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Tourists dominate on road to title

Alsup, Story guide Asheville to first outright crown since '84
October 31, 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.

No team won more games in 2012 than the Asheville Tourists. In doing so, the Class A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies stormed to their first South Atlantic League crown in almost three decades.

Under the tutelage of fiery veteran manager Joe Mikulik, the Tourists used a lethal combination of outstanding young bats and strong arms to stand out from the crowd.

Asheville went 88-52 to clinch the best mark on the circuit and the top winning percentage of any Class A team. Only the Advanced A Winston-Salem Dash (87-51) had a better winning percentage among full-season teams, and just one team -- the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats (45-27) -- fared better on their travels than Mikulik's troops, who went 43-26 away from McCormick Field.

"There is no doubt about it that we had a lot of talent on this team," starting pitcher Ben Alsup said. "We had a lot of offense and a lot of good pitching. The team had a lot of personality and we meshed together really well.

"A lot of the players on this team will have the chance to move up next year depending on what the organization needs. In terms of individually, we have a lot of guys that can go a long way."

Alsup is among the current crop of Rockies looking to join the list of 66 other players once managed by Mikulik before reaching the Majors.

But this year's class of Tourists would seem to be the last within the Rockies organization to have that opportunity. Mikulik was released by the Rockies three days after winning the title, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Hudson Valley Renegades

The Tampa Bay Rays' Class A Short-Season affiliate went 52-24 to post the best mark in the New York-Penn League in 2012. Once the playoffs arrived, the Renegades were equally impressive, rallying from behind in the semifinals vs. Brooklyn and the Championship Series vs. Tri-City. The title gave the team its first silverware since 1999. Voting results »

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At the time of clinching the championship, Mikulik's 938 wins with the team were the most by any active manager with the same club. The longest-tenured manager in team history (13 seasons) told the newspaper he had made it clear that he wanted to move up in the organization, but the club reportedly said it wasn't possible.

"I was very proud to manage this club. It was my 13th season managing here and it was our first championship," Mikulik said a month before his firing. He was named Manager of the Year for the fourth time after receiving the honor in 2001, '07 and '08. "I'm very proud of these young men, and I will not forget this season.

"I think we were very good, and I think we were exceptional in the middle. There were some nights when we could have competed with Double-A and Triple-A teams. Out of 10 tries, we might have been able to beat a Double-A team three times, maybe five times. These guys should move through the system quickly. For the level they were playing at this year, they were exceptionally good."

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Asheville led the South Atlantic League with a team batting average of .278, 20 points above the league average. Its 812 runs scored were the most on the circuit, as were the club's 127 homers, 729 RBIs and 335 doubles.

In terms of pitching, the team was also consistently above average, ranking fourth in ERA (3.82) and tied for first with West Virginia in complete games (five), despite playing in hitter-friendly McCormick Field.

Asheville won the Southern Division's first-half crown by 4 1/2 games over the Savannah Sand Gnats, and they were 12 games above .500 in the second half. In the playoffs, after losing the first game of the Championship Series to Greensboro, the Tourists then outscored their opponents, 29-7, to secure the crown.

The Tourists got production up and down the lineup, especially from the infield. First baseman Harold Riggins, a seventh-round Draft pick in his second year of professional baseball, led the team with 19 homers and 76 RBIs in 87 games, and 19-year-old shortstop Trevor Story -- Colorado's No. 2 prospect -- added 18 longballs, 63 RBIs and a circuit-best 43 doubles in his first full campaign.

Midseason South Atlantic League All-Star backstop William Swanner crushed 16 homers in 88 appearances -- both career bests -- while Jered Simon, Taylor Featherston, Sam Mende and Tyler Massey each recorded double-digit homers and at least 50 RBIs.

"The hit totals, RBI totals, all those important stats, it was spread up and down the lineup," said Jeff Bridich, the Rockies' senior director of player development. "There wasn't one guy that took it and ran away with it. They were dangerous from top to bottom.

"If you take that season, that 140-game season and you extrapolate to [a big league season], this was a 100-win season. That takes an incredible amount of continuity and consistency and health."

On the mound, the Tourists sported four 10-game winners, the best one-two punch in the league and one of its top relievers as well.

Alsup's 14 wins tied for the most in the league with Lexington's Michael Foltynewicz, while Tyler Anderson collected 12 victories -- including a pair of complete games -- and topped the circuit with a 2.47 ERA among qualifying hurlers.

Chris Jensen matched Anderson's record with his own 12-3 season, and Daniel Winkler earned 11 wins and stood second to Augusta's Clayton Blackburn with 136 strikeouts.

At the back end of games, Jefri Hernandez finished a league-best 42 contests while ranking first with 21 saves. His work was complemented by fellow relievers Kenneth Roberts, who went 4-1 with a 1.85 ERA in 50 appearances, and Russell Brewer, who fanned 76 batters over 60 1/3 innings in 47 games out of the bullpen.

Anderson, Riggins and Story were all selected to the Class A Postseason All-Star Team for the 2012 campaign.

"I would absolutely say this was a balanced team," said Alsup. "For instance, sometimes I would go out and give up five or six runs and wouldn't deserve to win the game, but the offense would be productive and score more. The locker room was a lot of fun -- it was a blast. You look forward to going to the field every day. Sometimes it can be grueling, but I had fun every day.

"Mikulik is a firecracker. He's very upbeat and he brings confidence every single day. He's very high tempo in every single thing that he does, and that is important when you look at your main leader."

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For Alsup, the process and development is all about being ready when your time comes. And, though the 24-year-old Louisiana native may still be a couple years away from making an impact in Colorado, he wants to do everything he can to put himself in the big picture and give the team's front office something to think about.

"They don't tell you too much from an organizational standpoint [about promotions], but when they call your name you have to be ready," he said. "The organization has a really good idea of when you're ready, but you still never know when you will get that call to go to the next level.

"But I will always remember winning the championship. It was awesome to dog-pile with all of these guys after being with them every day for so long trying to achieve the same goal. Dog piling on someone else's field was amazing."

That celebration, set off when the Tourists cruised past Greensboro 10-4 in Game 4 of the best-of-5 Finals, was the culmination of more than a decade of work for Mikulik and his team.

Jordan Ribera, who drove in four runs and fell a triple shy of the cycle in that decisive game of the Championship Series, said the title reflected as much upon their skipper as the players who took the field every day.

"Joe Mikulik is the best manager, by far, that we have ever played for," Ribera said after hoisting the trophy. "He comes to the field with heart, emotion, energy, fire. He gets us fired up to play. It's a long season; it's tough. He brings that energy when we don't have it. We were so proud tonight to do it for him. It really was for him, not only ourselves."

Mikulik, a former ninth-round Draft pick who played with the Tourists in his second year of pro ball in 1985, said the experience of playing meaningful postseason baseball will serve the players well down the road.

"It's a vital necessity for player development," Mikulik said. "On average, a player stays in the Minor Leagues for four years. If you can play on one or more championship teams, you're very lucky. Going through the playoff situation lets them know what they need to do to succeed.

"If you look at the San Francisco Giants, some of those guys were on Augusta. The Yankees, the Nationals, they have young players who got playoff experience in the Minors. They learned how to win when they were in a pennant race or a championship series when the season is on the line. When things are tough and you have to make a pitch or have a quality at-bat, that's the best development you can have. That's why guys who get to the Majors are successful, because they go through the postseason and playoff atmosphere and learn how to win."

Bridich, meanwhile, attributed the success to believing in each other and dealing with whatever adversity they faced, especially early in the second half when the team -- at least by 2012 standards -- struggled.

"The way that they did it was special," he said. "They did it largely as a consistent unit. There wasn't a whole lot of movement. It was a group that stayed healthy and stayed together. By May, you could see they had jelled as a unit and that they were playing for each other. It was a true group effort."

Ashley Marshall is a contributor to