CLINTON — Wednesday night served as a timely metaphor for where the Clinton LumberKings sit here in the final stretch. Like the proceeding four and a half months, the ride against Quad Cities was bumpy.
Clinton was up, then down, then deadlocked and lastly — importantly — ahead when it was all said and done. The 9-7 series opening win over the River Bandits allowed the LumberKings to keep pace with Peoria for the final playoff spot up for grabs in the Midwest West division. They remain one game back of the Chiefs at 25-26.
But Wednesday was just the start of Clinton’s longest, toughest grind of the season: a 20-day, 20-game marathon with 11 road games.
Those hard nine innings encapsulated what has thus far been 2013 Clinton. The LumberKings started with a lead (4-0) before letting their opponent slip back in. They loaded the bases twice, but couldn’t find the timely hits to shake the River Bandits. They stranded 11 runners, five in scoring position. And frustrating fielding errors — like the two in one third inning play allowing two Quad Cities scores — gave their division rival life.
The all important concession was that Clinton won. But if it wants to play into September, manager Eddie Menchaca spelled out what it will take.
“Just like (August) hits them, it hits me too,” he said. He’s used to playoffs by now, but this is the first professional 140-game season for most on the roster. “We have 20 games left. What are we going to do as a team? This playoff push that we’re trying to make, it’s not going to happen unless we believe as a team.”
The good Clinton is the team leading the league in batting average (.270), holding opponents low with strong starting pitching — see Scott DeCecco, Victor Sanchez and Tyler Pike — and playing relaxed routine defense. The other side of the coin shows that despite their impressive hitting of late, the team isn’t scoring many runs.
“Teams that have beaten us, we’ve outhit them, we may have even out-pitched them,” Menchaca said. “But they got the big hit, the dinger or a double. We didn’t score enough runs. Any time we can put a team away, we have to make sure we do it.”
That wasn’t the case on Wednesday, he said, highlighting fielding miscues and offensive lags when scoring seemed imminent.
Menchaca has coached the last two Clinton playoff teams and the team is looking for its fourth consecutive berth tying a franchise record. The focus in late August is less about development, he said.
“There’s not much that I do other than become a motivator,” he added. “As your players develop throughout the course of the year, you hope they have a good feel for it towards the end of the season.”
The playoffs, he said, are a chance for players to demonstrate intangible value with the stakes raised. Menchaca shied away from singling out pivotal players in the stretch. He wouldn’t comment on which players he feels are on the verge of a Ketel Marte-like breakout, but did mention the return of Brock Hebert from High Desert and the recent addition of power hitter D.J. Peterson as major assets for the push.
Infielder Tim Lopes acknowledged the recent call up of Marte left a void at the top of the order, but has faith in himself and teammates.
“As far as guys filling the holes, we’ve got a lot of guys that can do that,” he said, following his own 2-for-4, two-RBI performance, Wednesday. “I feel like our team all around, anybody can pass the torch. For me, it’s all about helping the team win.”
Right now, the 25-26 LumberKings are not a Midwest playoff team. To win a neck-and-neck race with the Chiefs, the conclusion may come down to whether or not more runs will come with those bases.
“My quote of the day today was ‘enjoy your work,’ “ Menchaca said. “If we didn’t have the first six months, we can’t have this last month... This is where we see what we’re made of.”