The Frederick Keys looked like they could be one of those teams. The Orioles affiliate in the Class A Advanced Carolina League had finished .500 in the first half of the season, five games behind Lynchburg. What success they did have came largely from having Nick Markakis in their lineup every day. Then, at the end of July, he got promoted to Double-A Bowie.
A funny thing happened on the way to Frederick's collapse. The Keys came together without Markakis, had the best record in the league in the second half and went on to win the championship against the Kinston Indians. It is this team effort that earned them MiLB.com's 2005 Class A Team of the Year.
"We had a lot of players who could fill in his spot and fill the gap that he left," starter Adam Loewen said. "He was our No. 1 offensive player and he brought a lot to the table when he was at the plate. I think a lot of guys stepped it up, our pitching staff stepped it up and we pulled it out in the end, which was an unbelievable experience."
The Keys, who won their first Carolina League Championship since 1990, were chosen for the honor ahead of the champions in the other Class A leagues: Midwest (South Bend Silver Hawks), South Atlantic (Kannapolis Intimidators), Florida State (Palm Beach Cardinals) and California (San Jose Giants).
Loewen and the rest of Frederick's staff is a big reason why. The 21-year-old lefty finished with a 10-8 record, a 4.12 ERA and 146 strikeouts in 142 innings. But that hardly tells the story. In the second half, he went 8-2 with a 3.03 ERA.
Loewen wasn't alone. Brian Finch was 4-6 through June, then went 6-3 with a 2.17 ERA in July and August to help the Keys clinch the second-half title.
"We had a really strong pitching staff," Loewen said. "Our 1-4 starters, even our fifth starter, were pretty good all year. I think we hit a spot in the second half of the season where we really pulled together and started to gel as a team."
That continued in the postseason. While the offense hit just .251 but came up with clutch hits at key moments, it was the pitching staff that carried Frederick through. In seven playoff games, the Keys staff posted a 2.07 ERA, striking out 60 in 61 innings and holding opponents to a .211 batting average. Finch allowed just one run in 12 innings. Closer Marino Salas saved three games and didn't allow a run. Garrett Olson relieved in two games, started one more, allowing just two hits, no runs and one walk with 10 strikeouts in 10 innings. Reliever Chris Britton continued dominating, striking out 11 and walking one in 7 1/3 innings. With pitching like that, the Keys didn't have to hit as much to beat Lynchburg and Kinston for the title.
"Even if we were having a bad day, we were always finding a way to keep our team in the game," Loewen said. "Our offense would find a way to keep our pitching staff in the game. We really did feed off each other in that kind of way."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.