The Wingnuts signed autographs for fans for about half an hour after beating Kansas City 5-4 Monday afternoon at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in the regular-season finale.
Now the Wingnuts begin trying to make their signatures worth a little extra.
After extending the American Association record to 68 wins on Monday, Wichita can finally become completely focused on the real goal – winning the league championship for the first time in its four playoff appearances.
The postseason begins for the Wingnuts on Wednesday night in Grand Prairie for Game 1 of a best-of-five series against the South division champion. The series comes to Wichita for Game 3 and the final two if-necessary games.
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Wichita enters the playoffs on a three-game winning streak after sweeping Kansas City. The Wingnuts have won seven of eight and nine of 11.
“You don’t ever want to just take it easy,” said Wingnuts second baseman Jake Kahaulelio, who had four hits Monday. “Once you take it easy, you lose your focus. I think we just keep it rolling into the playoffs. Day 1, it starts. It’s never a good idea to take it easy, because once the playoffs start, anything can happen.”
The Wingnuts clinched the Central division with nine games to play, and spent the rest of the season stressing the importance of continuing to play at a high level. That allowed Wichita’s players to pursue individual milestones while the team chased the wins record.
C.J. Ziegler finished in the league lead in home runs (30) and RBIs (98), the former a league record and an RBI total five away from the league mark. Abel Nieves needed a hit Monday to secure the batting crown, and he got two to finish the season with a .357 average.
Nieves follows current Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper (2008), Greg Porter (’09) and Kahaulelio (’11) as Wichita players to lead the lead in hitting. Kahaulelio might have wanted a few more games to attempt to catch Nieves, as his four hits Monday took him to .322 after hitting .372 a year ago.
The chase of records indirectly kept the Wingnuts aggressive, and with nothing to play for from a standings standpoint over the last two weeks, those individual goals have helped the collective effort.
“I knew, once we clinched with nine (games) left, that we weren’t going to change things,” Hooper said. “I told them that – we’re not going on vacation over nine days. Our main focus is on what’s about to happen, and I think we’re excited and focused and ready to go.”
What’s about to happen is a trip to Grand Prairie for two games. The Wingnuts are 4-13 in the Dallas suburb, including three losses in a row there earlier this season. In 2010, the Wingnuts lost the first two games of the playoffs in Grand Prairie before losing Game 4 and the series in Wichita.
Just like the playoffs reset the season, Hooper believes they also erase history, no matter how telling, between two clubs.
“I could care less what we’ve done in the past,” Hooper said. “That’s over with. We’re going to be focused. We’ve been waiting to get this day over with here for a while, with nine (games) left. It’s tough to keep guys motivated with really nothing to play for. We stayed healthy, and I think we’re going to be a focused group.”
Those individual and team records will make for a nice yearly wrap-up once the 2014 season begins, and the Wingnuts aren’t losing sight of that. They know, however, that any recap of the season will be incomplete if it doesn’t end with a championship.
Wichita spent much of the last two weeks playing playoff-style games like the one on Sunday, where the tying run was on second in the ninth inning and Andrew Aizenstadt had to pitch out of a jam.
It’s situations like those, and the success they’ve had in them, that the Wingnuts will call upon as the games become much more important on Wednesday.
“It’s huge having our pitching staff pick us up when we’re not hitting,” Kahaulelio said. “We’ve been bad in Grand Prairie and we need to step it up. We need to bear down and score runs. If we put five or six runs on the board, our staff is good enough where that should be just enough, no problem.”