Volcanoes don't come up short

Run away with another NWL title, Team of the Year award

(Greg Stone)

By Lisa Winston / MLB.com | October 8, 2007 6:00 AM

Despite being the defending Northwest League champions, the 2007 version of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes was not supposed to be competitive this past season.

No one bothered to tell them that.

"We didn't have a lot of high draft picks, we didn't have a single guy on the top 20 prospect list," said Volcanoes manager Steve Decker. "What we had was a bunch of overachievers who came to prove a point."

And what a point they proved.

The San Francisco Giants' affiliate finished the short-season campaign with a 57-19 record, at .750 the best winning percentage in the Minors, en route to its second consecutive Northwest League title. The Volcanoes became the first team in the league in more than a decade to win back-to-back championships.

All things being equal, you'll normally see a full-season squad named MiLB.com's Team of the Year -- a team that played the full gamut of 140-plus games, that dominated from April to September.

But Salem-Keizer's numbers across the board tipped the scales so much in its favor that, short-season designation notwithstanding, the Volcanoes are our Minor League Team of the Year.

The club, which won its division by 19 1/2 games, led the league in batting (.289) by 17 points and in ERA (3.40) by more than half a run. The Volcanoes also led the league in runs, hits, homers and fewest strikeouts and most shutouts recorded.

They were so dominant that no other entry in the eight-team league finished above .500. Of the other seven, four would have finished at .500 or better if you took away their games against Salem-Keizer. That includes Boise, which, though tied for the next-best record in the league, was 0-10 against the Volcanoes.

Decker had taken the 2006 club to the title with a 55-21 record and a roster dotted with names like Tim Lincecum and Emmanuel Burriss, the Giants' two first-round picks that spring.

But he knew coming into 2007 that his roster would not have the same "pedigree."

"It was a Cinderella team that wasn't really supposed to win, just a bunch of guys who weren't supposed to be there," said Decker, who was named co-Manager of the Year in the Northwest League.

So what made the Volcanoes so successful? Decker can point to one key trait that tells much of the story.

"We had the dirtiest uniforms in the league," he said. "I knew the team was special by how hard we worked at 2:30 in the afternoon. That's when you really see the work ethic and the commitment and the consistency to come and work.

"We weren't fast. We didn't have a lot of power. We only had one or two guys who threw over 90 mph."

With no anointed superstars or even top prospects, the door was open from the start of the season for any hard worker to step in and win a job. And several players proved up to the challenge.

Players like Matthew Downs, a 2006 36th-round pick who earned league co-MVP honors by hitting .338 with eight homers, 48 RBIs and 16 steals.

Players like left fielder Garrett Baker, a non-drafted fifth-year senior out of Dallas Baptist who hit .308 with seven homers and 64 RBIs.

Players like Sean Van Elderen, a 27th-rounder in 2006 out of Mesa State who hit just .212 last season but ended up the club's starting right fielder when Mike Loberg blew out his knee on the first day of Spring Training. Van Elderen ended up hitting .290 with five homers and 37 RBIs, batting .362 at home.

Players like closer Daniel Otero, who led the league with 19 saves en route to All-Star honors, and relievers Steve Edlefson and Jesse English. Edlefson was a shortstop out of community college in Nebraska who was taken in the 16th round of the 2007 draft and moved to the mound. English returned from Tommy John surgery to go 5-0 with an 0.69 ERA, striking out 46 batters and walking five in 26 innings before moving up to Class A Advanced San Jose.

"Downs was really a utility player who never knew where we were going to play him on any given day," Decker said of the infielder who not only shifted between starts at first base, second and third but who played more than one position in a game 18 times and totaled only eight errors.

"Baker was the guy no one wanted and he went on to lead the league in RBIs," Decker added. "Van Elderen barely made it through Spring Training without getting cut but the first month of the season he led the league in hitting."

And Otero? The converted starter was scarily efficient. Taken in the 21st round out of South Florida, he collected 19 saves in as many chances, posted a 1.21 ERA in 22 1/3 innings and struck out 15 without walking a batter while limiting opponents to a .152 average.

"Otero was originally a starter, but we didn't know who was going to close for us," Decker recalled. "We watched him and thought he could field his position, he didn't throw hard, he controlled the running game well and he had pinpoint control."

A closer was born, but even the Giants admit they had no idea just how successful he would be in that role.

"We never thought he'd save the amount of games he saved or not walk a batter all year," Decker said. "But he's not afraid of the strike zone and he just kept pounding it in there all year. He's an outstanding young man who's a good competitior."

Otero headlined a bullpen that was, in Decker's mind, the difference in the season.

"What made us so good was our bullpen," said Decker, who's been named Manager of the Year twice in three seasons.

Edlefson was money setting up for Otero, posting a 1.62 ERA in 18 games and limiting foes to a .131 average. English, a 2002 sixth-round pick, had missed all of 2005 following surgery and posted a 6.35 ERA for Decker's Volcanoes in 2006.

"He didn't make a team out of Spring Training and he woke up," Decker said of English, who moved past short-season ball for the first time upon his August promotion to the California League. "His work ethic changed and he became unhittable."

On the field, the Volcanoes' season closely mirrored their 2006 campaign. How much does that mean on the up-the-ladder scale? Well, consider this: Many of the '06 Volcanoes climbed up to Class A Augusta, a team that went 89-51 -- the best full-season record in the Minors.

And, not surprisingly, Decker kept an eye on the players who were gone, just as he'll watch what his '07 kids do next season.

"Baseball is an entertainment business," he said. "If we can control effort and consistency to prepare for the game, winning will be a byproduct of that."

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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