Inland Empire 66ers Talk Playoff Chase

The Los Angeles Angels, High-A affiliate, Inland Empire 66ers are in the heat of a playoff chase. A month ago, it seemed unfathomable. The team talks about the chase and what got them to where they are now.

"Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it." - Michael Jordan

For the Los Angeles Angels High-A affiliate, Inland Empire 66ers, a large obstacle stood in front of them. What they did though was figure a way to climb it, go through it, and work around it.

After a first half that put the 66ers in last place of the Southern Division, 19 games back, a strong start to the second half was needed to show this team was a contender. However, a 1-and-13 start was about as far opposite of a direction they needed.

Denny Hocking, manager of the 66ers, noted that the team needed to have a turnaround point and find a new stretch and a new goal to pursue if they wanted to win.

"We talked about about a new goal on July 1st and that was to play .500 in the month of July," said Hocking. "I told these guys if we go out, play .500, we'll see what happens in August."

The 66ers did just that in July, going 15-14, just above .500. They continued that hot streak with a ten game win streak in the middle part of August, giving them a stride back into the playoff chase and sitting on top in a tie for first place for the second half.

"These guys! One thing I want to stress is THESE guys have done a remarkable job to put themselves in a position in the last week of the season to potentially go to the playoffs."

The changes the team made weren't significant however, but as outfielder Chad Hinshaw states, "we're all starting to play to our potential."

Hinshaw has been a large part of the 66ers success in the second half, coming in right as the half started. Hinshaw hits out of the two-hole most nights, and helped the team with consistency, highlighted by his 39 runs batted in, nine home runs, and quietly good speed on the base paths, scoring 42 runs and nabbing 14 bases.

"At the beginning a lot of us struggled and I don't know if it was trying to get used to things or just trying to do too much but I think we just simplified things and started playing our game and before you know it we're right in the heat of this playoff chase."

In a developmental league however, you have to ask, when does development take a back seat to winning? 66ers players were not shy about this, noting that winning was the priority and development comes in to play with it.

"Throughout the season you're trying to develop," says Hinshaw, "because you want to further your career. But, once you start getting into a playoff race you start putting your team above yourself. You start to minimize all the little things you know you've been trying to do just to help the team get some wins."

A player very similar to Hinshaw, is Mark Shannon, who has a similar view to winning over development at this stage in the season.

"Winning is big for us right now, just to prove it's not over until it's over. It's been a long season and I feel like we've developed well over the season. This last push is really about winning though, and trying to get that ring."

Shannon has been somewhat of a heel piece to this 66ers team, finding ways to just help the team win. In the second half, Shannon posted a .271 batting average, and helped the team win games in ways that you wouldn't notice immediately in a box score. Shannon took five pitches to the body in the second half, and found ways to move runners 90 feet closer steadily with a multitude of sacrifice hits and flies.

"If I have to wear a pitch, I'll wear it," said Shannon. "If I have to take out a second baseman, so be it. Everybody on this team has that mindset to do whatever it takes to win."

For the 66ers, everyone had a changed mindset as opposed to when I saw them in the middle of the season. When I was there last, it was a rainy day with heavy thunderstorms, and all were still enjoying being at the ballpark, ready for that seven o'clock scheduled start. Sadly, rain cancelled those plans, but if there would have been a game played, the 66ers would have been ready.

"You have to get in the weight room, and prepare right and be ready at 7 o'clock and be ready to play to win," said closing pitcher, Mark Sappington.

Sappington noted that there had to be another change though in the mindsets of the players in the 66ers clubhouse. This team had to defeat inner demons of losing, and decide that losing sucked, and it was time to win.

"A lot of guys could just say it's time to cash in, we're just going to be a piss poor ball club the rest of the year. Our guys didn't do that. No one in the organization, aside from this team, thought we'd have a shot at this. At the beginning we weren't thinking playoffs, we were thinking, it'd be nice to win a game. Now we're here and it's amazing."

Sappington, probably the most elite prospect on the 66ers pitching staff, was moved to the bullpen after a rough time in the rotation to begin the season. He shined, attaining the closing role, and didn't halt, picking up four saves in the same amount of opportunities, and holding himself to a 2.93 earned run average out of the bullpen.

To get to the bullpen though, the starters have had to go deep into games.

"The rotation staff came in and decided to give it everything we had," said starting pitcher, Dan Tobik. "The bullpen has done an excellent job and picked us up. We still take it one day at a time."

Both Sappington and Tobik noted that they were one of the many tools to the game, and that the offense has been where the team has excelled in the second half.

"Our offense has been on fire lately," said catcher Zach Wright. "So we don't have to worry about not scoring runs. The last couple of weeks we've been scoring seven or so runs a game, which is nice and the pitching staff can go out there and try and get outs instead of trying to keep us in a game."

After a tough start to the 2014 season, Zach Wright has provided an offensive spark in August, batting .444, with a .510 on base percentage and .622 slugging percentage.

"We've just been trying to stay more athletic at the plate, not trying to think too much and just go out there and play. That's what got us in trouble is we were out there trying to think too much."

When it comes to getting on base, Sherman Johnson has been the threshold for the 66ers at the leadoff spot.

"It's my my job to get on base," said Johnson. "The guys in front of me have done a great job of getting on base and swinging a good bat. When they get on base I'm trying to turn it over to the guys behind me so they can get as many at bats to get them more opportunities to bring in runs."

Johnson has done his job well, getting on base 44% of the time he's at the plate, something he's done all season with his .372 on base percentage over 2014.

Johnson, along with all the members of the 66ers clubhouse brought the focus of an offensive spark to one player, Dennis Raben.

"Just to see the tear he's been on in the second half, it's been amazing and fun to watch. Just sit back and be able to watch especially for me when I'm trying to get on base and score runs. If I'm on first or second he finds ways to bring me home, and it's crucial for our team, it's really fun to watch."

The coaching staff has noticed the spark and enthusiasm Raben brings to the table as well, as Denny Hocking notes;

"Dennis Raben is older than these guys. He's seen more, done more, and he brings a big brother aura about him in that locker room and dugout. He's an infectious kid that brings a love of the game, and he has to put big numbers up, which he's done."

Raben has been the glue to the clubhouse when it comes to not just doing things on the field, but off as well.

"These kids really look up to him for leadership, advice, and knowledge and he understands that and doesn't shy away from it."

Raben provides humility as well as his leadership role in the clubhouse.

I don't really know if I'm responsible for a spark that's ignited us," said Raben. "I've had a good second half like a lot of guys. The last month and a half, a lot of guys have played really good ball and the offense has really done well in August. The pitching staff has done a good job and that tends to lead to W's."

Despite strong efforts, Raben's first half was not a good one. In the second half however, he's jumped the ladder with his numbers at the plate alone, giving that extra "oomph" to a new power offense. His second half .358 batting average is among the leaders in the league, and 20 home runs (28 for the season) leads the entire Angels farm system.

"Honestly I feel like it's just contagious. We started to get great outings from our pitchers and our offense sparked and guys feed off of that. Everyone wants to finish strong individually and when everyone is taking care of themselves individually it shows as a team."

Among the leaders in the clubhouse is someone you wouldn't expect. Wade Hinkle is supposed to be in Arizona doing rehab after his season ended with a thumb injury. However, Hinkle asked for permission to stay in San Bernardino with HIS team, and help in any way possible.

"He asked if he could stay here to watch his team have an opportunity to go to the playoffs," said Hocking. "It speaks volumes of the kind of person he is as a teammate. How much he cares about the brotherhood of this team."

Some may wonder how a guy who isn't swinging the bat, or playing hard nose defense can help a team win, but for Wade Hinkle, it comes in a lighter, easier way.

"My goal is just to generate some energy on the bench with these guys," said Hinkle. "I was here pretty much all year so I just want to continue to be with the team and keep the energy high and have some fun. We've been playing really well and I didn't want to change anything, I just wanted to be here and support the team."

Another hidden leader in the 66ers clubhouse comes from a coaching stand point. Hinkle found a way to help his team when 66ers first base coach, Steve Hernandez wasn't able to make a trip with the team. Hernandez, a local scout for the Angels, has been a spark plug for this 66ers team.

"He's awesome," says Sherman Johnson. "It doesn't matter if it's 15-0, their way or our way, he's always in your ear at first base telling you times to go, where the outfielders are, the first baseman is, he's a great asset."

For the 66ers, the team has a multitude of leaders, but none that manager, Denny Hocking, thinks was told to take over that role.

"I don't think you can ever ask anybody to lead. It's something that's inside of you and that's brought of you in competitiveness. Zach Wright leads our pitching staff and Sherman Johnson is a guy who's become more vocal in certain situations and gotten on guys. You need guys like that, guys who aren't afraid to do it."

Something the entire 66ers team has done as a whole has stayed consistent through August and not let the playoff chase become something that over matches them.

"The key is staying lose," said Dennis Raben. That's the reason we are where we are and there's no reason to change anything. Go out there, have fun and take it one game at a time. Whatever happens, happens, and we see where we are at the end."

One thing about this team is the lose atmosphere. Many were doing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge while waiting for the seven o'clock start that turned into a rain out. If it ain't broken, why fix it? Right?

"Whatever you did yesterday, keep doing that and we've done a great job doing the little things," said Sherman Johnson. "Pitching has been better, we've been great with timely hitting. It's the same things coaches have talked about all year. Things have just clicked and we're starting to do things as a team."

For Denny Hocking, nothing has been more promising than watching his team tune in to the things he, and the rest of the coaching staff have done to help these players win and develop and work to their strongest abilities.

"It's incredible watching these guys buy in to the information finally. The work load hasn't changed, if anything the work load has gotten easier because of the wear and tear on your body. The heat, the travel and all that, the effort has always been there. I watch teams now that don't run hard to first base and that walk on and off the field and we're fresher because of the times we've worked harder."

Coaches aren't the only ones noticing, as Sherman Johnson gave praise to his coaches for the success the 66ers have had in their late push.

"What Denny, Brent Del Chiaro, and Matt Wise have done, I don't know if I can explain what they've done honestly. They've done so much in every aspect of the game, and it's not things you can see in a box score. Just knowing where to be, so when a situation arises, you know what to do. It seems like Denny is never satisfied and that's a good quality you look for in a coach."

For this team, the playoffs were a distant dream, and now, has become a realistic dream. However, the realistic dream is still a week away and going to be tough to attain.

"Obviously no one is 100% so some of your weaknesses stand out a little bit more," said Dan Tobik. "It's really just trusting your stuff and knowing the team has your back and sometimes take your chances too."

Only five members of the current 25 men on the 66ers team have played in the playoffs before. It's something many not only want, but are craving to experience.

"I do know that a lot of guys talk about when we get in the playoffs and that's attribute to them because of the start we had," said Hocking. "For them to climb out and be in first place is a remarkable feat by them. Playoff baseball, no matter what level you're at in the minors or big leagues, it's incredible to be around because it's a different animal."

For Denny Hocking, playoff baseball is something attainable as a manger who has seen it all, from Major League and Minor League experiences, there is no stronger leader in the 66ers clubhouse than Hocking.

"The season has come down to the final week of the season, what kind of team are you gonna be? Are you going to come out here and be ready for the day or are you going to be a young team that comes in and says, 'oh my gosh, this is a big deal.' This has to be a team that comes and says what we've been doing has been working and relax and do what you do and see where the chips are at the end of the night. It's my job to make sure we do that."

For the Inland Empire 66ers, one week, seven games, all on the road will be the final test for a playoff experience. The road ahead is tough, but it's something this team is craving. An experience like no other, playoff baseball.

With all that said, and in the words of 66ers Public Address Announcer J.J., "Sound the Horn boys!"

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