The Rock Cats regroup at New Britain Stadium Tuesday with a real chance to make the Eastern League playoffs for the first time in six years.
The Cats, after a 3-3 road trip to Erie and Akron, are tied for third place with the Trenton Thunder, a half-game behind the Portland Sea Dogs. With eight games remaining against Trenton and 17 of the last 27 games at home, New Britain has control of its own destiny in search of second place and a ticket to the playoffs.
The last time New Britain qualified for the postseason, a rather talented young man named Joe Mauer was the catcher. Manager Stan Cliburn had a knack for getting the most out of his clubs down the stretch.
The Cats faced the New Haven Ravens in the Northern Division playoffs and pushed it to a fifth and final game with big-league rehabber Eric Milton on the mound. Milton pitched a great game but lost a duel with husky right-hander Chris Baker. The crowning blow was a moon shot over the Yale Field scoreboard in straightaway center field by journeyman Anthony Saunders.
It's an exciting time. The games are apt to be crisply played with the possibility of a championship ring at stake.
The Rock Cats have the offensive strength. Second baseman Brian Dinkelman has established himself as one of the best hitters in the circuit. Center fielder Brandon Roberts is setting the table in the leadoff spot. Third baseman Luke Hughes is coming off a productive road trip.
Erik Lis can carry a team if he can get on one of his rolls. Versatile Juan Portes is on the DL at the moment but shouldn't be out long. The return of highly prized catcher Wilson Ramos would really bolster the lineup but he remains in Fort Myers with a hamstring issue. Chances are that he won't return so Danny Lehmann and Jeff Christy will share the duties behind the plate.
In Anthony Slama, manager Tom Nieto has the EL's leading closer. Alex Burnett was a capable set-up man before he went on the disabled list during the road trip, making room for the return of veteran Rhode Island righty Jay Rainville.
For starters, southpaw Ryan Mullins has been the Cats' most reliable of late. Matt Fox turned in an exceptional outing in Akron after nearly two months without a win. Deolis Guerra, a key component in the trade that sent Johan Santana to the Mets, has been inconsistent. Cole DeVries is terrific on the road but can't seem to get untracked at home. Mike McCardell returns to the rotation after a shoulder problem put him on the DL for a short spell.
Second place is there for the taking. The New Britain fans have come out in droves this year and deserve a chance for some extra baseball. Any maybe, just maybe, the Cats' inability to handle the first-place Connecticut Defenders will reverse in the Northern Division playoffs.