The main objective for teams in the Appalachian League is to develop young, talented players and prepare them to move up through the system with the hopes of making the major leagues someday.
Winning, it has been often said, is secondary in baseball’s lower minor leagues.
Mike Shildt says the two go hand-in-hand.
“Development is winning,” Shildt said Monday, a day after his Johnson City Cardinals won their second consecutive Appalachian league championship. “They put the time in to develop, and the process ... the fundamentals, how to go about playing the game, they were able to execute it. Development leads to winning. It’s a real special process.”
The Cards clinched their second Appy League title in a row with a 4-1 victory over the Bluefield Orioles on Sunday night. Johnson City hadn’t won consecutive league titles since 1975-76.
“I have a lot of respect for this team,” Shildt said. “How serious they were, individually and collectively doing their best every day. We took teams’ best shots every single day and really gave away nothing all season. It was a true blessing to be a part of it and to manage it.”
Shildt’s faith in his team was rewarded in the first game of the championship series when the Cards pulled out a 4-3 victory on Neal Pritchard’s ninth-inning single. Matt Williams’ sacrifice fly earlier in the inning had tied the game.
“I had a feeling we were gonna win it late,” Shildt said. “We made a pitching change in the eighth inning. I said to the home plate umpire, ‘We’re winning this game in the ninth inning.’ It wasn’t bragging. I was just comfortable and confident in the group of guys we have.
“I just knew they were gonna give it their best shot and not gonna quit.”
Bluefield managed just three hits in the final series as pitchers Jose Pasen, Chris Constantino, Michael Santana, Nick Gillung and Logan Billbrough held the Blue Jays in check.
“If you really think about it, it’s unbelievable,” Shildt said. “Everyone in baseball knows pitching in the playoffs is pivotal to success. You’re just not gonna get any better pitching than that.”
How good was the Cardinals’ pitching in the championship series? Bluefield jumped out to a 3-0 lead on Kevin Pillar’s three-run home run in the first inning of Game 1. After that, over the next 17 innings, the Cardinals allowed two hits and one run.
“It was just a phenomenal performance,” Shildt said.
The pitching staff got some help from Johnson City center fielder Steven Ramos in the fourth inning when he made a home run-robbing catch of a drive by Pillar. Ramos’ glove was over the fence when he caught the ball and he pulled it back in for a harmless out. A home run would have tied the game 2-2. Instead, the Blue Jays never scored again.
“That was as good a baseball play as you will ever find,” Shildt said.
The catch allowed the Cards to cruise, and Gillung and Billbrough combined on a one-hitter.
In the two games of the championship series, Gary Apelian went 3 for 6. In the clinching victory, Pritchard had two doubles and Jonathan Keener had three hits.
Tyler Rahmatulla wound up as the team’s top hitter during the regular season with a .314 batting average. Anthony Garcia hit .308. Roberto De La Cruz hit 16 home runs, third in the league and tops on the team. Kyle Hald went 7-0 on the mound. Nobody else on the club had more than four wins.
Johnson City was a league-best 45-23 during the regular season and earned a spot in the championship series by beating the Danville Braves in a three-game wild-card series.
Despite their success on the field, the Cards weren’t as fortunate at the turnstiles. According the league statistics, Johnson City averaged 763 fans in 34 home dates. Only Bristol, at 701, had fewer.
Joe Avento is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.