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'Cats are Hot: RailCat bats return home leading hottest team in the AA

Contact: Brennan Mense
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It is been said that slumps are like the common cold, in that they last two weeks no matter what you do. It has also been widely observed that these slumps often disappear as suddenly as they came.

Whether it is one player or an entire team, the gravitational shifts that seem to take place month-to-month, week-to-week, or even day-to-day often make no sense, but in the case of the RailCats throughout the last three weeks of July, you can’t complain with the results.

On July 10, the RailCats hit bottom. That afternoon, the RailCats stranded a season-high 15 runners in dropping a second straight contest at home to the Texas AirHogs, the league’s worst team.  The loss dropped the RailCats to 24-25, the first time in six weeks they had fallen below .500. The RailCats had lost six of seven, going 8-15 over a longer stretch, and hadn’t won a series in over three weeks.

They sat in third place in the North Division, 2 ½ games behind first-place St. Paul.

The next night, the RailCats would walk off the AirHogs in ten innings, salvaging the final game of the series. However, Greg Tagert was still far from happy.

“We’ve used the word ‘salvage’ a few too many times lately,” Tagert said at the time. “We need to be winning series.”

The main culprit at the time was a sputtering offense that had scored two runs or less 14 times in 31 games spanning most of June into July.

However, despite that, the men that were about to spur a change were coming into place.

Power-hitting Tillman Pugh, a RailCat in 2015 and ’16 would rejoin the squad on July 9. Four days later, another big bat in outfielder Ronnie Mitchell arrived, and together with hot streaks from other pieces already in place

Following the Texas series, the RailCats would travel to the Upper Midwest to take on Winnipeg and Fargo-Moorhead. It would be a tough trip facing the defending league champion Goldeyes, and the second-place RedHawks

The RailCats would go 4-1 through those two stops, scoring 38 runs over those five contests. That would only be warm-up, though, of what would transpire as the month of July wound down.

Coming home to face division-leading St. Paul, the RailCats would completely outclass the Saints, outscoring them 15-6 in a three-game sweep, capped off with an Andy De Jesus walk-off sacrifice fly in the 11th inning of the finale, capping off the sweep and pushing the RailCats back into first place in the North Division.

Following a July 23 loss to open a series against Sioux Falls, the real fireworks would begin, starting with a 15-3 demolition of the Canaries the very next night.

That game would kick off an eight-game winning streak, during which the RailCats outscored their opponents 80-26.

Included in that stretch was a five-game sweep of the Cleburne Railroaders.

“The years start to run together,” Greg Tagert said, “but I can’t say I can remember something like that before.”

He would be right. The five-game sweep was the first in franchise history.

Meanwhile, his hitting coach Bobby Spain was rather amazed at the performance by his protégés.

“Last year we had a pretty decent stretch around this time,” Spain said, “but this is something more than that…an explosion.”

At the head of the explosion were the two newcomers, Tillman Pugh and Ronnie Mitchell.

Mitchell has hit .385 with 14 RBIs in his first 13 games as a RailCat, while Pugh’s third time around with the ‘Cats has arguably been even better.

“Tillman’s been huge, he’s been unbelievable,” Spain said. “He brings some power, some speed, he can do it all…He’s just brought energy that we needed.”

Pugh has also brought the wins. After the RailCats lost in his first start on July 10th, the ‘Cats won the next 14 games that Pugh started. Overall, Pugh has reached base in all 17 games he’s played for the RailCats this season, hitting .348 with 4 home runs, and 16 RBIs, while playing solid defense in both corner outfield slots.

Make no mistake, though, Pugh’s production has not been an outlier on the squad during that stretch.

At one point during the road trip through Cleburne and Texas, the RailCats had six players boasting active on-base streaks of ten or more games. Alex Crosby and Colin Willis both reached base in a career-high 20 straight games, with Willis’ streak still active.

Other less-heralded players have stepped up as well. Newcomer Will Savage collected career-high hitting (ten games) and on-base (15 games) streaks that both came to an end last night. After struggling mightily throughout June and most of July, Garrett Copeland now has reached base in a career-best 15 straight contests as well.

With the offense scorching hot, it could be easy to forget about the pitching, but the arms have held up their end of the bargain as well.

Despite just finishing seven games in two hitter-friendly ballparks, Gary pitching currently holds the second-best ERA in the American Association with a 3.62 mark.

The challenges have been there, from some injury troubles and inconsistency in the back end of the rotation. Losing ace Daniel Minor, who signed with the Saltillo Saraperos of the Mexican League on July 26, did not help matters either.

Like a good pitching coach, though, Alain Quijano still isn’t satisfied with his staff, despite overcoming those obstacles.

“We haven’t done what we wanted to do,” he said. “But, you know, just like anything in baseball, one side brings up the other, and that’s what the offense is doing right now.”

Despite Quijano’s rather blunt assessment, the numbers suggest he’s selling his staff short. Despite working three new arms into the mix, the team has a 2.68 ERA in their past 19 games.

All told, the pieces coming together have resulted in a 16-3 burst for the RailCats that have them atop the American Association’s North Division at 40-28, one game clear of Fargo-Moorhead and 3 ½ games up on St. Paul.

After scoring 4.14 runs a game with a 3.98 ERA in their 24-25 start, the RailCats have scored an astronomical 7.05 runs per contest, countering that with the aforementioned 2.68 ERA during that stretch.

How long will the hot streak continue? Nobody knows. The RailCats did see their eight-game winning streak come to an end last night as the Texas AirHogs held the ‘Cats offense to just two hits in a 2-1 defeat, though that could very well just be an aberration.

The RailCats will look to rebound as a dangerous Wichita Wingnuts squad makes their one and only visit to the Steel Yard this season beginning tomorrow night.

Trying to stop an oncoming slump may be nearly impossible, but you can bet the RailCats will try to ride this streak all the way into and through the postseason.

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