Steve Shirley on heartbreaking losses, walk-off wins, and playing out the string

On Tuesday night, the Canaries suffered one of the ugliest losses in recent memory. They were up 3-0 going to the ninth, with closer Alan DeRatt, who’s had a pretty solid season, coming on to close it out. Starter Adam Champion, who’s had an up and down season, had thrown seven shutout innings and was more than deserving of the win.
DeRatt blew the save, and the Birds ended up losing 4-3 in 11.
I was happy I didn’t have to cover that game, and just reading Tom Savage’s recap in the next day’s paper, I could feel the frustration in skipper Steve Shirley’s quotes.

Then last night, the Birds were down 5-0 after an inning and a half, and 6-0 through four and a half.
They chipped away to get within 6-4 going to the ninth, and Reggie Abercrombie hit a walk-off homer for a 7-6 win.

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The juxtaposition of those two games, back to back, is a reminder of how you just never know what you’re going to see when you go to the ballpark. It also led to an entertaining and engaging interview with Shirley, though to be honest, I find almost all of our chats to be engaging. I’m usually in his office for at least 10-15 minutes, even after the most nondescript of games. I’ve learned as much about the game of baseball from Shirley as anyone I’ve ever been around.

The Birds are in the midst of their third straight losing season, and they’re obviously just sort of playing out the string now, but I’ve always been impressed by how hard Shirley’s teams continue to play down the stretch even in years that don’t end in the postseason. I don’t think it’s just a coincidence. I don’t think it’s merely the players’ professionalism, though they do deserve credit for that.
I think a lot of it has to do with Shirley. He doesn’t like to lose, and I’m sure he might be wondering if he’s on the hot seat.
Personally, I think it’d be a mistake to replace Shirley. I suppose I’m a little biased as an admirer of his, but it’s worth noting that he’s basically the only manager in the team’s 20-year history to have had any sustained success. This isn’t an easy place to win, especially when you share a division with St. Paul, Fargo and Winnipeg.

Anyway, Steve and I got to talking about his team’s refusal to close up shop early this season, and it was fun to listen to him praise his players, not just for Wednesday’s rally, but for how they’ve continued to give him 100% even though they’re out of the race.

He seemed as proud of them for taking Tuesday’s loss hard as he was for rallying on Wednesday. Here’s what he had to say:

"Let me tell you something. When we lost the game last night, there were some pissed off (12-letter expletive’s) in here, and I’m not just talking about DeRatt. There were some really pissed off guys. If you’d been in the dugout you’d have felt like we were in the playoff hunt and had just lost a huge game. It was that bad in here.
So tonight, it’s the opposite. We hit a walk-off homer and come back from down 6-0, we’re going to celebrate like it means something, because you know what? We play every game like it does mean something. We’re going out there playing to win a game every single night. The fact that we’re in last place doesn’t change that.
There’s been a lot of ups and downs this year, but one thing that’s been pretty consistent is that I believe my guys are going out every night doing what they can with the emotion necessary to win the game.”

"Yes, winning a game in this fashion reminds you how much fun the game can be, just like losing a game like last night reminds you how much it can hurt. But that’s baseball. It can be a rollercoaster. But I can tell you, as impressed as I was with the win tonight, and as defeated as I was leaving here the night before, what I realized was that it really (expletive) mattered to these guys. And what I saw tonight was, again, it really (expletive) matters to these guys.
I think that’s important as we go down the stretch here. You’re trying to play games and win as many as you can, and trying to be exciting for the fans. And I think we are that, if nothing else. We’re definitely not dull.”

At this point I mention to Shirley infielder Stephen King’s impressive tempter tantrum that got him ejected in the eighth inning. King is hitting .220 and the Birds are in last, so I admit, I kind of liked seeing the emotion.

"Exactly. He could’ve been like, hey, I’m going home in 10 games anyhow. But he didn’t. He got pissed off because he wants to win. And that’s how they all feel. Everybody’s like that. There’s chatter in the dugout. Guys are talkin’ it up, wanting to win, wanting to play. Getting upset when somebody (expletives) up, patting ‘em on the back when they do good. Rah-rahing a guy when he has a chance to do something.
I mean, geez, we get down a bunt and guys are hopping out of the dugout to high-five him like it’s a playoff game. It’s like we really did something. It’s important to them. That stuff’s impressive to me given the situation we’re in right now.”

I agree. The Canaries still have four games left on this homestand. Then they play a single home game on Thursday the 29th before finishing with three games against Amarillo Aug. 31-Sept. 2. It’s nice to know the Birds aren’t going to go through the motions, and I hope the front office remembers that when deciding Shirley’s future.