The Wingnuts return to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on Monday. All of them.
It won’t be the same team that left more than two weeks ago for a 15-game road trip that took the Wingnuts to south Texas and to Canada, but it will be the team — mostly — that is most responsible for Wichita remaining in first place after a long slump.
The Wingnuts were 30-9 when top hitters C.J. Ziegler and Jake Kahaulelio, along with reliever James Hoyt, departed for the Mexican League. Wichita went 7-19 in the first month without them before it stabilized with a 9-6 record on the trip necessitated by the National Baseball Congress World Series being played at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
Ziegler was leading the American Association in home runs when he left and Kahaulelio led in hitting, and they’ll be back in a retooled lineup that might be better than the original.
"We knew we were going to hit some rough patches, and we obviously hit a really rough patch there for about a month," Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper said. "We’ve started to play pretty well here again and gotten some new key additions along the way to help out. We kind of weathered the storm."
The Wingnuts certainly don’t want to relive perhaps their most difficult stretch in Hooper’s nearly four seasons as manager, but they come through it with an improved roster thanks to the replacements for departed players.
Catcher Jessie Mier was hyped by the organization mostly as a defensive specialist, and he has been valuable behind the plate in throwing out runners and managing pitchers. But he’s been just as important at the plate, batting .312 to give Wichita strength and the bottom of the order.
Wilberto Ortiz, acquired after his difficult year in the Atlantic League, has batted .321 with nine extra-base hits in 14 games. Greg Porter, the league MVP in 2009 with Wichita, has returned and hit two homers on the road trip. Mark Wagner was released recently after he declined to accept a complementary role, but his versatility helped during tough times.
"It’s not easy to just go out and find guys to replace those guys," Hooper said. "We tried some guys out here and there and had to have some emergency rookies on that first trip when it all started. We knew we were going to hit some rough patches, and we definitely did, but we grinded it out."
The bullpen appears just as formidable as the lineup. Hoyt was a relative unknown when he joined the Wingnuts in June, but he impressed with his fastball then had a 2.02 ERA in the Mexican League.
Josh Dew returned about a week earlier than the rest from his Mexican League stint and has reclaimed the closer spot, with Nick Walters, Jared Simon, James Baker and Edgar Martinez giving the Wingnuts a versatile group of pitchers that can be effective in most situations.
The starters have been inconsistent but Derek Blacksher and Ryan Hinson provide postseason experience in the AA and Josh Lowey might be mostly responsible for the Wingnuts remaining in first place.
While they were away, the Wingnuts raised their Central Division lead from 2 1/2 games to 3 1/2 over Kansas City. They went 9-6 on the trip, their best record yet in the annual trek, and return with arguably an improved lineup.
"I think that’s a fair argument," Hooper said. "...Pretty potent. I’m excited about it. If we can continue to pitch well, I think we should give ourselves a really, really good chance every night."