‘Where the real, real fun happens’
Goldeyes in fine form as American Association playoffs commence
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It appeared business as usual at batting practice, but the Goldeyes had turned the page from the regular season and were finally gearing up for playoff baseball.
September baseball is back in Manitoba’s capital for the first time since 2017 when Winnipeg won the North Division en route to their second-straight American Association championship and fourth overall.
The Fish enter this year’s fall dance as the third seed in the West Division and will be tasked with winning seven games — three series — over the next few weeks to add another championship flag in the outfield.
“This is where the real, real fun happens,” said Reggie Pruitt Jr., Goldeyes outfielder.
“The (regular) season is fun because we’re all grinding together and we’re all trying to accomplish one goal, win games, everybody’s trying to get better. But now, it’s not necessarily about the numbers or about the individual, it’s just about which team can keep going.”
The quest will start Wednesday night at Shaw Park against the second-seed Fargo Moorhead Redhawks, who fell to the defending champion Kansas City Monarchs on Monday, to decide who would capture the West crown.
Due to the league’s new playoff format, the Monarchs were awarded the luxury of choosing which team they would face in the first round. They selected the fourth-seed Lincoln Saltdogs over the Goldeyes, likely, in part, to the taxing 13-hour drive it takes to get to Manitoba’s capital.
The first-round series will be a best-of-three sprint to see who moves on to play the Monarchs or Saltdogs. Given the Goldeyes will head to Fargo for games two and three, the opener in downtown Winnipeg becomes that much more important.
“It’s the best feeling ever going into this, especially with the team we have,” Pruitt Jr. said. “Right now, the vibes are good, man. They’re right where they’re supposed to be for where we want to go, for sure.”
The Fish will have their work cut out for them against the Redhawks, who lead the season series 7-5, capturing three of four series. Fargo-Moorhead also outscored Winnipeg 74-65 in those contests.
The series, while it is expected to feature some excellent arm talent on the mound, is even more likely to show a lot of offence. Both teams boasted similar offensive outputs this season, the Goldeyes churning 5.87 runs per game (tied third-most) while the Redhawks carved 5.85 runs per game (fourth-most).
Winnipeg has shown more power than the visitor this season, finishing second in the league with 136 home runs to Fargo-Moorhead’s 115. Max Murphy (31) and David Washington (30) largely contributed to the Fish’s moon-shots, becoming the first teammates in league history to reach the 30 home run mark.
“Offensively, it boils down to whichever team is going to create the most stressful innings for the starting pitcher… whichever team’s gonna get hits with two out and men in scoring position,” said Rick Forney, in his 17th season as the Goldeyes skipper.
“Obviously, you’re going to have to pitch pretty well and play really good defence. If you’re not fundamentally sound, you’re not going to get to this point anyway. But sometimes, a mistake here or there on defence and you can get exploited this time of year.”
Goldeyes’ ace Luis Ramirez will toe the rubber Wednesday night against a team he’s already faced three times this season. In 16 innings of work, he’s conceded 15 hits, nine earned runs and seven walks.
It’s safe to assume he’s hoping he saved his best performance for last.
On the other side, the Redhawks will put Kevin McGovern on the mound. McGovern, who helped the Fish win back-to-back titles in ’16 and ’17, hasn’t fared too well against his former club this season.
In three starts, he holds a 7.71 ERA, allowing 14 hits, 12 earned runs and eight walks in 14 innings of work.
“You either have good at-bats or you have bad at-bats… he’s not unbeatable,” Forney said.
“He lost some games while he pitched for us, he’s lost some games while he’s pitched for Fargo and we’ve had (three) pretty good games against him this year.”
Max Murphy, who has enjoyed a stellar campaign, capped by a nod to the American Association post-season all-star team, announced on Tuesday, has done some damage to the Redhawks this season, to the tune of 16 hits, 13 RBI and six home runs.
“They have good pitching. But, compared to Kansas City, Fargo likes to throw more balls in the zone, so I think they’re a little bit easier to hit against,” he said.
“I think we want to try getting in (McGovern’s) head a little bit, like he gets pretty rattled up there on the mound when things aren’t going how he wants. He doesn’t hold runners well, so if we can make some havoc on the bases, and that starts to get in his head once that stuff starts happening.”
Other Goldeyes named to the all-star team are shortstop Raul Navarro and first baseman David Washington.
Players, and fans alike, will search for any advantage their team has during the most critical time of the year. Winnipeg will look to capitalize on a potentially tired Fargo-Moorhead team, which is extending a seven-game road trip to end the regular season. After stops in Sioux City and Kansas City, the Redhawks have made the long trip north of the border to face a Goldeyes team that enjoyed a seven-game homestand to end the campaign.
“Yeah, 100 per cent, there’s definitely an advantage,” Pruitt Jr. said.
“I wouldn’t speak for everybody else but I feel like most guys would say that. They’re playing in their home park that they’re most comfortable, like not having to go out of your routine just because you’re at a different place you stick to the routine that you do pretty much every day during the season.”
Staying the course is paramount this time of year, Forney preached. It will be up to veterans like Max Murphy (won 2019 AA championship with St. Pauls) and Washington (won 2020 AA championship with Milwaukee) to set the tone in the high-stakes games.
“Having some post-season experience on the roster certainly helps,” Forney said about Murphy and Washington. “I mean, believe me, there are guys that get nervous and get a little worked up and put a little more into it than they probably should. But at the end of the day, they need to realize it’s the same game that we’re playing (tonight) that we played 100 times this year.”
“If your team can relax early then you can have some success.”
Seven games away from glory, the Goldeyes enter this series as the clear underdog to a team that finished 11 games ahead of them in the standings, and will once again be pups in the second round should they take on the Monarchs, who surged into the post-season.
However, who has the advantage on paper doesn’t weigh on Forney, who has three American Association titles to his name.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and we’ve been fortunate enough to win around here a few times. There are a few flags flying out there right now that only one of them I know that I was the best team in the league. The other ones we won, I wasn’t the best team in the league,” he said.
“Anything can happen.”
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.