Life in the Minors
Brendan Sagara

The coach always
knows the score

The time for scoreboard watching and finger crossing has certainly arrived here in Northwest Indiana.

Entering tonight's game at home against the Joliet Jackhammers, we were absolutely in the middle of the Northern League playoff race. At 20-19 in the second half, we trailed the South Division-leading Lincoln Saltdogs by 4 1/2 games, but with a 47-40 mark for the full season, we led the race for the league's lone wild-card spot.

With such a close race for a playoff spot, we actually started watching the league scoreboard and monitoring the game-by-game results of fellow contenders about two weeks ago, as we fought to keep our hopes alive.

The loss of three experienced everyday starters two weeks ago put a large cloud over us for a little while, but somehow, someway, our guys stuck together and kept our heads above water, often seeing a lineup that included up to four rookies in the starting nine.

So after each of our games on our recent 11-day road trip, we eagerly awaited the arrival of our radio guy, Tom Nichols, who raced down from the press box to our team bus each night as we readied to hit the road, either back to the team hotel, or to our next destination.

Tom, as always, had all the answers for us, running off score after score from around the league, enlightening us as to where we stood in the standings each night.

Whether in Lincoln, Neb., Kansas City or Sioux City, Iowa, scores from other games were often posted, either on the scoreboard or on the video screen. Otherwise, there was always Tom's daily report.

While I'm sure everyone on our ballclub would tell you that they don't pay attention to the scores until after the game, I'm sure they knew very well what was going on each night.

We went 5-5 on that 11-day trip, losing a little time and a little ground in both the divisional and wild-card races. The trip was pretty grueling, due to both the travel and the intensity of the competition.

A 10-hour bus trip got us into Lincoln for the first leg of the trip, where we won one and dropped two to the Saltdogs. A 4-hour ride got us from Lincoln to Kansas City, Kan., where we took three of four from the KC T-Bones.

After showering and packing up, and a quick stop at a nearby Sonic fast-food drive-in, we got onto the bus for a 5-hour trip to play the Sioux City Explorers for a three-game set, in which we won just one game, dropping the series finale 10-4 before making the 10-hour trip back home to Gary.

We logged more than 30 bus hours in all, which sucked almost as much as losing two of the series on the trip.

Arriving back at our stadium, the U.S. Steelyard, at about 9 a.m., we really weren't too thrilled about having to come back in the afternoon to play our 7 p.m. game against Joliet. After unpacking my baseball gear, I showered up to get the smell of the bus off of me, and then made the 15-minute drive back to my summer home, the Lee's Inn, in Merrillville, Ind.

I squeezed in as many hours of sleep as I could before picking up lunch and heading back to the stadium.

Always making the attempt to retain my perspective, I reminded myself many times today how fortunate I am to be able to get paid to coach minor league baseball, so I wouldn't grumble to myself too much.

Fresh off our butt-kicking at the hands of Sioux City last night, we were all ready to go when game time rolled around. Understanding the importance of each game each night, we all knew that we needed a strong performance from our starter, Cody Fisher.

Cody stepped onto the mound in front of the 5,000 fans in attendance and tossed a five-hit shutout to propel us to the 7-0 win, and moved us a step closer to the franchise's first playoff appearance.

Our win, combined with Lincoln's 7-6 extra-inning loss, shrunk our deficit in the division race to 3 1/2.

Our closest competitor for the wild-card spot, the Calgary Vipers, lost 6-2, increasing our lead in that race to 2 1/2 games.

With 88 games down and eight more to go, this season has really flown by. Fortunately for us, we will play the remainder of the regular season at home, giving us a distinct advantage and hopefully, considerably more rest than we've had for the last couple of weeks.

But with a pennant race to play, the rest may have to wait for another month.

Until then, there'll be a few more games and a lot more scoreboard watching.

With fingers crossed.

Brendan Sagara, a former University of Hawaii-Hilo pitcher, is in his first season as pitching coach for the Gary Southshore Railcats.

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