When first-year manager Wyatt Toregas met with the Black Bears for the first time, he could tell they had a lot to work on. But after a month they got a hang of it, and before long, they were dousing each other with jugs of Gatorade and bottles of sparkling grape juice.
"Everything we've worked on has just come together and everyone's been playing really well -- guys picking each other up, being good teammates all around. But, yeah, definitely a learning experience for everybody. I think at the end of the day, we had a goal in mind and we all reached it," the skipper said. "It feels great to clinch because it's been so close in this league -- there's been like six teams fighting for it. And even [Monday], there was so much left undecided -- we knew what he had to do, and so there's such a sense of accomplishment."
In its inaugural season, Class A Short Season West Virginia topped Mahoning Valley, 8-2, on Monday at Eastwood Field to clinch the New York Penn League Wild Card, a victory that was especially sweet for Toregas, who started his playing career with the Scappers in 2004.
"I think we developed a close relationship, and being the first year, it's good also that we had the caliber team we had -- it nails down the future [in West Virginia]," he said. "We're here and we're a part of you guys and you're a part of us and let's do this thing. It's been great there."
As the Wild Card race became tighter over the last two weeks, Toregas said he could feel the pressure building. All of a sudden, though, there was a sense of calm for the Black Bears, and they went on to win six of their last seven games of the regular season.
"You'd think there'd be more pressure towards the end -- with a one-game lead in the last couple games -- but really, I wasn't feeling pressure. It just seemed like another game," the manager said. "I think we were adjusting to playing games under pressure. The way it all wrapped up, it was perfect. I didn't feel the pressure, I just think our guys went out and did what they were good at."
One of West Virginia's strong suits was hitting -- the club ranked second in the league with 295 walks and a .338 on-base percentage. Though Logan Hill led the squad with seven homers, the Black Bears were last in the circuit with a total of 16 roundtrippers, so Toregas could tell power wasn't going to be what his team was about.
"That's why small ball is so important to us, with the bunting and the hitting and running. We have to find ways to continue to pass the baton. The big part of it is we have to do it one through nine, so everybody has to be on top of their game," he said. "The thing that's really stood out, especially over the last couple of weeks, is how no matter where we are in the lineup, it seems as if it can just get going at any time."
The well-rounded lineup backed up West Virginia pitchers like Jonathan Brubaker, a sixth-round pick in this year's Draft. After a slow start, the right-hander has held opponents to eight runs over his last 10 starts while lowering his ERA to 2.82. Brubaker (6-4) notched the win Monday after he allowed a run on five hits while striking out four in six frames.
"Once we started talking to him and working with him on some things and talking about pitch sequencing and what his strengths are, he started getting better," Toregas said. "[Monday,] he gave up the one run; he made a mistake with a changeup, but other than that, he executed almost every other pitch he threw the rest of the game. … He's been instrumental. Our pitching as a whole has been a huge key to our success."
With Williamsport on the horizon in the New York-Penn League semifinals, Toregas is feeling prepared after his team has shown they can play cool under pressure.
"It's great that we've played these games the past week, because we had to win these games to get there and the playoffs is the same thing," the manager said. "Just fun to have the pressure and to go through it and come out on top and just excited now for the opportunity we have ahead of us now. We know we're still in this thing and we know we're playing our best baseball right now so we're ready to go."