Two weeks ago, it seemed the TinCaps had turned their second half around just in time. After struggling along at 19-34, they won six of seven games to gain some confidence and a little momentum.
Then they ran into Bowling Green again. The Hot Rods cooled off the TinCaps by winning two of three in Kentucky to finish with a 10-5 record against Fort Wayne, which finished the regular season on a 4-7 slide.
Somehow, the TinCaps have to turn that momentum around in the first round of the Midwest League playoffs starting tonight in Bowling Green. The first game in the best-of-three series starts at 8:05 p.m. The Hot Rods won the Eastern Division title in the second half with a 44-26 mark, and the TinCaps were fifth at 29-41 but qualified for the playoffs with a wild-card spot in the first half when they finished 43-26.
"I have a great feeling,'' Fort Wayne manager Jose Valentin said. "Bowling Green is not going to be easy, but nothing is easy in life. It's about going out there and getting confidence. They are a great team. You can't afford to make mistakes or they are going to make you pay.
"We just have to go in and go for it, play hard and hopefully our pitchers will give us a chance to keep the game close. Our offense has to show up. They are going to keep adding until the last out is made, and we can't afford to get down in the game early or have to use our bullpen early.''
Bowling Green scored seven or more runs seven times against Fort Wayne. Valentin thinks Hot Rod leadoff hitter Andrew Toles might be the best player in the Bowling Green lineup. Toles led the Midwest League in hitting with a .326 average and was second with 62 stolen bases. Teammate Leonardo Reginatto was second with a .325 batting average.
Joe Ross has the starting job tonight for the TinCaps despite being 2-8 in his last 19 starts. He's 0-1 this season in three starts against Bowling Green, but has pitched well against the Hot Rods. He also has playoff experience after pitching the first game of last year's Midwest League finals.
"It's important to get that first one, and I'm confident we'll go down and do that and then come back here and win it two games,'' Ross said. "Nerves kind of got out of the way last year when I ironically pitched the first game of the championship after being hurt for a while. I've faced them before and know their lineup so I'm confident how it's going to go. There's a little extra playoff mentality that goes into it. You just don't want to get overwhelmed.''
Zach Eflin, with the Midwest League's best earned run average at 2.76, will start Game 2 on Thursday in Fort Wayne.
If the TinCaps are to have a puncher's chance in this series, Valentin said he needs leadoff hitter Mallex Smith to have a big series. He led the league with 64 stolen bases despite hitting .262. He also has a big challenge in Bowling Green catcher Luke Maile.
"Their catcher is real good,'' Mallex said. "He has a good arm, good release. You aren't going to mess up and run on him. Everything has to be perfect. It's a challenge I'm looking forward to.''