Wichita Wingnuts

First place good fit for Wingnuts

The Wingnuts spent the better part of three months chasing Gary Southshore for first place in the American Association Central.

Wichita proved to play the underdog role well, catching Gary just in time. With eight games remaining and the Wingnuts in first place by one game after a weekend sweep of the RailCats, they're suddenly the frontrunners.

So how will their new standing change their mentality? Not by much.

"We just keep rolling," Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper said. "We've got a chance, with Amarillo then going to El Paso, which isn't going to be easy. Two good offensive teams. Can't take anybody for granted. We've got to keep playing like we played (last) weekend."

Wichita's vault into first place is the culmination of 90-plus games and a multitude of roster moves, some more important than others.

The three that are perhaps most responsible for the Wingnuts' current position are the trade of outfielder Ryan Patterson for right-handed starter Derek Blacksher, the signing of outfielder Mitch Einertson, and the decision to keep Mike Conroy over Jorge Cortes when the team was forced to release a veteran outfielder.

Blacksher hasn't matched the production of Patterson since the trade, but he stabilized the pitching staff and has turned in several quality starts.

Einertson had two key homers in the series with Gary, his second since joining the team a week ago, and Conroy has been the team's emotional leader while providing above-average hitting and defense.

Those moves have the Wingnuts on the doorstep of their second postseason appearance in four seasons, but they're not allowing themselves to think ahead just yet.

"It's pitch-by-pitch," Conroy said. "People get ahead of themselves and assume they're going to make the playoffs, but baseball is a crazy game. You've got to focus on pitch-by-pitch, not game by game."

If the Wingnuts do enter the playoffs, they'll likely do so on somewhat of a hot streak, since they'll likely need to play well to hold onto their one-game lead over the last eight days.

That momentum could be important. Wichita is slated to start the playoffs on the road at Grand Prairie (Texas), which has clinched the South Division, because the Wingnuts end the season in El Paso and the travel is easier.

Playing the first two games of the best-of-5 series away from home may not be as daunting if Wichita starts the series on a winning streak. The late-season games could also have a postseason feel.

"You want to be playing good baseball going into the playoffs," Conroy said. "Grand Prairie has already clinched, but we're playing hard every game. Right now, we have the pressure. It's a crucial situation and every game means something. Other teams are going to coast into the playoffs, but we don't have that feeling. Every game is a playoff game."