SIOUX CITY – Unless you’re new to this climate of ours – and if you are, what were you thinking? – you’re still watching weather forecasts with a wary eye, unwilling to believe another blast of winter can’t happen.
That’s the same half-empty glass Steve Montgomery admits to having as another new baseball season approaches.
All in all, though, the big man they call “Mongo” is generally pumped about his sixth season as the field manager of the Sioux City Explorers. And the club’s 27th season gets underway exactly one month from Tuesday in a series opener against the Lincoln Saltdogs.
Coming off another outstanding year, Montgomery may be greeting an even more formidable team when he gathers for the first time May 3 with the 28 players American Association rules allow him to bring into preseason camp.
That would definitely be something worth watching since last year’s X’s finished 71-29, nine wins better than any of their 11 American Association rivals after leading the league in both batting and pitching.
If lefty relief specialist Patrick Schuster winds up landing a new role as a starting pitcher, Montgomery’s five-man rotation would likely boast three veterans with major league experience. That’s because Taylor Jordan is returning to the club after finishing last summer in Taiwan and Jason Garcia, a late-season addition acquired to fill Jordan’s slot, is also expected to be here again.
Jordan, who made 15 big league starts for the Washington Nationals, went 10-2 in 15 outings here before leaving in August. Meanwhile, Garcia, a reliever in 2015 with the Baltimore Orioles, wound up 3-0 with a 1.57 ERA in his three late-season starts.
The entire pitching staff averaged nearly a strikeout per inning (873 in 887 innings) and the bullpen was loaded with quality arms that posted well over that ratio. That included Schuster (47 in 33 innings) along with fellow holdovers Eric Karch (61 in 43-plus), Tyler Fallwell (33 in 28) and Ryan Horstman (47 in 32-plus).
Then, there’s a lineup quite similar to the crew that hit 10 points higher than any league foe at .305 and scored an Association-high 629 runs – 66 more than the next highest total.
Asked if his 2019 pitching staff could be even stronger than last year’s, Montgomery concedes “it has the makings (of doing so).’’
“Last year we were a little more experienced (pitching-wise),’’ he said. “We had nine or 10 pitchers that had touched (or gone beyond) Double-A (the second highest level in affiliated baseball’s minor leagues). This year? Well, I guess we actually have nine again.
That’s out of 18 pitchers invited to camp, a number that will likely be whittled to 17 when the Explorers sign a rookie to fill the backup catcher job. And that’s the last definite personnel adjustment, which doesn’t mean a trade or two couldn’t happen in the next couple of weeks.
With shortstop Nate Samson and third baseman Jose Sermo back on board, the lineup sports two of the last three league MVP’s, the first two in franchise history.
Power-hitting Dean Green, who carries a seven-year career batting average of .305, is back at first base after joining the team for its final 20 regular season games. And, the starting second baseman will be Nelson Ward, who suffered a season-ending kneecap fracture in last year’s fifth game – before the X’s played their home opener.
Rightfielder Michael Lang hasn’t signed his contract as yet, but the all-time franchise leader in countless categories, is expected to return and become the first position player to log six seasons here. Also returning is catcher Dylan Kelly, who parlays an effective bat with a strong knack for handling his pitching staff.
Two promising rookies will likely duke it out for the left-field job and Montgomery has picked up a new centerfielder in Tillman Pugh, a nine-year veteran who batted .357 over 42 games after joining the Gary SouthShore RailCats last July.
“Tillman had an unbelievable year last year,’’ said the X’s skipper. “We don’t want him to hit homers (although he has belted as many as 18 in a season), we just want him to be himself.’’
Last year, of course, yielded the third division championship in four years for Montgomery’s teams, whose overall record for the last four years is a league-best 246-154. Unfortunately, the third playoff opportunity over that span again failed to culminate in a league title.
Kansas City, as many recall, knocked off the Explorers in a first-round (semifinal) playoff series that went the full five games before a routine fly ball was lost in the setting sun and led to a heartbreaking defeat.
The only way to salve the wounds that his teams suffered in their three recent postseason bids, Montgomery’s plan has remained simple: Keep striving for another opportunity and then finally cash one in.
It should be fun to follow.