Russ Steinhorn noticed one commonality among the 63 players whose work helped the Quad-Cities River Bandits win the 2017 Midwest League championship.
“Their fight,’’ the Quad-Cities manager said Saturday night, standing next to the nearly five-foot trophy his team earned by sweeping Fort Wayne in the best-of-five Midwest League Championship Series.
“It didn’t matter who was in the lineup or even who was on the roster, the fight these guys showed in the way they competed until the final out gave us a chance to not only come back in games, that mindset gave us a chance to have a special year.’’
It certainly was a unique season, probably the most unique among the seven Midwest League pennants the 58-year-old Quad-Cities franchise has won.
Unlike recent championship efforts in 2011 and 2013, the roster of this River Bandits team was seemingly in a constant state of change.
Only one player who was on the opening day roster for Quad-Cities was still there in the playoffs, helping the River Bandits win third-and-deciding games against Peoria and Cedar Rapids in opening rounds before finishing off the TinCaps in front of a crowd of 4,608 fans at Modern Woodmen Park.
“Talk about a storybook ending,’’ Steinhorn said, referencing the 4-for-5 game that Chuckie Robinson had in Quad-Cities’ 12-2 championship-clinching win. “The only guy who was here all season finishes things off with an incredible performance.’’
Robinson belted a two-run homer and drove a run home with a double as the River Bandits used a six-run second inning to grab a quick 9-0 lead that left no doubt about the outcome.
“Since the playoffs started, all season really, we’ve shown a resilience. We never quit,’’ Robinson said. “Big innings, good pitching and defense, that’s who we’ve been this year.’’
The deciding six-run second inning was the type of big inning that was commonplace throughout the season for a Quad-Cities team which established a franchise record by hitting 139 home runs – 25 more than the previous record – and tied an 18-year-old record by leading the Midwest League with 743 runs.
While 22 players swatted homers for the River Bandits this season, it was ultimately the little things that made a difference in the second half after Quad-Cities missed clinching a playoff berth in the first half by one game.
“There was motivation there, to come so close in the first half. It changed the focus right away,’’ Steinhorn said. “We turned around our record in one-run games, and we had a walk-off win against Kane County that really set the tone for the second half.’’
Quad-Cities opened the half 15-5, but that 5-4 walk-off in 10 innings on July 4 illustrated the fight that ultimately defined the River Bandits.
Rallying from a 3-0 deficit to send the game into extra innings, Kane County took a 4-3 lead in the top of the 10th before Josh Rojas drew a game-tying walk and Daz Cameron singled up the middle to give Quad-Cities the win.
The success continued, even as the roster continued to change as part of the developmental aspect of minor-league baseball.
A total of 23 River Bandits earned promotions to high-A Buies Creek in the Carolina League and a 24th, Cameron, was traded during the final week of the regular season.
By then, Quad-Cities had clinched the second-half title in the Western Division and with little motivation was stuck in a six-game losing streak.
The end of that streak coincided with the arrival of three major-league players sent to the River Bandits by Houston on rehab assignments. Pitcher Michael Feliz, infielder Colin Moran and catcher Evan Gattis made more than an impact on the field as the postseason began.
“The way they worked, the way they went about preparing every day, the way they dealt with our players, it sent a message to our guys about what it takes to get to where they are at,’’ Steinhorn said. “I think the timing of when they came in helped get our guys focused and re-energized for the playoffs.’’
With their work in the Quad-Cities complete for this season, River Bandits players left on Sunday to begin the next chapter in their careers.
For Robinson, named the most valuable player of the championship series, that meant a quick drive to his hometown of Danville, Illinois, and the chance to watch his younger brother play in a youth football game.
Named to the Midwest League postseason all-star team last month, Robinson plans to take a brief break and then attend an Astros’ strength camp in Florida before reporting for spring training in 2018.
Six River Bandits – position players Rojas, J.J. Matijevic and Abraham Toro-Hernandez and pitchers Jesus Balaguer, Robert Corniel and Yohan Ramirez – flew out of the Quad-Cities to continue their development at Houston’s instructional league camp which started Sunday.
They’ll be joined there on Thursday by Steinhorn, who was given the chance to take a couple of days off after guiding the River Bandits to an overall record of 87-61 in his first full season as a manager in the Astros’ farm system.
“It’s been quite a year, something I’ll always remember,’’ Steinhorn said. “I’m glad we had the chance to win it all at home in front of our fans and the front office people who have been there for us all season. It’s been a great ride.’’