Gary's Rico Washington connects for a two run single in the fourth inning against Windy City Thunderbolts at Riverside Park in Hammond Thursday evening. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
The American Association season hasn’t yet reached its halfway point, but the RailCats’ season is slipping away from them in a hurry.
Going into Monday night’s game at Sioux Falls, they had a season-worst five-game losing skid, and had lost eight of their last nine, dropping them to 16-26, the second-worst record in the 13-team league.
In 2010, the RailCats had their streak of five straight championship series appearances come to an end.
In 2011, their first in the American Association after their departure from the Northern League, they had their streak of six straight playoffs appearances come to an end.
It could mark the first losing season in Greg Tagert’s 17th as a manager, unless something dramatically changes.
Owner Pat Salvi likely will have to wait at least another season for his coveted first title (the RailCats won titles in 2005 and ’07, and he purchased the franchise in 2008).
Circumstances haven’t been kind to the RailCats.
Before the season even began, projected ace Bear Bay signed with the San Diego Padres to pitch with their Triple-A affiliate at Tucson.
Early in the season, center fielder Jason James abruptly and stunningly retired. Then third baseman and cleanup hitter Rico Washington, a former major leaguer, retired. Relief pitcher Chad Rhoades, expected to fill a late-innings role, went home to Texas because of family reasons. Starting pitcher Andrew Johnston has been on the inactive list with a back problem.
Indeed, above all, the RailCats’ rotation has been all over the place.
Obviously, starting pitching is key at any level, and that’s probably more true for them than most; it’s no coincidence, or surprise, that they’ve been at their best when they’ve had guys such as, oh, Willie Glen and Josh Habel and Jason Shelley and Tony Cogan in their rotation.
The RailCats did make the decision to trade veteran shortstop and team leader Kyle Haines to the York Revolution of the Atlantic League for future considerations, signaling a new direction for the team.
According to the American Association website, as of Monday, the RailCats had six rookies on their active roster (teams are required to have a minimum of four), tied for the most in the league; and just one veteran (Sean Henry) on their active roster (teams are allowed to have a maximum of four), with no other team having fewer than three.
Of course, rookies aren’t necessarily the weakest players on a roster, and veterans aren’t necessarily the strongest. But as a general rule, teams try to minimize the number of rookies, and maximize the number of veterans; teams often go as far as those veterans can take them.
Now, impact veterans don’t exactly grow on trees, but rookies — including undrafted college seniors — don’t exactly serve as substitutes, either.
Perhaps even off-the-field situations have hinted at the type of bizarro season it has been for the RailCats. Their bus got two flat tires on the way from Amarillo to Laredo, then another two flat tires from Laredo back to Gary (it was the same tire that blew all four times), extending already draining rides (especially the latter one).
And a misunderstanding between the team and bus company resulted in no transportation showing up after last Thursday night’s game against Kansas City for the trip to Sioux Falls; with no bus available that late, the RailCats’ Friday night game at the Pheasants had to be postponed, and the teams played a doubleheader on Saturday (for the record, the RailCats got swept in that twin bill).
It’s too early to write off a team with Adam Klein, Mike Massaro and Mike Coles as the top three in its order.
And it’s too early to write off a team with Tagert as its manager.
It’s slightly different in independent baseball, where the manager also wears the hat of conventional general manager, but coaches/managers typically receive too much credit for a team’s successes and too much blame for its failuress. Still, with his track record, Tagert deserves the benefit of the doubt that he’ll be able figure things out, though he has seemed genuinely exasperated about how to get the RailCats to play at their customary level.
Will they get there this season?
The window of opportunity continues to narrow.