River Cats are at top of class again
Triple-A champs earn second straight Best Triple-A Team MiLBY
Todd Steverson isn't entirely comfortable with using the word dynasty to describe what Sacramento has accomplished over the last six seasons.
That the River Cats have won four Pacific Coast League titles during that time, including the last two, certainly would indicate a dynasty. Throw in back-to-back Bricktown Showdown crowns and their 28-8 postseason record over the last six seasons, and the case for using the d-word clearly becomes stronger. But the first-year Sacramento manager remains as reluctant to use it as he was on the chilly September night when his squad won it's second consecutive Triple-A championship.
"I wouldn't personally use the word," Steverson said. "A dynasty has a lot of the same players and personnel consistently for a period of time. The A's [Sacramento's parent club] have been fortunate enough to put players in the system at the Triple-A level that continue to win. So I would say it's more of a crazy kind of mystique than a dynasty."
Well, whichever characterization you prefer, the results have been undeniable. The River Cats have proven to be the cream of Triple-A Baseball for the better part of a decade, and this season that success translated into a second consecutive MiLBY for Best Triple-A Team.
The River Cats won 83 games during the regular season to capture their seventh PCL Pacific South Division title in the last nine years. They, along with Iowa, finished a victory behind Salt Lake for the most wins in the PCL, while leading the league with 700,168 fans passing through the gates at Raley Field. It marked the ninth consecutive season that Sacramento has topped the 700,000 plateau in attendance.
Sacramento then proceeded to dispatch Salt Lake and Oklahoma -- each time in the fourth game of a best-of-5 series -- to claim the PCL crown. The River Cats remained in Oklahoma City, where they defeated International League-champion Scranton-Wilkes/Barre to retain their Bricktown title.
"I think that any time you're able to go through a 144-game schedule, and after the playoffs it's 153, and be able to come out as champion, it's special," Steverson said. "And that's at any level. Personally, I think it's a lot more difficult at the Triple-A level, because there is a lot of movement to the big leagues.
"You also have an influx of free agents that haven't been in the organization their whole career. It takes a minute to get cohesive. But that chemistry started real early for us, and we were able to put it together and keep it going for the whole year."
That early chemistry certainly helped when it appeared as if Salt Lake was going to dominate Minor League Baseball for the entire season. The Bees began the campaign by going 24-2, and figured to run away from the rest of the PCL. The River Cats, meanwhile, hovered around the .500 mark before winning 15 of 18 in early May.
Sacramento went on to outdistance Las Vegas by 8 1/2 games for the division title. Salt Lake went on to win the Pacific North Division crown, but after its hot start played only two games above .500 for the remainder of the year.
"I thought after the All-Star break that we had a chance to make the playoffs again," Steverson said. "We had put ourselves in a position to see where everyone was sitting at the break. It's a tough time because of the trading deadline.
"You don't know where organizations stand, but we were fortunate to keep the guys we started off with and add some nice pieces to the puzzle late. Somewhere just after the break, I got the sense that these guys were pretty good, and that if we could put together a nice month, we'd have a shot at winning the Division title."
The River Cats had the nice month that Steverson was looking for, opening August by going 15-2. Sacramento rolled into the postseason, and despite losing a 13-10 slugfest to Salt Lake in the playoff opener, Steverson's group rebounded to win three straight by a combined score of 29-11 before taking down the RedHawks in four games.
Sacramento then made quick work of the Yankees at Bricktown, jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the first and cruising to a 4-1 victory.
"I think I got more comments about Bricktown because it was nationally televised," Steverson said. "I'm not so sure that everyone would have known we won the PCL title if that game wasn't televised. It's a stark possibility that everyone would think that if we lost that game we would have lost the championship.
"We simply would have won the PCL title and lost the Triple-A championship. I enjoyed that game. But if we lost that game, it wouldn't have taken away anything that we accomplished up until that point."
Like most Triple-A teams, there were few constants with the River Cats. First baseman Casey Rogowski and infielder Brooks Conrad each appeared in 117 games, tops on the club. Rogowski had 14 homers and 64 RBIs while Conrad had 28 homers and 91 RBIs. Wes Bankston (97 games) added 20 homers and 73 RBIs.
Dan Meyer had 10 wins, while Kirk Saarloos added nine. Gio Gonzalez was an eight-game winner, and Jerry Blevins had 10 saves before going up to Oakland in July.
"Our main goal is to get guys to the big leagues," Steverson said. "That thought process never stops. It's a lot more enjoyable to go out and play good baseball and win games while you're doing that."
The previous two winning Bricktown managers, including Sacramento's Tony DeFrancesco, were each promoted to the Major Leagues following their victories in Oklahoma City. Steverson just laughed when asked about that, saying that he has yet to get his 2009 assignment.
"Right now I have to assume I have a pretty good chance of coming back and being the Triple-A manager," he said.
If that happens, he can begin working on a three-peat.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.