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Fireworks just getting started

Fish head into AA playoffs in high spirits

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The American Association's pitcher of the year for 2014 -- Winnipeg Goldeyes lefty Nick Hernandez -- throws against the Gary SouthShore RailCats at Shaw Park Monday night in the regular-season finale.

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The American Association's pitcher of the year for 2014 -- Winnipeg Goldeyes lefty Nick Hernandez -- throws against the Gary SouthShore RailCats at Shaw Park Monday night in the regular-season finale. Photo Store

The fireworks splattered the sky over Shaw Park on Monday night, painting the end of the Winnipeg Goldeyes' final regular-season game in green and red and white.

Yeah, maybe those streaks of light were prettier than the match, a slow and anticlimactic 5-4 loss to the Gary SouthShore RailCats. In time though, few will really remember the specifics, not after a season in which the Goldeyes collected 63 wins. No Fish team has ever recorded more in a single summer. Besides, with the regular-season campaign now in the rear-view mirror, Monday night's tilt just didn't really matter.

It didn't matter for the Goldeyes, their muscles already twitching to swing at the post-season. It didn't matter for the RailCats, whose playoff hopes were snuffed in a damp 18-5 Goldeyes win just 24 hours before. Still, after wrapping up their workout before Monday night's game, some Fish players sang a familiar refrain: Time to go out and have fun, they said. Play with pride. Finish strong.

'Best group we've ever had here, and I've been here a long time...

We got a special group, and something special could happen'

-- Goldeyes manager Rick Forney

At first it looked like they might do just that, as Shaw Park came alive. After a scattered turnout on a grey Sunday night, a jam-packed crowd of 7,345 streamed into the stands. The Fish gave them a few big pops to start the show: Casey Haerther cracked the scoreboard in the bottom of the second, with a walloping solo homer. Reggie Abercrombie served up his own solo shot three innings later, his 19th home run of the year.

Infielder Jake Blackwood drove in two more runs in the bottom of the fifth. But as manager Rick Forney emptied the bullpen late in the game, the RailCats found a way to scratch back: After getting on board with one run in the fifth, they snagged two runs in the seventh, two more in the eighth to take the narrow lead. The Goldeyes couldn't respond, and that was that. Time for a speech from GM Andrew Collier, and for standing ovations. Time to look ahead.

"I think the secret to our success is the great individuals," Forney said, as his players gleefully snapped a group selfie by the dugout. The crowd, almost all still in their seats, applauded warmly. "Best group we've ever had here, and I've been here a long time... We got a special group, and something special could happen." And for some of those players, it was the last regular-season tilt they'll play in Goldeyes colours. Or ever.

"I was saying to (reliever Brendan) Lafferty today, I can't believe it's already here," pitcher Chris Kissock said, after the Monday workout and before his final regular-season game as a professional ballplayer. "Me and Laff just threw for the last time. We've been throwing together since Day 1, when we both got here last year."

Soon, Kissock will head home to Trail, B.C. He'll hang up his glove and pick up a trade, settle down with his wife and infant son. He did the grind: Eight pro seasons, six of them with the Philadelphia Phillies organization, two right here. He left a mark out of the bullpen with the Fish, and played in the all-star game this year. That's a fine way to go out, he nodded, but it's not over. There's still a championship to get. "We can do it all," Kissock said.

Not many around the league would disagree. The Fish were well-represented when the American Association released its 2014 awards on Monday afternoon, with all-star nods to first baseman Casey Haerther and shortstop Tyler Kuhn, who finished the season tied for second in the league batting average rankings, both at .360. Before the first pitch flew at Shaw Park, Kuhn was awarded a new piece of hardware, the Goldeyes player of the year award.

"I've been fortunate to have a good year," Kuhn said, a gracious summary of his remarkably consistent figures.

There was more. The league also named starter Nick Hernandez its pitcher of the year, a heady honour for a 26-year-old newcomer who shook off a lacklustre start to become one of the most dominant hurlers down the stretch. The last Fish pitcher to earn that title was Ace Walker, who was named the Northern League's best in 2009. That was the same year that Walker collected 12 wins, a feat not repeated by a Goldeyes starter until Hernandez hurled his 12th win on Aug. 28.

He opened the game on Monday night, but didn't stay for long, throwing two hitless innings before leaving the mound. They want him fresh, when he brings his 3.06 ERA to Game 3 of the first round, against Lincoln on Saturday.

Now, Hernandez and the rest of this band of brothers has one last big task ahead: Go out, and spin this party out a little longer, and try to bring the second championship in three seasons back to Winnipeg. They are formidable, though not invincible. But they believe that they can win. "We could tell right away, after a couple of workouts and a couple of games in Amarillo, that we could be something special," Kuhn said.

"We saw it early. Which is rare."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 2, 2014 D3

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