Dragons pushing toward first-half division title

Magic number to clinch is 9 heading into Great Lakes series

Manager Bryan LaHair says his goal for each Dragons player is for them to get one percent better every day. Dragons infielder Jose Torres says winning makes you better.

There’s no need to concoct a mathematical formula of those factors to understand the Dragons keep getting better. They just won five of six from a good South Bend team, lead the league with a 35-15 record and own a 7½-game lead in the Midwest League East Division with 16 games to play in the first half.

“Who doesn’t want to win?” Torres asks. “Everybody wants to win, and we get better as we win. Every win that we take we learn from the mistakes, but we take away winning.”

If the Dragons win the first half, they will earn a spot in the league’s four-team playoff for the first time since 2017 and eighth time since their inaugural season in 2000. The Dragons will start counting down their magic number to clinching the first half when second-place Great Lakes (28-23) comes to Dayton on Tuesday to begin a six-game series.

The Dragons’ magic number to eliminate the Loons is nine. The magic number means any combination of Dragons wins and Loons losses totaling nine will eliminate the Loons. The Dragons’ magic number over third-place Lake County (26-24) is eight.

Developing players and preparing them for the next level is the primary job of minor-league coaching staffs. But LaHair emphasizes playing to win. He’s in his fifth year with the Reds organization and agrees with what former Reds great Eric Davis says now in his role as a special assistant to the general manager.

“I always think about what Eric Davis says: ‘It’s hard to teach a guy how to win till they actually win,’” LaHair said. “Our mentality is to win. Our mentality is to work hard and focus on the process. That gives us the best chance to win.”

The Dragons have lost two straight games only twice this season — a doubleheader on May 7 and on May 11 and 12. They have been in first place all but three days and alone in first place since April 19.

“We focus on the process and one day at a time,” LaHair said. “Yesterday and today has nothing to do with tomorrow. We prepare each day the same way with different tweaks in how we do things.”

The Dragons have been strong in all phases of the game. In May, they led the league in slugging percentage (.452), on-base percentage (.343) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.795). They lead the league in home runs with 58. The starting pitchers have an ERA of 3.27, which is second in the league.

Joe Boyle, who starts Tuesday, was the league’s pitcher of the month for May. His ERA in May was 1.09 and is 0.72 for the season. In May, he struck out 34 batters in 24 2/3 innings.

“We’ve had good arms from the start,” LaHair said. “It’s a matter of time for them move on. They’re playing and pitching for each other and trying to execute their game plan.”

Led by the Reds’ No. 2 prospect Elly De La Cruz, a 20-year-old shortstop, the Dragons are as talented as they’ve ever been with 11 of the Reds’ top 27 prospects on the roster. De La Cruz has produced with a .292 batting average, 10 homers, 32 RBIs, 12 stolen bases and a .908 OPS.

The production goes beyond the prospect tags. First baseman Alex McGarry, who signed as an undrafted free agent in 2020, leads the league in slugging percentage (.649) and OPS (.982). He leads the Dragons with 11 homers and 36 RBIs. Infielder Nick Quintana, another unranked prospect, has hit .333 over the past 10 games.

“We’ve got a lot of talent here and we’ve got a lot of young talent,” LaHair said. “There’s still a lot of learning going on. We have to keep finding ways to motivate guys, push guys and make sure they stay together.”

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