Cleburne Railroaders Surging with Rise in Summer Temperatures
American Association Daily provides insights, features, and recaps of the action from around the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions. In today’s edition, Robert Pannier examines the rise of the Cleburne Railroaders and how they suddenly find themselves in the heart of the East Division playoff chase.
Not Lonely in Texas Any Longer
Texas is called the Lone Star State, and it was feeling like the Cleburne Railroaders were all alone in the East Division of the American Association through the first two months of the season. The club was not only over 700 miles from their nearest division opponent, but found themselves languishing in the bottom of the division. It felt like this was going to be a very lonely summer in Cleburne for sure.
However, the Railroaders have ridden an eight-game winning streak all the way into fourth place in the East. Suddenly, they find themselves as the hottest team in the American Association, and not just because of the 100-plus degree temperature. It is the combination of a number of outstanding moves made by Manager Logan Watkins and a pitching staff putting it all together that suddenly has this team seeing its playoff aspirations become reality.
Like Turning on a Light Switch
Just 22 days ago it seemed like the Railroaders had better start preparing for the 2023 season. The club had lost two out of three at home to the Sioux City Explorers, finishing their six-game homestand 2-4. The club was 11-28 overall, 14 games behind the Chicago Dogs for the top spot in the division. More importantly, they were eight games behind the Gary SouthShore RailCats for the fourth and final playoff spot in the division. The RailCats were riding high while the Railroaders were struggling.
However, on June 27, everything changed. Like a light switch turning on for the Railroaders and a switch turning off for the RailCats, Cleburne has jumped into the fourth spot in this division, taking a half-game lead over Gary SouthShore. The RailCats have gone 3-13 in their last 16, while the Railroaders have gone 12-5 in their last 17.
It all began with the series in Kansas City, where the club was dominated in the opener, 11-3, then the Railroaders put the Monarchs in their place, winning the last three contests by a combined score of 34-18. Cleburne scored 26 runs over the final two games of that series, serving notice that this club was ready to get back into the thick of things.
The club returned home, where they dropped four of the six games, losing two of three to both the Sioux Falls Canaries and the Monarchs, but the team closed the series against Kansas City with a 12-11 victory. That started an eight game winning streak, which has seen the club sweep the Lake Country DockHounds in Wisconsin and then return home to sweep the Lincoln Saltdogs in four games following the All-Star break.
Additions Helping to Multiply Offense
The number of runs the club has given up in July has not been pretty, as the Railroaders have a 5.70 ERA. However, it has been good enough because the offense has been spectacular. After hitting just 29 home runs in 28 games in June and eight home runs in 15 games in May, Cleburne has 26 homeruns in 13 July contests, the most homeruns hit by a club this month. They are also hitting .320, which is the top batting average.
It is remarkable how this offense has caught fire. However, it is not the warm summer temperatures in Texas that are fueling the run production. Instead, it is a number of great moves by Watkins that have made this as dangerous of an offense as any in the American Association.
It starts with the addition of Kacy Clemens, named on Monday for the second time this season as the American Association Player of the Week. Clemens has appeared in 23 games, hitting .411 with 20 runs scored, 29 RBI, and 12 extra-base hits. He has a ridiculous .505 on-base percentage and a 1.160 OPS. He is also on a 16-game winning streak, as the club has gone 12-4 during the run.
It is not surprising that the Railroaders are 14-9 since Clemens joined the club, but he is not the only addition by the Cleburne Manager who has made a difference. Edwin Arroyo joined the team two weeks into the season and has been spectacular at the top of the batting order, hitting .316 with 33 runs scored and 21 RBI in 45 games. Hill Alexander joined the club a day after Clemens and is hitting .269 with 18 runs scored and 18 RBI in 22 games. He has five home runs in that span.
The additional support has helped stars Zach Nehrir and Chase Simpson as well, as their numbers have improved. Simpson has raised his batting average 26 points since Clemens signed and Nehrir has added 47 points to his slugging percentage.
Just Give Us Six
The pitching has not been great. In fact, the staff only has five hurlers who have ERAs under 5.00, and only one of those, Michael Wong, has made at least one start. The four primary starters – Kody Bullard, Kevin Hilton, Trevor Simms, and Garrett Alexander – have struggled, going a combined 11-16 with a 6.13 ERA.
However, that is the beauty of this Railroaders team. Cleburne has a quality bullpen, and may have the best set up/closer combination in the game in Hunter Cervenka and Nick Gardewine. Cervenka deserves all the accolades one could hurl, as he is 4-0 with a 0.74 ERA in 22 appearances. The left-hander has allowed 14 hits and four walks while striking out 32 in 24.1 innings. Gardewine has taken over the closer’s role and been brilliant, posting a 3-3 record with six saves and a 2.88 ERA. He has walked 18 in 25.0 innings, but has allowed just 13 hits while striking out 34.
All this team needs is for the starters to get them to the seventh-inning. The combination of Cervenka, Gardewine, Austin Fairchild, and Danny Zardon then turn games into a six-inning affair.
The Summer Is Just Heating Up
It is still only July, meaning the temperatures are going to get hotter in Cleburne, Texas. However, surprisingly, home field has not been an advantage for Cleburne this season. The club is 12-13 on the road, but just 11-20 at home. That is clearly not a mark you expect from a team who has the benefit of opponents traveling 700-plus miles just to play games against them.
However, if there is a silver lining, it is that this team has only 19 home games remaining. They have played very well on the road, especially of late where they have gone 9-1 in their last 10 road contests. That not only makes them the team most likely to grab that final spot in the East Division, but makes them a scary opponent in the first round. The home team is going to have all three games in their park for the first round of the American Association playoffs, but that should be no concern for the Railroaders now, especially considering that they took three of the last four in Kansas City.
The Cleburne Railroaders are likely on their way to a playoff appearance for the second straight season. So, get off the track. The train is coming through!
By Robert Pannier