Wednesday marks the start of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders’ second season. When the games really start to count.
A best-five-series against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the team that just swept the RailRiders to end the regular season, is just the first step in a 15-day journey toward a berth in the Triple-A National Championship Game on Sept. 19 at PNC Field.
After playing the first two games in Allentown on Wednesday and Thursday, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre will return home to finish out the first-round series Friday, with potential games on Saturday and Sunday.
“We have all of the makings of a championship team again,” RailRiders outfielder Jake Cave said. “We’ll see what happens.”
The RailRiders’ pitching staff and lineup looks much different than they did in the regular-season home finale on Aug. 31.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre has since lost Tyler Wade, Tyler Austin, Ben Heller, Gio Gallegos, Jordan Montgomery, Bryan Mitchell and Caleb Smith to New York. Yankees designated hitter Matt Holiday left for the Bronx, too.
But that doesn’t mean that the RailRiders’ cupboards are empty.
Offensively, the Yankees’ best farmhand, Miguel Andujar, is still batting cleanup on a daily basis. For now.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi did tell reporters on Tuesday that Andujar will be promoted at some point this month, but he still remains the RailRiders’ hottest bat.
The outfield is loaded with talent. Cave and Billy McKinney sport plus-.300 batting averages since their respective mid-season promotions.
While the RailRiders lost one productive first baseman in Austin, the move cleared some additional playing room for Ji-Man Choi, who ranks in the top 20 in both RBI — ninth — and home runs — tied for 18th.
“It’s kind of what I do. Our lineup, as you see can here, can be anybody hitting anywhere,” RailRiders hitting coach P.J. Pilittere said. “Donovan Solano can be hitting second or sixth; or Miggy can be hitting two, three, four; or Jake can be hitting leadoff or seventh or fourth. It’s just something I try to preach to these guys every day — I don’t care where you’re hitting in the lineup. Take your at-bat.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re leading off (or) batting fourth, I don’t expect you to be anybody different. I want you to have your at-bat. Whatever you can do to have a quality at-bat, you do that.”
From Pilittere’s point of view, Andujar has had one of the RailRiders’ most impressive bats this season.
The 22-year-old third baseman has hit safely 38 of his last 44 games. Andujar also has the Yankees farm’s best season-long batting average at .317, and his 82 RBI rank second and his 16 home runs are in a tie for fourth.
While Pilittere still thought Andujar was a “great player” last summer, he’s seen the right-handed batter’s play at the plate grow by leaps and bounds this season. His pitch selection, strike zone discipline, approach, ability to repeat his mechanics, “the control of the effort of his swing” and his ability to figure out how other teams are trying to attack him and make adjustments have all improved.
“It’s been really, really cool to be around somebody that’s 22 that can make those adjustments. I mean, there’s guys who go there whole career and can’t make adjustments like that,” Pilittere said. “It just shows you the kind of special talent we’re dealing with and we’re fortunate to have here.”
While the losses of Montgomery, Mitchell, Heller and Gallegos put a dent into the the pitching staff, Domingo German, Chance Adams, Nick Rumbelow, Joe Mantiply and Nestor Cortes have more than enough talent to pick up the pieces.
The RailRiders still sport the International League’s best ERA and defensive specialist Eddy Rodriguez is still behind the plate.
German will start Game 1, followed by Adams, Brady Lail, Cortes and Ronald Herrera.
Battling Hurricane Harvey
The RailRiders announced on Wednesday that the team will donate $1 from every playoff ticket sold toward the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.
“The devastation that Hurricane Harvey has brought to the people in Texas is heartbreaking,” RailRiders president/COO Josh Olerud said in a press release. “We want to help support the rescue and recovery efforts in whatever way we can.”