By: Hubble Smith, Sports Editor
No more than perhaps 2,000 die-hard Las Vegas 51s fans probably give a flying hoot, but one thing manager Wally Backman has brought to the minor league baseball organization is a winning attitude.
After guiding the 51s to the Pacific Coast League Southern Division championship and playoffs last year for the first time since 2002, Backman has the team leading the reorganized Pacific South Division with a 15-5 record going into the first game of a home series against the Tacoma Raniers.
Backman knows how to win, for sure. He played second base for the 1986 World Champion New York Mets and hit a career-high .320 that year. He was a lifetime .275 hitter in 14 Major League seasons, appearing in 1,102 games with the Mets, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Seattle.
Winning isn’t easy in the minor leagues. You need smoke and mirrors. The 51s were stacked with talent in 2013 and the parent team called up top players such as catcher Travis D’Arnaud, pitcher Zach Wheeler, shortstop Omar Quintanilla and PCL All-Star second baseman Wilmer Flores. That hurt them in the playoffs.
Outfielder Kirk Niewenhuis, who tore it up in spring training and was off to a tremendous start for the 51s, was recently promoted to the parent club and homered in his first game. The Mets also brought up veteran outfielder Bobby Abreu.
“As a manager in the minor leagues, you don’t get to pick and choose the players you want opposed to the way you might have more authority when it gets to the Major League level,” Backman said. “You’re just given the players you’re given and try to make the most of them. Find out what kind of individuals they are. Chemistry is a big part of it.”
The 51s still field a potent lineup that includes third baseman Eric Campbell, who tore it up in spring training and is hitting .346 with three home runs for the 51s. First baseman Allan Dykstra was named PCL Player of the Week for April 14-20 after dominating opposing pitchers with a .450 batting average, two home runs and 10 RBIs. Catcher Juan Centeno is also hitting over .300 on the season.
A couple of other players that have caught my eye are outfielders Matt den Dekker and Cesar Puello.
The 51s pitching staff is led by top Mets prospect Noah Syndergaard. Some say the 6-6, 240-pound fireballer could break into the majors by mid-season. He’s a classic downhill thrower who touches 98 mph with his fastball. He did run into control problems early against the Sacramento Rivercats in the last homestand, but settled down and retired eight straight batters at one point.
Right-hander Rafael Montero pitched well in a no-decision against the Rivercats, allowing three runs on six hits in five innings and tying his Triple-A career high with nine strikeouts. He’s 2-0 with a 3.80 ERA and team-leading 24 strikeouts.
Backman said he’s excited to be back for his second year managing the 51s and feels he has a solid team. The pitching staff has the potential to be better than last year, he said. Look for another winning season from Backman and the 51s.
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