The following sentence could not have been written sober two months ago: The Fort Wayne TinCaps have a shot at contending for the Midwest League championship.
The TinCaps, to put it kindly, were not very good at baseball during the season's first half. They sported the worst record (26-44) in the league. They were the youngest team in the league. They looked like Little Leaguers. (An exaggeration, but not by much.)
Today, they're contenders.
Today, they're 30-15 and among the league's hottest teams. Barring a late collapse, they'll earn a playoff berth.
The TinCaps have blossomed, to say the least, and they'll seek to continue second-half home dominance when they face another contender, the Bowling Green Hot Rods, in four-game series starting Thursday at Parkview Field. Fort Wayne is 18-6 at Parkview Field in the second half.
What happened? Maturity. Patience. The even-keel, big-picture focus and approach of manager Anthony Contreras. Lights-out pitching from young arms. Fernando Tatis Jr.'s red-hot bat and ESPN Top Plays glove.
The list is long.
“We all knew there was going to be some bumps in the road,” San Diego Padres minor-league infield coordinator Kevin Hooper said in a recent radio interview. “You have a lot of guys out there who are really young and it's their first full professional season.”
That first full season, about three times as long as any season many of these players have ever faced, is a challenge to the body and mind.
“It will take a toll on you,” said Hooper, who filled in recently for TinCaps manager Anthony Contreras while Contreras returned to Arizona for his son's first day of kindergarten. “Credit to them. They've put the work in. Credit to this staff that's put the work in, day-in and day-out trying to get this team better every day, and it shows. They've come a long way since the start of the season.”
There could be no better time to get hot. The TinCaps have 25 games left in the regular season, a month's worth of baseball.
What seemed preposterous two months ago is becoming reality. These TinCaps could have the best chance to win it all since the dominant 2009 championship team.
Seven of the Top 30 San Diego Padres prospects, as ranked by MLBPipeline.com, are in TinCaps uniforms: shortstop Tatis (No. 4 prospect), pitcher Adrian Morejon (No. 5), pitcher Michel Baez (No. 7), outfielder Jorge Ona (No. 11), pitcher Mason Thompson (No. 19), third baseman Hudson Potts (No. 23) and pitcher Reggie Lawson (No. 27).
With those players coming into their own at the perfect time – Tatis slams homers and steals bases and Baez strikes out hitters right and left, to set the tone – the TinCaps could challenge the season-long dominant West Michigan Whitecaps in the postseason.
As the parent Padres did with the great group of 2009, it sounds like the 2017 TinCaps will remain relatively the same down the homestretch.
“Keeping that group together…we think it would be good for them,” Padres general manager A.J. Preller told the San Diego Union Tribune.
The steadily increased production of Tatis has led the way for the TinCaps at the plate.
Heading into Tuesday night's game, Tatis ranked in the Top 10 in the Midwest league in hits (eighth), runs (fourth), home runs (second), RBIs (third), total bases (third), steals (fourth), slugging percentage (seventh) and OPS (seventh).
Tatis has 19 homers and 28 stolen bases. The last Midwest League player to reach 20 and 30 in a season was Lansing's Corey Patterson in 1999. Dayton's Jose Siri is also on the verge of the feat this season.
“I've said all along when (Tatis) learns how to show up every day and put his focus to his work and everything, he's just going to take off,” Hooper said. “He's young, and when it comes to him, he's going to skyrocket. He could be in the big leagues sooner than later.”
Tatis leads a team that is on pace for 124 home runs, which would shatter the team record of 102. Brad Zunica has 18 homers and Potts has 12.
Baez, meanwhile, has been the epitome of an ace on the mound.
Since being promoted to the TinCaps on July 4, Baez is 5-0 with a 0.74 ERA, 56 strikeouts and only four walks in 36.2 innings pitched. He's averaging 13.75 strikeouts per nine innings. Baseball America named him last week's No. 1 hot prospect in the minor leagues.
TinCaps pitchers lead the Midwest League with 1,066 strikeouts, on pace to break the franchise record of 1,224 set in 2009. Pedro Avila broke LaTroy Hawkins' 1993 Fort Wayne record with 17 strikeouts in a 4-1 win Tuesday at Great Lakes.
Could some of these TinCaps players be promoted to Lake Elsinore before season's end? It's possible. Baez, especially, looks like he's too much for Midwest League hitters.
Here's hoping the Padres ride out another month with this group. It'd be great to see if they can finish one of the greatest in-season turnarounds in Midwest League history.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at email@example.com.
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