ValleyCats storming into contention after rough start

Tri-City ValleyCats catcher Daniel Angulo catches a foul pop-up behind home plate against Washington on Tuesday at Joe Bruno Stadium in Troy.

Tri-City ValleyCats catcher Daniel Angulo catches a foul pop-up behind home plate against Washington on Tuesday at Joe Bruno Stadium in Troy.

TROY — Carson Maxwell couldn’t pinpoint the date, but he could zero in on the moment when it felt like the Tri-City ValleyCats went from feeling like a collection of individual players to an actual, honest-to-goodness team.

“It was a home game, for sure,” the ValleyCats’ outfielder said prior to Tuesday’s opener of a three-game series against the Washington Wild Things at Joe Bruno Stadium. “We won by three or four, and it just kind of felt like something shifted.”

What shifted, exactly?

According to Maxwell, it was the ValleyCats’ entire mentality. After a calamitous start to the team’s inaugural season in the independent Frontier League, the club has turned the corner.

It’s a season that can, thus far, be pretty neatly split into two halves. The first half was a serious struggle, a 4-15 mark through 19 games that included an early seven-game losing streak and another stretch of seven losses in eight games. The second has been much better, with the ValleyCats going 14-7 in their last 21 games after Tuesday’s 6-3 win over Washington — a mark that looked even better before Tri-City lost three of four over the weekend in a series with the league-best Sussex County Miners.

The switch flipped, Maxwell said, because the ValleyCats embraced playing as a team instead of hunting individual achievements as the players tried to scramble their way up the professional baseball ladder.

“I think the first 20, we all wanted to play for ourselves, play good so we could all get out of here,” said Maxwell, who is one of just three ValleyCats to appear in all 40 games this season, along with Juan Silverio and Denis Phipps. “We realized that we needed to start playing to win and not just play for ourselves, but do whatever we can to help each other win.”

ValleyCats manager Pete Incaviglia has seen his club’s transformation as well, especially as the ValleyCats navigated an ever-changing roster in the season’s opening weeks.

“We really struggled out of the gate,” Incaviglia said after Tuesday’s win, which was sparked by a four-hit, four-RBI performance from Oscar Campos. “We had a lot of young kids, and we lost a lot of guys early in the season to MLB [contracts]. The guys we’ve brought in have been great. The players deserve all the credit. They’ve really bonded together, and they go out every day and play hard. ”

Tri-City, which didn’t play in 2020 due to the novel coronavirus pandemic’s impact on minor league baseball, joined the independent Frontier League for 2021 after Major League Baseball’s massive restructuring of its minor league system, which resulted in the team’s loss of affiliation with an MLB club.

The ValleyCats had been the Class A New York-Penn League affiliate of the Houston Astros since the franchise’s arrival in Troy in 2002.

The team’s recent good fortune has the ValleyCats squarely in the postseason hunt. While Tri-City’s 17-22 record entering Tuesday was good for just 11th-best in the 14-team Frontier League, after winning Tuesday the club sits just a half-game back of first place in the Atlantic Division in a tight race with Equipe Quebec and the New York Boulders. The winners of each of the league’s four divisions will qualify for the postseason.

With the way the ValleyCats are playing right now, Incaviglia — who hit 206 home runs in 12 MLB seasons — is brimming with confidence about his team’s chances as they move forward.

“I don’t think there’s anything we can’t do,” Incaviglia said. “I think we can swing the bats with anybody, our defense has gotten better and our pitchers — our guys out of the bullpen and our starters — are throwing strikes. It gives us an opportunity to win games.”

It took some time for the ValleyCats to get used to each other, but as the team nears the halfway point of the 96-game regular season, they’re reaping the rewards of their early struggles.

“Obviously, you want it to be done right off the bat, but stuff happens,” said Maxwell, whose RBI double capped off a decisive three-run sixth inning for Tri-City. “We’re just glad that it’s happening now, rather than at the end of the season.”

Washington 011 000 010 — 3 8 0

Tri-City 020 103 00x — 6 12 0

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