Coming off a record-setting campaign in 2016, the IronPigs appeared primed to make their 10th Anniversary Season a memorable one. The Opening Day Roster was loaded with talent, featuring six of the Top-10 prospects in the Phillies system according to Baseball America in addition to the reigning International League Pitcher of the Year, RHP Jake Thompson , and 2016 Minor League Baseball wins leader, RHP Ben Lively . In addition, they had first-year manager Dusty Wathan -- who was honored as Eastern League Manager of the Year in each of the prior two seasons while in Reading (AA) -- leading the quest for the Pigs first-ever IL Championship.
Although Lehigh Valley eventually fell two wins short of its second all-time trip to the Governors' Cup Finals, the 2017 season was loaded with many success stories -- from a magical start, to a plethora of promotions, tremendous individual accomplishments and a dramatic comeback to win the Wild Card. In sum, the Pigs posted their second-best record all-time at 80-62 (.563) and made their third-ever trip to the postseason while promoting 24 players to Philadelphia (11 for their major league debuts) and sustaining a franchise-record 190 transactions. In addition, they boasted their first-ever IL Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in 1B Rhy Hoskins while sending a franchise-record, five players to the Triple-A All-Star Game -- including the IL's starting pitcher in RHP Tom Eshelman .
Along the way, the Pigs recorded some amazing feats as a team. After an average start to the season (12-11 in April), Wathan's squad reeled off an historical run that featured a 24-5 record in May -- the highest win total in a month in the IL since before 2005 (when such data is available). The run also included a franchise-record, 12-game winning streak from May 7-17, which marked the longest by the Phillies' Triple-A affiliate since the inception of the Red Barons in 1989 (previously 10, three times), the longest in the IL since a 13-gamer by Columbus in 2011 and the longest in Wathan's managerial career (previously 11, with Reading in 2016).
The Pigs also held the best record across all levels of MiLB for 17 days during a span from May 23 to June 14. In addition, they spent a span of 98 consecutive days in a playoff position from May 8 to Aug. 17 -- with 54 straight in sole possession of first place in the North Division from May 11 to July 4. In fact, they built their lead in the North to a franchise-record 6.5-games on June 8.
Even though the Pigs fell 4.0-games behind Rochester for the Wild Card on Aug. 23, they rallied to win nine of their final 12 contests of the regular-season -- including the final six affairs -- to catch the Red Wings and take the Wild Card via the head-to-head tie-breaker. When they defeated the North Division champion Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RaiRiders with a walk-off win in 12 innings in the opener of the IL Divisional Series, the Pigs extended their winning streak to seven games -- tying their second longest winning streak all-time (including the postseason). However, the RailRiders won the three games to take the best-of-five series, 3-1, ending the Pigs season in the IL playoffs for the second-consecutive season.
Individually, many Pigs had historical seasons -- perhaps none more significant than first-year Triple-A player 1B Rhys Hoskins . Aside for his major IL awards, the 24-year-old was selected as both a mid and postseason All-Star while finishing first in the circuit in RBI (91), on-base percentage (.385), slugging percentage (.581) and OPS (.966) prior to his contract being selected by Philadelphia on Aug. 10. At the time of his promotion, he was also leading the league in home runs (29), runs (78) and walks (64). His total of 29 HR, which finished ranked third in the IL, set the franchise single-season record (previously 26, Andy Tracy '09) and was the highest by a Phillies' Triple-A player since Greg Luzinski and Mike Anderson both hit 36 HR with the 1971 Eugene Emeralds. He became just the fourth all-time Phillies' Triple-A farmhand to win the IL MVP and the first since SWB's Shane Victorino in 2005. The Sacramento State product also became just 16th player in IL's 134-year history to claim both MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season and first since Syracuse's Steven Souza in 2014. Hoskins finished with a .284 average in 115 games and, appropriately, finished with a homer on his final swing with the Pigs at Coca-Cola Park on Aug. 9. He went on to become the fastest in MLB history to reach 17 HR.
Closer RHP Pedro Beato , one of five Pigs selected as a midseason All-Star, was the other Pigs representative on the IL postseason All-Star team. The 30-year-old led all of MiLB with 33 saves -- the highest total ever recorded by a Phillies' Triple-A farmhand and the most in the IL since SWB's Jonathan Albaladejo set the league record with 43 saves in 2010. Amazingly, he converted 33-of-35 (94.3%) of his save opportunities, including his final 13 from June 17 on. He easily shattered the previous franchise record of 26 saves, set by Scott Mathieson in 2010, and finished with 12 more than any other pitcher in the IL.
2B Scott Kingery , who was promoted to Triple-A for the first time in his career on June 26, took little time to adjust. In fact, he made SportCenter's Top-10 Plays in his IL debut with an over-the-shoulder, leaping grab in right field that checked in at Play #3. On Aug. 23, the 23-year-old broke Domonic Brown's franchise-record hitting streak (21) and went on to set the new mark at 23 consecutive contests -- also an IL season-high. In fact, the 23-game streak started one day after snapping a then-career-high, 16-game streak. Combining his numbers between Reading and Lehigh Valley, Kingery was the only player in MiLB to reach at least 25 HR (26) and 25 SB (29) in 2017 -- a feat not recorded in MLB as of Sept. 18. He also finished fourth in MiLB in total bases (288), tied for fourth in runs (103) and tied for ninth in extra-base hits (63).
The season also marked the emergence of two of the Pigs' top prospects from the prior campaign. Both OF Nick Williams and SS J.P. Crawford scuffled mightily during the final month of 2016; but both caught fire one month into the 2017 season. From May 17 until his first trip to the majors on June 30, Williams batted .308-13-32 in 42 games. The 23-year-old's 13 HR marked the most in the IL and third-highest total in MiLB during the span. Williams' success continued in Philadelphia, as the rookie posted a line of .287-10-48 in 71 games through Sept. 18.
Crawford started slow, batting just .150-0-7 after his first 32 games. But from May 15 on, the 22-year-old hit an impressive .271-15-56 with a .376 OBP over his last 95 affairs. In fact, from July 1 until the end of the regular season, the former first-rounder hit 13 HR -- which tied for the most in the IL during the span. His 15 HR and 63 RBI set career-highs, while his total of 78 BB led the IL and set a LHV single-season record. Crawford, who had his contract selected by Philadelphia prior to the IL playoffs, made the #1 Play on SportCenter's Top 10 on July 26 for his inside-the-park grand slam.
At the beginning of the season, the Pigs had a pitching rotation that was arguably the best in the league. But after significant losses to promotion, it wound up being three unlikely heroes that guided the Pigs' push into the postseason. In fact, neither RHP Tom Eshelman, LHP Brandon Leibrandt nor RHP Jose Taveras appeared in the 2017 Official IronPigs Media Guide due to the volume of more experienced pitching prospects coming out of spring training. The trio combined to go to go 18-7 with a 2.55 ERA in 37 IL starts (226.0 IP, 64 ER), including a 0.48 ERA (37.2/2) in their last six starts during the Pigs' final 12-game surge to make the postseason. Unfortunately, neither pitched in the playoffs due to organizational innings limitations.
Eshelman, without question, became the ace of the staff. Just 22 and with only 28 pro appearances at the time of his promotion, the Carlsbad, Calif., native provided a harbinger when he dazzled in his Triple-A debut -- going 8.0 scoreless innings for a win over Rochester on May 8. In just his fifth start, a 6-0 win at Indianapolis on May 31, Eshelman became just the third pitcher in franchise history to record a 9.0-inning shutout. He went on to earn IL Pitcher of the Month honors in May (3-0, 1.40 in 5 GS), joining just two Pigs all-time to win the award (1B Andy Tracy '10; RHP Phil Klein '16). He finished 10-3 with a 2.23 ERA over 18 starts, leading the IL in WHIP (0.94) while ranking second in ERA and complete games (3), fifth in average against (.227) and tied for seventh in wins.
Leibrandt, who had never appeared in Duuble-A at the start the season, was promoted to Lehigh Valley on June 26. Over his first seven starts with the Pigs, the 24-year-old dazzled with a 4-0 record and 1.91 ERA -- the eighth-lowest mark in the IL over the span (June 26 to Aug. 2). Taveras, who had never appeared above Single-A Lakewood prior to 2017, was forced onto the scene after just two starts in Double-A for a big series-opener at Rochester on Aug. 1. The 23-year-old set the tone by tossing 6.0 innings without allowing an earned run to win his IL debut. In fact, he did not allow an earned run in five of his seven starts with the Pigs -- going scoreless in four of the outings. Taveras finished 3-1 with an 1.32 ERA that easily led the league (by 0.52 points) during the span.
Aside from Beato, many other relievers had noteworthy accomplishments. Swith-pitcher Pat Venditte started the season with 22.0 scoreless innings -- tied for second longest in team history -- while LHP Hoby Milner started his with 19.1 scoreless. After struggling as a starter in his IL debut, RHP Ricardo Pinto converted to the bullpen on May 24 and was scoreless in all 11 of his outings as a reliever (20.2 IP) while stranding all 13 inherited runners. Both RHP Jesen Therrien (0-0, 1.57, 2 SV in 18 G) and RHP Yacksel Rios (0-1, 1.96, SV in 13 G) came up from Reading and shined in their Triple-A debuts before having their contracts selected by Philadelphia.
Despite their dramatic run to clinch the Wild Card, the Pigs roster underwent major changes prior to the postseason -- leaving just eight players from Opening Day. The playoff rotation featured five starters who had a combined total of four starts all-time with the Pigs while the list of position players featured just one member of the Phillies' 40-Man Roster (Dylan Cozens) and two with MLB experience (Hector Gomez, Brock Stassi). Even though the Pigs lost the first-round series to the RailRiders, Pigs fans can take solace in the fact that 18 (56%) of the 32 members of the Phillies' active roster (as of Sept. 18) played for Lehigh Valley this season while 28 (88%) were Pigs at some point during their career. With the name of the game being development, it was truly a winning season.