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It's Pennant Chase Time in Buffalo

Bisons vie with four teams for berth in the playoffs

“It’s been eight years since this city has seen a whiff of September post season baseball. That is something I remind my staff and my players every single day.”

So said Bisons manager Marty Brown, as his team returned for its first August homestand this past weekend, a 32-day run of games, all against International League northern division opponents, which will conclude on Labor Day.

Buffalo and three other teams in the north are running neck-and-neck for the division title. Pawtucket has held a robust lead for much of the season, but a recent 9-28 slump has put them among the pack.

Meanwhile, the long-suffering Rochester Red Wings, who have had but one playoff appearance since 1997, have been on fire of late, and as of this week hold a slight lead atop the division. Fans in the Flower City are dreaming of a deep run in this year’s Governors Cup playoffs.

Add Lehigh Valley, the Philadelphia Phillies’ top farm team, as they have managed to scratch out a .500-plus record.

One team will win the division and automatically qualify for postseason action. The second North team will possibly qualify as a wild card entrant, but look out for the Norfolk Tides in the South, who are virtually eliminated from their division title hopes, but could still snag that wild card spot.

Buffalo’s hot 17-7 start in April cooled considerably and got worse in the month of June, as Toronto’s pitching problems at the big league level manifested themselves here in Buffalo. Jim Negrych’s hot early season bat cooled considerably, Anthony Gose has underperformed, and injuries to key players such as Moises Sierra and Andy LaRoche have all taken their toll.

The arrival of superstar Jose Reyes on June 21 on a rehab assignment gave the Bisons a much-needed spark. Right around that time, the team hit its low point in the standings, falling 10 games behind. Since then they have managed to stay above the .500 line; coupled with Pawtucket’s swoon, they find themselves right in the thick of things.

For the most part, the Bisons are not changing the approach that has brought them this far. “We’re not trying to change things. I think that’s the time you get into trouble when all of a sudden you start panicking about what you’re doing,” said Brown. “We haven’t swung the bats like we did in April and in May, but we’ve got guys who are starting to pick things up. [Mike] McCoy is swinging his bat better, [Munenori] Kawsaski brings his best, he’s always moving people. We’ve got guys throughout this lineup that are actually batting fine at the plate. Where we’re at in this stage of the pennant race is just going out there and grinding things out.

“AAA is a different gig. You could start 20 games ahead, then all of a sudden you’re tied. Teams change rosters so much, just the atmosphere in the clubhouse can change due to all the moves on the roster, and it’s one of the difficult jobs as a manager to put players out there, players who are in their comfort zone and want to play every day. It’s tough, and it’s all about where you finish, not where you start. And the character in the clubhouse is what really matters.”

Catcher Mike Nickeas, who hit his first ever career walkoff home run last Saturday in one of those dramatic, goosebump, come-from-behind victories, said, “We want to win this thing. We’re pulling, guys are just grinding at-bats.” Nickeas was mobbed at the plate as a raucous crowd cheered his home run win, and he was given a Gatorade shower on the field. “Right now we know it’s time to make a push. We all know what we have to do, and we will show up.”

Buffalo and Rochester face each other seven more times is regular season, five at home and twice at Frontier Field. Fans can circle their calendars now as these games might shape the playoff destiny for both teams. Purists and old-timers can only dream that these two teams might meet up in the first round of the Governors Cup playoffs, reigniting a passionate rivalry that has spanned the decades and generations.

Around the Bases…

• There was outrage a plenty this past Saturday as Celery’s apparent first win ever in the WCC Mascot Race was negated. Wing applied “The Shove” just steps from the finish line, cold-cocking Celery and stealing the victory, leaving most fans in the stands disappointed and showering the field with boos and derisive jeers. Among the spectators was Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, who later joked, “I think we may need a Bleu Cheese based control board to bring adult supervision to these races.”

• Speaking of Celery, it was Celery Bobblehead Night, and the 3,000 prized giveaways went quickly at the turnstiles. Front office observers commented that the demand for Celery statues may have eclipsed that for Tim Russert’s bobblehead distributed a few years ago.

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