For first time since 2019, SWB will play a game at PNC Field

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Before playing their first home game, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders are off to a flying start, but that does not change the fact that a season of uncertainty remains ahead for the New York Yankees top farm team and much of Minor League Baseball.

The RailRiders, who won five of six games during a season-opening series in Syracuse, play their home opener at PNC Field Tuesday at 6:35 after taking Monday off, something they will do all season as one of the many changes in Triple-A baseball.

Lehigh Valley, the opening opponent, comes to Moosic after having also won five of their first six games. The IronPigs, the top affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, share the early Northeast Division lead after spending much of April playing exhibitions with the RailRiders.

Aside from bouncing back from an opening loss to bring a five-game winning streak home, the RailRiders accomplished other early goals in their week in Syracuse.

A total of 13 players got in at least nine at-bats. In all, 16 pitchers made it to the mound at least once with 10 of them getting in two appearances and 13 pitching at least two innings.

The team made maximum use of the new 28-man roster and first-week transactions.

Early activity for as many players as possible – since roughly half did not play any games in 2020 because of the pandemic – was just one of the issues the RailRiders coaching staff and Yankees Senior Director of Player Development Kevin Reese discussed with local media the day before the season started.

Those media sessions helped highlight many of the other issues that could be factors over the season ahead.

Some issues to watch in the season ahead:

Familiar faces

Not only has the International League been replaced by Triple-A East, but this season’s effort to control travel and pandemic risks means the RailRiders will see the same five Northeast opponents – Lehigh Valley, the Buffalo Bisons, the Rochester Red Wings, the Worcester Red Sox and the Syracuse Mets – exclusively.

After working against each other all through extended spring training, the RailRiders and IronPigs will meet 36 times.

The long series and frequent reunions could impact anything from game strategies to the way opponents look at each other in terms of intense rivals.

“You get to have these continual growth conversations with players as they get to see how certain types of arms are trying to attack them or how staffs in general are trying to attack them,” hitting coach Casey Dykes said.

Hitters and pitchers will each be gathering more knowledge than usual on each other with more head-to-head matchups. Who can best take advantage of that information and how it is used remains to be seen.

“I’m not really sure which side has the advantage,” Dykes said. “I think the one that continues to prepare and continues to make adjustments quicker will have the advantage.

“It’s going to be a lot on an individual basis, too. You’re going to see guys who maybe just get continually pitched the same way by a staff because that’s just what a staff does. You have to learn that, too. You’ll see staffs that try to change and maybe try to attack our entire lineup differently. … You’re trying to just nail that down as early as possible, and figure that out so you can adjust off of that.

“Baseball’s a chess match all the time. You’re constantly paying attention to that and pick up anything you can.”

Old-time, minor-league hockey was famous for building up bitter rivalries and feuds with nearby opponents saw too much of each other.

It remains to be seen whether such animosities could build more frequently in the game of baseball as teams square off repeatedly.

Length of pitching starts

Baseball’s trend of shorter appearances by starting pitchers and multiple pitchers being used in a particular game could be accentuated as pitchers are built back up cautiously after either a short season or no season in 2020.

In Syracuse, starters worked an average of 3 1/3 innings and the RailRiders used, on average, 4.3 pitchers per game.

Those numbers should change, but by how much?

“The goal of the first few days will be to just get everybody out there the first time,” pitching coach Dustin Glant said. “ … Step one is ‘let’s back into a game in a normal environment that these guys are used to and then I think it will take shape from there.”

Schedule routine

How the six-game series and consistent Monday day off impacts pitching rotations and other long-range planning may be different across other organizations.

The RailRiders chose to go with a five-man rotation in Syracuse with Opening Day starter Mike Montgomery coming back for the last game of the series.

Of the 14 Triple-A East teams that got in six games in the first week, there was an even split of seven teams each going with five starters or using six different starters.

Even within the RailRiders, circumstances in the makeup of the staff at any given time could lead to a change to a six-man rotation.

New farm systems

Other than increased roster sizes and roster flexibility as baseball tries to work its way back to full activity, the relationship between the parent Yankees and the RailRiders should look similar to the past.

With reorganized farm systems and fewer steps on the lower part of the ladder since 2019, player movement could be different within the minor league system.

“The roster makeup of each organization is probably going to be completely different,” Reese said. “Some people are probably going to push out some of the older players. Some will be very aggressive with promotions.”