When the Philadelphia Phillies won the National League East Division crown on the final day of the season, much was made of the fact that they had not done so since 1993.
Maybe the Phils were motivated by the Mets' historic freefall and sought to make Jimmy Rollins' preseason prediction of a division title a prophetic one. Or maybe they were inspired by the Clearwater Threshers, their Class A Advanced affiliate.
Like their parent club, the Threshers (then known as the Phillies) experienced great success in 1993. That season, the franchise won its first-ever FSL title. Clearwater had come up empty every year since, however.
The Threshers finished at a league-best 44-26 in the second half and clinched the Western Division title during the last weekend of the season. They mowed down the Sarasota Reds for the division championship before defeating the Brevard County Manatees in four games in the Finals. As a result of its spectacular season, Clearwater was named MiLB.com's Class A Advanced Team of the Year.
"We just had the will to win," said manager Dave Huppert, who spent his first season with the Threshers after leading the Class A Lakewood BlueClaws to the South Atlantic League title in 2006. "It was develop during the day, win at night. Never give up, that was always the attitude around the clubhouse."
The Threshers truly showed what they were made of during the stretch drive, winning eight of their last 10 games to finish on top in a division in which five clubs were separated by a grand total of six games. According to Huppert, the biggest moment occurred in the second game of a doubleheader against the Lakeland Flying Tigers on Sept. 1.
"We were scheduled to play back-to-back doubleheaders against Lakeland, and we lost the first game. In the second game, [Brian] Burgamy and [Brad] Harman hit back-to-back homers in the bottom of the seventh to win the game," he recalled. "If we lost that, we wouldn't have made it to the playoffs."
Harman's walk-off blast was simply the continuation of a magnificent season for the 21-year-old Australian. He hit .281 with 13 homers and 62 RBIs, most of which came in the season's second half.
"He hit just .240 for us last year but really carried us down the stretch this season, him and Burgamy," Huppert said. "Earlier in the year, he had been cutting his swing short and didn't stay in the hitting zone. We put him on a curveball machine that was pounding the outer part of the zone. He worked hard at it, came back around for us and established himself as a big-time prospect."
Staff ace Andrew Carpenter also shined brightly, posting 17 wins -- five more than anyone else in the league.
"If you saw Carpenter for just one game, you probably wouldn't be too impressed," said Huppert. "But he's got great command, mixes up his speed well and has a real bulldog mentality."
The 22-year-old right-hander's emergence came at a crucial time for Clearwater, which needed someone to fill the void created when Josh Outman (10-4 with a league-leading 2.45 ERA in 20 appearances) was promoted to Double-A Reading at the end of July. The Threshers also benefited briefly from the presence of top prospect Carlos Carrasco, who went 6-2 with a 2.84 ERA in 12 starts before earning a call-up to Reading.
Complementing Carpenter during the season's waning days was Antonio Bastardo, who made his debut on Sept. 1 after going 9-0 with a 1.87 ERA in 15 starts for Lakewood. The native of the Dominican Republic faced Lakeland in the second game of a doubleheader and struck out a career-high 12 batters as the Threshers clinched the division title with a 6-5 victory.
On the offensive side, the Threshers' were stocked with emerging prospects.
Former first-round pick Greg Golson finally started to display the five-tool prowess that earned him a $1.475 million signing bonus when in 2004. He moved on to Reading in late July but still managed to lead Clearwater in doubles (27) and stolen bases (25) while finishing second in runs scored (66) and hits (119).
"He's a big-time talent and is going to be an impact player," said Huppert. "When he left to go to Reading, he was leading our club in almost every offensive category. He put in a lot of time for us the past two years and it's a real shame he wasn't around for the playoffs."
And no mention of the 2007 Threshers would be complete without a nod to catcher Lou Marson, who joined Carpenter on the FSL postseason All-Star team.
"He's highly developed for a 20-year-old kid," said Huppert. "He's really durable, has an unbelievable pain tolerance and does a great job handling the pitching staff. He hit .243 last year and got it up to .288 this season, and he's just going to keep getting better."
Once the Threshers completed their unlikely drive to the second-half pennant, the momentum carried them through to the playoffs. After losing the first game of the best-of-3 division series to Sarasota, a fortuitous rainout allowed Huppert to start Bastardo and Carpenter on back-to-back days in Games 2 and 3.
The Threshers squeezed out a one-run victory in both contests and advanced to the Finals against the Manatees. Harman emerged as the series' star, ripping a go-ahead double in the 11th inning in Game 2 and falling a triple short of the cycle in Clearwater's 5-2 win in the clincher.
For Huppert, the championship was a gratifying end to the season.
"I walked into a great situation here with the Phillies," said the skipper, whose status for 2008 has yet to be determined. "Last season [in Lakewood], we had great arms and just enough offense. This year, the offense came around as well. We've got a great group of guys here and I hope that I can continue to work with them as they develop through the system."