Kevin Hooper understands the unpredictability of a postseason, and that’s why the Wingnuts manager hasn’t been preaching all season about his desire to win a championship.
That goal is certainly forefront in Hooper’s mind — he’s taken the Wingnuts to the playoffs twice previously with not even a series win to show for it — but it has scarcely been a stated goal because postseasons rarely unfold as expected.
The Wingnuts open the first round of the American Association playoffs Wednesday night in Laredo, where they’ll play Game 2 of the best-of-five series on Thursday. The series moves to Wichita for Game 3 on Friday and Games 4 and 5 the following nights if necessary.
Wichita is trying to erase the sting of a pair of playoff letdowns in years it was the favorite to win championships. Since favorites don’t always meet expectations, Hooper tempers expectations during the regular season.
“I don’t talk about championships, I talk about making the playoffs because you can’t win one unless you get there,” Hooper said. “We’ve gotten there, we’ve put ourselves in the situation. …This is when it’s fun. This is the time we’re just going to go out and have a good time. You let the cards fall where they’ll fall .”
Hooper and the Wingnuts are allowing themselves to utter “championship” now, but that urgency falls well behind the desire to win the game in front of them. The Wingnuts, who set a franchise wins record by going 59-41, can grab a major advantage by winning one of the first two games on the road.
Last season, the Wingnuts lost two one-run games at Grand Prairie but maintained homefield advantage. They won Game 3 but lost another one-run contest that eliminated them. In 2009, the Wingnuts fell to Lincoln despite a league-best 58-38 regular-season record.
“This is our third time and we haven’t made the championship round,” Hooper said. “We’ve been so close, too. I say it a lot at this time of the year — the ball has to bounce your way sometimes. The best team doesn’t always win these things. In the case of ’09, we had a great squad, and even last year I think we had the best talent in the league. We just didn’t get it done.”
Much like last season, when Grand Prairie won nine of its final 12 regular-season games before eliminating Wichita, the Wingnuts are facing perhaps the league’s hottest team.
Laredo trailed Grand Prairie by 12 games with about a month left in the season, but a Grand Prairie collapse combined with Laredo’s 21-win August, has put the Lemurs in the postseason. Former Wingnuts Jimmy Mojica and Stephen Pearson play for the expansion franchise, which owes its recent success to strong pitching.
“I don’t think (the matchup) is any different, no matter how they’ve been playing,” Hooper said. “I know momentum is big going into these things. But if we play our game and have a gameplan — and we’re going to be as prepared as we can possibly be — then we just throw the cards out there and hope for the best.”
After clinching the Central Division on Aug. 27, the Wingnuts celebrated with champagne deep into the night, a party that may have upstaged a now-familiar accomplishment.
The Wingnuts might have a difficult time outdoing that celebration, but given the opportunity they’d like to try.
“That’s just a piece of the puzzle, that’s just the first step, is making it,” Hooper said. “There’s bigger things on all these guys’ minds. They’re focused. They’re ready.”