FORT WAYNE – The TinCaps looked like a different team during their 2-0 playoff series sweep of Bowling Green to get to the Midwest League Eastern Division finals.
Friday, as Fort Wayne prepped for its series against South Bend, the TinCaps had a different look, too.
There was laughter during batting practice, a relaxation in warm-ups that wasnt always there in the latter part of the season.
A Fort Wayne team that finished the second half of the season 29-41 suddenly looks like a playoff contender, even against a squad like the Silver Hawks.
A lot of people smile in the clubhouse, manager Jose Valentin said. Its something we was missing pretty much the whole second half. But like I said, its never too late. We just pick it up right on time, right when we have to.
Starting pitcher Max Fried will take the mound at 7:05 p.m. today against South Bend. The lefty is the No. 1 prospect in the San Diego Padres organization and said he looked forward to building off strong outings from fellow starters Joe Ross and Zach Eflin in the Bowling Green sweep.
Fort Wayne is in the Midwest League East finals for the fourth time in the past five years and the sixth time in the franchises 21-year history.
The big thing was they havent walked a lot of hitters, especially the last couple outings that theyve had, and theyve had success, Fried said of the playoff rotation. Playoffs is a whole new season, and what happened in the past doesnt really matter anymore. Going by history, we probably wouldnt have done as well against Bowling Green as we had, but were pretty much rejuvenated. Were going out there, were playing hard, playing good baseball and planning to just ride that out the rest of the playoffs.
The TinCaps need that kind of confidence against a tough South Bend squad.
The Silver Hawks are 14-5 against Fort Wayne this season. However, all but two of those losses were by five or fewer runs, and the TinCaps swept South Bend in an Aug. 21-23 series at Parkview Field.
We sent a message late in the season, Valentin said. Its not going to be easy. We know that theyre a great team. To beat them, we just got to play the same type of baseball we did against Bowling Green: hitting, pitching, play good defense.
Executing the small-ball approach Valentins team takes will be crucial against the Silver Hawks, as will a strong performance by Fried.
Colin Rea will get the start at 5:05 p.m. Sunday in South Bend, and if the series goes to three games, Ross will take the start Monday.
That first game, Valentin said, is do-or-die. It will set the tone, and taking two at South Bend would be difficult.
Fried agreed that his start will be crucial.
Weve got guys in the next couple games that are really reliable, the 19-year-old said. Its definitely important to set the tempo, really get it on our side so we can then just keep driving.
Confidence is also essential. Luckily for the TinCaps, theres no lack of it in the clubhouse.
It feels like nobody can beat us, Valentin said. The only people that can beat us is ourselves.
Note: The TinCaps are 72 fans away from setting a season-high mark in attendance. Fort Wayne set its current record in 2012, with 408,044 during the regular season and postseason.