Gary's Alain Quijano pitches against Lincoln in the first inning Thursday evening at the Steel Yard in Gary. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
As the American Association season reaches the halfway point, the RailCats are right in the thick of the postseason hunt.
With a 29-19 record going into Monday night, they are on the heels of first-place Wichita, which has won the Central Division in each of Gary’s first two seasons in the league. They’re also in the mix for a wild-card spot.
There’s still eight weeks to go, but the RailCats should be a factor for the duration, positioned to contend to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010, their final season in the Northern League.
“Record-wise, we couldn’t be more pleased with where we’re at,” Greg Tagert said. “Unfortunately, as a manager, you look back at some games that you could’ve won. But we also grabbed a few where we were probably fortunate.”
One of the hallmarks of this team has been its resilience, showing an ability to win games in the late innings — indeed, on occasion, in improbable fashion.
Even as the RailCats stood last in the league in home runs, they were sixth in runs scored, manufacturing as they typically have done. They also were first in walks — by a wide margin.
“I like what we’re doing offensively, but what we’ve seen at times, we’re not strong enough to get that big inning, when we’re down two or three runs,” said Tagert, whose team was 10th in batting average. “That’s something we are addressing and looking at.”
The RailCats could particularly be exploring their options at first base, which Tagert described as a “revolving door.” Solidifying that position could also help them defensively. The RailCats had committed 46 errors, the fourth most in the league.
“The first thing, you have to field the ball,” Tagert said. “But having that consistency at first base, that affects the rest of the infield.
“(Defense has) probably been the thing I’ve been hardest on the club about, I’ve harped on it, just because of my philosophy and belief system. But they’ve been working hard, and they’ve gotten better since the beginning of the season.”
The RailCats were third in the league in ERA, ninth in batting average against and sixth in WHIP. They were tied for the second most homers allowed — clearly a concern — but had allowed the second fewest walks, underscoring the staff’s collective tendency to be around the plate and make opponents put the ball in play.
Four of their five pitchers with at least four starts had an ERA between 4.83 and 5.28, with Alain Quijano at 3.78; the rotation is an area that can improve. But five of their relief pitchers had an ERA between 2.76 and 3.69, a total that does not include Clay Zavada. So they have quality depth in the bullpen, but the former major leaguer signing with the Padres organization last week obviously hurts.
“That’s something that’s going to be tough to replace — he was the best in the league. There’s not another Clay Zavada sitting out there,” said Tagert, whose staff could be bolstered within the next couple of weeks by the return of both Stephen Hiscock (biceps tendinitis), the team’s best starter last season, and left-handed reliever Estevan Uriegas (elbow/forearm inflammation).
After completing their series in Winnipeg and Wednesday’s day off, the RailCats have 23 games at home, where they have gone 17-9, and 26 on the road, where they have gone 12-10 (they likely will play 99 games after the June 12 rainout against Quebec, with no makeup date in the offing). But they have played well in places such as Winnipeg and Fargo-Moorhead and Wichita, venues that generally are inhospitable.
“Going back to spring training, what I’ve been most pleased about is how much these guys like to compete and like to win when they step on the field — they’re very passionate about it,” Tagert said. “We’ve had some inconsistencies, which we were expecting with having so many rookies and young players. But then you balance it with having five or six guys that have a lot of experience, veteran players like Cristian Guerrero and Mike Massaro and Adam Klein. There’s a unique dynamic in the clubhouse and on the field, and it’s been fun watching it take place.”
Of course, what will be most fun for the RailCats in this potentially pivotal season, is for them to continue their winning ways.