When Kinston Indians manager Mike Sarbaugh was asked to sum up his 2006 team in one word, he chose "exciting." When Indians catcher Javi Herrera was asked the same question, the word he selected was "champions."
Both were right.
The Carolina League champions led all Advanced Class A clubs with an 85-54 record, sweeping through both rounds of the playoffs to capture their second title in three years.
The Indians, who have reached the postseason each of the last six seasons, had a unique campaign in 2006.
Despite losing the heart of its lineup to Double-A Akron by midseason, Kinston led the eight-team league with a .272 batting average, 744 runs scored and 1,263 hits.
The Indians' 3.44 ERA was a close second to Salem (3.38), while the staff led the league with 1,023 strikeouts.
Kinston's staff was led by arguably the top 1-2 punch in the Minors in left-handers Chuck Lofgren (17-5, 2.32 ERA) and Scott Lewis (a league-leading 1.48 ERA).
Bolstered by the steady pitching of third starter Joe Ness (9-6, 3.62, 120 strikeouts), the Indians benefited from keeping the trio intact all summer.
Sarbaugh knew he had something special when the Indians broke Spring Training in Winter Haven, Fla. But he also knew he would probably lose some of his players to promotions or injury during the campaign.
Lewis, limited to just over 20 innings in two years due to injuries, and outfielder Jordan Brown, whose pro debut in 2005 was kept to 19 games due to a broken hamate bone, were being counted on as key cogs.
"To be honest, the first time I thought we had a chance to be special was our Spring Training exhibition game against (Triple-A) Buffalo, where we scored like 10 runs," Sarbaugh recalled.
"We came out and played exciting baseball, with a lot of enthusiasm. There was just something different there that gave me a good feeling."
The heart of the lineup got off to a hot start, but one by one, those players were plucked out of Kinston and sent to Akron.
Right fielder Ryan "Gogo" Goleski had people talking about a potential Triple Crown season after he hit .331 with 10 homers and 43 RBIs through 38 games. But he was promoted to the Eastern League on May 27.
Center fielder Trevor Crowe (.329-4-31) and catcher Wyatt Toregas (.336-4-23) went on the DL within two days of each other in early June, and both moved up to Akron when they were activated.
Also, outfielder Brian Barton left for Akron in mid-July after hitting .308 with 13 homers, 59 RBIs and 26 stolen bases.
Sarbaugh didn't fret too much after watching his top players leave.
"That's just part of being in the Minor Leagues," he said. "My job is to have everyone go to the next level. For me, the ultimate would be for everyone on the Opening Day 25-man roster to move up to Akron."
Fortunately for the Tribe, the replacements filled in quite capably.
Catcher Javi Herrera came down from Akron to replace Toregas and hit .286. Right fielder Jose Constanza moved up from Class A short-season Lake County to take over for Goleski. He batted .327 with 20 steals.
Rodney Choy Foo came off the bench to see time at first base, third and designated hitter, batting .403 in June and .293 overall with 12 homers and 60 RBIs.
Brown, who hit .228 in April, turned it on late to finish at .290 with 15 homers and a league-best 87 RBIs, earning Carolina League MVP honors.
"What Jordan did after those callups, when he moved into the middle of the lineup and did what he did, that was huge," Sarbaugh said.
The pitching staff did the rest, keeping Kinston atop the standings throughout the summer.
"The situation of having all of those guys promoted would probably demoralize most teams, but not when you have the pitching staff we had," Herrera said.
"I think if you had turned it around and we'd lost the pitchers and kept the lineup, I don't think the outcome would have been the same."
The excitement only mounted when the postseason rolled around. On paper, the Indians' 5-0 playoff record may have looked easy, but a three-game sweep of defending champion Frederick in the Mills Cup Finals was one of the most bizarre and remarkable series.
After winning the opener, the Indians took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-5 series by beating Frederick, 3-2, with the decisive run scoring in the fourth inning when Herrera collided with Keys pitcher Manny Basilio on a close play at the plate.
While the two were locked in a staredown, Indians first baseman Stephen Head alertly lumbered home from second base, running through Sarbaugh's stop sign when he realized the ball was live and no one was paying attention.
The following night in Frederick, the Indians took the title in even stranger fashion. With the Tribe clinging to a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the 11th, the Keys were threatening when the final out was recorded on runner's interference.
"It was unbelievable," recalled Herrera, who was behind the plate at the time. "(Keys third baseman) Tripper Johnson and I were talking (while the umps deliberated) because he was due up and he agreed that there should have been an interference call. But we both felt they wouldn't end the game on that. It shocked me how it unfolded."
Sarbaugh admitted he'd never seen a series end on such an odd play.
"I've seen it called but never to end a game, no less a playoff game," he said. "But when we got back to Kinston, I watched the game and it was the right call. But what a way to end the series."