Fort Wayne TinCaps manager Anthony Contreras knew better than the rest of us.
He's also calmer, more patient and farsighted than the rest of us.
Contreras has been around some of his players for parts of three years. He went on a short-season playoff run with some of them two years ago, an initial TinCaps season last year. He's seen their potential – rather limitless in many cases– during spring training. He also understands the value of patience, discipline and persistence.
When the rest of us watched losses pile up for half a season, he saw the slow march of progress.
“I can't say it's shocking,” Contreras said. “I saw them in the second half put themselves in position because of the routines and hard work and everything that's gone into it.”
That, in a nutshell, is the Contreras way.
As he leads his team into the Midwest League Championships Series, which opens against Quad Cities at 7:05 tonight at Parkview Field, Contreras' even-keeled, thoughtful approach remains the same.
“He's the most disciplined human being I've ever met, and I'm not exaggerating,” TinCaps president Mike Nutter said. “Whether it's his workout routine, his diet, but specifically with these guys, he never deviated from the norm.”
When the TinCaps finished the first half of the season with the worst record in the Midwest League, Contreras barely flinched. It had to be annoying at time. Losing always is. But, in a baseball move if there ever was one, he never took his eye off the ball.
Contreras believed his players were better than their record, and it was only a matter of time before that belief, and that talent, became apparent to everyone.
Now the TinCaps are three wins away from the franchise's second championship. And they're doing it despite the fact their superstar player, shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., was promoted to Class AA with a month left in the season.
Some players naturally fretted over the promotion of Tatis and what it would mean for the homestretch of the season. Contreras told his players the Padres had another highly regarded player on the way, and the team would keep moving ahead. Same goals. Same opportunities. Same Contreras.
“He's never changed,” Nutter said. “He's out here with 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids. If he's ranting and raving and kicking stuff and throwing something through the wall, what are they going to do?”
TinCaps pitcher Will Headean was with the team for 134 games, earned a promotion, and then returned for the playoffs. He was with Contreras during their short-season playoff run in 2015.
“He knows what he needs to do to put us in situations to be ready for the game,” Headean said. “He knows when to take days off, when to step back and when to work hard. He's a big reason we could find that balance of rest and play that really helped us in the second half be as successful as we've been.”
After the TinCaps beat Dayton 3-0 on Monday to earn their trip to the finals, Contreras gave the players some space to celebrate.
They eventually pulled him in the locker room into the middle of the celebration.
“I let them enjoy it, the rewards of it, but they called me in and showered me with white grape juice and stuff like that,” Contreras said. “That stuff never gets old. I've been part of it before. This is for the players, and I want them to enjoy it.”
Unlike some managers, Contreras doesn't put on a show, doesn't draw attention to himself, doesn't veer from the focus of doing his job. As a low Class A manager, he is tasked with developing players. When Tatis Jr. was promoted, it reflected the young player's performance, but that performance was encouraged and primed by Contreras and his staff.
“When they win and the players bring him in to dump stuff on him, what does that tell you?” Nutter said. “I think it says they love the guy. Maybe not every day, because he believes in accountability, but today that's needed.”
Contreras said managing playoff baseball isn't vastly different from the regular season. Sometimes the leash is shorter for starting pitchers, although not so much with the recent excellence of the TinCaps starters. Sometimes there's a more strategic use of a pinch hitter or pinch runner. For the most part, the TinCaps are expected to approach postseason games the way they did the regular-season games.
If they're like their manager, they'll be cool, calm and full of concentration.
“When the umpire says 'Play ball' there might be a little pressure,” Headean said. “But on the bus ride home we were loose and enjoying the moment. Not many times do you play playoff baseball. These next five games we'll go out, have fun, play loose and hopefully play our cards right.”
Contreras will start Pedro Avila on the mound tonight, with the rest of the rotation still undecided as of Tuesday afternoon. No doubt Contreras and pitching coach Burt Hooton are stoically analyzing the best approach.
Contreras doesn't fluctuate much in his outward appearance. There's always a straight face. But winning has to feel sweeter after forging an approach, sticking with it and seeing it pay off.
“At the end, that's what it's all about,” Contreras said. “The (parent San Diego) Padres want to win. The TinCaps want to win. These players want to win. But for myself, as the season ends, I'll see the progress from the first half to the second half. I might have some of them next year, I might not. But the work should carry them through.”
Nutter has seen a variety of managerial approaches during his time with the Wizards and TinCaps. He's seen hotheads and laid-back leaders and everything in between.
None have impressed him any more than Contreras.
“I look at the people who impacted me and they were the ones who were tough and held me accountable,” Nutter continued. “I think that's what these players will think of him years from now.”
They might have celebration memories, too. Contreras knew they had it in them all along.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at email@example.com.
Game 1: Quad Cities at Fort Wayne, 7:05 tonight
Game 2: Quad Cities at Fort Wayne, 7:05 p.m. Thursday
Game 3: Fort Wayne at Quad Cities, Saturday
Game 4 (if necessary): Fort Wayne at Quad Cities, Sunday
Game 5 (if necessary): Fort Wayne at Quad Cities, Monday