Team looking for first pennant since 2005

By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell

Team looking for first pennant since 2005

By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell

Imagine winning the first two games of a best of five playoff series, then coming home and losing the next three straight.

That was the sad outcome of the Buffalo Bisons’ 2005 semifinal series against the Indianapolis Indians. Yet after all the success that the team had accomplished in the Cleveland Indians era, few expected on that September 11 that Buffalo would be enjoying their last playoff game for a long, long time.

Eleven seasons. That has been the run of futility for the Bisons. They soldiered on under the direction of popular former player and manager Torey Lovullo. We saw the Indians end their affiliation with Buffalo to move to a new ballpark in Columbus. The New York Mets came to town for four seasons, and stumbled under the leadership of Ken Oberkfell, Tim Teufel and the colorful Wally Backman.

It hasn’t gotten much better since the Toronto Blue Jays took over as parent club for the Buffalo Bisons. The Bisons haven’t hit the 80 win mark during the era, and last season’s horrific 3-17 finish in the last three weeks of the season put an exclamation point on manager Gary Allenson’s acerbic management style.

Are things going to be different this year?

Fan regulars can already see that this year’s Bisons team is nothing like the squad we endured this past season. The new manager, Bobby Meacham, wore the Bisons uniform in the late 80s in a career that also included playing time with the New York Yankees.

Meacham was named the 20th manager in the Bisons modern era back in late November. For the past three seasons he has managed the Blue Jays’ AA affiliate in New Hampshire. With middling success. That team has not cracked the .500 mark or made the Eastern League playoffs during his tenure there.

Throw that all out the window. When asked if his team was intimidated facing Scranton/Wilkes-Barre as the defending IL North Champions, Meacham hastily replied, “I really don’t care what they did last season, what I care about is what we’re doing this season.”

Meacham’s 2017 squad blends a number of seasoned players with major league experience, combined with prospects who have made the jump from AA to AAA. On the Opening Day roster were first baseman Rowdy Tellez, third baseman Jason Leblebijian and outfielder Dwight Smith. Tellez electrified the crowd who was there for the first game, hitting solo home runs to opposite fields in his first two at bats. Tellez hit 23 home runs and drive in 81 runs last season in AA.

Tellez was pretty pleased with his Opening Day performance. “Our team was great and we got the ‘W’ on opening night.” Tellez sees very little difference between the AA and AAA levels. “It’s all a game, and I’m fortunate to be able to play. It’s one of those things that I just go out there and have fun,” eschewing any talk of butterflies on this bigger stage.

Bisons pitcher T.J. House, who came back from a horrific injury suffered during spring training, had a tremendous outing earlier this week against the Rochester Red Wings, and spoke highly of the mood and atmosphere in the clubhouse, especially since this Bisons roster is stocked with new players and few who actually knew each other prior to this season. “It’s a fun team,” said House. “A lot of guys that have come from different place. The starting (pitching) staff a bit older. If we’re gonna be here we want to win. There’s no fun to lose. The chemistry is great the guys are getting along. It’s a very loose clubhouse the guys are getting along. We play music, we have fun and when it’s time to step between the lines then  it’s time to play.”

The team is off to a hot start, after having to postpone the season by two days due to last week’s monsoon like weather and wet snow. They managed to post four solid wins, with tremendous offense on display and clutch hitting with runners in scoring position. “This is always fun to watch,” says manager Meacham.

The one recognizable name from last year? Outfielder Darrell Cecilliani, who had substantial playing time in Buffalo and three callups to Toronto in 2016. Cecilliani showed his defensive prowess with a spectacular diving catch to help the Bisons along to a 4-2 win on Opening Day.

Meacham likes what he sees so far. “We talked about it spring training. Grind it out, grind it out. Keep fighting with two strikes. Don’t strike out so easily. Eventually that produces runs.”

Buffalo’s playoff hangover which stretches from the Buffalo Bills to the Buffalo Sabres is something that the Bisons front office is very mindful of. Last season new Blue Jays (and former Cleveland Indians) president Mark Shapiro made no specific promises, only to stress that he was very much aware of the winning culture the Bisons enjoyed when Cleveland was the parent club over a decade ago.

Too early to tell. But a three game sweep over the perennial division champion Railriders was a perfect start to the 2017 season.