As manager Bobby Mitchell sat on the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders team bus late Saturday, traveling to Pawtucket, R.I., he pondered his team’s future.
The RailRiders were guaranteed at least two more games. And both were against the Red Sox, the very same team they just split a two-game series with at PNC Field. Not to mention, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre was coming off a 3-0 loss.
But all of that didn’t matter.
Mitchell and his team set off for Pawtucket atop the International League Wild Card standings by mere winning-percentage points. With a win Sunday and a few games falling their way, the RailRiders could punch their ticket to the IL playoffs for the fourth straight season.
Sure enough, the Toledo Mud Hens routed the Columbus Clippers. Check. The Louisville Bats edged the Indianapolis Indians. Check.
Then, thanks to a Wilkin Castillo two-out, two-run fifth-inning triple, the RailRiders edged Pawtucket, 3-2, and minutes later were popping champagne bottles in the visitor’s clubhouse of McCoy Stadium.
“I give a lot of credit to the staff and the team — staying focused,” Mitchell told the Times Leader in a phone interview after Sunday’s win. “It went down to the wire. Nobody was sure. But when we left Scranton to come here, we were like, ‘OK, we have a good shot. All we have to do is take care of business and we’ll win.’ It’s fun and it’s fun to see the guys have a great time and to experience it.”
The 2018 campaign has been a trying one for the RailRiders.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre entered June with a 24-28 record and has already made 273 roster moves. Once the outrighted Ryan Bollinger and Shane Robinson report to Triple-A and the team makes its corresponding moves, that number will go to 277.
But despite all the uncertainty, Mitchell has kept his players focused. As a result, the RailRiders won six of their final eight games, including Monday’s 5-1 triumph.
“It’s a culmination of a lot of work that we’ve done,” Mitchell said. “The staff that I’ve had here is outstanding. They’ve done a fantastic job with all the changes and everything, just keeping people focused. It’s fun. It never gets old, celebrating like this.
“Obviously, we went through some changes, a lot of changes, but never losing the confidence in the guys that were here. Had some leadership guys that stepped up. That’s what you need to win.”
The turning point
Sunday’s game was on the brink of getting out of hand for the RailRiders.
Pawtucket had already put up a pair of runs in the bottom of the fourth when Mitchell pulled Adonis Rosa in favor of Justus Sheffield with two outs and two men on.
It was the first time this season Sheffield entered a game in the middle of an inning. And it was a big spot.
The talented left-hander got Pawtucket right fielder Cole Sturgeon into a 1-1 count. Sturgeon got a hold of Sheffield’s next pitch and sliced it down the third-base line.
If it weren’t for an impressive pick by third baseman Bruce Caldwell to get the RailRiders out of the inning, Sturgeon would have driven in one, if not two runs. But instead, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre trailed only 2-0 after four innings.
“That’s the kind of stuff that he needs to experience,” Mitchell said of Sheffield. “If he’s going to go up and help the big-league club this year, which we hope, that’s the kind of stuff that he needs to experience more, and more, and more and more, so that he can go up there and feel comfortable doing it. I thought he did a fantastic job. He really did. He threw some sliders to some lefties that were nasty. I mean really, really good pitches and that’s the kind of stuff he can build on.”
Meanwhile, Pawtucket starter Josh A. Smith was perfect through the first 4.1 innings, sporting a 2-0 lead.
Then Zack Zehner made it to first base after striking out on a wild pitch. One thing led to another and Devyn Bolasky drove Zehner home with a two-out double to right field.
With two men on and two outs, Wilkin Castillo walked up to the plate. Castillo, who hadn’t registered a hit since Aug. 23, could flip the game on its head with one swing of the bat. And that’s exactly what he did.
The RailRiders catcher drove a Smith delivery to right field and Sturgeon lost the ball in the sky. The fly ball dropped 10-plus feet behind the right fielder, allowing Castillo to get to third base and drive in both Caldwell, who singled earlier in the inning, and Bolasky.
Just like that, the RailRiders led 3-2 and that’s all they would need.
“It’s really interesting how that happens,” Mitchell said. “All of the sudden we get a baserunner. Then, all of the sudden we get a hit and then all of the sudden it’s another hit and then all of the sudden the guy loses the ball in the air, in the sky, which was completely a divine intervention and that’s all we got, you know? That’s all we needed because Rosa did a very good job.”
Sheffield had struggled early on during his transition to the bullpen, full-time.
The lefty gave up a pair of runs on five hits in four innings of work over his first two relief appearances, on Aug. 21 and 25. He blew saves in both.
But lately, Sheffield has been spot-on. He didn’t give up a hit in either of his last two outings, and struck out four batters in 2.1 innings of work Sunday.
Most impressive, Sheffield hasn’t walked a batter in his new role. In Sunday’s win, his first as a reliever, 17 of the 25 pitches he threw were strikes.
“His stuff is outstanding and when he’s throwing them for strikes, he’s going to get outs and he’s not going to walk guys and get in trouble,” Mitchell said. “Like we talked about the other day, even if he gives up a hit, if he doesn’t walk guys, he’s going to get the other guys out. So it’s not a big deal.”
While Sheffield admits there’s still some growing to do as a reliever, he believes he can help the New York Yankees once they call for him.
“Once I finally get it down pat then I think I’ll be full-go,” Sheffield said after his Aug. 30 appearance. “I really do think that I can come out of the pen and bring some value. Once I’m able to finally make the official transition, then I think I can do what I need to do.”
Reach DJ Eberle at 570-991-6398 or on Twitter @ByDJEberle