“I don’t know how to explain it or tell you how we feel; but for myself, this season is on top of the list.”
— RailRiders manager Al Pedrique
The date: Sept. 20, 2016
The place: Autozone Park (Memphis, TN)
The situation: They had already made history, already authored arguably the best season in franchise history, already etched their names on the Governors Cup.
There was still some work to do.
For the second time in team history, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre had a chance to stand alone, not just among International League teams, but atop all of Triple-A baseball.
The lead-in: In so many ways, the 2016 season began a new chapter for the RailRiders.
The only manager the franchise had known since the Yankees moved their Triple-A operation to the region, Dave Miley, was gone, coaching a high school team in Franklin County, Indiana. His nine-year career with the Yankees and RailRiders finished after a stunning loss eliminated them from the semifinals of the 2015 International League playoffs.
Enter Al Pedrique, the former big-league utility man with extensive minor-league managing experience and even a stint as the interim manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004. He joined the Yankees organization in 2013, skippering low-Class A Charleston to a 75-63 record, and he had some solid years at high-A Tampa in 2014 and at Double-A Trenton the following year, going three games over .500 combined.
But, Pedrique had one thing going for him that trumped his record in the organization: Players loved playing for him. Many called him a players’ manager, praised him for his honesty. He’d have to use that approach to hold together a team that went through a slew of changes.
For half the season, it was clear why the RailRiders put together one of the best offenses in the International League. They opened the season with a catcher (Gary Sanchez) and a right fielder (Aaron Judge) who’d go on to not just be American League All-Stars over the next few seasons, but two of the biggest stars in the game. Combined, they hit 29 homers with 115 RBIs for the RailRiders that season, but both were fixtures in the Bronx by August, weeks before the RailRiders would start to really turn it on.
Already firmly in the playoff race thanks to a strong summer — they were 25 games over .500 from May 1 through July 31 — the RailRiders had to overcome the loss of Judge and Sanchez from the middle of their lineup, and they did it with the help of some steady offense and vastly improved pitching.
Ben Gamel authored a tremendous season as the RailRiders’ leadoff man, hitting .308 with 51 RBIs, 19 stolen bases. Veteran utility man Donovan Solano filled in at several different positions, all while hitting .319 with 67 RBIs. Tyler Austin had his best season to date in Triple-A, hitting .323 with 13 homers, helping to offset some of the power that left town with Judge and Sanchez. Catcher Kyle Higashioka hit 10 bombs, as well.
But it was some late-season callups from Double-A Trenton — the uber-talented Clint Frazier and sweet-swinging lefty Jake Cave — who stabilized an offense that suddenly had the backing of a dominant pitching staff.
Lefty Dietrich Enns and right-handers Luis Cessa were among the best pitchers in the International League coming into August. Enns pitched to a 1.61 ERA in his six August appearances, and Cessa threw a dominant 7 2/3-inning, 11 strikeout performance against Syracuse before he was called up. But it was a pair of left-handers who fortified the rotation: Veteran lefty Phil Coke, a former reliever who allowed just three runs in 15 innings in August taking Cessa’s turn in the rotation, and Jordan Montgomery, the tall prospect who dominated Double-A and was sterling in his six regular-season starts with the RailRiders in August, allowing just four runs and pitching shutout ball in four of his starts.
The RailRiders outlasted a strong Lehigh Valley team by six games in the regular season — they were 9 1/2 games better than every other team in the IL that summer — but there were questions about whether they could maintain the torrid pace at which they finished the season. The RailRiders lost the first two games of August, then didn’t lose back-to-back games the rest of the month, going 19-9.
They were even better, though, in September.
They cruised past Lehigh Valley, the team with the IL’s second-best record, in impressive fashion. Montgomery worked seven shutout innings in Game 1. Then, Phil Coke did the same in Game 2. The IronPigs didn’t score until the fourth inning of Game 4 and were outscored 20-3 in the series, a RailRiders sweep.
Montgomery struggled in Game 1 of the Governors Cup finals against Gwinnett, allowing six runs in a wild first inning highlighted by a three-run Sean Kazmar homer at PNC Field, and the RailRiders were behind in the series, 1-0. Hardly mattered.
They got just one hit in Game 2, but an unreal rally in the ninth inning — without the benefit of that hit — led to a 2-1 win, as Gwinnett relievers Bradley Roney and Maikel Cleto either walked or plunked all five RailRiders batters who game to the plate. When the series moved to Gwinnett, the Braves’ bats were stifled. Brady Lail and Daniel Camarena worked shutout ball in their starts, and the Braves never scored again. On Sept. 16, the RailRiders hoisted the Governors’ Cup for the second time in team history.
And from there, it was on to see if they could finish a dream month with a first for the franchise.
The moment: Four days after claiming the Governors’ Cup, the RailRiders had the chance to set up their pitching rotation largely the way they wanted it. Pedrique opted to use Montgomery, despite the rough first inning in his last Game 1 start against Gwinnett.
The El Paso Chihuahuas, the top affiliate of the San Diego Padres, were in just their third year of existence. But, they outlasted Oklahoma City in four games to win the Pacific Coast League championship, clinching it with a 4-3, 11-inning win in Game 4 on Sept. 17.
Manager Rod Barajas’ team countered with right-hander Walker Lockett, who made just three regular-season starts with the Chihuahuas in 2016.
Perhaps, he just couldn’t fight through the early game jitters.
Montgomery got three fly balls to cruise through the top of the first. But the first three hitters that faced Lockett in the bottom of the inning pretty much decided the game. Leadoff man Mark Payton started things by punching a single to center. Frazier followed with a hard line drive single down the left field line.
Two on. Nobody out.
From there, Lockett made the biggest mistake of the game. He hung a curveball to veteran first baseman Chris Parmelee, who deposited it over the wall down the right field line. It was a three-run home run, a 3-0 lead, and Montgomery made it stand up.
The southpaw pitched into and out of trouble in the third. With Chihuahuas on first and third and nobody out, Montgomery dug deep, striking out Auston Bousfield and Manuel Margot before getting Carlos Asuaje to ground out.
El Paso chased Montgomery and got on the scoreboard in the sixth, thanks to three straight singles to start the inning by Margot, Asuaje and catcher Austin Hedges, who brought Margot home to cut the lead to 3-1.
Pedrique wasted no time at that point. He went to his bullpen, and a hard-throwing right-hander looking for a measure of redemption. That dramatic Game 3 collapse against Indianapolis that eliminated the RailRiders from the playoffs pretty much fell on the arm of Johnny Barbato, after all. Coming in to close out a must-win game in which his team gave him a 2-0 lead, Barbato struggled with his command. He faced seven hitters, allowing four hits and a walk. He also hit a batter. The 2-0 lead turned into a 4-2, season-ending loss.
This two-run lead wasn’t going anywhere, though. With runners on first and second and nobody out, Barbato stemmed the tide, getting two popouts and a strikeout to escape without further damage and start somewhat of a trend for the overpowering RailRiders bullpen.
The Chihuahuas never got another baserunner. Coke was perfect for two innings, and right-hander Giovanny Gallegos slammed the door on El Paso in the ninth, ending the game when Nick Torres hit a fly ball to Frazier in right to seal Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s first, and only, Triple-A National Championship.
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
The 2016 RailRiders clearly wound up being the most decorated team in franchise history.
In all, they won 98 games, including the postseason. That’s easily a franchise record.
Pedrique won International League Manager of the Year honors, and Gamel became just the third player in franchsie history — joining Red Barons outfielder Shane Victorino in 2005 and Yankees outfielder Shelley Duncan in 2009.
Their September might have been the most dominant string of games the team has ever had, as well.
The RailRiders went 12-1 during the month, their only loss coming in that Game 1 against Gwinnett. In all, the pitching staff allowed a mere 24 runs in those 13 games, amazing considering six of them came in that one inning.
The RailRiders did play in one other Triple-A National Championship Game, losing 4-1 to Sacramento in 2008. More on that game tomorrow.