Pro baseball

RailCats find strength in combination of rookie, vet numbers

2013-09-15T18:00:00Z 2013-12-28T15:42:32Z RailCats find strength in combination of rookie, vet numbersHillary Smith hillary.smith@nwi.com, (219) 933-3233 nwitimes.com
September 15, 2013 6:00 pm  • 

WICHITA, Kan. | The 2013 RailCats American Association championship team was 14 months in the making and six years in discovery.

The planning, preparation and signings for the title started after a collapse in June 2012, when the RailCats fell as far as 12 games below .500. That's when manager Greg Tagert started adding rookies with potential.

Zac Mitchell was signed July 24, 2012. Estevan Uriegas was picked up in a trade on July 8, 2012. Chase Tucker was signed Aug. 8 and Kenny Bryant was added Aug. 3. Those that didn't finish the 2013 season with the RailCats as American Association champions were used as acquisition pieces.

In all, the RailCats had eight rookies on the active roster when they hoisted their first league trophy Saturday night. One, Morgan Coombs, was the starting pitcher who earned the win. Another, Ian Durham, finished the year with nine saves.

It seems only fitting that the ultimate winning run in the clinching game came from rookie Mitchell, who hit a triple in the eighth inning and was sent home by just-more-than-a-rookie Danny Pulfer.

That was part one of what Tagert learned from the 2005 and 2007 Northern League championship seasons.

The second lesson was harder to replicate.

"The similarities between 2007 and 2013 is that we had the two best pitchers in the league and the two best players in the league and when those guys decide to shut it down, irreplaceable," Tagert said. "Believe me, I've tried since 2007 to replace those guys we lost."

He found the right combination in the rotation with experienced pitchers Alain Quijano and Billy Spottiswood joining the youth of Coombs and Stephen Hiscock. Ari Ronick, whose injury forced him home on Aug. 6, was a major part of the rotation until late in the season.

When Tagert used just two official veterans on his roster -- Mike Massaro and Cristian Guerrero -- he opened spaces for young players with hunger and talent.

"This is going to go down as the greatest single accomplishment I've seen from a ball club in all my years of managing," Tagert said, "for the things we've talked about all year: the dynamic of the ball club with the younger players and the number of games we've played under these kind of conditions. Obviously I won't say it's the best RailCats team ever, but pretty close and the best accomplishment I've ever seen."

The benefit for the RailCats in 2014 and beyond is that the tradition has been reset with fewer players in the twilight of their careers. Though none have officially announced their plans, retirement could take the likes of Massaro, Guerrero and Quijano.

The outfield of Massaro, Guerrero and Adam Klein, which dominated offensively and defensively in 2010, 2011 and again this season, is in jeopardy.

"With Mike and Adam and Cristian, for those guys," Tagert said. "I thought this ball club was on the road to success that we've had this year started back in mid-July last year when we had an influx of some of the young players ... Those guys made a world of difference in that clubhouse."

Massaro, Guerrero and Klein led the charge from the first day of spring training to the last out of the game for the championship run. In addition, that set the tone to build the next tradition.

"Number 1 they have to believe, and number 2 they have to stay hungry, as a team," Klein said. "That's what we did. We stuck together through thick and thin and we knew we had something special with the way we started the season and stuck with it."

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