By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
Amsterdam Mohawks first baseman John Nogowski's words best sum up his team's situation in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League East Division.
"It's a race," he says.
With a week to go in the regular season, the Mohawks lead a division in which four teams -- Albany, Amsterdam, Glens Falls and Mohawk Valley -- are all within 1 1-2 games of another. Barring a remarkable charge from Cooperstown, which is eight games behind fourth-place Albany, three of the four bunched-up teams will make the playoffs. While the majority of the four teams in contention will earn a spot in the playoffs, there is a heavy incentive to take first place in the division, as the second- and third-place teams will meet in a one-game playoff while the first-place team earns a bye to the best-of-3 divisional finals.
Mohawks head coach Keith Griffin says his team is focused solely on itself.
"What we're trying to do is control the controllable, and the controllable is you," he says. "If we play well, we go to the playoffs."
That logic works; if the Mohawks were to win out in their final eight games, Amsterdam would finish as the top team in the East Division. However, the road to an undefeated finish to the season is a very bumpy one. With the exception of the Mohawks' final game -- a road trip to Cooperstown Wednesday -- each of Amsterdam's final eight contests will be played against a team in the hunt for a playoff spot.
It is a situation much different than the one the Mohawks faced a year ago. Then, Amsterdam won the league's regular-season title by eight games on its way to a championship victory in the postseason. Third baseman Brian Ruby was on last year's team and says that team had to battle complacency down the stretch of the season. This year's team, Ruby says, will have different problems.
"The difference is, this year, we're going to have to fight to the very end to make it into the playoffs and make it to that one seed to get that bye," he says. "That's going to keep us hungry for sure, but the disadvantage is our better players are going to have to play more of the games rather than getting some days off and being fresh for the playoffs."
For much of the season, Griffin has been frustrated with his team's perceived inability to consistently concentrate fully on baseball. But four straight wins -- including a comeback from seven runs down to win 13-9 against Albany, Monday -- has Griffin willing to admit his team looks like it is starting to round into form.
Verbally, the club seems to be there. When discussing what the team needs to do in the season's final week to close out the season on a high note, outfielder Jordan Ebert gave an answer that could have come out of Griffin's mouth.
"Just the little things, man," says Ebert. "Attitude, hustle, energy; the little things that can get overlooked and will take a one-run ballgame and give you a victory instead of a loss. I'd definitely say it's that for us. It's not necessarily making errors or something like that. It's just doing the little things and being a good teammate."
Fresh off winning eight of nine games heading into the All-Star Game break, the Mohawks start the final stretch of their regular season tonight in Elmira. Starting with tonight's contest, the pressure should become a little more palpable with each passing pitch for the rest of the season -- and that's OK with the Mohawks.
"We love the games that mean a little bit more," Nogowski says.