River Cats' division title streak appears in jeopardy

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Wednesday, Sep. 4, 2013 - 8:42 am

A reminder of the River Cats' regular-season successes since their inception in 2000 hangs just beyond the center-field fence at Raley Field – a simple banner listing each of the 11 seasons they've won the PCL's Pacific South Division.

The River Cats have won the last six division titles, often enjoying comfortable leads in late August – which lends a feeling of unfamiliarity as the 2013 season nears its end.

The River Cats are in the thick of a division race – and trailing. They're 3 1/2 games behind the first-place Las Vegas 51s in the South, meaning they'll need to finish strongly and get help in the season's final week to win the division and make the playoffs.

"There's a reputation that's been built here, and we all want to be a part of that," first-year manager Steve Scarsone said. "There's two ways of looking at it. I don't think it's so much a worry or concern that we're not going to live up to something. I think it's more of a striving to continue the legacy that's been built."

Yet that banner can be persistent.

"It's right out in the outfield. We can see it," outfielder Shane Peterson said. "You don't want to be that team that didn't (win), but at the same time, it's kind of tough to look back because of how much changeover there is every year.

"We've put ourselves in a situation to make the playoffs through (136) games, and right now, what more can you ask for?"

The River Cats lost the opener of a four-game series to the visiting Fresno Grizzlies 7-0 Monday. Combined with Las Vegas' doubleheader sweep of Colorado Springs, the 51s' magic number to clinch the division – any combination of Las Vegas wins and Sacramento losses – is five. The River Cats have seven games left, and the 51s have eight. If the teams finish tied, Las Vegas holds the tiebreaker by virtue of winning the regular-season series 11-5.

It speaks to a competitive division that the River Cats have put together their best month in August – they were 17-7 entering Monday, giving themselves a chance to eclipse 80 wins for the sixth time in seven years – but haven't pulled away. The 51s had won 16 of 21 before Monday and took sole possession of first place from Sacramento on Aug. 20.

"It is a little frustrating, but at the same time I don't think we can be disappointed," closer Brian Gordon said.

"We've been playing great baseball. We've had the same unit now for some time – just a few minor moves here and there – but for the most part, whoever has filled those spots have done a good job of jelling together and playing consistent baseball."

Last year, the River Cats took control of first place on June 21 and never let go. In 2011, they won the South by 17 games. Since they last missed the playoffs in 2006, the closest margin by which they've won the division was four games in 2010.

One of the few holdovers from that team, outfielder Michael Taylor, said that it "doesn't really change a whole lot" playing the hunter this year rather than the hunted. Standings haven't really been consulted in the clubhouse until the last week, Taylor said. And as for team history, typical roster turnover can make it difficult for some players to feel a connection – that banner notwithstanding.

"Because guys switch so much, I think as a whole we have an idea of what it means to be a River Cat, but it's more an idea of just talent up and down the organization," Taylor said. "Obviously here has been the most successful, but I don't know if guys that are here for the first year or come over in free agency really know that.

"But I think they want to be successful for your teammates now, and also your career. The more you win, the bigger opportunity you have to get called up. And I think at the end of the day that's kind of what Triple A is all about."

Call The Bee's Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015. Read his Bay Area Baseball blog at blogs.sacbee.com/bay-area-baseball/. Follow him on Twitter @matthewkawahara.

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