Life in the Minors
Brendan Sagara

Every team fights to play
just a few more weeks
of baseball

If the attempt to compose my weekly story proves to be a little bit of a task tonight, I guess I can forgive myself.

After having bottles of champagne and beer dumped on my head and into my mouth, much of tonight seems to be a little bit of a blur.

Granted, I did not exactly guzzle down an entire bottle of the bubbly, but with the little bit of alcohol and all the excitement that came along with our 4-2 win before a crowd of more than 6,000 screaming RailCats fans, my head is still spinning just a little bit.

Entering our three-game series against the Joliet Jackhammers, we needed one more win to clinch one of the four precious spots in the Northern League's postseason playoffs. The idea of one more win doesn't seem so daunting until you consider that we only had three games left in the regular season to do it.

With our young right-hander Mikel Schaefer going for us on the mound, we felt we had a pretty good chance to end the suspense.

The game didn't start all too well for us, as the Jackhammers scored two runs in the top of the first. A couple of poorly located pitches, a defensive error, and a walk hurt our playoff chances for a short while.

Fortunately, we used up all of our mistakes in that first inning, as Mike was able to hold Joliet scoreless for the next five.

As usual, our offensive attack proved patient, as our hitters measured Jackhammer starter Jason Shelley for five frames, before we evened the score with a two-run rally in the bottom of the sixth.

We added single runs in the seventh and eighth to help us post our 29th come-from-behind win of the season.

The fashion in which we clinched the Gary SouthShore RailCats' first postseason berth in franchise history was fitting for a club that has invented ways to win games this season. I believe we lead the Northern League in come-from-behind wins and extra-inning victories as well.

Our 52 wins so far is a 21-game improvement from last year's club, which won just 31 contests. Already this season, we have matched or broken dozens of team marks, including individual pitching records for season wins, innings, strikeouts and saves.

By the time we brought Derek Lopez in to close it out in the top of the ninth, the excitement and anticipation were brimming over at the U.S. Steelyard. The mood of the dugout was giddy, as the 18 of us held our breaths as each of Derek's 90-plus mph heaters smacked into catcher Jose Yepez's mitt.

The entire crowd was on its feet, chanting and clapping and cheering as we inched closer to the playoffs with each pitch.

When our second baseman, Curt Lee, calmly collected a Matt McCay grounder and flipped over to Ben Risinger at first base for the final out, the crowd went crazy and our dugout spilled out like a full glass of water falling off a table. Our players sprinted from the dugout and dog-piled in front of the pitcher's mound.

Bodies were flying everywhere as the pile grew in mass. Even our clubbie, James "Twin" Johnson, got into the act, at a spry 50 years old.

As for the coaches, well, we just got into a little circle in front of the dugout and had a group hug, before we joined the guys on the field and took turns hugging each other.

Next came champagne bottles popping on the field, as the guys started to really celebrate. The party moved up into our clubhouse as everyone grabbed bottles and started spraying it all over each other.

But for all of us, there were different reasons for celebration.

For our front office and the players returning from last season, there was jubilation because of the major turnaround that took place this season. After three straight years of finishing in the Northern League cellar, the Cats were going to the playoffs, as one of the teams sitting on top of the leaderboard.

For first-base coach Joe Gates, a former Chicago White Sox infielder, there was a lot of hometown pride. Born and raised in Gary, Joe had been with the ballclub from the beginning, and being able to be on the field with a winner must have been great.

For our manager, Greg Tagert, and me, it was a return to what we know.

As a player for Greg, and then a pitching coach, we were able to be a part of three Frontier League division champs, and the postseason became somewhat of an afterthought at times. We always expected to be there.

But after missing the playoffs for the past two years with the Kenosha Mammoths and the Springfield Ozark Ducks, we were back in the postseason, and playing for a championship ring, we hope.

Two more wins over the next two days will bring us a South Division crown, and then the league semis and hopefully, the finals.

This season has turned out to be pretty good, so far.

Well, at least the parts of the season I can recall right now.

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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