In 2012, the Wingnuts were decimated by injuries and player promotions, using 52 players and limping toward the postseason after a dominating start.
They looked everywhere for a player who could help recapture the early-season enthusiasm. Wichita finally found it in Steve Stanley, who hit .429 in nine games down the stretch then had eight hits in the playoffs.
Stanley wasn’t the first – and is far from the last – late-season addition to boost the Wingnuts. In most seasons, they’ve added at least one player who gave them energy in the final games, then provided key postseason hits.
A recent example is Nick Van Stratten, who has been added the last two Augusts after playing the rest of the year in the Mexican League. Van Stratten has batted .381 in two stints with the Wingnuts, including the playoffs, and went 7 for 17 in a first-round series win over Sioux City.
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The Wingnuts begin the American Association best-of-five championship series Wednesday in Winnipeg. The series returns to Wichita for Game 3, then Games 4 and 5 if necessary.
“As a GM or a manager, if an absolute no-brainer opportunity comes along and you can make it work, you always have to try to better yourself,” Wingnuts general manager Josh Robertson said. “But I tend to stay on the side of sticking with the guys who got me there.”
Team needs have spawned most late-season moves, but sometimes players who are too difficult to pass up become available. Van Stratten was arguably the league’s best player when he joined the Wingnuts last year; if it wasn’t Van Stratten, it was Brent Clevlen, who hit .444 after he returned from the Mexican League.
The Wingnuts rarely shy away from potential improvements even when their postseason destiny is sealed, but circumstances sometimes create an unforeseen opening.
In 2014, when the Wingnuts set the since-broken league wins record by finishing 73-27 on the way to their only championship, second baseman Jake Kahaulelio suffered a season-ending injury late in the year.
Wichita replaced him with Abel Nieves, who hit .558 in 13 regular-season games and went 11 for 26 in the playoffs. Also that season, the Wingnuts acquired Jake Luce, who hit .341 in 123 at-bats.
“When the Mexican League ends a month before ours does and those guys still want to play,” Robertson said, “and we have the opportunity because of an injury or a signing, or we’ve got money on the salary cap to bring some impact guys like that in, then it’s a no-brainer decision.”
Familiarity has also bred the Wingnuts’ impact acquisitions. Carlos Rivera, a former major-league first baseman, joined Wichita after playing in the Mexican League in 2010 and 2011 and batted better than .370 each year.
Clevlen has played for the Wingnuts at least part of every season since 2011, and Wichita traded for former Wingnuts Greg Porter and Nieves for stretch runs in 2012 and 2014.
A group of 13 players the Wingnuts have added late in the season since 2010 have combined to hit .330 in 1100 regular-season at-bats and .339 in the postseason.
“The playoffs are never guaranteed,” Robertson said. “The way our league operates, we can’t pay Nick Van Stratten $15,000 a month. We can’t pay Carlos Rivera $15,000 a month like Mexico can. Those guys are playing baseball for their livelihood.”
Wingnuts at Winnipeg
- When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
- What: American Association championship series, best-of-five, Game 1
- Radio: KGSO, 1410-AM