Celebrating their 20th season at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park, the Charleston RiverDogs' 2016 season was record breaking on a number of fronts. After winning the first-half division title with a 42-27 record at the All-Star break, the RiverDogs clinched their first playoff berth in 11 seasons and brought the city of Charleston the first RiverDogs playoff win in history, and the first postseason victory to the Lowcountry in 28 years. After evening up series with a thrilling seventh inning comeback in game two, the RiverDogs fell just short of making their first SALLY League Championship berth, falling 2-1 to the Rome Braves in the best-of-three series.
In his third year as skipper of the club, Luis Dorante guided the constantly changing RiverDogs team to a 76-63 record in the regular season, their highest win total since 2012. 64 different players appeared in a RiverDogs uniform, one shy of the record set the season prior, as Charleston continued to be a strong stepping stone for the host of Yankees minor leaguers passing through the Lowcountry.
Off the field, the club welcomed record crowds through the gates in the milestone year at The Joe with 293,161 fans passing through the turnstiles, eclipsing the record of 292,661 set the previous season in their final home game on Thursday, September 1 against Hagerstown.
Amidst a record level of turnover, RiverDogs pitching was consistently the most dominant staff in the league and one of the greatest ever seen in the Lowcountry. Charleston hurlers combined to strike out 1,248 batters to set a new franchise record dating back to 1980, 67 more punch outs than the 2011 RiverDogs. In his first year as the RiverDogs pitching coach, Justin Pope guided the club to a league best 3.03 ERA in the regular season, the best mark for a pitching staff under the RiverDogs name and second only to the 1988 Rainbows (2.44) in the history of the current Charleston franchise. The RiverDogs saw 37 different pitchers suit up in a RiverDogs uniform, the most turnover in history, but still maintained their dominance into the second half despite seeing 16 of their members earn promotion to High-A Tampa throughout the course of the season. The Charleston staff's 1.176 WHIP was also the best mark in franchise history.
Off on the Right Foot
The RiverDogs got off to a roaring start to their season, winning three of their first four games in walk-off fashion over their newest in-state rivals, the Columbia Fireflies. Trailing 4-1 heading into the bottom of the ninth on Opening Night, the RiverDogs would finish off an improbable comeback to edge out their opponents for their first walk-off win that would become commonplace for the Charleston club early on. After the aid of four Columbia walks, Chris Gittens stood at the plate with the bases loaded with Charleston now down by just a run. Second baseman Hoy Jun Park was suddenly caught off the bag at second in a rundown after a turn back from Columbia hurler Johnny Magliozzi. Taking advantage of the chaos, the not-so fleet of foot catcher Eduardo Navas would charge ahead for a daring steal of home that tied the ballgame, prompting a throw from Magliozzi that sailed to the backstop allowing Park to score the winning run and give the recently turned 20-year-old Korean a win on his birthday.
After the second walk-off win in a row behind a Jhalan Jackson RBI single, Charleston's first loss of the season came in the third game when three Columbia pitchers combined for a no-hitter for the first win in Fireflies history, a jarring 9-0 loss that the RiverDogs would answer back with a walk-off victory the following night behind a Thairo Estrada two-run single.
At April's end, Charleston was off to the best start in the league holding a 16-6 record, using their dominant pitching and a little bit of luck to edge out wins, holding a 9-2 mark in one-run games at the end of the first month to stake a four game lead over their next closest pursuer in the division. The Charleston club would win a total of seven games at The Joe in walk-off fashion on the year with five coming in the month of April. Charleston would cool off after a hot start, finishing out the first-half 26-22 to stay in control and clinch their first-playoff berth in 11 seasons with the first-half Southern Division title. The RiverDogs held at least a share of first-place every day except the third day of the season. Charleston clinched their title on June 14 with a 3-0 victory over the Augusta GreenJackets at The Joe.
At the All-Star break, Charleston had five of their pitchers along with two members of the coaching staff representing the RiverDogs in the Midsummer Classic in Lexington. Luis Dorante managed the South Division squad along with pitching coach Justin Pope at his side. Charleston hurlers Daris Vargas, Andrew Schwaab, and Cody Carroll were all named to the initial All-Star roster before Christian Morris and Nestor Cortes were each added as honorees.
Second Half Slide
Decimated by call-ups, the RiverDogs couldn't duplicate their first-half magic, posting a 34-36 post All-Star break record and finishing nine games back of the Rome Braves who would face the RiverDogs in the first round of the postseason.
Playoffs in the Holy City
The RiverDogs would open up their first playoff game in over a decade on the road, taking on the Rome Braves at State Mutual Stadium on Wednesday, September 7. After failing to take advantage of a one out bases loaded opportunity in the first, the Braves would cash in the bottom half to leap out to 2-0 lead and go on to take the opener 3-1. With Charleston trailing 3-0 in the fifth, Park put Charleston on the board with an RBI knock to left center.
In game two, Charleston again found themselves in an early hole, trailing 3-0 after four innings and a short start from their staff ace, Daris Vargas who lasted just 3.2 innings. Behind a roaring crowd of 5,135 at The Joe, the RiverDogs rallied back to score four runs in the seventh and complete an improbable 4-3 comeback over the Braves to force a decisive game three. Two straight one out walks by Kane Sweeney and Park put runners on for Cesar Diaz who hit a seeing eye single to make it 3-1. After a walk from Kyle Holder, Vince Conde smacked a bouncer through the right side that scored two and evened the ballgame at three apiece. After Mandy Alvarez struck out, a ground ball off the bat of Jhalan Jackson slipped underneath the glove of Rome third baseman Austin Riley for an error that gave the RiverDogs their first lead of the series. The game two victory was the first playoff win for Charleston under the RiverDogs name, and the first for a Charleston minor league club since the Rainbows made it to the SAL Finals in 1988.
After a memorable comeback, the RiverDogs didn't save enough magic for a second consecutive night as they fell 4-1 to Rome on Saturday night in game three. Park ripped a double down the left field line that scored Kane Sweeney with two outs in the second to give the RiverDogs the lead, 1-0, but Rome would answer back to tie the ballgame in the third, taking advantage of a pitch inside that hit Ray-Patrick Didder and a two out error by Park that extended the inning. Braves third baseman Austin Riley stepped up to the dish to single to left field and tie the ballgame at one apiece. In the fifth, Rome would open up the floodgates, scoring three times to put them out to their biggest lead. Shorstop Alejandro Salazar singled to left to lead off the frame and Didder reached on the second RiverDogs error of the game before Riley smashed a two-run double to right two batters later to make it 3-1 Braves. Justin Ellison followed suit with a double into right that pushed Rome out to a commanding 4-1 lead they would not relinquish.
The RiverDogs didn't get the solid starting pitching they had in the regular season and Charleston's weakest component all season, the offense, didn't do enough to back them up. Charleston starters allowed all 10 runs the Braves scored for a 5.54 postseason ERA RiverDogs bats hit just .180 (17-94) in three games. The Rome Braves stayed hot after winning 20 of their final 26 regular season games to edge out the first-half champs.
Pitching Wins Championships
Pitching dominance would see the RiverDogs lose many of their pitchers early with starters Brody Koerner and Josh Rogers along with lefty reliever and Summerville native James Reeves all garnering promotion to Tampa within the first month of the season.
One of the RiverDogs' biggest first half contributors, Domingo Acevedo was dominant after a less than spectacular effort when he took the mound on Opening Night. The towering Dominican right-hander and top-rated prospect to join the Charleston staff would make eight starts in a RiverDogs uniform, going 3-1 with a 1.90 ERA while racking up 48 strikeouts to just seven walks in 42.2 innings. Had it not been for a month long stint on the DL from May 4-June 10, the 6'7" righty may have been called up sooner, eventually departing the club for good just before the first-half title clinch.
Travis Hissong also got an early call to Tampa out of the bullpen on May 9 with the right-hander posting a 0.54 ERA with 23 strikeout in 16.2 innings, and eventually finding himself on Double-A Trenton's roster by season's end.
Despite early losses to their ranks, the depth in the Yankees system was on display as Charleston kept pitching with great success. One of the early season call ups, Nestor Cortes, would end up posting the most dominant individual pitching performance of the year, and have 2016 prove his breakout year in the Yankees system. After a midseason call up on May 6. The Cuban-born lefty posted 6-2 record with a 0.79 ERA. The Yankees' 36th round pick in 2013 struck out an impressive 75 batters in 68.1 innings, an average of 9.9 per nine innings, while walking just 15 and opponents hitting a measly .210 against him. Cortes allowed just six earned runs all season with the RiverDogs and never allowed more than one unearned run in any given start. After representing the RiverDogs as a South Atlantic League Mid-Season All-Star, Cortes was also called up for a spot relief appearance with Double-A Trenton, logging four innings to pick up the save on June 26 allowing two runs on just a hit before rejoining Charleston. The native Floridian was also named the South Atlantic League Pitcher of the Week after striking out 12 batters in six innings, giving up no runs, two hits, and one walk in a start against Columbia on May 19. His most dominant stretch with the RiverDogs came when he did not allow a run for 25.2 consecutive innings from 6/14-7/6. He was called up for good on July 22 to High-A Tampa where he would finish the year.
After midseason departures of most of the starting rotation, the core of the RiverDogs staff became rightys Christian Morris, Daris Vargas, and Luis Cedeno heading into the postseason.
After joining the RiverDogs roster from Extended Spring Training on April 28, Morris became a mainstay in the rotation, finishing the year going 8-5 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts. The Williston, FL native and former Indiana Hoosier 99 strikeouts and 24 walks in 120.1 innings and finished ranking seventh in the league among all qualifying pitchers in ERA and fourth in WHIP (1.07).
Vargas was the first pitcher to be called up to Charleston in April and rounded into form down the stretch, finishing with a 2.95 ERA that ranked sixth in the league among qualifying pitchers. The Dominican righty was at his most dominant in the month of August when he posted a 0.82 ERA in six starts, before a pair of shortened starts in his final regular season appearance and his playoff start in game two.
Cedeno shined in his time in the Lowcountry. The right-hander out of Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela went 9-9 with a 3.68 ERA in 20 starts in his second season in Charleston while compiling 95 strikeouts to 36 walks in 107.2 innings of work. The 5'11" righty was named the SAL Pitcher of the Week after carrying a perfect-game bid into the seventh inning against Lexington on July 28 at The Joe and finishing with seven, one-hit shutout innings. Cedeno also combined in a one-hit shutout effort when he teamed up with Nestor Cortes to hold West Virginia to just one hit on May 24 at The Joe.
Even more impressive than starting pitching, the RiverDogs rock solid bullpen was a mainstay for the club all year. Charleston relievers combined for a 2.79 ERA on the season while weathering the storm of call ups. Andrew Schwaab was the linchpin of the club for most of the year. Aside from a month long stint in Tampa from July 17-August 18, the sidewinding closer out of O'Fallon, MO spent the entirety of the season with the RiverDogs and posted a 4-1 record with a 2.27 ERA with 43 strikeouts in 39.2 innings while finishing second in the league with 20 saves. Schwaab picked up his 13th save of the year to close out the RiverDogs' first half clinching win on June 14 and picked up a save in his one postseason opportunity on September 9. Jose Mesa and Eddie Rivera also flashed their stuff out of the pen to earn call ups to Tampa throughout the course of the season.
RiverDogs at the Dish
On a RiverDogs season predicated pitching and defense, an at times struggling offense was still highlighted by a number of individual performances.
One of Charleston's Opening Day members, first baseman Chris Gittens was a mainstay in the RiverDogs lineup all year long. The native of Sherman, TX posted a .253/.359/.478 line while smashing 21 homers that ranked second in the league and a team-high 70 RBIs in 107 games. Gittens' 21 long balls put him four shy of the Charleston all-time franchise record, and the Texas slugger was named a SAL Postseason All-Star and voted by the Charleston fans as the "Top Dog" of the 2016 season. Gittens' most impressive game came on the road in West Virginia on June 16 when the native Texan smashed three home runs, one of just two hitters in the league to complete the trifecta, while going 3-for-5 with a career-high six RBI. Along with his eye-popping power, the Yankees' former 12th round pick in 2014 has shown solid plate discipline, reaching base safely in a league-high 33 straight from April 21-June 2. Gittens was placed on the disabled list on the club's second to last road trip and was not available in the postseason.
Coming into the season with a lot of hype over his glove, Yankees shortstop prospect Kyle Holder showed that he could get it done with the bat as well. The 30th overall pick from the 2015 draft out of the University of San Diego had a statement year at the plate, hitting .290/.323/.347 while collecting his first professional home run and driving in 18 in 88 games. Holder also enjoyed a team-high 16-game hitting streak from May 9-28. The San Diego native finished the season strong, hitting .357 with a .396 OBP over his final 23 games after spending a stint on the disabled list.
Because of his big performances in the key moments and affinity for club music, Park became a fan-favorite in Charleston with his walk-up song "Ode To Oi" by TJR sending the Charleston faithful into a fist-pumping frenzy each time the Yankees infield prospect stepped up to the plate. Along with Holder, Gittens, Jhalan Jackson, and Cody Carroll, Park was one of just five familiar faces to stay with the club through the entirety of the season. Park scored the winning run in two of the RiverDogs' first three walk-off win and finished the season hitting .225/.336/.329 with two home runs in 116 games while smacking 12 triples, a single-season record in a RiverDogs unform and the second most in franchise history dating back to 1980. Park led the RiverDogs' with 32 stolen bases and ranked third in the league with 67 walks and was the only player in MiLB with 15+ doubles, 10+ triples, 30+ stolen bases, and 60+ walks. The Korean native led the Dogs in the postseason, hitting .300 (3-10) with another triple and two RBIs.
Starting out the season as the club's primary leadoff hitter, center fielder Jeff Hendrix flashed speed, defense, and an ability to hit for average as the Corvallis, OR native would soon see himself in High-A Tampa. The Yankees' fourth rounder from 2015 hit .299/.397/.389 with one homer and 25 RBIs in 62 games before garnering promotion on July 17. Hendrix's most impressively went 5-for-5 for the first time in his career to drive in three runs on June 1 in Greenville, part of a stretch where he went 15-24 (.625), 3 2B, 5 RBI in six games to earn SAL Player of the Week honors.
RiverDogs Top Moments of the 2016 Season
- Hoy Jun Park scores game winning run on 20th birthday in Opening Night walk-off victory on April 7
- Jhalan Jackson hits RBI single as RiverDogs walk-off for second straight night on April 8
- The RiverDogs walk-off for the third time in four days on April 10 at The Joe behind a two-run single by Thairo Estrada
- Charleston pitching record a season-high 23 strikeouts with Travis Hissong and Claudio Custodio combining to record the final 15 outs of the game via the strikeout as Charleston beats out Augusta, 5-3, in 14 innings at Lake Olmstead Stadium
- Jhalan Jackson rips an RBI single on back-to-back nights to lift the RiverDogs over Augusta in two straight walk-off wins on April 23 and 24
- Nestor Cortes punches out individual-high 12 batters on May 19 versus Columbia
- In his first game back with Charleston, Gosuke Katoh cranks a home run off the video board in right on the second pitch he sees on May 23rd versus West Virginia
- Luis Cedeno and Nestor Cortes combine for a one-hit shutout of West Virginia on May 24 at The Joe
- On the road in Greenville on June 1, RiverDogs center fielder Jeff Hendrix goes 5-for-5 while driving in three runs as Charleston edges out the Drive, 7-5
- After taking part in a double steal earlier in the inning, Hoy Jun Park swipes home off of Intimidators righty Alex Katz for his second stolen base of the game
- On the road in West Virginia on June 16, first baseman Chris Gittens launches three home runs, a solo shot, two-run blast, and three-run bomb in his first three plate appearances for one of just two three-home run games in the South Atlantic League in 2016
- Luis Cedeno took a perfect game bid into the seventh inning on July 28 at The Joe, and combined with Eddie Rivera to hold Lexington to one-hit in a 1-0 victory
- Ricardo Ferreira goes 4-for-4, coming up a home run shy of the cycle on Rainbows night at The Joe on August 8
- Alex Palma ripped a three-run homer on August 21 as Charleston puts up an eight-spot on Greenville to match a season-high
- Jhalan Jackson goes 5-for-6 while driving in four runs as the RiverDogs win big over the Crawdads, 11-2, on August 27 in Hickory
- In his final at-bat of the regular season on September 5 in Columbia, Hoy Jun Park rips his 12th triple of the season, the most of any player in a RiverDogs uniform and the second-most in Charleston's franchise history dating back to 1980
- The RiverDogs score four times in the bottom of the seventh to overcome a 3-0 deficit to give the city of Charleston their first playoff win since 1988