PAWTUCKET ‚ÄĒ McCoy Stadium is always a pretty upbeat place. It‚Äôs a standing rule that Pawtucket Red Sox employees greet customers with smiles on their faces. Club President Mike Tamburro‚Äôs optimism and good nature extend all the way down to the most part-time of team employees.
When the PawSox are in first place, a position they have maintained for the past week, then baseball really becomes fun around the local ball park.
‚ÄúTime flies in a season like this one,‚ÄĚ Tamburro was saying on Tuesday afternoon, hours before his team would host Columbus in a battle of two International League division leaders. Pawtucket, 70-52 on the season, led the North by two games over Lehigh Valley entering Tuesday night‚Äôs action, while Columbus, 78-46, led the West by a full 13 games. Columbus and Pawtucket have the two best records in the league.
‚ÄúWe last made the playoffs in 2008,‚ÄĚ Tamburro said. ‚ÄúThe last time we won a division title was in 2003. Coming into this season, on paper, I thought we had a good team. Now that we‚Äôve played a lot of games, I think the reason we‚Äôre in first place is we have a combination of good young players mixing with veterans who have provided great leadership. Our pitching staff has been outstanding, led by big league veterans like Brandon Duckworth, Scott Atchison and Kevin Millwood.‚ÄĚ
Millwood, a 13-year big league veteran, won five of six decisions for Pawtucket before receiving his release earlier this month so that he could sign on with the Colorado Rockies.
‚ÄúKevin Millwood is one of the most unselfish players we‚Äôve ever had in Pawtucket,‚ÄĚ Tamburro said. ‚ÄúWith the credentials he brought in here, and for him to go about teaching the young pitchers on our staff, it was really amazing. Kevin and Scott and Brandon really helped our younger pitchers.‚ÄĚ
Pawtucket ranks second among I.L. teams in earned run average (3.53 runs per game) behind Gwinnett (3.16).
‚ÄúA lot of credit for that also goes to our pitching coach (Rich Sauveur),‚ÄĚ Tamburro said. ‚ÄúSavvy really works with our pitchers. He and our hitting coach, Chili Davis, are a key part of our success, along with (manager) Arnie Beyeler. My hat is off to Arnie. He hasn‚Äôt had his full lineup very often but he finds a way to win games.
‚ÄúThis team has a lot of heart,‚ÄĚ Tamburro added. ‚ÄúThe players really want to win.‚ÄĚ
The PawSox were running third in the I.L. North behind Lehigh Valley and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for the first half of the season. Two player transactions in mid-June made a big impact on the roster. Outfielder Josh Reddick, the team‚Äôs home run leader, was promoted to Boston for the second time this season and this time he stuck, going on a hitting tear that helped push the Red Sox into first place in the American League. This is the developmental side of AAA baseball that is first and foremost the mission of Beyler and his coaching staff.
The PawSox will look back on June 13 as a key point in the season. That‚Äôs the day catcher/DH Ryan Lavarnway was promoted from Portland, where he already had hit 14 home runs for the Sea Dogs. Lavarnway came to Pawtucket and barely missed a step. The 6-foot-4 slugger has belted 16 homers in 54 games for Pawtucket, knocking in 47 runs while batting .304.
‚ÄúRyan gave us a big bat in the middle of the lineup,‚ÄĚ Tamburro suggested. ‚ÄúHe has made the hitters around him better. Ryan has the ability to change the game with one swing of his bat. He continues to put the pressure on opposing pitchers.‚ÄĚ
PawSox first baseman Lars Anderson may be one of the players who improved his offense after seeing Lavarnway swing the bat. Anderson, still considered one of Boston‚Äôs better prospects, ranks among the top three PawSox in on-base percentage (.367). He has 13 homers and his 69 RBI lead the team.
‚ÄúLars has come into his own,‚ÄĚ Tamburro said. Anderson might have been ready to succeed in the big leagues when he was traded ‚Äď for three hours ‚Äď to Oakland on July 31 for pitcher Rich Harden. When that deal fell through, Anderson never blinked, going on a hitting surge that helped the PawSox take away first place from Lehigh Valley.
‚ÄúDaniel Nava is another guy who has been a key player for us,‚ÄĚ Tamburro said. ‚ÄúDaniel was hitting around .170 when Boston designated him for assignment (on May 20). When he wasn‚Äôt picked up, Daniel came back to us and now his average is up to around .270. I bet he has batted .350 or .360 since he returned to our lineup.‚ÄĚ
With 20 games left in the regular season, Pawtucket has a solid shot at the playoffs. The PawSox have their two-game lead over Lehigh Valley, and a 3-1/2 game edge in the wild-card race over Gwinnett. The local club opened an eight-game home stand on Tuesday night. Then comes an eight-game road trip to Syracuse, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Rochester before a regular season ending four-game home stand on Sept. 2-5 against Scranton/WB and Rochester.
The PawSox are already selling playoff tickets on their website. Tamburro believes plenty of fans will attend any home playoff games in September.
‚ÄúI read where we are ranked third among minor league sports markets,‚ÄĚ the PawSox boss said with a laugh. ‚ÄúThey had us ranked 37th a few years ago. Now we‚Äôre third. You know what I say to that? I don‚Äôt know how they ever ranked us 37th! And there‚Äôs no doubt in my mind that we have the top minor league fans in the country. We‚Äôre always No. 1 in my book.‚ÄĚ