As far as two words can summarize an entire baseball season, one which ended for the Winnipeg Goldeyes on Monday night, it could be these: "not quite."
The Goldeyes didn't quite make the post-season, being mathematically eliminated Saturday when the Gary-SouthShore RailCats clinched the wild-card playoff spot. They didn't quite climb out of their mid-season funk when they had to, though they did get blazing hot when the pressure was really on. But maybe if they hadn't let the RailCats sweep them in July... oh well. So close, almost there, not quite.
"We left so much on the table this year," manager Rick Forney said on Monday, before prepping his club for their final game against the visiting Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks. "We had a chance, we just couldn't get ourselves right in June. We had a good club. I really feel like if we got into the playoffs, we got the pitching, that we probably could win this thing. We're a better team right now than we were last year, going into the playoffs."
'I really feel like if we got into the playoffs, we got the pitching, that we probably could win this thing'
It seems so strange to pen the obituary while the dearly departed feels so very much alive. The Fish started on a record-breaking eight-game win streak before slumping through June, but they closed their season on a mission: last month, they won 19 games and only dropped 10. When the pressure was really cooking in August's penultimate week, they hammered out a six-game win streak and posted three shutouts in a row.
On Saturday, even as their playoff hopes slipped away, they pummelled the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks 9-0, the first time they'd bested those old rivals all year. So on Monday, it all seemed a little surreal that the end was already there.
"It's really bitter that you have to leave. Right when they said Gary won that last game it was just like, 'ahhh, okay,' " outfielder Ryan Scoma said, his voice slipping into an exhale of disappointment.
Still, for a fresh squad, the finish -- the fourth-best win percentage in the league at .560 -- isn't bad. When the Goldeyes hoisted the championship trophy last year, rebuilding was already on manager Rick Forney's mind: he knew he'd lose a lot of guys to retirement, or to fulfilling trade promises. When the Goldeyes started 2013, only six guys from that team were on the roster; on Monday there were seven, and that's just because infielder Yurendell de Caster and pitcher Chris Salamida came back to help the team push down the stretch.
So instead of a settled core, Forney got to see a bunch of new guys. Many of them soared: de Caster's cousin Kevin Moesquit brought a lot, Forney said. Former Kansas City T-Bone Ray Sadler finished off his season by being named the American Association's batter of the week, after he hit .478 in six games with three homers and eight RBI. Going into the final game he'd hit 21 home runs in total, more than all but two batters in the league this year.
Prior to Monday night's finale Scoma, picked up in a trade from the Rockland Boulders, had posted the third-best batting average in the league with .343 and came in second in on-base percentage with .445. He's headed back to his home just south of San Francisco now, to coach teenage hopefuls and train his mind and body to do even better next year. Definitely, he said without hesitation, he'd want to come back.
"That comes up to the organization, and we'll see what happens," he said. "I knew from reputation that (Winnipeg) was going to be a good city to play, and good fans, and it lived up to that reputation. I had a really good time here, and hopefully it's not over."
Then there was Salamida, who was going to become a fireman back home in New York, but came back to the Goldeyes in late July and hurled out a fantastic show, going 7-1 with two shutouts and a beautiful 2.22 ERA in nine games. More than that: the 29-year-old's return seemed to spark the clubhouse, as several players and coaches pointed to his return as bringing an infectious spirit to the field.
"I'm just playing with a fire under my butt, that's all it was," he said. "I played with a vengeance... I guess it is kind of contagious in a way, one person is doing this, so another person wants to follow their lead. Especially in a starting rotation, if one person does well, another person wants to one-up them, which helps everyone along the way."
Now, Salamida might go and play winter ball in Australia, and he hasn't ruled out returning to Winnipeg after that. Heck, some teammates are working to convince him to return. "That'd be one of the goals," catcher Luis Alen joked on Sunday, himself hoping to be back behind the plate at Shaw Park in May. "I know I can swim into his head a little bit, so I'll try to get him back."
That job will ultimately fall to Forney, of course, who must now sift through his roster and decide where he needs to tweak. It's not out of the question, he said, that he might look for a dozen to return to next year's training camp. Not that this means they'll have a free pass, of course.
"You have to bring new talent to the league," he said, and word-of-mouth about Winnipeg as a "big-league minor-league city" makes that job a little easier.
"They understand what's expected of them here, and I'll bring enough competition to camp where they'll see who I'm signing throughout the off-season. By March... they'll know they need to get ready to go, because somebody's going to be standing there waiting to take their job."