When West Michigan won its Midwest League title in 2006, its second in the past three seasons, evidently the cat had gotten many of the Whitecaps' tongues.
"I'm speechless right now," said Cameron Maybin. "Everyone wants to win a championship. My first year in pro ball and we got the job done. It's a great feeling."
"That's why I do it," Matt Walbeck said of managing in the Minors. "That's the feeling you look for. That's the goal you set. I really can't put it into words."
Well, we'll try for you. How does being named MiLB.com's Class A Team of the Year sound?
It wasn't just that West Michigan won the title; it's more that the Whitecaps were a rarity in sports. They were the best team in the league and finished the deal by capturing the championship.
"It's a great team," Maybin said. "We had a great year. Usually, the good teams get knocked out. But we were definitely battle-tested all year."
West Michigan let it be known it would be a force to be reckoned with from the get-go by going 15-7 in April. The 'Caps kept it up with 17 wins in May, 16 in June, 23 in July and 14 (their worst month) in August. They finished the season by going 4-0 in September to head into the playoffs on a high. That's 89 total wins for those of you scoring at home.
West Michigan won both halves of the season, largely because of its pitching. The Whitecaps staff easily won the league ERA title with a 2.96 mark. Its 1.17 WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) also was the best in the 14-team circuit.
The Whitecaps weren't without offensive stars, though they did finish with a rather pedestrian .254 team batting average (which placed them sixth in the pitching-dominated league). Maybin was named the league's Prospect of the Year after hitting .304 with 27 steals. Justin Justice hit .295 with 15 steals, while Matthew Joyce led the squad with 86 RBIs and Michael Hollimon topped the 'Caps with 15 homers.
Instead of one statistical leader, though, it was the fact that every day it was someone different stepping up that made the Tigers' affiliate special.
"It's been a team effort all year," said second baseman Will Rhymes, who hit .261 during the regular season before batting .382 in nine playoff games. "This is unbelievable. This is the most fun I've ever had playing baseball."
Just getting through the playoffs in the Midwest League to the championship round is an accomplishment by itself. The intricate system puts eight teams in the postseason. The Whitecaps beat Fort Wayne in three games (best-of-3) in the opening round and swept Lansing in the second round before finishing off Kane County in four games (best-of-5) to put the icing on the proverbial cake.
"It's a great way to teach," said Walbeck, who'll move up to Double-A Erie in 2007. "To be the best team out of 14 and be the last team standing, it's a great experience.
"It wasn't easy. The resilience of this bunch is amazing. They had tremendous focus and they expected to win."