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Hicks scripts Appy League dream finish

Twins prospect hits walk-off grand slam to win championship
October 29, 2012
MiLBYs are the end-of-season awards that honor the best players, teams and performances of the Minor League season. For three weeks, fans chose their favorites in 11 categories, and now we're announcing the Fans' Choice winners as well as staff picks for the major awards.

Two outs. Bases loaded. Championship on the line. It's the scenario every ballplayer imagines from the time he's 5 years old and playing in his parents' backyard all the way until he reaches the pros. D.J. Hicks got a chance to live out that childhood fantasy.

Hicks slugged a walk-off grand slam in the decisive third game of the Appalachian League Finals, giving the Elizabethton Twins the title and, in the process, a MiLBY.

With everything at stake against the Burlington Royals, Hicks stepped to the plate with two outs in the 11th inning and the game tied, 6-6. A walk, a single, even an error would have sent the home crowd into a frenzy. Instead, the Florida native gave fans the ultimate thrill.

"To be honest, I felt relief because the bases were loaded and there were two outs and I thought the pressure was on the pitcher, that he had to make some good pitches or I'd get a walk and the game would be over," Hicks said.

"Earlier in the game, they did a lot of pitching away, so I had a good idea of their approach to pitch to me. My approach for that at-bat was to think away and react in. Thankfully, I worked it to a full count and they gave me a pitch I could handle away. And the rest is history."

Devenski K's 16 in no-hitter, Lexington

If you're looking for a frame of reference to understand just how incredible Chris Devenski's 16-strikeout, no-hit performance on Sept. 1 was, you need only to know the name of one man: Nolan Ryan. "The Ryan Express" is the only Major Leaguer to strike out as many as 16 batters while tossing a no-hitter, something he did twice during his Hall of Fame career. Not bad company for the 21-year-old right-hander, especially when you consider the start was just his fifth in the Astros organization following a trade with the White Sox. Voting Results »

To put things in perspective, there's only been one game-ending grand slam in Major League playoff history. Texas' Nelson Cruz belted one in the 11th inning of Game 2 of the 2011 American League Championship Series as the Rangers marched to the World Series (in 1999, Robin Ventura's walk-off grand slam for the Mets later became a single when he was mobbed by teammates between first and second base). So Hicks and the Twins had every reason to storm the field.

"It was an unbelievable feeling," Hicks said. "I think the team was on the field before I even got to first base. Half the team went to me, half the team went to home [plate]. It was crazy."

Hicks' blast capped a series full of comebacks. After dropping the opening game, the Twins trailed, 3-1, in the sixth inning of Game 2 before rallying for a 4-3, 11-inning victory. At the center of that rally was Hicks, who singled to set up the winning run (he left for pinch-runner Kelvin Mention).

The Twins waited even longer to start their comeback in Game 3, trailing, 6-1, heading to the bottom of the ninth. One out from elimination, Hicks was there again, producing a run by getting plunked with the bases loaded and scoring on Adam Walker's game-tying three-run homer.

"For me, it says a lot about our coaches," Hicks said. "They always made sure, no matter what the score was, we always had a chance. They had us prepared for the playoffs and we just did what they said. And it got us the ring.

"That's just what you live for is those big games, playoffs. I felt like my teammates put me in good positions in both of those games to help out."

It was the perfect cap to another successful year for the Twins, who recorded a league-leading 43 regular-season wins. In fact, only five teams in all of Minor League Baseball had a higher winning percentage than Elizabethton's .662 mark.

The E-Twins also are no strangers to championships, having won five over the last 10 years. During that stretch, they've yet to post a losing record in the regular season, all under the helm of veteran manager Ray Smith.

Hicks enjoyed a solid career at the University of Central Florida in Orlando before the Twins selected him in the 17th round of the 2012 Draft. After redshirting for medical reasons in 2010, he led the Knights with 14 homers in both 2011 and 2012, topping Conference USA with 72 RBIs as a junior last spring.

"College definitely got me ready, more than high school," Hicks said. "Terry Rooney, my coach at UCF, helped me out over the years. We played the best of the best in college, and in the pros you see the best of the best every day. I think that's what makes it a little easier to adapt to the pro life."

Still, nothing prepares you for your first postseason experience as a professional. The 22-year-old first baseman passed with flying colors, leading the circuit with three playoff homers and eight RBIs while batting a solid .280.

"It was unbelievable," Hicks said. "I've grown up playing on some winning teams and it's awesome. Nothing can top that. It's a special group of guys to win it with. We all still talk and keep in touch with each other, and it says something special about the Twins."

Hicks always will be remembered in Elizabethton for that one swing of the bat. He needed just one word to describe the way the season ended.

"Thankful," he said. "For the experience and definitely the outcome."

Highlights from the game

Robert Emrich is a contributor to