Baffling Danville can't stop winning
Despite turnover, short-season Braves able to earn MiLBY
The saying goes that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. It might be time to add the Danville Braves' annual postseason appearance to that list.
The affiliate of the Atlanta Braves in the Rookie-level Appalachian League played in the league's Championship Series for the fourth time in the past five years this season. Winning its second title since 2006 after finishing with a .691 regular-season winning percentage is enough for Danville to have earned the 2009 MiLBY award for Best Short-Season Team.
"I started with the Braves in 1979 and have been here pretty much my whole career," said Danville manager Paul Runge. "I've managed throughout the system, except [in] Triple-A. One of the biggest thrills has been this run we've had in Danville the last few years. It's been a lot of fun putting ourselves in position to play for the Appy League championship. I've been the beneficiary of some talented players."
This year was no different. Riaan Spanjer-Furstenburg won the batting title (.359) while finishing third in RBIs (53) and OPS (.953) to earn both league and Topps MVP honors. Cory Harrilchak hit .324 and stole 19 bases in 21 tries to go along with a .401 OBP. L.V. Ware led the circuit with 24 steals while Mycal Jones, a 2009 draftee, anchored the infield at shortstop and added 19 steals of his own.
While the offense was nice, the pitching staff was outstanding. Danville led the Appy League with a sterling 3.05 ERA. The D-Braves had three pitchers finish in the top 10 in that category, Christopher Masters finished second with a 1.42 mark. He also topped the Appy League with 85 strikeouts against just nine walks. Pitcher of the Year Matt Crim broke the single-season club record with 10 wins and was eighth with his 3.18 ERA; Brett Oberholtzer landed fourth in the league at 2.01.
It was then fitting that it was the pitching that enabled Danville to beat its rival, the Elizabethton Twins, in the best-of-3 Championship Series. Oberholzer tossed a complete game in Game 1, allowing just one run while Crim one-upped him with a complete-game shutout to finish off the sweep.
"Any time you're in a position to win, it all centers around pitching," Runge said. "The team does a good job signing pitching. That's the organization's strong suit. When you fill out the lineup card and you run a quality starter out there every night, you have to like your chances.
"When we went into the Appy League championship, we knew it would boil down to pitching. Those were phenomenal performances, typical of what happened all year."
The D-Braves certainly knew what to expect from their opponent. The E-Twins had won the past two league titles and were the opponent in each of the five years Danville has reached the championship round.
"We have had a tremendous rivalry after this set of years meeting up with Elizabethton," Braves farm director Kurt Kemp said. "I spoke to [Twins farm director] Jim Rantz about how much respect we have for them."
Kemp also raved about his skipper in Danville. Runge has spent the past several years being the first teacher many who enter the Braves system have. He's also piled up 245 wins during that time, the fourth-highest total in Appy League history.
"Paul does a terrific job," Kemp said. "He gives them a great foundation. He is a very good instructor and leader in terms of what we ask them to do."
Runge would be quick to defer the credit to Kemp's staff, as well as the Braves' scouting department responsible for supplying all the talent he's had to work with over the years. The group assembled in 2009, he thinks, was one of the best he's seen during his Danville tenure.
"It's the first time I had the chance to sit back and really enjoy watching these guys perform," Runge said. "It came relatively easy this year. We kind of cruised with the two complete games. It was a lot of fun.
"I was just as proud of this group, not only with winning the championship, but with how they conducted themselves all year. They carried themselves like true champions on and off the field all year long."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.