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Pulaski returns to Appy League, playoffs08/26/2008 10:00 AM ET
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
Absence has made the heart grow fonder in Pulaski, Virginia.
The Appalachian League was down to nine teams in 2007 when the Blue Jays left Pulaski following the '06 season, despite many efforts to find a way to field a team at historic Calfee Park. Then the Mariners stepped in to save the day, agreeing to bring baseball back to Pulaski by fielding a seventh minor league club -- and third short-season or rookie-level team -- in the United States.
It's worked out pretty well for all parties involved, with the Pulaski Mariners ending the Danville Braves' four-year run as the East Division champions. Attendance has increased by roughly 10 percent after the one-year layoff, from 902 fans per game in 2006 up to 1,007 this year. Considering Pulaski has less than 9,500 residents, that's not nothing, and the "blooming" fan base is gearing up for a championship matchup against the Elizabethton Twins, who have won the title in two of the past three years.
"It's been great," said Mariners farm director Greg Hunter. "We were stretched more than we had been in the past. I'd like to have a little more insurance on the bench, but it worked out. Guys were able to get at-bats and innings pitched more than in the past. Having the three teams enabled us to put the right guys in the right spots."
It was particularly beneficial for players, Hunter said, coming out of high school or from Latin America who were a touch advanced for the rookie-level Arizona League, but not quite ready for the college-heavy short-season Northwest League. Players like Gabriel Noriega, George Soto and Jonathan Arias all got the opportunity to be challenged a little bit more and Hunter was pleased with how they responded. Then there were players like Guy Welsh and Kris Sanchez, a little older but who would have had difficulty finding a place to play without Pulaski being in the organization. Both have made major contributions to Pulaski's playoff push.
None of this guarantees that Pulaski will have a club in the 2009 season. The Mariners signed a one-year deal to have a team in the Appy League and it remains to be seen whether they'll return, title run or not.
"We're one of a few organizations with seven clubs domestically," Hunter said. "It's an investment the organization has made and they'll have to make a decision [whether to continue it]."
Pulaski Mariners (37-24) vs. Elizabethton Twins (39-22)
It's not an Appy League championship without the E-Twins involved. Elizabethton is in the championship series for the fourth straight season, having won it all last year and in 2005. The Twins also took home the championship in 2000 and 2003, while finishing second in 2001 and 2006. Pulaski last made the playoffs in 1999 behind league pitcher of the year Aaron Harang. The last time a Pulaski team won a title was in 1991 when they beat Burlington and Manny Ramirez. The Mariners can keep the E-Twins from repeating if they can keep the league's top offense in check.
Pulaski and Elizabethton split the six games they played during the season, with each team faring better on the road than at home. The Mariners home opener was against Elizabethton and the Twins won two out of three. The Mariners returned the favor by taking two of three in Elizabethton in July.
Dwight Britton (.353 average) and Mario Martinez (.417) had the most success against E-Twins pitching, each driving in six runs. Projected starters Nick Czyz, Brooks Mohr and Jose Rios went a combined 1-1 with a 4.58 ERA in 17 2/3 IP. The trio allowed 23 hits and four walks while striking out 23. ... Evan Bigley has feasted on Pulaski pitching, going 8-for-22 (.364) with three homers over the six games. Angel Morales hit .421 with three doubles and a homer in the season series. Bobby Lanigan made two starts against the Mariners, winning one and tossing 11 shutout innings. He yielded just six hits and no walks while striking out 15.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Pulaski: Catcher Juan Fuentes was tied for third in the league with his .337 average and fifth with a .407 OBP. Mario Martinez joined him in the top 10 in batting average by hitting .319. ... Jose Rios made just four starts, but he's been good in that role, holding hitters to a .182 average and striking out 23 in 19 innings while posting a 0.95 ERA. Closer Blake Nation was second in the league with 11 saves and averaged a strikeout per inning.
Elizabethton: The E-Twins had the top two home run hitters in the Appy League with Angel Morales (15) and Evan Bigley (14). Both hit over .300 and were also the top two in slugging percentage as well. Jonathan Waltenbury wasn't far behind, with 10 homers, a .319 average and .922 OPS (Morales, Bigley and Waltenbury are all in the top five in that stat). ... Brad Tippett (8-3) and Daniel Osterbrock (7-2) were 1-2 in wins, while Osterbrock easily led the circuit with 104 Ks in 75 innings.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.