It’s been six years since the Buffalo Bisons were in a playoff race, but tonight Coca-Cola Field will have that playoff atmosphere.
That’s when Buffalo opens up a three-game series with the Rochester Red Wings.
And that’s when the Bisons hope to make their move in the International League standings.
It’s the most important head-to-head series between the Thruway Cup rivals since they played each other in the 1961 Governors’ Cup Finals.
After the Bisons lost a 13-4 decision to Syracuse in front of 6,513 at Coca-Cola Field, the Herd fell 3½ games behind Rochester in the IL North Division race. The loss combined with wins by Norfolk and Pawtucket put the Bisons a half-game back in the wild card chase.
It was a disappointing result for Buffalo, which holds its playoff fate in its own hands. But the game was set up to be a difficult outing when a few hours before the first pitch scheduled starter Thad Weber was pulled as the Toronto Blue Jays announced they would officially recall him today after Josh Johnson was put on the disabled list with a strained right forearm.
The thin Bisons’ bullpen, already taxed, did its best to cobble together the outing. The Herd used five pitchers, including going to second baseman Mike McCoy who tossed the ninth inning giving up a three-run home run.
No one fared well on the mound as Syracuse scored its 13 runs on 16 hits.
But a new day provides a fresh opportunity. And the head-to-head meeting with Rochester and the playoff potential have the clubhouse focused, eager and excited.
“It’s always better to play the game when the games matter at this level. Last year, the team I was on, we were out of it and it got pretty miserable to be around,” said Bisons infielder Jim Negrych, who played with Syracuse last season. “Right now, it’s pretty good. Everyone’s in good spirits. We’re going out there and the games actually matter now so they’re fun. We go out there and win as many as we can.”
It’s a different experience, too, for Mike Nickeas, who was a member of the Bisons last year when the team went 67-76 and finished last in the division.
“It’s a totally different feel. Obviously it’s been great,” Nickeas said. “We’re all motivated to keep playing hard. The team is kind of forming up well. We’re coming together at the right time. We’re winning some big games. The next couple of weeks are important for us, playing all division rivals. Hopefully we keep rolling like we have been.”
All of Buffalo’s remaining 20 games are against IL North Division opponents and while series with Lehigh Valley and Pawtucket can have wild card implications, the seven games with Rochester have the potential to change the complexion of the divisional race.
But the Bisons don’t really know what to expect from Rochester. While Buffalo is 5-4 against the Red Wings this season, the teams played all but one of those games in April.
“I think we are different,” manager Marty Brown said. “You can see the turnaround in their season since the beginning of the year. They’ve upgraded their pitching. They’ve come along and developed some of their guys. And offensively they’ve been continually getting better and better as the season’s gone on.
“It doesn’t matter how much we’ve seen them. We still have to make adjustments.”
Buffalo and Rochester opened the season playing each other. The Herd started out 3-0 and rattled off a head-turning 17-7 April.
The Red Wings started 0-3 and were 11 games out as recently as July 2 when they were 41-45.
Since then, Rochester has gone 27-12 and from 11 out to three-games up — a 14-game swing. They made the push without current IL batting leader Chris Colabello (.345) and outfield prospect Oswaldo Arcia, both of whom went up to Minnesota.
The Red Wings have won behind their pitching. The staff leads all of the minors with six complete-game shutouts and 12 complete games. The bullpen, meanwhile, has saved 25 of its last 26 chances while the defense has made just 72 errors — another statistic that leads all of minor league baseball.
But Buffalo is no slouch either. After spending much of the early part of the season in first place, the Herd entered a mid-season lull and fell 10 games back on June 27. But they’ve strung together some winning streaks and have won six of their last eight to pull themselves back into contention.
“I think we’re different because we’re not laying back, waiting on a three-run homer. We’re trying to manufacture runs,” Brown said. “We’ve expressed the importance of situational hitting. … We try to make things happen more.”