Barely before the ink on his first professional contract had a chance to dry, Josh Rojas realized he had become a part of a Quad-Cities team with a chance to do something special.
Players have come and gone since that late June day when the Astros’ 26th-round selection arrived in the Midwest League, but what Rojas sensed that first day on the job has led the River Bandits to the league championship series.
“There’s just no quit in this team,’’ Rojas said. “We’re competing until the final out every single game. It doesn’t matter who is in the lineup. We’re there for each other and that’s why we’re getting to experience what we’re experiencing now.’’
Quad-Cities begins play in the best-of-five Midwest League Championship Series tonight, taking the field in Fort Wayne at 6 p.m. for the first of two road games to open the series.
The title chance is the first for the River Bandits since Carlos Correa-led Quad-Cities won its second Midwest League pennant in three years in 2013. The 58-year-old franchise has won six league championships and is playing in the league finals for the 12th time.
This year’s series will be decided at Modern Woodmen Park.
After playing the next two nights in Fort Wayne, the remainder of the series will be in the Quad-Cities with the third game scheduled for a 6:30 p.m. start on Saturday. If necessary, the fourth and fifth games of the series will be played in Davenport on Sunday at 5:15 p.m. and Monday at 6:30 p.m.
“This is what we’ve working for all year,’’ catcher Chuckie Robinson said. “We just have to keep playing our game and if we do that, we’ll bring the Midwest League championship to the Quad-Cities.’’
Rojas helped position the River Bandits for the chance to do that, driving in the winning run in the 10th inning of the Western Division Championship Series opener against Cedar Rapids before sending Quad-Cities on its way to a 6-1 series-clinching win over the Kernels on Monday night with a three-run double in the first inning.
“Our backs have been against the wall so many times this season and so many times, as a team we’ve responded,’’ Rojas said. “I don’t think any of us feel pressure. We’re there for each other so we just go out and play, do our job and have fun with it.’’
Manager Russ Steinhorn has set that type of a tone within a team which has had a fluid roster throughout much of the season.
Robinson is the only player on the roster who was with the team on opening day and 22 players who competed for Quad-Cities this season were promoted to higher levels within the Astros farm system.
Despite the individual promotions that are part of the process at the minor-league level, Steinhorn has watched his players develop a sense of team that carried over from the start to the end of a 79-59 regular season that has been followed by 2-1 series wins against Peoria and Cedar Rapids in the postseason.
“We’ve been a complete team, pitching, defense and hitting, and everybody has a stake in that,’’ Steinhorn said. “It’s been fun so far to watch it all come together, the way we’ve battled in the postseason, and we’re not done yet.’’
The mindset won’t change in the championship series.
Pitcher Kit Scheetz, who scattered three hits and topped previous career highs with nine strikeouts over 6.2 innings, puts it this way.
“We fight to win every pitch,’’ Scheetz said.
That objective, Steinhorn said, has been a season-long endeavor and the approach won’t change against the TinCaps. The Padres affiliate finished the regular season with a 68-72 record but matched the River Bandits’ 42-28 second-half mark.
“We’ll go out there and play our game,’’ Steinhorn said. “Working to make the most out of every inning has gotten us to this point, not making anything bigger than it is. One pitch, one at-bat at a time, that’s why we’re still playing ball.’’
It’s also why the River Bandits still have something to play for.
“The chance to be a champion, it’s what it’s all about, and here we are with a chance to make that happen,’’ Robinson said. “It’s an awesome feeling.’’
It’s a feeling Rojas doesn’t want to end.
“We’ve been a team that has been able to deal with whatever comes our way. Down 4-0 the other night, we kept working, kept it on an even keel and gave ourselves a chance to win,’’ Rojas said. “We’ll keep fighting, keep battling together. It’s the way we play the game.’’