On the cusp of the playoffs, Goldeyes pitcher Nick Hernandez has plenty to say about his team, about their hot hitting, tight pitching and vivacious camaraderie.
There's one thing Hernandez won't say: In this opening series against the Lincoln Saltdogs, the Goldeyes have the better team.
The numbers say that. The Fish finished the year atop the North Division at 63-37 while the Saltdogs clinched the Central Division at 54-46. But the playoffs are a whole different thing, Hernandez mused, as he stood for a media scrum at Shaw Park Tuesday afternoon. As far as he's concerned, the teams will meet this week with a clean slate. Zero-and-zero, with at least three games to play.
"Baseball is a weird game," said Hernandez, who was recently named the league's top pitcher. "You come in, you think you're going to win... like this year, we didn't think Amarillo was very good, and they put up 11 in the first two innings off of us in the first game of the season. It's baseball, the ball rolls differently every day. It's a round bat and a round ball and they tell you to square it up. So it's something that we'll never understand."
That said, there are a lot of things the Goldeyes pitchers definitely understand as they prepare to open the series at home tonight. They know they'll have to shut down Saltdogs first baseman Ian Gac, a fearsome hitter who's good for a home run in just about every 12 at-bats.
"We definitely can't let him beat us," Hernandez said. "If there's guys on base, you gotta try and pitch around him. You can't give him a pitch to hit."
It's not just Gac, though. In the Saltdogs order he's preceded by Matt Forgatch, who batted .253, but can commit grand theft robbery if he gets on base. And right after Gac is Brian Joynt, a tough outfielder who performs well under pressure, batting a team-high .309 with two outs and runners in scoring position. The Fish know the sting of that one-two punch: through seven games this season, Gac batted .464 with eight RBIs against the Fish, and Joynt hit .462 with four RBIs.
Hernandez has a bit of an advantage, in that he'll get to see plenty of those two before he takes the mound for Game 3 on Saturday in Lincoln. Meanwhile, fellow lefty Chris Salamida will open the series tonight, and Ethan Hollingsworth will start Thursday night. All three have a season ERA at or below 3.38, and none of them give batters much to hit. Their season walks-and-hits per innings pitched are bunched up together: Hollingsworth at 1.14, Salamida and Hernandez at 1.16.
This is the formidable trio the Goldeyes are counting on to start the playoffs off right.
"It always comes down in the post-season to who's going to pitch it the best and who's going to defend the field," manager Rick Forney said. "If you can't pitch and you can't defend the field in the post-season, then it's tough to win because you don't see many 14-12 slugfests."
Which is too bad, because the Goldeyes have the hitters to do just that if they got a chance. Though Casey Haerther had an underwhelming August, hitting .270 through the month, it speaks to his mid-season dominance that he still finished tied with shortstop Tyler Kuhn for the second-best batting average in the league at .360. If he can get back to his regular 2014 form in this series, then the Fish order will be awfully hot to handle.
Then again, everything is tighter in the playoffs for hitters and pitchers. Umpires might give a little less leeway than they would on a lazy July afternoon, Hernandez said, and every pitch has to be sound.
"In post-season play, you're not going to see a two-oh cookie fastball down the middle like you might see in a regular-season game," Hernandez said. "The pitches, everything is magnified in post-season play. Everything is taken up a notch. We're ready for that."
Now they'll have to show it, starting tonight at Shaw Park. It was Forney's call to open the series with two at home and wrap up on the road. The Goldeyes could have chosen the other way around. The Fish had a strong road record this season, but since they ended the year in Winnipeg the manager thought it would be better to aim for a strong playoff start at home.
"We're the same team at home and on the road, but we're not the same team when we get off the bus," Forney said.
And if there's one thing Forney has learned from all his years in baseball, and from the last time he led this team to a championship in 2012?
"You're not going to do anything different in the post-season than you did in the regular season," Forney said. "You don't want to try and change who you are."
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Though the rain splurged down on Tuesday's batting practice, there was a decidedly sunny mood around the Goldeyes office after general manager Andrew Collier was named the 2014 American Association executive of the year. It's not surprising, since the Fish not only topped the league attendance figures again this season, but also hosted the successful All-Star Festival at Shaw Park in late July.
Collier can just add this latest to his collection of hardware -- back when the Fish were playing in the Northern League, he won the executive of the year award six times between 2002 and 2009.