Some 300 miles separates Midland, Texas, from Fort Worth. But after 91 years, "The Tall City" stands side-by-side in the Texas League record book with its considerably larger counterpart.
James Naile allowed two hits over six scoreless innings and Viosergy Rosa and Tyler Marincov homered Friday night as Midland beat Northwest Arkansas, 4-1, for its third straight Texas League championship. After rain delayed the start for more than three hours, the RockHounds became the first club to win three straight Texas League titles since Fort Worth from 1920-25.
"It feels really good," Midland manager Ryan Christenson said. "It's completely different from last year's group, and that's what makes it unique and so special. We had about 49 guys roll through our roster this year and everyone played a big part. It's been fun at this point to see who came through earlier in the year who are now playing in Oakland, so it's special on a lot of different fronts other than just winning the title."
Naile (1-0) allowed one baserunner in the first two innings and got a lead in the second. Rosa led off the inning with a homer to right field and A's No. 6 prospect Richie Martin and Brett Vertigan hit back-to-back doubles. A's No. 20 prospect Max Schrock followed with a single to right to make it 3-0.
"That's playoff baseball," Christenson said. "Two-out hits are great for the team that gets them and a killer for those that give them up."
Naile took over from there, retiring Northwest Arkansas in order in the third and fourth. Cam Gallagher singled with two outs in the fifth for the Naturals' first hit, but Marincov answered with a solo shot in the bottom half. Naile allowed a single to Royals No. 30 prospect Corey Toups and walked Mauricio Ramos in the sixth but picked off Toups at second to end the inning. In his first career playoff appearance, the 23-year-old right-hander walked two and struck out four.
"What he did was impressive," Christenson said. "He was all set and ready to go and right before the start we had the long rain delay. But hats off to him, he stayed locked in. He's a guy that's thrown at every [Minor League] level in our organization this year. His command was incredible, he had 12 ground-ball outs in six innings and both hits were grounders through the infield. It was truly amazing and it was huge."
Northwest Arkansas tried to rally in the seventh against reliever Kyle Finnegan. The Naturals loaded the bases with nobody out on a single by Royals No. 8 prospect Ryan O'Hearn and walks to Frank Schwindel and Samir Duenez. But Trey Cochran-Gill got Gallagher to hit into run-scoring double play, then retired Humberto Arteaga on a fly ball to center. In Christenson's mind, those three outs were the primary reason he's celebrating his second straight title as RockHounds manager.
"What a great job from Cochran-Gill to get that double play and then to get out of the inning," he said. "That was probably the game right there. It could have spiraled out of control. But everybody contributed and it was fun to watch."
Jake Sanchez struck out two in a perfect ninth to secure his third save and the franchise's fifth championship in 12 years. Although both titles Christenson has won have been sweet, this year's might taste a little bit better, considering what his club had to battle through.
"What separates it from last year was the core of our group was with us all year," he said. "We had a dominating second half and we really felt confident we would win it all last season. This year wasn't like that. We lost a few guys to promotions and so many guys came up from Stockton and our other [Class A] clubs. But they stepped up and performed out of this world. This year, it was a battle all the way to the end."