When Ray Chang was last on the field at Blue Wahoos Stadium, he and his Pensacola teammates were walking into the offseason, their memorable 2015 campaign brought to a halt by Biloxi in Game 3 of the Southern League Divisional Series in early September.
The Shuckers swept the Blue Wahoos out of the playoffs but the memory of being in the postseason is something that can’t be swept out of the minds of the players who were a part of it. That includes Chang.
Not only was it the first time for him in the playoffs in a minor league career that has spanned more than a decade, but it was Pensacola’s first postseason trip as well.
Most of the players from that team are gone, although a handful remain, including Chang, who can’t wait for the new year to start, his excitement hard to contain during media day on a sun-splashed Tuesday afternoon on the bayfront.
“It was awesome being in the playoffs,” Chang said. “We’re hoping to build on it and do it again. Watching this team in spring training, it looks like we have a good team. I’m excited.”
Chang could play a key role in the success of the Blue Wahoos, who won 63 games a year ago, the majority coming after a miserable first half in which they won only 25 times.
Chang hit .283 last year in 87 games, knocking in 28 runs along the way. This marks the third consecutive year he will have played at least part of the season in Pensacola, and regardless of what he does on the field, there is value to his presence.
“Ray is great. It’s like having another coach,” said manager Pat Kelly, who is in his second season with the Blue Wahoos. “He brings a veteran presence to the clubhouse and dugout. He brings a very calming influence to the team.”
Chang does his best to let his actions do the talking.
“I’m not the most vocal guy in the clubhouse,” Chang said. “I do most of my leading on the field and set a good example.”
Leadership will be vital to success for a young team hoping to contend in the always competitive Southern League.
Kelly said the confidence the returning players gained from the playoff appearance will help in the team’s quest to win a championship. Every year, of course, is different, especially at this level of baseball.
“That is what minor league baseball is about,” Kelly said. “The majority of the roster is new, and as we have found out throughout the year, it’s a big jump for players coming to (Double A). The first month is very important in getting their feet wet. Hopefully we can get off to a good start.”
Kelly is happy with the team he has this season and is hopeful potential will translate into wins.
“We have great pitchers, a solid bullpen and I really like our lineup,” Kelly said. “When you feel like you have a chance to win every night, it’s a great feeling. We have that feeling.”
Pensacola opens the season Thursday in Mississippi against the Braves. The Blue Wahoos will play a five-game series there before playing their home opener April 12 against Jacksonville.
“It’s all about getting into game mode now,” Chang said. “Spring training gave us a chance to get back on our feet. Now that it’s over, everything starts to count. I’m glad to be back and want do what I can to help our team win games.”