Life in the Minors

Brendan Sagara

Sunday, August 31, 2003

Drop from contention
brings a winning streak

Two weeks ago, it seemed as though the Kenosha Mammoths would never win another game. We were in the midst of a nine-game losing streak, and slipping out of contention for the Frontier League West Division crown in a hurry. Our guys were playing a bit tight, knowing that our hopes of reaching the playoffs were fading quickly, and the game of baseball never looked so difficult to play.

It's funny how a team's luck can turn so quickly in professional baseball.

Now our guys are playing loose and having fun again, as we have ripped off eight straight wins. In fact, we have won 11 of our last 13 contests, catapulting us from four games under .500 to five games over, at 46-41.

Lately, we've been beating teams the old-fashioned way, out-hitting and out-pitching the opposition into submission. While two weeks ago it seemed as though we couldn't miss an opposing hitter's bat, or catch an infield pop-up, or turn a double play, or drive in a baserunner, it now feels as though we can't do much wrong.

Our starting pitchers are taking us deep into ballgames, and our middle men are throwing up zeros to set up our closer, Derek Lopez, for yet another save.

Our hitters have been giving this hitting coach many reasons to smile as well. Put runners on base, and we've been driving them in. Our big innings have turned from one-run enterprises to three-, four- and five-run explosions. Needless to say, things have turned for the better here in Mammoth land.

With our ball club being eliminated from postseason contention a few days ago, it would have been easy for our guys to pack it in. Instead, they have rallied together to make the best of the situation, vowing to win every game until the end of the year.

Knowing that the season has just a few games remaining, our guys have started to turn their minds and their clubhouse conversations toward the offseason. Finding offseason jobs, returning to school, going back home and college football have been the topics of choice.

With our guys coming from all corners of the U.S. -- our only international player this season is centerfielder Tomihiko Horiguchi -- the arguments and challenges for football supremacy have been flying around the clubhouse and the team bus as fast and furious as in an ESPN studio.

Todd Leathers, our slugging all-star first baseman from State College, Penn., has been engaged in a monthlong debate with University of Washington product and late-inning reliever Randy Vanderplow about whether the Pac-10 can hang with the Big Ten.

The debate began one day at home after batting practice with Todd bragging about the quality football being played by Joe Pa's boys at Penn State. Randy simply chimed in that West Coast football was back on the scene.

So back and forth they went, talking about everything from the East Coast bias to the number of Pac-10 and Big Ten teams involved in BCS games over the past couple of seasons to power ratings to whether or not Husky purple was a color suitable for a sport as masculine as college football.

Vanderplow kinda had to eat it when Todd brought up the whole Coach Neuheisel "thing."

Hearing the words "college" and "football," were plenty enough reason for our former University of Tennessee pitchers Jamie Bennett and Matt Huskey to throw their hats into the ring. They started to lose everyone when they started sining some Tennessee fight song or something. It was pretty entertaining, actually.

Our Arizona natives -- Lopez and Aaron Stanley -- kinda whispered about college football in cactus country in one corner, while our Texan, Dennis Pelfrey, mentioned something about football in the Lone Star State. Our two Floridians, outfielder Ray Goirigolzarri and left-handed reliever Jim Cooney, might have blurted out something about Florida State or Miami or Florida, but I didn't really notice.

Our guys from Illinois and Michigan didn't get involved too much either. Neither did our Kentucky native, third baseman Tanner Townsend. Our team trainer, former University of Hawaii grad assistant Josh Seligman, started to share his tailgating stories from Aloha Stadium, which of course prompted Todd "Mr. Penn State" Leathers to tell us how great Penn State taligates were.

My only comment was that two of my fellow Leilehua High alums -- Adrian Murrell (Dallas Cowboys) and Lauvale Sape (Buffalo Bills) -- were in NFL camps this season. I would have started to belt out the Leilehua alma mater, but I figured that would be a little excessive.

You'd think you walked into the ESPN locker room and into a conversation between Neil Everett, Lee Corso, Dan Patrick and Stuart Scott. But it was here in Kenosha, Wis., during the waning weeks of the 2003 Frontier League season and it was a few minor league ball players, not actual college football analysts.

As I stepped back and soaked in the atmosphere in the clubhouse that day, with a handful of 20-somethings arguing and debating so passionately, I had to smile. Just a few days ago, we were down in the dumps. Eliminated from the playoffs and on a losing streak I thought might never end. Now it seemed as though we couldn't lose. We are all having fun again and savoring the opportunity to throw on our uniforms everyday.

If I had to find a reason for our recent hot streak, I would have to say that our recent success is a product of a number of factors -- an improved mental approach, timely hitting, good pitching, solid defense, and of course, college football.

Brendan Sagara, a former University of Hawaii-Hilo pitcher, is in his first season as pitching coach with the Kenosha (Wis.) Mammoths.


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