Living by the home run ultimately cost the Charlotte Knights a playoff spot

It all looked so good late on the night of Aug. 22.

The Charlotte Knights had beaten Durham, 4-2, completing a four-game sweep of the Bulls in a series between two teams battling for the International League’s wild-card playoff spot.

The sweep gave Charlotte a four-game lead over the Bull, with only 10 games left in the season. Knights’ officials were selling tickets for what would be the team’s first playoff series since 2012.

Then it all went wrong. The Knights were off Aug. 23, then won the opener of an Aug. 24 doubleheader. From that point on, Charlotte won just one of its final nine games.

And a 7-6, 10-inning loss Monday afternoon to the last-place Norfolk Tides gave the playoff berth to Durham.

What happened?

How did a team that went 20-5 from July 28 through the opener of that Aug. 24 doubleheader — the best record in minor league baseball during that span — collapse down the stretch?

The answer can be found at home plate.

For most of the 2019 season, the Knights were among the best-hitting teams in the International League. They led the league in runs; were second in RBIs and tied for second in home runs; third in total bases; and fourth in doubles.

The Knights’ 205 home runs in 2019 set a franchise record, and the team frequently scored more than 10 runs on any given night.

During that 20-5 stretch, the Knights averaged 7.32 runs a game. But in the 1-8 finish, Charlotte averaged 3.0 runs per contest. The Knights did their damage at the plate, and in the final 10 games of the season, they weren’t able to score enough.

What do we take from the 2019 season?

  • As a team, the Knights hit well. Their .270 team batting average was fourth in the league. But there were no standouts. Alcides Escobar led the team with a .286 average, but that was only 17th in the league.
  • Daniel Palka, one of four Knights promoted Tuesday to the Chicago White Sox, had a big year. He batted .279 and led the team in runs (83), hits (133) and home runs (27).
  • Danny Mendick, who also got a call-up to the majors Tuesday (the first time with the White Sox for Mendick, a 2015 draft pick), played well. He hit .279 and finished sixth in the league in hits and 11th in runs scored.
  • The pitching was not a bright spot. The Knights finished 13th of 14 teams in earned run average; 14th in hits allowed; 14th in home runs allowed; and 12th in runs allowed. The good news was in the bullpen. The team was second in the IL in saves, thanks to Thyago Vieira (eight), Jose Ruiz (seven) and Juan Minaya (six).

Looking ahead: You’ll have to wait 7½ months to see the Knights again at BB&T Ballpark. Their home opener is April 16 against the Bulls. That’s a week after the season-opener in Durham.

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle