On Sunday, the Midland RockHounds captured their fourth straight Texas League title. Minor league dynasties are rare given the turnover on rosters from year-to-year. I thought it would be fun to look back at the RockHounds four title-winning teams and re-live what has been one of the most remarkable team feats in minor league history.
The team that started the RockHounds’ run was probably the most unlikely to capture the crown. At the start of the season, the RockHounds featured a star-studded roster that included the A’s top position player prospect, Addison Russell, and their top pitching prospect, Raul Alcantara.
Injuries changed the complexion of the RockHounds’ roster in a hurry that season. Russell injured his hamstring the first week of the regular season and was sidelined for most of the first half of the season. He returned to Midland on June 17, only to be traded to the Chicago Cubs on July 5th in a blockbuster deal. Russell ultimately played just 13 games for Midland. Alcantara lasted only three starts before injuring his elbow. He would eventually have Tommy John surgery and miss the rest of the season.
Player movement was a theme for Midland in 2014. Only four players logged more than 100 games for the RockHounds (Dusty Coleman, Max Muncy, Conner Crumbliss and Jefry Marte). On the pitching side, the RockHounds had more stability. Chris Jensen, Nate Long, Shawn Haviland and Drew Granier all made at least 24 starts. The bullpen was led by Ryan Dull, who made 40 appearances and posted a 2.88 ERA, as well as Seth Frankoff (2.41 ERA/15 saves) and Jose Flores (2.96 ERA/12 saves). Ryan Doolittle and Frank Gailey were also major contributors to the relief corps.
Midland earned a wild card spot in the Texas League post-season after the Frisco RoughRiders won both the first- and second-half South Division titles. Frisco was the overwhelming favorite in the series, with a roster that featured top prospects such as Joey Gallo, Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams and Jake Thompson.
Midland lost the first game of the semi-final series, 7-3, and lost Hiroyuki Nakajima to a season-ending thumb injury when he tried to make a play coming off of the bag at first base. With Nakajima sidelined for the rest of the post-season, Midland manager Aaron Nieckula turned to A’s 2014 top pick Matt Chapman to fill in at third base, moving Max Muncy over to third.
That move proved to be a boon for the RockHounds, as Chapman would come essentially out of nowhere to hit .310 with two homers in eight post-season games for Midland. He also played outstanding defense (shocking, I know). Chapman’s professional debut with Low-A Beloit earlier that year was less-than-inspiring from a production perspective, so his performance in the Texas League post-season was a significant catapult for him going into 2015. Nakajima’s injury also opened a roster spot for Daniel Robertson, who joined the RockHounds’ post-season roster after the Stockton Ports were eliminated from the California League playoffs. Robertson played seven games for the RockHounds, homering once and posting a .367 OBP.
Heavy underdogs, the RockHounds shook off that game one loss to Frisco to win three straight and earn a spot in the Texas League finals. In game two, the RockHounds broke a 3-3 tie in the ninth with a three-run rally. The three runs were scored on a wild pitch, a bunt single and a balk. That rally was illustrative of the scrappy nature of that year’s team. In game three, Chapman’s first Double-A homer broke a 2-2 tie in the 7th and gave the RockHounds a 3-2 win. The scrappy RockHounds took advantage of three Frisco errors in game four to punch their ticket to the final in a 5-4 win.
The RockHounds were underdogs again in the finals, as they squared off with the Tulsa Drillers. Much like this year’s team, the RockHounds had to fend off elimination to earn a title in five games against the Drillers. Midland won game one but dropped the next two games before coming back to win the series with two wins. Robertson and Muncy each reached base four times in game four. The big hits in game five came off the bats of longtime A’s farmhands Coleman and Crumbliss, who both homered in the 5-0 win.
Jeremy Barfield, who began the 2014 season as a pitcher with High-A Stockton, was naturally the RockHounds’ leading hitter that post-season. Barfield hit .310/.487/.410 during the post-season. Long had a 1.02 ERA in three starts (17.2 innings) and Flores saved three games.
Unlike the 2014 team, the RockHounds’ 2015 squad was filled with high-profile prospects from the beginning of the season through to the end. Matt Olson, Ryon Healy, Renato Nunz, Chad Pinder, Bruce Maxwell and Jaycob Brugman all spent the entire season with the RockHounds, while Dillon Overton, Sean Manaea and Bobby Wahl were highly regarded prospects who joined the team mid-season.
Pinder took a big leap forward, earning the Texas League’s MVP award, while Colin Walsh, Healy and Dull all joined Pinder on the Texas League’s post-season All-Star list. Manaea gave the rotation a huge boost after he was acquired from the Kansas City Royals that July. In nine starts, he posted a 2.36 ERA and he struck-out 62 in 49.2 innings. Dull had a ridiculous season, posting an 0.60 ERA in 45 innings before jumping to Triple-A Nashville in August. He made his major-league debut that September.
Under manager Ryan Christenson, the RockHounds squared off against a talented Corpus Christi squad in the first round of the playoffs. Facing a roster with top prospects such as Teoscar Hernandez, Colin Moran, A.J. Reed and Chris Devencenzi, the RockHounds were out-gunned in game one in a 9-2 loss. Midland would return the favor in game two, scoring seven runs in the top of the ninth to break a 2-2 tie in an eventual 9-3 win. Nunez’s grandslam was a big blow in the inning. Josh Whitaker had three hits, including a homerun.
In game three, Midland earned a 9-5 win. Nunez drove-in three, Healy had four hits and Brugman homered and doubled. That homer would be the first of four that Brugman would hit during the post-season. Midland put Corpus Christi away in game four behind a pitching gem from starter Jake Sanchez, who allowed only a run in seven innings. He out-dueled Francis Martes in the 4-1 win. Brugman homered and doubled again and Healy and Olson also homered.
The RockHounds took on the Northwest Arkansas Naturals in the finals and they needed only three games to sweep their way to the title. Sean Manaea threw eight innings in game one, allowing two unearned runs in the 5-2 win. Brugman homered and walked and Anthony Aliotti drove-in two. In game two, Nunez hit a three-run homer in the first and Brugman homered for a fourth straight game in an 8-6 RockHounds’ win. Midland made it a sweep with a decisive 7-0 victory in game three. Parker Frazier, who had been acquired in a minor league swap mid-season, threw a three-hit shutout. Whitaker, who had been sidelined since game three of the semi-final series after being hit in the hand by a pitch, returned to drive-in three with a homerun and a two-run single.
Nunez led the way offensively for the RockHounds, driving in an incredible 12 runs in seven games. Brugman drove-in eight and he had a 1663 OPS in six games. Whitaker, Aliotti and Healy all had big post-seasons. Manaea allowed just two earned runs in two starts that stretched over 15 innings. He struck-out 15 and walked only two. Brendan McCurry saved two games.
The star power remained in Midland at the start of the 2016 season, when the RockHounds featured an Opening Day roster that included top prospect Franklin Barreto, 2014 top pick Chapman, starting pitching prospect Daniel Mengden and 2015 hold-overs Healy and Brugman.
Healy, who had been the Texas League’s top hitter during the second-half of 2015, terrorized Texas League pitchers for roughly six weeks before earning a call-up to Triple-A. He would finish the year in the big leagues as the A’s top rookie. Brugman jumped to Triple-A not long after Healy, and he would go on to win the Sounds’ team MVP award.
Chapman and Barreto helped to fill the void left by those two promotions. Chapman hit 29 homeruns and earned the league’s MVP award, while Barreto recovered from a slow first half to hit .281 for the season and .337 for the second half. Catcher Beau Taylor put together his best season with the RockHounds and earned a post-season All-Star selection. Chapman and Barreto were also post-season All-Stars and Christenson earned the league’s top manager award.
On the pitching side, Mengden followed a similar trajectory to Healy, dominating the Texas League for a short time en route to an early promotion to Nashville and, eventually, the big leagues. Corey Walter was remarkable all season, posting a 2.15 ERA in 100.1 innings, and Daniel Gossett shined after a mid-season promotion from Stockton, posting a 2.49 ERA and striking out a batter an inning in 94 innings. Heath Fillmyer also provided a boost after a late-season promotion from Stockton.
Joel Seddon led the team in innings pitched. He struggled badly the first half of the year, but had a 1.84 ERA in 78.1 innings during the second half. In the bullpen, flamethrowers Wahl and Sanchez led the pack. The RockHounds were the dominant team in the league during the second half of the season.
While the RockHounds had plenty of high-profile stars during the regular season, their roster had a much different look when the post-season rolled around. Chapman, Barreto, Gossett, Wahl and starter Raul Alcantara were all promoted to Nashville during the final weeks of the regular season. Consequently, Midland was an underdog once again when they squared off against Corpus Christi in the semi-finals for a second straight year.
After splitting the first two games of the series, things looked dire for the RockHounds in the all-important game three. Midland had blown a late-game 4-0 lead in game two and were down 5-2 going into the bottom of the ninth. Midland got the first two batters on and they trimmed the deficit to 5-3 when Max Schrock grounded out to score Richie Martin. Taylor was hit by a pitch, but Tyler Marincov struck-out for the second out of the inning. Yairo Munoz worked a walk to load the bases and up stepped Viosergy Rosa, who launched a dramatic, game-winning grandslam to give Midland an improbable game three win. With the momentum on their side, the RockHounds cruised to a 5-2 win in game four to reach the finals. Brandon Mann worked 6.1 scoreless innings to set the tone for the game.
In the finals, the RockHounds battled the Naturals for a second straight year. Beginning the series on the road, Midland took the first two games, winning game one, 5-4, and game two, 6-4. The RockHounds’ charge to the title hit a minor hiccup in game three, when they dropped a 4-0 decision. A rain delay kept both teams on ice for three hours before first pitch in game four, but once the skies cleared, starter James Naile was ready. He worked six scoreless innings, allowing the RockHounds to build a 4-0 lead. They would win the game, 4-1.
Marincov was the hitting star of the post-season for Midland, as he reached base at a remarkable .514 clip in eight games. Munoz hit .387 and the RockHounds received a big contribution from Martin, who was called up late in the season from Stockton to replace Barreto. Martin hit .320/.400/.480 and played outstanding defense in eight games. Rosa hit .310 and drove-in six. His game three hit was the biggest of the post-season.
Walter threw 10 scoreless innings in two starts and Mann allowed one run in 12.1 innings pitched. Seddon went 2-0 and allowed three runs in 11 innings and Sanchez locked down three saves, including one in the title clincher.
The 2017 RockHounds’ Opening Day roster featured several players who were instrumental in the team’s 2016 title run. Midland also had a new manager, with Fran Riodran taking over for Christenson, who was promoted to Nashville. Pitching prospects Grant Holmes and Fillmyer and infield prospects Munoz (who began the year on the DL), Martin and Schrock received the early season hype.
Injuries were an issue for Midland all season. Top contributors Martin and Marincov both lost significant portions of the season after being hit by pitches. Closer Sanchez suffered a facial fracture when he was struck by a line-drive and outfielder Brett Vertigan, who was hitting .285 at the time, was lost for the season after a hit by pitch on June 25. Starting pitchers Naile (oblique) and Brett Graves (shin splints) also lost much of the season with injuries.
Despite the injuries, the RockHounds kept themselves in the race, thanks in large part to the season-long contributions of outfielder B.J. Boyd and Schrock. Both players battled for the Texas League batting title all season and both finished with averages above .320. Munoz joined the team at the end of April after rehabbing an injury sustained during spring training, and he was productive in his short time with the team, posting an 880 OPS in 47 games before jumping to Nashville. Rosa also had a big season, driving in 110 runs, becoming the first RockHounds’ batter to reach the 100-RBI mark since Chris Carter in 2009.
In the starting rotation, Fillmyer and Holmes shouldered the load at the top of the rotation. They finished 1-2 in innings pitched in the A’s system. Fillmyer was steady all season, posting a 3.49 ERA. Holmes was up-and-down during the first half, but he took off in the second half, posting a 3.72 ERA in 82.1 innings. With the RockHounds needing two wins over the final two games of the regular season to reach the playoffs, both starters came up big. Holmes went eight innings and Fillmyer threw 7.1 to put Midland into the post-season.
During the second half, the RockHounds received plenty of reinforcements. Cal League All-Stars Tyler Ramirez, Sean Murphy and A.J. Puk joined the team from Stockton right around the All-Star break. Ramirez hit .308 with an 823 OPS for Midland during the second half. Murphy’s offensive numbers weren’t particularly impressive with Midland, but he provided a big boost to the team with his defense behind the plate. Save for two poor starts, Puk was brilliant for the RockHounds. In 64 innings, he struck-out 86 and had two 13-strike-out games.
The A’s July trade activity proved to be a boon for Midland, as well. Shortstop prospect Jorge Mateo joined the RockHounds on August 1 and he provided the line-up with plenty of energy. Mateo stole 13 bases in 30 games with the RockHounds and hit .292. Infielder Sheldon Neuse joined Midland for the three weeks of the regular season. Acquired in mid-July from the Washington Nationals, Neuse hit .386 in 22 games with Stockton before hitting .373 in 18 games with the RockHounds.
After making a late push to reach the post-season, Midland took on the San Antonio Missions in the semi-final series. The Missions were the best team in the South Division during the regular season, winning both the first- and second-half titles. They won the most games in the league (78), 11 more than the RockHounds during the regular season. Midland was without batting leader Boyd for the entire post-season, as Boyd was home tending to a family matter.
The RockHounds took game one of the series in a rout, 9-2. Puk threw four scoreless innings and struck-out eight, but he left the game after feeling some soreness in his forearm. Midland would be without their ace the rest of the post-season. The RockHounds’ fortunes took a turn in games two and three, when they dropped both contests. In game two, Midland fell behind, 4-1, early and rallied back to within a run, but they couldn’t complete a comeback. The Missions steamrolled the RockHounds in game three, winning 9-0.
Midland needed to win out in order to advance to their fourth straight finals. Down 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth in game four, Midland scored five times to complete an improbable comeback. Mateo’s three-run double was the big blow of the inning. The RockHounds then traveled to San Antonio and cruised to a 4-1 win behind stellar pitching from Seddon and a quartet of relievers. Murphy homered as the RockHounds built an early 3-0 lead and never looked back.
Just as they did in 2014, the RockHounds had to go through the Tulsa Drillers to take home a fourth straight title. Midland didn’t make it easy on themselves, losing the first two games of the series at home. Needing to win three straight in Tulsa to take the title, the RockHounds turned to their pitching staff and got big results. In game three, Fillmyer combined with three relievers on a five-hit shutout in a 2-0 Midland win. In game four, Neuse hit a key three-run homer in the fifth inning in a 6-3 Midland victory. Holmes threw 6.1 innings, allowing two earned runs and striking out six.
In game five, Midland turned once again to Naile, who had delivered a gem in the title clincher the year before. “Big Game James” lived up to his nickname, limiting the Drillers to five hits and two walks in six shutout innings. Four Midland relievers combined on the final three innings of the 1-0 win, with Midland fending off rally attempts by the Drillers in the 8th and 9th innings. The only run of the game came in the first inning, when Mateo reached on an error and scored on a two-out hit by Rosa.
Schrock (.350) and Neuse (.342) provided plenty of post-season firepower for the RockHounds, as did Rosa, who drove-in 16 and homered three times in 10 games. Fillmyer had two outstanding starts, allowing three runs in 11.2 innings. Out of the bullpen, Mann shined in the post-season, throwing 6.1 scoreless innings. He struck-out nine. Closer Kyle Finnegan came up big in big spots, saving all three of the RockHounds’ wins in the finals and four total in the post-season. He didn’t allow a run in 5.2 innings pitched. Sam Bragg also threw 5 scoreless innings out of the bullpen.
In winning their fourth straight title, the RockHounds became the first minor league team in 92 years to win four in a row.
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