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RailCats in the thick of the playoff hunt with a month to go

RailCats manager Greg Tagert (right) calls out Mike Massaro on-deck circle during bottom first inning against St. Paul Steel Yard

RailCats manager Greg Tagert (right) calls out to Mike Massaro on the on-deck circle during the bottom of the first inning against St. Paul at the Steel Yard in Gary, Ind., Saturday, August 3, 2013. | Guy Rhodes~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 5, 2013 7:06AM



GARY — With a little less than a month left in the regular season, the RailCats have positioned themselves to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010, their final season in the Northern League.

Going into Saturday, they were leading the wild-card standings by three games over Laredo; and 4.5 games over St. Paul, Winnipeg, Grand Prairie and Lincoln. They’re still in contention to win the division, trailing Central-leading Wichita by five games; and they do play the Wingnuts, who have the American Association’s best record, six more times. But their most likely path to the postseason remains the wild card, which remains a crowded field.

“It’s going to be a race between a lot of teams,” RailCats manager Greg Tagert said. “We have our work cut out for us.

“As a team, we’re exactly where we need to be.”

The RailCats’ pitching has been particularly strong for the last month, and it should solidify as the season winds down as they (finally, after assorted issues) plan to move to their favored four-man rotation, after Osvaldo Rodriguez’s start on Friday. Such a move hinges largely on the health of Stephen Hiscock, who on Saturday made his third start since returning to the mound after missing almost two months with an arm injury. Billy Spottiswood and Alain Quijano are scheduled to follow, with James Adkins, Morgan Coombs or possibly Rodriguez taking that fourth spot (with Ari Ronick sidelined with an oblique injury).

Their offense has sputtered at times, and they have tinkered with their lineup, primarily revolving around Cristian Guerrero. The slugger opened the season in the No. 3 spot — the usual cleanup man hadn’t hit third in his career — but had been dropped to sixth recently. Brian Kolb had been elevated to fourth in the lineup for several games.

But the RailCats have decided to revert to the lineup they have used for the bulk of the season, the one they had devised in spring training.

“Really, it was just to give Cristian a little bit of a break,” Tagert said. “My feeling on lineup changes is always the same — it’s not so much to generate offense, as it is to help a player individually out. Cristian, I think he’s on the verge. He’s doing some good things.”

The RailCats also are likely on the verge of adding a position player to the mix. Earlier this week, they acquired Reid Fronk from El Paso for cash; he has been on the inactive list all season, but they could activate him as soon as Monday (if and when Fronk gets activated, the corresponding transaction to clear a roster spot likely will involve a pitcher, which would put the RailCats at their preferred breakdown of 12 position players and 10 pitchers).

The left-handed hitting Fronk — who can play all three outfield positions and third base, as well as first base — spent five seasons in the Tampa Bay organization, reaching as high as Double-A in 2011. Last season with Kansas City and El Paso, the Rays’ seventh-round pick in the 2007 draft out of North Carolina hit .284 with seven homers and 51 RBI.

“It shows the players our goal is to make a good club better,” Tagert said of the addition of Fronk, who he described as former RailCats infielder Chris Carrara’s best friend. “We’re a good club, and we’re going to do everything we can to be as good as we can down the stretch.”

Of course, other contending teams will be doing likewise. They’ll be attempting to make trades, to add players from places such as the Mexican League.

The RailCats believe they are up to the challenge.

“We’re a good club, but it’s not an invitation to the playoffs — you have to earn it,” Tagert said. “We have to do our part.

“Our expectation is to be one of those final four teams standing — that doesn’t change, whether it’s 2013 or 2005. It’s been the same expectation. What you always hope, players that come here for all sorts of reasons, you hope at some point in the season, they buy into what we’re all about. We never make any apologies about it. This franchise and the expectations, this club’s all about winning. Not that your career has to take a back seat right now, but the players’ focus has to been on what we’re doing and trying to accomplish as a team. We’re fortunate we have the right leaders in the clubhouse, and the right mix of young guys who are enjoying every moment of it.”



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