If you came to Sahlen Field on Wednesday night mostly to see fireworks and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, you also got a pretty good glimpse of what the Buffalo Bisons have been about for nearly a month.
There was timely hitting. The power stroke of Patrick Kivlehan. Some solid work from the starting pitching. And a push-every-inning mentality that has thrust this team toward a playoff run when one didn't seem like it was in the cards for yet another summer.
The Bisons overcame two-run deficits in each game played in the makeup doubleheader against Lehigh Valley before an Independence Eve crowd of 16,341. They pulled out a 5-4 win in the opener on catcher Reese McGuire's two-run walkoff single in the eighth before giving up a 3-2 lead in the nightcap and eventually falling, 6-4.
The Herd got a home run in each game from Kivlehan, who had four hits in the twinbill and has burst on the scene doing his best impression of Jeff Manto, circa 1997. They got three hits from Bo Bichette, the wondrous shortstop who is now the subject of every inquiry from Toronto.
Once 6-14 and last in the International League North, manager Bobby Meacham's club has righted itself to 43-41 and has jumped all the way to second in the division. After Wednesday's split, the Bisons are still six games behind Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the division race and five behind Gwinnett for the wild-card, but at least they're in the hunt.
Outside the playoffs since 2005, the longest drought in the International League, the Bisons haven't even really had a sniff of the race since finishing three games out of the wild card in 2010. And it's important for the parent Blue Jays, who have been here since 2013, to finally have a team pushing for the postseason here as well.
"As the game goes along and we get into our third or fourth at-bats, we really believe the deeper in the game we get we still have an opportunity to put up runs," McGuire said. "As hitters, we just keep chugging along each inning and keep reminding ourselves we're never out of it."
McGuire showed that in the opener. The Bisons had scored twice in the seventh to forge a 3-3 tie but were foiled in their bid to push across the winning run as Lehigh Valley used a five-man infield for one batter that didn't come into play but was certainly bizarre to see. The IronPigs took the lead in the top of the eighth on a run-scoring wild pitch that McGuire couldn't handle but back came Buffalo.
McGuire, in his second season here, found himself up with runners at second and third with one out. He chased one Austin Davis slider but made no mistake on the second pitch, driving it up the middle to win the game and prompting his teammates to mob him on the infield.
"I was thinking he was going for it again and I got a decent one," McGuire said. "I stayed with it enough to get it over the middle and out there."
"To compose ourselves and get it done in the 8th was really special," said Kivlehan, who slid home with the winning run.
🎥Reese's Party!!! 🙌🙌🙌
— Buffalo Bisons (@BuffaloBisons) July 3, 2019
The arrival of Kivlehan, 29, might go down as the special moment of this season. The May acquisition of Kivlehan, acquired from Pittsburgh for cash, is the kind of in-season veteran pickup the Cleveland Indians used to make all the time for the Herd in the glory days of 1995-2005 (think Manto, Torey Lovullo and Raul Gonzalez, among others).
Kivlehan, who played 115 games for the Cincinnati Reds two years ago, hit 20 home runs last year in Las Vegas. He's got 12 already in 36 games for Buffalo and 19 on the season in three stops in the minors. His blast in the nightcap went the opposite way to right atop the roof of the stage set up for the BPO.
"I'm just seeing it well and honestly I'm just very relaxed and not putting too much pressure on myself," Kivlehan said. "Ever since I've been here, it's been a really good group, really supportive and rooting for one another. It's been a good vibe."
"He's been tremendous for us," McGuire said. "His production has been amazing and he's been playing a great infield too."
No worries @BPOrchestra... that's why be built you a roof!!👍
— Buffalo Bisons (@BuffaloBisons) July 4, 2019
The Bisons were 22-29 in April and May, combining to bat .248, post a team ERA of 5.51 and blow six save chances. Things didn't start much different in June with a 2-4 mark over the first six games.
Then things did a complete 180.
The Bisons went on a 15-3 run and and ended June with a 20-10 record that was their first 20-win month since May, 2005. The team batting average was .275 and the offensive output of 5.2 runs per game included six games in double figures and three more with a nine-run output.
"It's one of those things we never truly feel out of a game," Kivlehan said. "We've been coming back a lot. A little something sparks us and we get right back in it."
It's been a similar story on the mound. The team ERA dropped by 1 1/2 runs in June to 3.98 and the bullpen went 9 for 10 in save opportunities, with All-Star Justin Shafer and Jordan Romano collecting three saves apiece. A continuing revelation in middle relief was Zach Jackson, who posted an 0.48 ERA in a setup role and is 6-0 on the season.
"They're all dialing into that mid-season form," McGuire said. "It's the time now when we're figuring out guys' roles and they're pitching with more confidence, in the strike zone for pitch No. 1. That's huge and we're constantly reminding men of that. This last month, they've done a great job of getting ahead and putting guys away quick."
It might just be an interesting summer ahead at the ballpark. And we're talking about more than just the mascot races. About time.
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) July 4, 2019