Two years ago, Mike Sarbaugh took the helm of the Columbus Clippers. And two years ago, the Columbus Clippers started winning.
Although the team finished with the International League's fourth-best record in 2010, that was enough to secure the Wild Card playoff berth. The Clippers then rolled through the playoffs, going 6-2 en route to their first Governors' Cup since 1996. They weren't done, though, trouncing the Pacific Coast League-champion Tacoma Rainiers, 12-6, to take their first-ever Triple-A Championship.
Last year was even smoother sailing for Columbus. Led by the league's top offense and a top-heavy pitching staff, the Clippers cruised to an IL-best 88-56 record, its best mark since 1992. Again, they crushed the competition in the playoffs, losing just one game as they captured another league title. Columbus defeated Omaha, 8-3, to win its second straight Triple-A championship.
"I think in 2010, we definitely didn't see it coming," Sarbaugh said. "We got off to a really good start, then toward the end we really tailed off. We backed into the playoffs and got hot at the right time. We surprised a lot of people by winning it all, even ourselves. Going into last year's playoffs, we had one of the best records the whole year and I think expectations were a lot higher."
The championships should not have come as a shock, though, as Sarbaugh has been a winner throughout his managerial career. In eight seasons managing at five different levels, his teams have brought home five league titles.
"A lot of good players have come through the system," Sarbaugh said. "I've been lucky to have really good teams. You've got to have talent to win, and I've been very fortunate."
As is the case for almost every Minor League team, the Clippers have experienced a lot of turnover since the beginning of the 2011 campaign. Jason Kipnis, an offensive weapon at second base, was called up halfway through the season and is firmly entrenched in the Indians lineup. Jeanmar Gomez, who posted a 2.55 ERA last year to tie for the best mark in the IL, won a spot in Cleveland's rotation, thanks to a strong spring. And Jerad Head, the MVP of the 2010 Triple-A Championship Game who led Columbus with 24 homers last year, signed with the Tigers as a Minor League free agent.
Still, there will be some familiar faces back in Columbus. Zach McAllister, the Indians' No. 14 prospect, is slated to begin the year in the IL after going 12-3 with a 3.32 ERA over a team-leading 154 2/3 innings last year. Former top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall, will start the season at Triple-A after playing 66 games for the big club last year and second baseman Cord Phelps will attempt to ameliorate the loss of Kipnis as well as he did last season, when he posted an .868 OPS in 97 games. In the bullpen, No. 3 prospect Nick Hagadone likely will serve as the Clippers closer.
The team also has an important addition in Kevin Slowey, who lost out to Gomez for a spot in the big league rotation. Though injuries have cut him down in recent seasons, the right-hander led the IL with a 1.89 ERA in 2007 for Rochester.
"Everything starts fresh and last year is in the past," Sarbaugh said. "You have to take it one day at a time and try to keep the perspective of helping the players get better and guys getting back [to the big leagues]. You try to keep the focus on that and everything will hopefully take care of itself. I think each year you can't get ahead of yourself. You just have to take it one day at a time."
On the road: The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees will play just about everywhere in the northeast except Scranton or Wilkes-Barre. With PNC Park undergoing $40 million in renovations, the Yankees will play their "home" games in Rochester, Syracuse, Lehigh Valley, Batavia, Buffalo and Pawtucket -- a schedule that has earned the team the unofficial moniker of "Empire State" Yankees. Though the Baby Bombers essentially will set up camp in the Rochester area, where they will play 52 contests (including eight against the Red Wings as the road team), there is little doubt the extra travel will make a normally difficult season even more arduous.
The schedule also could take its toll on Red Wings staffers, who will work 109 games at Frontier Field instead of the normal 72. Still, the increase in games should provide Rochester with some extra marketing opportunities, while the Yankees will benefit in the long run.
"Everyone understands, at the end of the day, that come 2013 we'll have one of the best facilities in Minor League Baseball," Scranton/Wilkes-Barre vice president of stadium operations Curt Camoni told MiLB.com in February. "That's the reward at the end of all this, and that makes it all worth it."
Proving they still have it: The International League will be chock full of veterans hoping to re-establish themselves as viable big leaguers. After getting cut by the Phillies late in Spring Training, Dontrelle Willis signed with the Orioles and will be used as a full-time reliever for the first time in his career as he attempts to carve out a niche as a lefty specialist with Norfolk. In Louisville, fellow southpaw Jeff Francis will try to rediscover the form he had as the ace of the Rockies' 2007 World Series team.
In Columbus, Matt LaPorta will try to show the talent that made him the seventh overall pick in the 2007 Draft. Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka will start the season in Rochester as he tries to shake off the "bust" label and Indianapolis' Jake Fox, who has displayed power at every level, will be looking to earn a permanent spot in The Show. Former IL MVP Dan Johnson will play first base for Charlotte as he attempts to crack the White Sox's crowded first base/designated hitter situation. And Domonic Brown, one of the best prospects in the game heading into last season, will start for Lehigh Valley as he makes his case to be the Phillies' everyday left fielder.
Harper Watch: No discussion of the International League would be complete without a mention of Bryce Harper. The 19-year-old phenom began Spring Training with a shot at the Nationals' Opening Day roster and was performing well, collecting five hits in his first 11 at-bats. He missed over a week with a strained left calf, however, and went 3-for-17 with nine strikeouts before being sent down.
The first overall pick in 2010, Harper dominated the South Atlantic League last spring, then hit .256 with three homers in 37 games for Double-A Harrisburg. The Nationals believe he's ready for Triple-A, where he will be facing many players who've already reached the Majors. How he handles that level of competition will go a long way in determining how quickly he arrives in Washington.
Last things last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the International League.
- Last season's championship: Columbus over Lehigh Valley in four games
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- Last back-to-back champion: Columbus Clippers, 2010-11
- Last no-hitter and perfect game: Justin Germano, Columbus vs. Syracuse, July 26, 2011
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- Last 200-strikeout pitcher: Jim Rooker, Toledo, 1968
- Last cycle: Jason Kipnis, Columbus vs. Durham, Sept. 17, 2010
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- Last three-homer game: Michael Aubrey (four homers), Syracuse vs. Durham, May 14, 2011
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- Last 30-homer hitter: Jorge Vazquez, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, 2011