The Fort Wayne TinCaps boast the best regular season record in professional baseball, the best record of any minor league team since 2003, and the best record compiled by a Midwest League team since 1987. They have gone 17-4 against the South Bend Silver Hawks this year, including a 3-1 road victory in the first of a best-of-three postseason series. Still, the Silver Hawks went into the series thinking that they had a shot, since the postseason gives them a fresh slate.
"We're thrilled that we made the playoffs and we're even more thrilled that everyone's starting over," said new leadoff hitter A.J. Pollock, who batted .385 with three extra-base hits in the final regular season series between the two ballclubs. "Everyone's 0-0, so we're just going to go at them with what we've got and finish the season off right."
"We're excited," cinfirmed Ryan Wheeler, the newest member of the Silver Hawks. "We know we're going up there with not many people expecting us to do well against this team. We want to go out and prove to people that we belong here and have fun."
Clayton Conner, who played for South Bend in the 2006 postseason, echoed those sentiments.
"Everything starts over. The playoffs is a whole new ballgame, so you've just got to be mentally tough and just play balls-to-the-wall and see what happens."
Eric Smith, the 20-year old pitcher who shut out Fort Wayne for five frames after experiencing some first-inning jitters in game one, felt that most of the pressure was on the TinCaps because of the high expectations their regular-season record engendered.
Smith warms up prior to game 1
"We're underdogs, which means that we've got nothing to prove," explained Smith. "Their backs are against the wall with something to prove. We've got nothing to lose; we're just trying to win a game and that's about it."
Brett Moorhouse will not pitch unless the Silver Hawks advance to the next round, but still has high hopes that he will have that opportunity.
"We're enjoying every minute of it," he said. "We're glad that we had a chance to make the playoffs. We're going to try to do the best we can and see if we can come out on top."
Justin Parker is playing through extreme shoulder pain in order to participate in the postseason. He might not be so eager to put himself through such a trial if he did not think his team had a chance to advance.
"They've got a good club - best in the league all year, both first half and second half," conceded Parker. "They've got a lot of good players, but so do we. We know we can beat them; we've done it before. It's just a matter of coming out and executing tonight and tomorrow night. So we'll see what happens. We're positive about it. We're definitely not ready to be done playing now."
Even with the odds stacked in his team's favor, TinCaps manager Doug Dascenzo guards his team against overconfidence.
"You never, ever take your opponent lightly, no matter who you're playing," he said after his team's first playoff victory. "You just can't do it, because any team can beat a team on any given day. That's how these guys went about it. That's how they went about it for 140 games in the regular season, and that's what we expect them to do every game in the postseason."
Silver Hawks manager Mark Haley explained that his team was only one swing of the bat away from taking game one, so his club should have some confidence going into tonight's game. South Bend loaded the bases in the seventh inning and brought Clayton Conner to the plate against reliever Nick Schumacher. Conner had hit a grand slam against the Dayton Dragons in the regular season.
Conner celebrates a slam in August
"Schumacher made a good pitch [to get out of that jam]," Haley noted after the game. "Our guys know that if we do get a hit [in that at-bat], it's a different ballgame."
Conner struck out swinging in that at-bat, but was thinking about extending the inning, not just adding to his list of clutch heroics.
"We're not going to beat anybody with the long one. We've just got to play as a team, do the little things that count, and I think that's enough to win."
In addition to staying close in the playoff opener, the Hawks have confidence based on their taking three of four games from the TinCaps when they played in South Bend for their final matchup of the regular season.
"It was huge for us," Parker exclaimed. "Had we come into this series and not had success against them, it might have been a little different. They've beaten us quite a few times too, don't get me wrong. But it's nice to know that we were able to beat them in a four-game series. It's huge, it really is."
An optimistic way to look at the task ahead is to note that all the Silver Hawks need to do is to beat the TinCaps two games in a row.
"We've done that before," Haley agreed.
On the other hand, they have not won a game in Fort Wayne this season, going 0-8 at Parkview Field. They will need to do so two games in a row now, beginning tonight against 16-game winner Erik Davis.
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