Johnny Rodriguez has tasted victory before. But it never tasted as sweet as it did on Friday night.
The veteran manager watched as Johnson City defeated Danville, 4-2, to win its third Appalachian League championship in five years.
The top of the Cardinals' lineup did the damage, mostly early, as Casey Turgeon drew a bases-loaded walk in the second inning. Oscar Mercado, St. Louis' 16th-ranked prospect, who stole three bases, followed with a two-run single to open a 3-0 lead.
Turgeon added a solo homer in the seventh in front of the home crowd at Howard Johnson Field.
"They were huge," Rodriguez said of the top two hitters in his batting order. "Mercado played like a true champion, the way he stole aggressively and his at-bats. Turgeon has been, all year long, like Peyton Manning on the field. He was right on everything, a coach on the field. Turgeon and Oscar, all year long, they created things, made things happen and put pressure on the pitcher."
Rodriguez has been a manager in the Cardinals organization for five seasons, with 2014 marking his first in Johnson City. He guided Class A Quad Cities, a team that featured Oscar Taveras, Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong and Trevor Rosental, to the Midwest League crown in 2011. Still, Johnson City's third meant more.
"This was sweeter than the one I won in Quad Cities," Rodriguez said. "I had Rosenthal, I had Taveras, I had Wong, they carried us. This club, the only high-round [Draft pick] we have is Oscar Mercado. These are all hard-working kids. They gave it their all from the first day to the last. They are all competitors.
"I looked at all the clubs in this league and I thought, 'We have to work.' There are some good teams. Danville is a solid club. Greeneville, solid pitching. Every team had athletes. It's an achievement by them."
Rodriguez said he believes the key factor was his club's attitude.
"I think the bottom line on this club, they were a loose bunch, a loose bunch that played together as a team," he said. "It happened last year with the Boston Red Sox. They played loose, they had fun and they won the World Series. I've seen it through the years. If you have a loose bunch, you have a shot."
Rodriguez also had praise for his coaches, Chris Swauger and Paul Davis.
"I'd like to mention both my coaches," he said, "the job they did with a bunch of guys that overachieved. They learned how to do things, they learned not only how to execute mechanically but how to execute in the game."
Dailyn Martinez (1-0) got the win after limiting the Braves to one run on five hits over six innings. Ismael Brito recorded the final two outs to earn the save.
Tanner Krietemeier doubled, singled and scored a run for Danville.
Robert Emrich is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEmrich.