stadium.

“My dad and I always talked about it, even when grandpa was getting older, whenever he was up here in Duluth, it was just like he was a kid again,” Ben Gerl said. “This place just rejuvenated him. Getting to see all his old friends, interacting with fans … it was cool to see how this city had an impact on him. We’re a baseball family, through and through.”

Northern Kentucky is an NCAA Division I program in Highland Heights, Kentucky, about 15 minutes outside of Cincinnati.

Gerl is coming off a freshman year in which he went 4-6 with a 6.41 ERA in 13 appearances, all starts, while being named to the All-Horizon League Freshman Team. He lasted at least five innings in all but one start. He’s got talent, just needs more experience.

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“I’m excited to see what the future has in store,” Gerl said.

Like seems so often the case with longtime couples, Bernadine Gerl, Bernie’s wife and Ben’s grandmother, passed away in February at age 92, just three months after Bernie.

“They couldn’t be kept apart for long,” Ben Gerl said of his grandparents, who were married 71 years.

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Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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