The Portland Rockets are good.
I have to admit, after watching their first home games this season, I wasn’t sure how true that statement would be this year.
And it did take the 2014 version of the Rockets some time to get their legs under them.
While it has some mainstays — pitcher and Jay County High School graduate Mitch Waters, pitcher and South Adams graduate Dan Bollenbacher and leadoff man Dalton Tinsley — back in the mix this season, Portland is missing some of the players that made the team one of the best amateur baseball clubs in the nation over the previous three seasons. (And that’s not hyperbole. The Rockets posted a combined 101-33-1 record during that span, making their first trip to the National Amateur Baseball Federation World Series in 2012.)
Shortstop Zach Tanner, a Yorktown High School and Wright State University graduate, moved on to play independent minor league ball for the Frontier Greys. Also gone are former Ball State University teammates Billy Wellman (Jay County) and Nick Hollowell. And pitchers Dylan Brammer and Michael Caley are missing from the rotation.
So the Rockets didn’t look quite like themselves when they opened their home schedule against the Fort Wayne Jackers  the first weekend in June. They uncharacteristically dropped both games, falling 6-3 and 4-3 to their Fort Wayne League rivals.
The Rockets came back to sweep a doubleheader against the Fort Wayne Expos a day later, starting a pattern — win a couple, lose a couple — that would typify the first half of their season. Through 14 games, they were 7-7, the definition of average.
But it would be a mistake to ever count out the Portland team, which always seems to find a way to win in the long run.
After shutting out the Fort Wayne Marlins 3-0 June 26, the Rockets made a road trip to South Bend.
Justin Miller, Travis Gray, Craig Martin, Waters, Bollenbacher and Reynolds combined to allow just four runs in four games at Kennedy Park, including a four-hit shutout from Reynolds in the weekend finale. Portland swept the Mishawaka Brewers and South Bend Cardinals on a weekend Waters points to as the key to the team coming together this year.
“Once we did that, it was like the guys just gelled and we figured it out as a team,” the veteran said last week. “We’re just having fun as a team. That’s basically what you need to do to be successful. It’s starting to definitely come together.”
After taking six straight games in late June and early July, the Rockets are now in the midst of an eight-game winning streak as they head into the final week of the regular season. They have won 16 of their last 19 overall, pushing their record to 23-10, and lead the FWL with a 10-3 mark. (If you’re keeping score, that means they’re 10-1 in league play since those opening two losses to the Jackers.)
While still not blowing opponents out like Portland teams of the past couple years often did — their last seven games have been decided by a total of 13 runs — the Rockets are still finding ways to win. Often, those victories are coming in dramatic fashion.
That was the case this weekend as after a comfortable win in the Saturday’s opener against Northeast Kekionga, Portland needed three consecutive comebacks to keep their streak alive.
It rallied from 8-0 down in the second game Saturday, with Geoff Bowers slapping a walk-off single up the middle to bring home pinch runner Wesley Hibbard (Jay County) with the winning run. More of the same came Sunday as the Rockets gave up a run in extra innings in the opener, but scored twice in the bottom of the frame for a 2-1 win. And trailing 4-0 in the last inning of the weekend finale, they scored five times to finish off the sweep.
After the slow start, Portland still has some work to do in order to reach the 30-win mark for a fourth straight season. But the team is capable, thanks to talent and tenacity, and always plays exciting baseball.
So when they return home Aug. 1 through 3 to host the World Baseball Congress tournament, make a visit to Runkle-Miller Field. The Rockets are worth watching.