It seems that every year the Buffalo Bisons play the most significant game of their regular season in Bush Stadium against the Indianapolis Indians.
Two seasons ago a win at Bush on the final day would have given the Herd the American Association East crown. Instead, Jerry Reuss got clobbered and the Bisons and Nashville were left tied for the division lead. The Sounds took the title with that unforgettable 18-inning divisional playoff win at Pilot Field.
Last year, the Bisons went into a three-game series at Bush with a 3 1/2 -game lead over the Indians. The race was over when the Herd swept the three games by a cumulative score of 18-3.
And so, once again, the Bisons return to Bush Stadium this weekend for a three-game series of the utmost importance.
"It's definitely going to be the series of the season," pitcher Joe Ausanio said.
And, for the second straight year, the Bisons enter Bush well-positioned to finish off the Tribe. The Herd holds a 2 1/2 -game lead over Indy with 11 games to play.
"We are in good position," outfielder Al Martin said. "But so were they when they came in here a couple weeks ago."
There you go. Just when it seemed the scouting report on Martin could glow no brighter, nows it reads: great speed, potent bat, exceptional defense . . . good memory.
The Bisons were two games out when Indy came to town on Aug. 7 for its final Pilot Field appearances of the season. The Herd swept the three-game series, took over first place and has held no less than a partial share of the lead since.
Season-long trends would indicate that Indy will avoid another sweep. The Bisons are 2-7 at Bush Stadium and lost three out of four the last time in. Furthermore, these two teams haven't been more than four games apart in the standing since the season began on April 9. Indeed, they have spent 70 days no more than one game apart.
"The way it's been all year, I'm like in shock that we're leading by more than a game," said manager Marc Bombard.
The Bisons won't need a sweep to leave Indy content -- or in charge. Their unspoken goal is to win at least two. But, by all means, they must avoid being swept.
"Even if we only win one of three I think we'll still be in good shape going down the stretch," Ausanio said. "They have four games against Louisville left, who they have a tough time against. Not that we're going to rely on Louisville. Our approach is that we have to do everything ourselves."
The Herd enters tonight's opener (8:30, Radio 1400) playing its best baseball of the season.
The Bisons have won six straight, 10 of their last 11 and are 21-6 during August. They last lost three straight games way back in early July.
"We've been playing good, solid baseball," Bombard said. "On most nights we've had all three things going, pitching, offense and defense."
The Bisons will start left-hander John Cerutti (3-0, 6.14 ERA) tonight against a Tribe lineup abundant with left-handed hitters. The Herd will follow up with right-handers Victor Cole (11-5, 2.55) and Brett Backlund (2-0, 0.64). Cole is on a four-game winning streak. Backlund is 6-1 since turning pro in early July.
Center fielder Greg Tubbs (hamstring) and catcher Tom Prince (hand bruise) are expected to play in the series. The outlook for second baseman Jeff Richardson is less encouraging.
Richardson has been out for a week after suffering an ankle sprain. When the swelling and pain persisted, Richardson was re-examined this week. X-rays revealed a floating bone chip and further clouded his availability.
"I'm concerned with Whitey," Bombard said. "He's a big concern right now."
The Bisons usually have used Joe Redfield to spell Richardson at second base. But Redfield is on the disabled list with a thumb injury and cannot be reactivated until Saturday at the earliest.
"And I don't know about that," Bombard said.
If Richardson and Redfield remain sidelined, the second base job falls to Greg Edge or Bruce Schreiber. Both are up from Class AA Carolina.
Indy attempted to play a makeup game against Nashville Thursday, which was also rained out. The Indians were scheduled to have the day off, but ownership opted for the extra gate instead of playing a double-header earlier in the week. . . . Pirates infielder John Wehner is nicknamed "Rock" because of his hard-nosed style of play. Schreiber's nickname is "Little Rock" because he reminds everybody of Wehner. . . . The Bisons are trying to become the first franchise since Indy (1988-89) to win consecutive East Division crowns.