Prior to the start of the 2006 season, Salem-Keizer manager Steve Decker was hardly bursting with confidence about the Volcanoes' chances.
Decker knew his club worked hard, played excellent defense and had enough power hitting to keep it competitive. That was especially true after the Class A Short-Season team's parent club, the San Francisco Giants, selected a collection of position players in the 2006 First-Year Entry Draft.
"I wasn't sure that we'd have the pitching," said Decker, a 41-year-old former Major League catcher. "We didn't have a lot of guys with great stuff."
But what appeared to be the Volcanoes' weakness became their greatest strength and eventually led to MiLB.com's Class A Short-Season Team of the Year Award.
Led by ace Adam Cowart, Salem-Keizer's pitching staff allowed just 224 runs in 76 games, good for a 2.95 ERA, the best mark in Northwest League since 1990. Buoyed by their surprisingly superb pitching, the Volcanoes cruised to a 55-21 record, the top winning percentage in all of professional baseball and the most successful campaign in the Northwest League's 52-year history.
"It was just an incredible year," said owner and general manager Jerry Walker. "It got to the point where our fans expected us to win every game."
The Volcanoes won their first seven games and coasted to a 30-17 mark through Aug. 7. They proceeded to win 10 straight games, dropped one, then reeled off a franchise-record 12 consecutive victories to effectively put the division out of reach. They never spent one day out of first place and later defeated the Boise Hawks, three games to one, for their third championship in nine years.
Players instrumental in Salem-Keizer's historic season included All-Stars Cowart (10-1, 1.08 ERA), closer Juan Trinidad (16 saves, 1.52 ERA) and especially shortstop Emmanuel Burriss (.307 batting average, 35 steals).
"Burriss was our main guy," said Decker. "He got on base and caused havoc."
Starter Kevin Pucetas (7-1, 2.17 ERA) and catcher Adam Witter (16 HRs, 52 RBIs) also played vital roles.
It was co-Manager of the Year Decker who set the tone for his "blue collar" team.
"You have to have some kind of swagger when you come to the ballpark. You have to expect to win," Decker said. "Priority No. 1 was developing (the plnayers') confidence, which leads to winning."
Once the team started to believe in itself, he said, motivational techniques became unnecessary.
"It was a very business-like team," Decker added. "I'd be in the (batting) cage early every day and almost all of the guys would be there for a non-mandatory session."
Decker also credits the San Francisco organization for Salem-Keizer's success.
"One thing the Giants do is they leave the team alone. They don't dismantle it. They do a very good job of getting quality kids and then let them play," he said.
As Walker said, it was a dream season.
"I don't know if I'll ever see anything like it, at least in my lifetime."