Sacramento River Cats

Despite strong finish, River Cats miss playoffs again

River Cats third baseman Myles Schroder (19) signs pre-game autographs. The River Cats played their final game of the season against the Fresno Grizzlies, Monday Sept. 5, 2016, at Raley Field in West Sacramento.
River Cats third baseman Myles Schroder (19) signs pre-game autographs. The River Cats played their final game of the season against the Fresno Grizzlies, Monday Sept. 5, 2016, at Raley Field in West Sacramento. Special to The Bee

Jose Alguacil is a big boxing fan. When he gathered the Triple-A River Cats for the first time this spring as their manager, he showed the team a video of a bout in which one fighter gets punished during the early rounds only to win in the last round. As the River Cats slogged through a difficult first half, Alguacil continued to invoke that message.

“I want the guys to know that never is it late to throw the best punch,” he said. “That’s what I was preaching this year: ‘Hey guys, we’re going to come back, and we’re going to throw our best punch at some point.’ 

They landed it in the second half. The River Cats lost their first game after the All-Star break to fall 16 games under .500, then went 31-21 the rest of the way despite dropping their final three games of the season to the Fresno Grizzlies.

8,587 River Cats’ average attendance at Raley Field this season

In this case, though, a late flurry was not enough to win the fight. The River Cats finished 69-75 after falling 4-3 to the Grizzlies in Monday’s finale at Raley Field. Afterward, Alguacil said he addressed the team and gave handshakes to his players, telling them he admired how they finished the season even with a playoff berth out of reach.

“It showed you we’re a team that never gives up,” Alguacil said. “We probably woke up a little too late in the season, but we went through a lot of stuff and learned to play under any conditions. … I think we accomplished a lot, even though the numbers don’t show it.”

The River Cats’ roster in flux early in the season, especially as injuries to the Giants’ roster led the parent club to call up replacements from Triple A. Forging team chemistry proved difficult amid the turnover. The River Cats finished with 185 roster transactions.

Still, they had a few individual standouts. Ty Blach was named the Pacific Coast League left-handed Pitcher of the Year before being called up by the Giants last week. Outfielder Gorkys Hernandez, also now with the Giants, made the PCL All-Star team. After being promoted from Double A in June, outfielder Austin Slater caught fire in August, batting .381 with nine home runs.

Outfielders Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker and infielder Kelby Tomlinson split time between Sacramento and the majors. The River Cats’ pitching staff posted a 4.03 ERA, fourth-lowest in the PCL, led by Blach and right-hander Chris Stratton, who after the All-Star break was 7-2 with a 2.09 ERA in 10 starts.

“Early on, I can speak to myself, I definitely wasn’t up to par,” Stratton said Monday. “The pitching staff as a whole wasn’t really giving our hitters a chance to keep us in games. But I think in the second half we really turned it on. If we’d played like that all year, we’d definitely be in the playoffs right now.”

I think we accomplished a lot, even though the numbers don’t show it.

River Cats manager Jose Alguacil

Playoffs used to be a regular occurrence at Raley Field, but this marks the fourth consecutive season the River Cats have not made the postseason, including their final two seasons as the A’s Triple-A affiliate and first two as the Giants’. This also marks the first time since the franchise moved to Sacramento it has had back-to-back losing seasons.

“Everyone wants to win, no matter what level,” River Cats president Jeff Savage said. “But it’s nice to have. It’s not something we rely upon. Instead, we focus on things that we know we can control, and that’s what I think our fans appreciate. It’s the experience, that family-friendly experience.”

Average attendance at Raley Field this season was 8,587 – not counting a wildly popular exhibition game against the Giants in March – second in the PCL but down from 2015, when the first season of affiliation with the Giants sparked a 9,338 average. Savage said the dip was expected.

“Overall fan support has remained tremendous and our attendance is strong,” he said. “It’s been a great year.”

Alguacil, an eternal optimist, said it would have been nice to win Monday’s finale and reach 70 wins. Though the River Cats fell short, he said it “means a lot” that they entered the final series with a chance at climbing back to .500.

“Do I want to win at this level?” Alguacil said. “Of course I want to win. I want to create that atmosphere because it’s what we’ve experienced the last few years in the majors.

“We learned from this season. But we got better. We competed. That’s what I liked.”

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