The Yankees have nothing on the 2009 MiLBY winner for Overall and Class A Team of the Year, the Fort Wayne TinCaps. The Midwest League affiliate for the San Diego Padres won a grand total of 101 games, including the playoffs. But they did it in just 149 games for a .678 winning percentage that easily topped the Yankees' .636 mark (.644 if their playoff run is included).
"It was crazy, magical, unbelievable at times," said Doug Dascenzo, Fort Wayne's manager who will skipper the Padres' Double-A club in San Antonio in 2010. "I think it's fair to say it was one of those years of a lifetime. This is my 25th year in the game, and I've never really experienced something quite like that, especially in the Minor Leagues. To win over 100 games in a Minor League season, when you played 149 total games, that's pretty crazy."
The TinCaps won the first-half title by going 45-25. As is often the case in the Minors, some of the key components of the team earned a promotion, namely James Darnell (.329/.468/.518 with Fort Wayne), Sawyer Carroll (.316/.410/.464) and Nick Schmidt (4-0, 2.73 ERA). The Padres didn't promote others who may have been worthy, and that helped the TinCaps actually improve record-wise in the second half, going 49-21.
This was a club that liked to get off to fast starts. Fort Wayne began the season 10-0. Then, in the second half, the TinCaps broke out to a 14-1 start, including another 10-game winning streak.
"Fort Wayne was a special team. I don't know if you're ever going to assemble a club that'll win 100 games," Padres director of Minor League operations Mike Wickham said. "There were key players we didn't want to touch because we thought it might affect the streak they were on. A good majority of that club would've been fine at [Class A Advanced] Lake Elsinore, but we wanted to keep that club together and give them a chance to finish that out.
"We had a meeting with the club [after the promotions], and told them, 'This probably feels like you got punched in the gut. The guys who are here and the guys coming up, you have to go out and do the same thing. You have to prepare and compete and you'll have success.' We were 49-21 in the second half with, in theory, players who weren't as good. When I say it was a special team, I'm talking about the chemistry. The pieces of that puzzle were perfect this year."
Wickham pointed to Dan Robertson, the 2008 Northwest League MVP, as a key to that chemistry. He hit .296 with a .380 on-base percentage and 20 steals. Jaff Decker also made a nice transition to full-season ball, hitting .296/.442/.514 at age 19. The TinCaps led the Midwest League in runs scored and OPS.
The pitching staff finished second with a 3.46 ERA. Big right-hander Simon Castro led the staff by going 10-6 with a 3.33 ERA and .226 batting average against. He topped the league with 157 strikeouts in 140 1/3 innings. Erik Davis joined Castro in the league's top 10 in ERA (3.64) while winning a league-high 16 games. Brad Brach was lights-out to close their starts, easily topping the circuit with 33 saves.
"They just seemed to come together so quickly," Dascenzo said. "They seemed to be comfortable. They had a lot of fun. Couple that with a 10-game winning streak right out of the gate, that right there kicked everything off. They continued to do that right to the end of the year."
They almost didn't get the chance. Fort Wayne nearly got bounced from the first round of the playoffs. The TinCaps trailed South Bend, 4-2, in a decisive Game 3 before scoring three times in the eighth inning to avoid the upset. In Round 2, they dropped a crazy 11-inning game to Great Lakes that might have crushed the spirits of other teams. But Fort Wayne rallied to win the next two, including another extra-inning affair in the clincher (featuring a walk-off homer by backup catcher Robert Lara) before sweeping Burlington in the championship series.
"I guess it would've been somewhat disappointing [to not win], but when you look at the whole picture and you look at the individual accomplishments, they got better and they also accomplished an experience, how to win as a team," Dascenzo said. "They learned far more and gained far more in their experiences that will last them through their careers and help them to get to the Major Leagues. That's what we were proud of. We told them that heading into the playoffs, because anything can happen in three-game playoffs. But they found a way to [win]. To be able to bring the trophy home was really icing on the cake."
"We try to teach them to win, but how do you break down the nuts and bolts to teach them that?" Wickham asked. "Have a team that's competitive, that helps them through that winning process. I don't know what else to say about that club. It still gives me chills."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.