LAKEWOOD, N.J. -- If you were told that a team would start a season 0-9 and go on to take a 2-0 lead in its league championship series, you'd probably chuckle.
But the Lakewood BlueClaws never doubted for a moment that the first nine games would not define their 2006 season.
"I had all the confidence in the world in these guys coming out of Spring Training, even after those first nine games," Lakewood manager Dave Huppert said. "I knew we had a good ballclub and I know we had outstanding pitching."
That actually might be an understatement, since the BlueClaws boast one of the best pitching staffs in the Minor Leagues. Their "Big Three" starters of Matt Maloney, Josh Outman and Carlos Carrasco were first, second and third, respectively, in the South Atlantic League in strikeouts while placing in the top six in wins and ERA.
"The biggest thing is that they've seen hitters over and over, and the hitters have seen (our pitchers) over and over and our guys continue to have success," Huppert said. "I mean, that's a big plus. Also, instead of these guys being here for half a year and moving on, they see these hitters a lot, adjust and continue to do a good job with it."
Outman, a left-hander, said the season has been a remarkable one.
"I really can't say I've ever been on a staff that's been this good," he said. "I was on a staff in college (at Central Missouri State) that had me and two other good pitchers and we were dominant for that level, but obviously that staff wasn't as good as this one because this level is so much stronger and tougher. Even the bullpen has been tough night in and night out."
BACK TO THE FUTURE: When Augusta GreenJackets manager Roberto Kelly played in the Major Leagues in the 1980s and '90s, speed ruled. And it wasn't uncommon for several players to swipe 70 or more bags in a season. Now Kelly expects a return to the speed game, and you can't blame him.
Under Kelly, the GreenJackets were second in the South Atlantic League with 244 stolen bases, 22 behind the Asheville Tourists.
"The stolen bases were a big part of my style when I played the game," Kelly explained. "We have a lot of guys that can steal bases, and since we don't have a lot of guys that can hit home runs, we're going to take advantage of it."
The biggest thing Kelly stresses to his players is that you don't steal bases on speed alone. While having quick feet certainly helps, base runners must be alert and able to figure out a pitcher's tendencies.
"You've got to have a good read off the pitcher," said Kelly, who had 235 steals during a 14-year career. "Every pitcher is different, but they all give you something that you can read. So I tell them that when they sit on the bench, they got to watch them and try to pick something up because they all give something away.
"(Mike) Mooney has been real good for us as far as being able to pick up a pitcher. He's not the fastest runner, but he gets pretty good jumps. I really think this game is going to come back. I don't see too many guys hitting 50 or 60 home runs anymore, so this other game of doing things on the bases and manufacturing runs will come back. That's the kind of baseball I played, and to see these guys do it is pretty good."
MR. SEPTEMBER: Reggie Jackson is known as "Mr. October," while Derek Jeter's postseason exploits in 2001 turned him into "Mr. November." After what he's done in Lakewood's first playoff run, John Urick could be dubbed "Mr. September."
Urick had a fairly non-descript regular season, but has been indispensable for the BlueClaws in the playoffs. The 24-year-old first baseman, who started his pro career with the Yankees, drove in the go-ahead run with an eighth-inning single in Game 1 of the North Division Finals against Lexington before belting a leadoff homer in the 13th against Augusta in Game 2 of the SAL Championship Series.
"You don't get very many chances over the year to have a game-winning hit or something like that," Urick said. "It's kind of coincidental that I've gone two consecutive series with (game-winners), so it's pretty neat. I feel good at the plate, and it's been kind of a continuation of how I ended the season, just as far as feeling more confident.
"It's kind of one of those things that when you do it once in a big situation and you know you can do it, the next time around, it takes a little pressure off knowing that you're capable of getting a hit in a tight situation."