FORT WAYNE – The baseball season is so long that the early days quickly blend together – play a game, sleep, rinse and repeat.
The cycle goes on for months.
But coming into those final weeks, players lucky enough to be on a team still in contention gain a renewed sense of awareness and purpose.
Every pitch, every at-bat, every inning and every game mean more because there are fewer opportunities left, and the standings can look like a jumbled matrix.
These are the pressures of a playoff race.
The TinCaps are feeling them right about now, and manager Michael Collins is excited because he feels the experience greatly aids a young player’s development.
Entering today, the TinCaps are 3 1/2 back of Lake County, with whom they begin a crucial three-game series today at Parkview Field, and two back of Dayton and Great Lakes and one back of Bowling Green.
The Midwest League is set up to keep things interesting, and this year in particular has created drama in the Eastern Division.
Two of the four playoff berths were decided on first-half record. West Michigan and South Bend secured those and have continued to win in the second half.
Of the division’s remaining six teams, none has done well since the All-Star break, and thus all are in the mix heading into the final 18 days on the league calendar.
In some ways, baseball is an individual sport. A race, to Collins, is important in teaching players how to perform within a team concept.
That’s huge, Collins said. Playoff baseball, there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing like a playoff chase. Developing a young professional baseball player is all about being in different situations, how you handle those situations and making the right adjustments.
Lake County manager Mark Budzinski, who played 11 years in the minors, said he was on teams that had no hope in the final weeks.
It’s a lot more fun in August to be playing for something than not, Budzinski said. The great thing about our division right now is that everybody’s in the mix. It makes it fun every day having something to play for. It’s a great experience for the guys. That’s what it’s all about at this level.
Fort Wayne catcher Ryan Miller said the team is caught up in the race, checking out-of-town scores on their phones after their games have concluded.
We go out there every day, one game at a time, Miller said. It’s very motivating, especially with where we’ve been coming from.
The TinCaps were 30-39 at the break and dipped to 20 games below .500 at 35-55 entering play on July 12.
They responded by going 17-8 over their next 25 games.
Entering Thursday, Fort Wayne was fifth among the six clubs in the battle but only two games behind wild-card leader Dayton.
Can the TinCaps maintain momentum down the stretch?
Capturing the spirit of it all, Miller said, Of course. We never want to count ourselves out of it.