THUNDER BAY – The new manager of the Thunder Bay Border Cats insists this year’s team will not beat themselves.
With Opening Day a little more than a week away, first-year boss Johnny Hernandez says he built a hard-working roster that will be oriented around solid pitching and defence behind the mound.
“With the roster we have we’ll definitely be out there competing every day,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez, a veteran of the US Navy after serving tours in Iraq and Africa, values a blue-collar, National League style of play where he says players will be expected to bunt and work strategically to advance runners.
Hernandez inherits the reins of a squad that is coming of their worst campaign in franchise history, finishing with a league-low 21 wins and is tasked with trying to return the club to postseason play for the first time since the 2008 championship season.
To prepare for the job, Hernandez consulted one of the faces from the team’s glory days. He sought advice from Devin McIntosh, the manager of the 2008 league champion Border Cats squad, on which skills to emphasize when building the roster. In addition to defence, speed was given strong consideration.
He says he expects to be in the fight for a playoff spot and that the franchise’s third league title is a realistic goal.
The team’s brass is hopeful that losing was a bitter pill for the players returning from the 2013 group.
The team has announced that it is bringing back at least six players that suited up for the club last year, headlined by outfielder Cory Kay, who will be entering his third season with the Border Cats.
Last season Kay hit .257 with a pair of dingers and 24 runs batted in while displaying a flashy glove in the field.
The skipper says having players accustomed to the 72-game schedule is a valuable commodity in the clubhouse.
“The season is so long so I think it’s important to have guys who have been there and done that before. For a kid who has never done that before, that can be a grind,” Hernandez said.
“Just having that kind of leadership will help the younger guys not only on the field but off the field.”
He said the league schedule is the closest preparation to a professional slate that players will receive while in the collegiate ranks.
Also returning is infielder Adam Collins, who showed off a powerful bat during a small sample size. In 11 games Collins smacked three long balls, driving in 11 runs while sporting a .381 batting average.
Outfielders Alex Bautista and Thunder Bay’s Carter McEachern will also be back.
When it came time to assemble his arsenal of arms, the skipper was looking for diamonds in the rough who want to challenge hitters and pound the strike zone.
“I want guys that throw strikes,” Hernandez said. “I tried to go with smaller school pitchers. I really want kids that possibly have a chip on the shoulder that want to show they can play with some of the best players in the country.”
Walks were the undoing of the staff last year, as they were the leaders in most free passes issued.
Leading the group of pitchers that have been announced thus far is returnee Zach Thiac. The southpaw out of Nicholls State was Thunder Bay’s lone All-Star last season, recording a 2-1 record and 2.85 earned run average working out of the bullpen.
Thiac will be joined by collegiate teammate and fellow lefty Mike Hanchar, who appeared in two contests last year for the Border Cats, earning a 1-1 record and 2.07 earned run average.
The team will also welcome the third Kay brother to the fold, as freshman pitcher Gunner Kay will make his debut this season. The righty completed his freshman season at Dallas Baptist University, and joins Cory in following former shortstop Brett.
The Border Cats open their Northwoods qLeague season at home against the St. Cloud Rox on May 27.
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