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Aeros soar above Double-A peers

Aeros soar above Double-A peers

Coming into the 2009 season, Akron Aeros manager Mike Sarbaugh knew he had a young team with a lot of upside. He also understood that sometimes a young team will have its ups and downs.

Fortunately the Aeros, young as they were, had a lot more ups than downs in '09, posting an Eastern League-best 89 wins en route to the league title and MLB.com's Double-A Team of the Year honors.

The Cleveland Indians affiliate raced out of the gate with a 16-4 record in April and never let up, ultimately building a 14-game lead in the 12-team league's South Division.

"Consistency is the first word that comes to mind," Sarbaugh said when asked for one word that summed up his team, which won the second-most games in franchise history. "You'll always have winning and losing streaks, but I think from the work they put in all year long, there weren't any significant lulls in our play."

The Aeros continued to shine in the postseason, sweeping the Reading Phillies in three games in the division series before beating a tough Connecticut Defenders squad in four games in the best-of-5 league Finals. It was Akron's third Eastern League title since 2003.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for Sarbaugh was the team's starting pitching. He knew he'd have a strong offense and a solid bullpen, but he wasn't sure how the rotation would shake out.

Two prospects, left-hander Chuck Lofgren and right-hander Hector Rondon, set the pace for the team in April, going 1-0 with a 1.13 ERA and 4-0 with a 1.17 ERA respectively. Their mutual success earned them promotions to Triple-A Columbus, with Lofgren (who was selected by Milwaukee in the recent Rule 5 Draft) moving up in early May with a 1.48 ERA in eight starts, and Rondon promoted in early July after posting a 2.75 ERA over 15 appearances.

Not to worry, though, as 21-year-old Jeanmar Gomez, summoned from Class A Advanced Kinston in late April, quickly established himself as one of the aces of the staff. Allowing one earned run in his first four starts with Akron, Gomez tossed the first perfect game in team history May 21 -- and the first no-hitter thrown by the Aeros pitching staff since 2003. Gomez finished the season 10-4 with a 3.43 ERA, earning Eastern League Pitcher of the Year honors.

Joining Gomez as a season-long stalwart in the rotation was Josh Tomlin, who led the league in wins with 14 and struck out 125, posting a 4.16 ERA in 25 games. The pair ranked among the league leaders in both strikeouts and fewest baserunners per nine innings.

Also important to the team's success was the Aeros bullpen. In the first half of the season, sidearmer Vinnie Pestano emerged as the club's closer, collecting 24 saves with a 2.86 ERA through the first week of July. The Cal State-Fullerton product, a 20th-round pick in 2006, missed all of that year and part of 2007 with Tommy John surgery before putting it together at two levels in 2008. Throwing a lively fastball with late sink from a low three-quarters delivery, he was deceptive on the mound.

Pestano's effectiveness was unexpected by the Aeros. "Originally he was not on the radar, but he had such a good Spring Training, he put himself on the map," said Sarbaugh, who was named Eastern League Manager of the Year. "What he did for us the first two months really solidified what our club was about."

Pestano was shut down with an elbow injury in July and was ably replaced by right-hander Josh Judy, who collected 11 saves down the stretch. Also in the bullpen were the duo of Stephen Wright and Carlton Smith, the setup men. The pair ranked among the top five relievers in both strikeouts and baserunners per nine innings.

But no matter how good your pitching is, you still need solid hitting. Leading the way was catcher Carlos Santana, who earned his second league Most Valuable Player award in as many years (having won the Class A Advanced California League MVP in 2008), hitting .290 and finishing second in the league in homers (23) and RBIs (97).

Other players of note were first baseman Beau Mills -- son of new Houston Astros manager Brad Mills -- who hit .267 with 14 homers, 33 doubles and 83 RBIs and speedy outfielder Jose Constanza, who batted .282 with a team-high 49 stolen bases. Sarbaugh, who has already received a promotion to manage the Indians' Triple-A Columbus team in 2010, has consistently skippered teams with strong winning histories and fans who have come to expect success from their home teams. He doesn't let that add any extra pressure to his job, though.

"You have to put all the pressure on yourself to make the players better and, if you do that, good things will happen from trying to develop players," he said "You know the background and history, but each year you just try to put the best team out there and try to develop them to get players to Cleveland -- that's the goal."

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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