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11/29/2006 10:00 AM ET
Team of the Year honor goes to Tucson
Sidewinders struggled briefly before steamrolling to Triple-A title
Tucson celebrated a Pacific Coast League division title after beating Tacoma on Aug. 27. (Tucson Sidewinders)

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It seems a bit ironic that Oklahoma City is where Tucson laid claim to being the best Minor League team in the land by winning the inaugural Bricktown Showdown. After all, a little more than a month before the title game, the Sidewinders were in the midst of their biggest crisis of the season at the same AT&T Bricktown Ballpark.

In early August, Tucson worked its way out of a tailspin, recovering from a six-game slide that began in the Sooner State and ended in Arizona a week later. The Sidewinders went on to win 98 games, the last of which was the Bricktown Showdown -- not only to take home the Triple-A championship but to earn their place as the MiLB.com Team of the Year.

Chip Hale's team had been dominant for much of the regular season, slicing its way through the Pacific Coast League, despite losing key players on a steady basis to parent club Arizona. Stephen Drew, gone; Carlos Quentin, gone; Enrique Gonzalez, gone; Chris Young, gone; All-Star-caliber players, all plucked from the roster when the Diamondbacks were in need.

So, as the calendar turned to August, it appeared as if misfortune -- and a persistent Sacramento River Cats team --was about to catch up with Tucson. The Sidewinders lost a 2-0 decision in Oklahoma City on Aug. 7 and proceeded to drop the next two games to the RedHawks before heading home for a four-game set with hard-charging Sacramento.

The River Cats took the first three games of the series by a 16-7 margin before Tucson scored two ninth-inning runs to avoid a sweep, and perhaps salvage its season.

"Once we lost Quentin and Drew and Young and all those guys, and we were still winning, we still had to keep looking in our rear-view mirror because Sacramento was playing so well," Hale said. "And then we hit a rut in Oklahoma and lost three of four games and wound up losing a series for the first time in about two months.

"And then Sacramento beat us the first three games of the next series. But we beat them the fourth game with two in the ninth inning, and that was almost like a swing game. Everything just started to swing toward us after that and we started playing well."

The Sidewinders went 24-8, including their Bricktown win, the rest of the way, which included a nine-game winning streak at the end of August. The club steamrolled into the playoffs, where it won six of seven games, toppling Salt Lake and Round Rock to win the PCL crown. A victory over Toledo in the Showdown followed, and Minor League Baseball had its reigning champ.

"It's tough, because you look at our record and we had such a high win total, but we were never comfortable until the last week of the season," said Hale, who was promoted to the parent club as its third-base coach earlier this month. "Sacramento was always coming so hard at us. I remember talking to (Charlotte manager) Razor Shines at the Futures Game and they were ahead in their division and clinched it in the first or second week of August.

"But I think that ended up hurting them in the end. In a way, Sacramento was a big help to us, making us as good as we were for as long as we were."

The Sidewinders also were faced with what every other Minor League team must endure -- player promotions. None of the aforementioned players was with Tucson for the entire season, so there was always a need to bring in players from below. And more often than not, they did an admirable job.

The most significant of the contributors was Micah Owings, a right-hander who was promoted from Tennessee of the Southern League midway through the season. Owings was 6-2 at Double-A, then went 10-0 for the Sidewinders and was the winning pitcher at Bricktown.

"A guy like Micah, that's what he does best," Hale said. "You try to figure out what his best pitch is and it's just a wow factor. He just wins and gets it done. He does not accept losing."

The rest of the Sidewinders had their moments as well. Alberto Callaspo finished second in the PCL with a .337 average and Scott Hairston was seventh (.323). Callaspo led the league in hits (165), while Dustin Nippert tied for the league lead with 13 victories. Tucson had the league's best team batting average (.289) and fourth-best ERA (3.88).

So when it all came down to that final game in Oklahoma City, where the Sidewinders faced one of their greatest challenges of the season, they played just a bit better than their competition one last time.

"For us, winning the PCL was an accomplishment. It's a big league and it's sprawled over so much of the country," Hale said. "When we got to Oklahoma, the guys were extremely tired, but they saw how much the people there were promoting the game and the big party they had beforehand, and they got fired up.

"They realized that if we don't win this game, it's almost a waste because we won't be crowned the Triple-A champion. To have that many wins and not be the champs would have been kind of a letdown. We were really re-energized by things there."

Interesting when you consider that wouldn't have been the case five weeks earlier.

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.