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Audio: Another walk-off blast
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After an uneven start to his professional career, Ryan Royster knew it was time to fulfill his potential. Although the 2004 sixth-round draft pick had shown flashes of power in his first three seasons, his plate discipline and batting average were not where they could be. He was sure he could do better.
"Going into my fourth year, I was ready to get going," Royster recalled.
So after an offseason of reflection and hard work, the 21-year-old came to Spring Training with a chip on his shoulder.
"I came in ready to attack the season," he said.
Attack, he did.
Royster had a year to remember, leading the South Atlantic League in home runs (30), slugging percentage (.601), OPS (.982) and total bases (285) while finishing second in RBIs (98) and third in batting (.329). His team, the Columbus Catfish, swept its way through the playoffs en route to the SAL championship.
As a result, the Oregon native was named the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' Minor League Player of the Year and MiLB.com's Class A Offensive Player of the Year.
"I didn't expect to have that kind of season," Royster admitted.
His spectacular campaign was merely very good until early August. While he was hitting well above .300 and had made the SAL midseason All-Star team, he had homered only twice in July. With the Catfish battling the Charleston RiverDogs for supremacy in the Southern Division, Royster stepped up his game.
"My last two weeks in July weren't too strong. I wasn't too happy about it," he said. "I told myself that I needed to increase my focus as we were making a push for the playoffs."
The newly focused Royster smacked a walk-off homer, the third of his Minor League-best four he'd hit in 2007, to power the Catfish to a 12-inning victory over Lexington on Aug. 3.
"That moment was a big firestarter for us," recalled Royster, who said he'd never hit a walk-off before this year. "It's when my season took off."
Two nights later, Royster began a streak in which he hit seven homers in a six-game span. That stretch included a two-homer, six-RBI performance in a 15-9 win over Greensboro. When the dust settled, Royster put together a historic August, batting .365 with 14 home runs and 32 RBIs in 28 games. More importantly, Columbus went 19-9 and wrapped up the division title.
"Really, honestly, I enjoyed [the home run streak], but I didn't relish it because of the playoff race," he said.
When the playoffs arrived, however, Royster struggled. The Catfish outscored Augusta, 18-3, in sweeping their two-game series, then took the first two games against West Virginia in the SAL Finals. Royster, however, had one hit in his first 13 postseason at-bats.
"I came into the playoffs wanting to be the guy. I wanted to show that [the regular season] wasn't a fluke," he said. "Putting pressure on myself has always been a problem for me. I outthought myself. I tried too hard."
But Royster redeemed himself in Game 3, going 2-for-4 with a three-run homer as Columbus clinched the championship.
"I'm glad I ended it strong. That would have been bittersweet," he said. "You can't put words on how you feel physically or mentally after winning. You may only win one time in your professional career. It really capped off a great season. I'll never forget it for the rest of my life."
Now, with Royster participating in the Instructional League, he had time to reflect on his productive season. Although his goal remains reaching the Major Leagues, he said a move up the organizational ladder would have been a disappointment.
"If they were to move me up, it would have been almost be saddening to me. I'm glad they kept me [in Columbus]," he explained. "I wouldn't have traded that season for anything."
Ryan McConnell is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.