To say that the Wingnuts and Gary SouthShore reached the American Association championship series via different paths implies they traveled on the same surface.
Wichita took an airplane, arriving in the postseason with nine regular-season games to play, nearly breaking the sound barrier with a league-best 107 home runs that included C.J. Ziegler’s league-record 30 blasts.
The Railcats took a stroll that kept them well behind the Wingnuts in the Central Division — 9 ½ games by season’s end — but that reached the same destination. Gary hit 20 homers as a team, relying instead on pesky hitters who extend at-bats and possess gap power at best.
The championship series may suggest that it doesn’t matter how a team gets there, but the Wingnuts plan on making it matter. Wichita, which led the league in stolen bases and on-base percentage, can play small-ball with the best of them, and its power-speed combination is unmatched by Gary or any other team.
“A lot of differences,” Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper said. “They are, top-to-bottom through the lineup, guys who can do different things. They don’t rely on the long ball a whole lot. They’re going station-to-station a lot. They’ve got a lot of guys who can bunt, a lot of guys who can run, they’ll hit-and-run a lot. Just a lot of guys who put the ball in play and put a lot of pressure on the defense.”
Gary was third in the American Association in walks despite a lineup that features essentially no batters who intimidate opposing pitchers. Christian Guerrero is tied for the team lead with five homers, but he’s batting .233 with a 27-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio that doesn’t necessarily embody the traits Gary values.
Leading hitter Brian Kolb batted .311 with no home runs, matching three other players who got 90 or more at-bats for the Railcats this season.
The player who best personifies Gary’s style is outfielder Mike Massaro, who led the league with 17 triples while hitting 20 doubles with 46 walks, 60 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. Adam Klein also fits the mold with 21 stolen bases and 71 walks, both team-leading totals.
“The main thing you want to see is guys throwing strike one,” Hooper said of the Wingnuts’ pitchers’ approach against Gary. “They’re going to take a lot of pitches, so getting ahead in the count, making them put the ball in play and not giving them any free passes. That’s how they’re going to beat you – if you give these guys free passes and they continue to get guys on base, they’re going to get runs and make things happen any way they can.”
Another part of that approach is to stick with the game plan against each individual hitter. Since Gary doesn’t plan for a game-breaking home run, the goal of many of its hitters is often to slap the ball to the opposite field. That can produce numerous foul balls that extend at-bats and fluster the pitcher.
The key, then, is to work Gary’s hitters carefully but aggressively, worrying neither about a mistake pitch that probably won’t turn into a home run or about an elevated pitch count due to the Railcats’ patience.
“They’ll drive you crazy if you let them drive you crazy,” Hooper said. “They’re nobody different. They’ve got a different uniform on and we’ll treat them that way. We go about our business the way we’ve gone about our business. If you let them frustrate you, they’re going frustrate you. The main key is going at them, throwing strike one, and play our game.”
Those specialties from Gary might not even be advantages, because the Wingnuts lead them in walks, runs, stolen bases and on-base percentage. Wichita’s propensity for home runs doesn’t make it one-dimensional, and with a statistically better pitching staff, it’s difficult to see where the Wingnuts may come up short.
“We’re similar in that aspect, where we really like to run also,” Hooper said. “I like to put guys in motion, too. We’re different, and the big-time difference is the power we’ve got in the middle of the lineup.”