It was business as usual in 2007 for one of the most talent-laden teams in the Minor Leagues.
The Montgomery Biscuits duplicated their 2006 success, riding a roster of fast-emerging prospects past the Huntsville Stars to capture their second straight Southern League title. And just like last season, the Biscuits were honored as MiLB.com's Double-A Team of the Year.
Sergio Pedroza clinched the crown for Montgomery with a three-run homer in the top of the ninth inning of Game 5 of the championship series. After defeating the Stars in four games to claim their first title in 2006, the Biscuits became the first Southern League team to capture consecutive championships since the Montgomery Rebels won three in a row from 1975-77.
"I think it's a testament to the type of players we had and the organization," said first-year manager Billy Gardner Jr. "We went through some injuries, lost some key players, so it was a team effort all the way around. We were a very resilient club, we never looked back."
The Biscuits again relied on the tandem of Evan Longoria and Reid Brignac, who combined for 38 homers and 157 RBIs in 2007 after carrying the team down the stretch last year.
Longoria, arguably the top prospect in the Minors, is expected to make an impact with Tampa Bay at the Major League level next season, perhaps as early as Opening Day.
The 2006 first-round draft pick has skyrocketed through the Devil Rays' system. Longoria, who wrapped up the season at Triple-A Durham, finished his Double-A campaign batting .307 with a team-best 21 homers. He ranked third on the Biscuits with 76 RBIs in 105 games and finished fourth in hits (117), third in runs (78) while leading the team with a .528 slugging percentage.
"I think anytime you have a guy with his ability, his offense is absolutely going to have some effect," Gardner said of Longoria, who was promoted to Durham on July 26. "This team never looked back, always looked ahead. There was not a hangover from losing him."
Heading into September without their biggest bat, the Biscuits rallied behind solid pitching.
"We pulled together," Gardner said. "It's got to be a team effort; you can't rely on one guy. Everyone needs to contribute, and that's what they did."
Brignac, a second-round pick in 2004, hit .260 with 17 homers and 81 RBIs. The lefty-swinging shortstop led the Biscuits with 137 hits and ranked fourth in Double-A with 91 runs scored.
"Reid was solid on both sides, offensive and defensive. He improved a great deal defensively," said Gardner. "I thought he was one of the best shortstops in the league defensively."
Hitting in front of Longoria helped Brignac for most of the season, but he also responded well when he was left as the Biscuits' main threat.
"He lost Longoria's protection, he got pitched a lot tougher," Gardner noted. "He saw less fastballs and he made some adjustments. He showed me some maturity as a hitter. He made those adjustments."
Catcher John Jaso ranked fourth in Double-A and second in the Southern League with a .316 batting average. He finished with 12 homers and 71 RBIs. Outfielder Fernando Perez stole 32 bases, scored 84 runs and ranked 14th in Double-A with a .308 average.
"There were a lot of things working in our favor," Perez said. "We had a great staff and [Montgomery] is a great place to play. For me, it was the first time that the ballpark was full for almost every game, and that's a nice feeling. Getting to play there was really great. We had things working in our favor, a load of talent and all of that."
The Biscuits also featured a not-so-secret weapon on the mound in Chris Mason. The Montgomery ace, who went 15-4 with a 2.57 ERA in 28 starts, was named Southern League Pitcher of the Year, MiLB.com's Double-A Starting Pitcher of the Year, a 2007 All-Star and twice was tabbed Southern League Pitcher of the Week.
"In center field, you have a wonderful view of what's going on with his tempo," Perez said of Mason. "It's a joy to play behind him. He gets out there and he executes."
Mason, 23, ended the season with more awards and honors than losses. Tampa Bay's 2005 second-round pick led the Biscuits with 15 wins, 161 1/3 innings and 136 strikeouts. He trailed only Josh Geer of the Texas League's San Antonio Missions for wins among Double-A pitchers and ranked seventh in strikeouts and ninth in innings.
"[Mason] was very important," Gardner said. "At the end of the day, we finished the season with one starting pitcher in the rotation who started with us on Opening Day, and that was Chris Mason. We had good, strong pitching with Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Mike Prochaska, but Mason was there all year. He pitched well, he was our stopper. When we needed a big start, we got it from him."
Davis made the jump from Class A-Advanced Vero Beach and went 7-3 with a 3.15 ERA for Montgomery. Both Davis and Mason, who began their careers at Class A Short-Season Hudson Valley, could be headed to Triple-A in 2008. McGee earned a promotion from the Florida State League and went 3-2 with a 4.24 ERA in five late-season starts for the Biscuits.
Prochaska was 7-7 with a 3.89 ERA in 21 starts and James Houser finished 5-4 with a 3.65 ERA in 20 outings. Reliever Dale Thayer posted a 9-0 record, 21 saves and a 2.66 ERA.
"It's been a good team we've put out on the field the last three years," said Perez. "But it was a very average year for us, where everything happened exactly the same, except we won this year. We came full circle."
The Biscuits prepped for the postseason by going 20-7 in August.
"We took that hot streak into the playoffs," said Gardner. "We found a way to get it done, especially late in the game. That was one of our trademarks, playing tough in the last three innings."
Huntsville took Montgomery to a decisive fifth game for the title, but Pedroza's blast was the difference in the final inning of the summer.
"They beat us up pretty good during the season, they pounded our pitching pretty good," Gardner said of the Stars. "They had some experience in their lineup. I thought we were playing good, but we hit a hot streak and regardless how we compared, I felt pretty good about our chances. We had a lot of things come together for us. We were playing our best baseball coming into the playoffs."
Gardner said his team began the season with a title in mind.
"I'm always having high expectations coming in. We're looking to win a championship, but there's a lot of things that need to happen and go right," he said. "We needed very good players, needed to stay healthy and we had those ingredients."
Perez turned the credit back to his manager.
"Billy was great, he was a great leader," he said. "There's something about the way he keeps a good routine, a good relaxed atmosphere but a serious one. I think I learned a lot playing with him. I just really enjoyed how he ran the team. He kind of steered us the right way. When the team wins, he's the one who's responsible, and I enjoyed working with him. I really learned a lot."
Gardner deflected the praise to his players.
"Reid Brignac, Fernando Perez, a guy like John Jaso, Chris Nowak -- we had a bunch of guys who were consummate team players," he said. "We had a good chemistry, a good mix. Some players were highly touted and we still had very good chemistry in the clubhouse."