The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders were close last season to winning their second Governors’ Cup championship in three years.
The disappointment of last season’s deciding Game 5 loss at home against Durham has not been forgotten.
“We were a game away from our goal last year,” said outfielder Zack Zehner. “That’s always tough when you make it to the last game of the season and don’t win. So I think we’re trying to build off that, really, and we want to be back in the championship. We want to take the cup. We want to go on to that national championship against the PCL team. I think that’s kind of what everyone’s striving to get to.”
Zehner and the rest of the RailRiders were back in Northeastern Pennsylvania on Monday for media day at PNC Field. While Zehner played in that 6-2 loss in September against Durham, going one for four from the No. 6 spot in the order, first-year manager Jay Bell observed the result from afar.
But he, too, mentioned it as a point of motivation for the RailRiders in 2019.
“I think a lot of these guys, every day they go out there and it is about player development. There is no doubt about that,” said Bell, who managed Double-A Trenton last season. “But, at the same time, these guys like to win. I think there was a bitter taste in their mouth last year losing Game 5.”
Make no mistake, 2018 was still a successful season for the RailRiders, who managed to overcome a whopping 280 transactions and went 73-65 while winning a playoff series against the rival Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
Playoff appearances have become commonplace for the RailRiders, and even with a change at the top from manager Bobby Mitchell to Bell, that could be the case again in 2019.
“We have high expectations for our players,” Bell said. “I think that here in Scranton, the fans have high expectations for them, as well. Having had the opportunity to play in Pittsburgh as long as I did, I know that part of the culture here in the state of Pennsylvania — the great state of Pennsylvania — is the fact that they appreciate hard work.”
Still just 24 years old, the left-handed Cortes, who pitched four games last season with the Baltimore Orioles, is somewhat of a veteran in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre clubhouse. He debuted with the RailRiders in 2016, pitching only once in the regular season. He made plenty of appearances with the team in 2017 and 2018.
“I think my competitiveness and being able to work with the coaches and work with the pitching guys, they helped me come a long way,” Cortes explained of his rapid rise through the minors. “When I first signed, I remember I was only fastball-curveball, and the changeup wasn’t all there. Now, I have a cutter. I implemented a cutter into my repertoire. I have to credit a lot of pitching coaches that came up with me through the system, taught me a lot of different stuff — even the trainers and strength coaches.”
While Cortes is a RailRider veteran, lefty Danny Coulombe is one of the team’s newest members.
Coulombe, 29, has pitched 153 games of relief in the majors since his 2014 debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Having gone from the Dodgers to the Oakland A’s in 2015, practically all of Coulombe’s pro career has been spent on the West Coast.
“First of all, it’s the Yankees,” Coulombe, who grew up in Arizona, said of his decision to sign a free agent contract with the organization. “I grew up as a huge Diamondbacks fan, and I remember playing them in the 2001 World Series. The Diamondbacks played them in the World Series, and the Diamondbacks won, but (the Yankees) have an aura about them. They’re winners. They invest in their players. I can just see it with the analytics department — they want their players to be the best they possibly can. I’ve seen it so much this spring already. It’s been a really good experience. That, and honestly, I think it’d be cool to be part of a team that has a chance to win a championship. Oakland was pretty good last year. But the bulk of my service time, we weren’t an above-.500 team. I think if I ever get a shot to contribute to the team, that’d be pretty special.”
Coulombe said he arrived in Moosic on Saturday night.
While he hasn’t seen much of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area just yet, he’s undoubtedly been impressed by PNC Field.
“Honestly, this stadium is incredible,” Coulombe said. “This is a big-league clubhouse. It’s nicer than most of the big-league clubhouses, so it’s pretty cool.”
Zehner, who will man the outfield with Coulombe’s former Oakland teammate Billy Burns, shared similarly high praise for the RailRiders.
“It’s very professional here,” Zehner said. “You get a sense that you’re close to the big leagues when you come and play in this stadium. The coaching staff is very pro — and it’s pro again this year.”
First baseman Mike Ford added, “It’s top of its class. You just look at the locker room and the space that we get to call home for six months, it’s pretty amazing. They do a great job.”
Wade has since been called up to the Yankees, who, when needing a quality bat or glove or arm from the minors, will always have a reliable option down at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
“We’ve had a ton of talent here every year,” said Ford, who batted .253 with 15 home runs and 52 RBIs in 102 games with the RailRiders last season. “It seems like it just keeps getting better and better, too.”