Vance Wilson is taking Northwest Arkansas back to the Texas League Championship Series, and the feeling is even sweeter this time around.
"This team has come a lot farther than last year's team, just because of youth," he said. "Guys moved early in the year and we've had a lot of A-ball guys come up, and it's been their growth that's been the foundation. The growth of these players is what it's all been based on, and I'm lucky to have this group of guys."
Royals No. 8 prospect Ryan O'Hearn hit his third homer of the series and scored the winning run on a squeeze bunt in the 10th inning Saturday as the Naturals beat Springfield, 3-2, in Game 4 of the best-of-3 semifinals.
"We use the word 'gamer' a lot. It's such general statement but to me describes that O'Hearn," Wilson said. "It's only human nature to want to go home a little bit. In a way, I'm ready to go home; it's been a long year. But O'Hearn ... he wants to be in the stadium, he wants to be at the plate. His energy rubs off on everybody else, and he's definitely one of the guys that are the foundation of the team."
Wilson said he first thought of trying a squeeze in the ninth, with Logan Moore on third and Alfredo Escalera at the plate. He decided against it then but knew it was the right situation an inning later with Cam Gallagher batting.
"The inning before, I had Escalera up, and you face these teams so much you get to know their tendencies. I didn't like the matchup on Escarlera [for a squeeze play]," the manager said. "Cam's a much better bunter, and in that instant, they'd just switched out [Jacob Wilson] at first base for [Luke] Voit. Not that Voit's a bad first baseman, but without Wilson there they had less defensive range.
"I talk to these guys all the time about being opportunistic. When something like that comes up, everybody's got to be on the same page. We've practiced it and I was glad to see them execute it."
Royals No. 11 prospect Josh Staumont struck out 11 over six innings, allowing two runs on four hits and three walks. Relievers Reid Redman and Mark Peterson (1-0) combined for four scoreless frames.
"Our pitching has been the MVP all year. We were in position to win the division in the second half because of pitching -- it really wasn't the offense that carried us," Wilson said. "Staumont just keeps getting better and he passed on to Redman and Peterson, and we've got more depth behind them. The pitching coach, Steve Luebber, has done a great job."
Cardinals No. 15 prospect Paul DeJong hit a solo homer for Springfield.
The Naturals will host Midland on Tuesday in Game 1 of the best-of-5 Finals.
In other playoff action:
Rockhounds 5, Hooks 2
A's No. 7 prospect Yairo Munoz went 3-for-4 with an RBI double and Brandon Mann fired 6 1/3 scoreless innings as Midland wrapped up the other semifinal series . The Rockhounds will try to win a third straight championship when they face Northwest Arkansas in the Finals beginning Tuesday.
Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB.