RAILCATS

Competition breeds fun, winning as RailCats open season

2013-05-15T20:00:00Z 2013-05-16T22:59:04Z Competition breeds fun, winning as RailCats open seasonBy Hillary Smith hillary.smith@nwi.com, (219) 933-3233 nwitimes.com

GARY | Steve Liddle was picked up by the RailCats after he was the last player cut from the Minnesota Twins spring training.

He arrived in Gary with the mentality of a well-traveled, affiliated baseball player.

"The difference between affiliated ball and here is that there's no politics to put a first-, second- or third-rounder that has to play, (manager Greg Tagert) is going to put the best nine guys out there no matter what," Liddle said. "That makes it a little more competitive because there's no guaranteed jobs, but that's what helps win baseball games. It makes you play harder."

That's exactly what Tagert wanted from his infielders during preseason camp.

After last season, when the RailCats position players were mostly set by the time spring training opened and the team finished with a 50-50 record, Tagert hoped to create more competition during the 2013 spring.

He began finding players with pedigrees who were prepared to fight for jobs, and returned a few young players who were picked up at the end of last season — when the team began winning more games.

As the RailCats open their season at 7:10 p.m. today at U.S. Steel Yard against Lincoln, Tagert feels he's found the right recipe of youth and experience.

"We weren't going to hand the job over," Tagert said. "You have to put into perspective of where we're going to be. Our expectations aren't going to change just because we have a rookie second baseman and shortstop. Guys like Steve Liddle and Drew Martinez and Danny Pulfer, we brought them in for a reason. They're not only a little younger, they have some pro experience under their belt."

His infielders don't have names that RailCats fans will recognize, except third baseman Brian Kolb, who is in his third year with the team and a veteran in the infield. Chase Tucker (second base) and Zac Mitchell (shortstop) spent the last part of the season in Gary last year, but played sparingly.

Mitchell and Tucker are still rookies by American Association standards and are tabbed as everyday players at their positions.

"While we were in St. Paul playing the Sunday (exhibition) game ... I liked the way it felt and the consistency of those two turning the double plays. There seemed to be a pretty good relationship with those two," Tagert said. "That's something that I think over the last few days worked itself out."

What Tagert found is a chemistry reminiscent of the days of Jay Pecci and Eric McNamee in 2005 and 2007, when the Northern League championship lived in Gary.

Kenny Bryant, who had been a first baseman behind now-retired Mike Rohde last season, was out-battled for the job by Liddle. Pulfer and Aljay Davis, both of whom have more experience than Mitchell and Tucker, will backup the infield and Davis and Liddle can play in the outfield.

The competition was good, but remained with a RailCats sensibility, Kolb said, as everyone was rooting even for the guy who could have taken his spot.

"That's one of the great things that Skip has done with us is instill that competitive nature in this team," the third-baseman said. "It's always a good thing to have a team in spring that has that competition and is ready to go right off the bat. It only helps the team off the bat. That's one thing (outfielder) Mike Massaro and I were talking about is the depth of this team."

That environment has Liddle, in his first year in independent baseball, encouraged that the RailCats are prepared to keep 2012 in their past.

"As soon as I got here, I realized everyone here wants to win, everyone here takes it seriously, but has fun in the process," Liddle said. "When you have fun, the results take care of themselves."

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