MOOSIC — Less than a month ago, the RailRiders were nine games under .500 – the worst for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre franchise since the Yankees took over in 2007.
The team was flailing in the standings a season-high 14.5 games out of first place in the International League North Division with a roster full of several newcomers.
The roster was in such limbo that the team was part of a transaction for 13 out of 14 days from June 13-25 with 29 players involved being signed, disabled, activated, called up, sent down or acquired via trade. It’s understandable that with that much movement a team could struggle.
“It’s not always easy when you have new guys popping in and out, but I think it’s been pretty easy because of the personalities that are in here,” said RailRiders catcher J.R. Murphy, who is one of those new faces after getting promoted from Double-A Trenton on June 13. “Nobody’s selfish and everybody’s just kind of a team guy. Even though everybody’s separately in their careers at different levels and different times in their careers, we’re all here for the same reason. It’s pretty easy getting along when guys are like that.”
Murphy’s advancement to Triple-A was the start of the roster reformation. And as New York was hit with more injuries that meant more turnover as outfielders Thomas Neal and Zoilo Almonte and pitcher Chris Bootcheck soon earned the call to the big leagues. That trio was all performing well at the time and a promotion was expected at some point. Neal and Bootcheck, who will represent the I.L. in the Triple-A All-Star Game, have since returned to the club.
What wasn’t expected was who took their places. Outfielder Cody Grice and infielder Dan Fiorito, who hadn’t played above Single-A in their professional careers, started to see significant playing time. While those two did execute for the most part when called upon for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, it was probably too much to ask of those youngsters.
And so other additions began. Randy Ruiz, a veteran 35-year-old slugger who had spent time with 11 other organizations, arrived on the scene, being lured away from the Mexican League. He offered much-needed protection for Dan Johnson, who was getting pitched around nearly every game. That has paid huge dividends as he’s slugged seven home runs in just 21 games prior to Saturday.
Then came veteran outfielder Corey Patterson, who signed by the Yankees after he was released by Seattle. His speed has been a big boost for the RailRiders as he’s constantly trying to reach base using his bunting skills. He’s also hit a home run and reached base in 10 of the 14 games in which he’s played and scored nine runs.
Left-handed reliever Mike Zagurski, known best for his time with Philadelphia, was signed the same day as Patterson after being released by Pittsburgh. Trades began as well with the first acquisition being reliever Yoshinori Tateyama from Texas. Outfielder Fernando Martinez, a once prized prospect in the Mets organization, was traded from Houston, and veteran infielder Brent Lillibridge was acquired from the Chicago Cubs.
Zagurski has gone 3-1 for the RailRiders, while Tateyama has added a win and whiffed nine over his eight innings of work. Martinez, who is only 24-years-old, has shown why he was a top prospect, reaching base in 15 of 17 games with the RailRiders and batting .338 with three home runs, 15 RBI and eight runs scored while playing a stellar right field.
Add in Lillibridge, who has hit five home runs in 13 games for SWB with a .333 average and the RailRiders have been streaking lately winning, 10 of 15 games to pull within 10.5 games of first-place Pawtucket.
“A lot of guys are saying that they’re the reason we’re starting to play well,” Murphy added. “Because we’ve had so many new faces so it’s fun.”
After the sluggish stretch in June, the RailRiders may have dug too deep of a hole to get out of in order to reach the playoffs. They have just 56 games remaining on the schedule and in order to reach 84 wins, which earned Pawtucket the wild card spot last year, SWB would have to go 42-14 the rest of the way.
That’s not an impossible mark to reach since more help will be on the way. The RailRiders received rehabbing Yankees Derek Jeter and Michael Pineda on Saturday. It’s possible they get other rehabbing stars such as Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson. When those assignments conclude that means moves will have to be made in New York and that likely means additions to the roster from a Yankees team that is starting to get hot.
All that could be the perfect recipe to get the RailRiders on the playoff track.