Zach Nehrir

The Cleburne Railroaders are set to return to action in 2021 after missing the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Zach Nehrir returns to Cleburne after helping Milwaukee win the 2020 COVID-shortened season. The Railroaders released their 2021 season schedule on Monday.

After having to sit out the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cleburne Railroaders are inching closer towards the 2021 season.

On Monday, the Railroaders announced their 2021 season schedule and first-pitch times. 

Cleburne Mayor Scott Cain said he has been eagerly awaiting the return of baseball in Cleburne.

“Like many others, I missed baseball last year,” Cain said. “ It was a year when I thought the Jackets would win state and the Railroaders would win the American Association title. But with 2020 in the rear view mirror, I say let’s bring on baseball. With the new affiliation with major league and the prospects of getting most of the Railroader’s team back, I think Cleburne should be poised for a title race.

“In many ways, it feels like the first season. As we start working out of the pandemic, I can’t think of a better way for us to get back to normal than Railroader baseball. I know opening day will be a great day in Cleburne.”

The 2021 campaign marks the Railroaders’ fifth season in the American Association, which remains a 12-team league following the departure of the St. Paul Saints and Texas AirHogs and the addition of the Kane County Cougars and the Houston Apollos. 

The 2021 American Association divisional alignment is as follows:

North: Chicago Dogs, Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, Gary SouthShore RailCats, Kane County Cougars, Milwaukee Milkmen, Winnipeg Goldeyes

South: Cleburne Railroaders, Houston Apollos, Kansas City Monarchs, Lincoln Saltdogs, Sioux City Explorers, Sioux Falls Canaries

The regular-season schedule once again features 100 games, with 56 home games and 44 road contests. 

Cleburne plays every South Division foe twice at home and twice on the road, with the exception of the Houston Apollos, who will serve as a travel team in 2021 and play all games on the road. Cleburne also plays every North Division opponent once at home and once on the road. 

The Railroaders’ schedule features 64 games against the South Division (38 home/26 away) and 36 games against the North Division (18 home/18 away). The longest homestand is nine games (July 27 through Aug. 4 and Aug. 17 through 25) and the longest road trip is 10 games (Aug. 5 through 15). 

Cleburne opens the 2021 campaign at home on May 18 against the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, and concludes the regular season Sept. 6 at home against the Kansas City Monarchs. After a travel day, the American Association playoffs begin on Sept. 8. 

The Railroaders continue the tradition of 7:06 p.m. first pitch times for home games, in recognition of the 1906 Cleburne Railroaders championship team. Sunday home games will have a 6 p.m. first pitch time. The lone exception falls on Labor Day, with a 1 p.m. first pitch scheduled on Monday, Sept. 6 in the regular-season finale against Kansas City. 

Unlike in previous seasons, the Railroaders do not have a significant number of early-season home games, as the 2021 campaign alternates six-game homestands and six-game road trips until the first week of August. Cleburne has 12 scheduled off days during the season, each falling on a Monday. The Railroaders’ longest stretch of games without an off day is 21, beginning Aug. 17 and running through the end of the regular season. 

The Railroaders have eight Friday night home games during the regular season, each of which features Friday Fireworks at The Depot. Additionally, on the weekend of July 2-4, the Railroaders will have fireworks each night following the game, concluding with a Fourth of July fireworks show on Sunday night. 

For information on partnerships, season tickets, group outings, and party packages, call the Railroaders office at 817-945-8705 or visit the Railroaders official website at www.railroaderbaseball.com.

At this point, the Railroaders have signed only two players to its 2021 roster — but they are certainly quality over quantity at this point.

In January, Cleburne announced the signings of American Association All-Stars Zach Nehrir and John Nester.

Nehrir returns to Cleburne after playing a vital role in Milwaukee’s 2020 American Association Championship. The 28-year-old notched two hits in each of the first three games of the Finals, finishing the series 7-for-18 (.389) with three doubles, two home runs, five runs scored and six RBI. Nehrir was named Finals MVP as the Milkmen downed the Sioux Falls Canaries, four games to one. 

During the regular season, Nehrir served as Milwaukee’s everyday right fielder, slashing .196/.259/.263 with five doubles and three home runs. His trademark exceptional defense earned him national recognition, with a leaping grab on July 11 against St. Paul that was featured on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays of the night. Nehrir also added seven outfield assists, good for second in the American Association in 2020.

The Milkmen added Nehrir as the first pick of the second round (seventh overall) in the 2020 American Association dispersal draft.

As a member of the Railroaders in 2019, Nehrir compiled a stellar 2019 season that included a selection as a Midseason All-Star. Playing in 97 games as the Railroaders primary centerfielder, Nehrir slashed .285/.364/.490 for a career-best .853 OPS. After hitting nine home runs combined in his first three seasons as a professional, Nehrir launched 12 round-trippers in 2019, adding four triples and a league-leading 34 doubles. His 50 combined extra-base hits finished tied for third on the circuit. The native of Orange, California finished the season with 4.5 Wins Above Replacement, ranking second in the league behind Gary SouthShore’s Colin Willis.

Nester returns to the Railroaders after spending the COVID-shortened 2020 season with the Winnipeg Goldeyes. The 31-year-old was selected by Winnipeg in the ninth round of the American Association Dispersal Draft, and delivered a strong season despite the Goldeyes playing each of their 60 games on the road. Nester finished the season with a .259/.321/.418 slash line, good for a .739 OPS. Nester has produced an OPS of .736 or better in all five of his seasons at the Independent level. 

The right-handed hitter’s final ledger included 12 doubles, six home runs, and 31 runs driven in. He was selected as the American Association’s Batter of the Week for the week ending on August 2, following a torrid stretch in which he went 10-for-22 (.455) with six runs scored, four home runs, and 11 RBI. 

Defensively, Nester’s reputation as the league’s premier backstop was further cemented with an excellent performance behind the plate. Winnipeg allowed only 28 stolen base attempts in 60 games, establishing a new American Association record for fewest attempts per game (0.47). For his career, Nester has thrown out 30% of all base-stealers, including an American Association-best 44% in 2015. 

The Railroaders signed Nester as a free agent prior to the 2019 season, and he delivered a spectacular campaign that included both Midseason and Postseason All-Star selections. Nester set personal bests in doubles (23), home runs (16), runs scored (55) and RBI (63). Nester’s .847 OPS was 73 points higher than his previous career best, set back in 2015. Defensively, Nester cut down 23 opposing base stealers, second-most in the league, while committing only five errors and allowing five passed balls.

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