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When Greg Tagert arrived in Gary back in 2005, he looked around the spacious confines of U.S. Steel Yard and realized how his RailCats would need to play.

It was a style that former Gary shortstop Jay Pecci called "lulling opponents to sleep" with pitchers who threw strikes, hitters who drew walks and fielders who made plays.

Exciting it may not have been, but successful it was. The RailCats won championships in 2005, 2007 and 2013, reached the finals every year from 2005 to '09 and made the playoffs nine times in 14 seasons.

Then came this year, which Tagert and the RailCats would like to forget. They went 40-59, the franchise's worst record since 2004, finishing fifth in the six-team American Association North.

"Hey, everybody has one of these years," Tagert said last week. "I almost started to believe the RailCats would never have one of these years. That was naive on my part."

What happened? For the first time in Tagert's tenure, the RailCats weren't among the league leaders in defense and fewest walks allowed. 

They played a lot of close games, but didn't win many of them. 

"When you make the mistakes on defense we made, you end up losing those games 5-4 and 3-2," Tagert said. "We were that close to winning some games, but it was also a reflection of our shortcomings."

It didn't help that the team lost a pair of its projected core players — outfielders Edgar Corcino and Evan Marzilli — who were signed by big-league organizations on May 23 and July 7, respectively.

And then there were the injuries. Tagert and his staff tallied up this remarkable stat: 330 games lost to players' aches and pains, including several season-ending injuries.

That number led to some other crazy ones. The RailCats made a franchise-record 120 transactions, used 55 different players (on a 23-man roster) and never made it through an entire week without making at least one move.

There were some individual bright spots amid the gloomy outcome for the team.

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Justin Sinibaldi won the league ERA title at 2.75. Outfielder Colin Willis was named the American Association All-Star Game MVP. Infielder Tom Walraven might have been the league's Rookie of the Year had his season not been cut short by a strained right oblique.

Tagert was tempted to write 2019 off as just one of those things. He recalls another manager asking if this experience would prompt some changes in philosophy going forward.

For now, the answer seems to be no. "I have a tough time in not believing in something I've seen work time and time again," Tagert said.

That said, he acknowledges the independent baseball landscape has changed since he arrived here.

"There are more 94, 95 mph arms than you could ever imagine," Tagert said, noting with that power comes a lack of command that he has a hard time accepting.

There also has been a change in players' mindset. As big-league teams increasingly look to indy ball for talent, players see the latter as more of a stepping stone than a destination.

One of the trademarks of Tagert's early RailCats teams was the core group of players who came back to Gary season after season.

Those days appear to be gone for good. It looks like the longest-tenured RailCat heading into next summer will be second baseman Will Savage. He arrived in 2018, and because of injuries, has been limited to 82 games in those two seasons.

Tagert had plenty of time to reflect on all this while driving back to his native California after the season. He also had some heart-to-heart talks with his staff.

The verdict: "Let's chalk it up to a year you just want to learn from, but we're not going to make drastic changes."

Then Tagert joked, "If we're having the same conversation a year from now, (there will) probably (be) a new manager for the RailCats."

If history is any indication, the talk around the Steel Yard will be more upbeat come next September.

Mike Clark can be reached at (219) 933-4197 or michael.clark@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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