An ideal Minor League franchise would be situated in a small, friendly town with a group of familiar coaches and players who offer a consistent brand of winning. Welcome to Elizabethton, Tenn., home of MiLB.com's Best Short-Season Team.
Minnesota's Rookie League affiliate, the Elizabethton Twins, were a model franchise in 2005. They dominated the Appalachian League, winning the West Division by a whopping 17 1/2 games en route to their second championship in three years. Their 48-19 record translated to a Minor League-best .716 winning percentage and included a 14-game winning streak from July 5-20.
It helped having coaches who've been together for years. Ray Smith, the league's Manager of the Year, has served on the Elizabethton staff for 19 years, including 12 at the helm of the franchise. Pitching coach Jim Shellenback has spent 29 years in the Twins system, including 10 in his current role.
Shellenback schooled a dominant pitching staff that led the league in ERA, shutouts and fewest walks allowed while finishing second in strikeouts. Yohan Pino was the staff ace with a 9-2 record and a 3.72 ERA. Left-hander Alexander Smit solidified the relief corps by going 6-1 with a 1.97 ERA and 86 strikeouts in just 45 2/3 innings before a promotion to Beloit of the Midwest League. Timothy Lahey led the team with 15 saves.
"I don't think our pitching gets enough credit," catcher Sean Richardson said. "We had the best pitching staff in the league this year."
Offensively, the Twins' .280 batting average was second behind the Danville Braves. Erik Lis hit .315 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs, while Juan Portes clubbed 12 homers and drove in 39 runs.
Even with all those gaudy numbers, Elizabethton's season came down to a decisive Game 3 in the Championship Series against Danville. Coming off a 15-2 drubbing in Game 2, the Twins bounced back to take their seventh title. Richardson's eighth-inning RBI single sealed a 5-4 win and clinched a near-perfect season in eastern Tennessee.
"We're a very loose bunch," said Richardson, who was making his first start of the series. "Big losses like (Game 2) just happen in baseball, and I think we showed great class by coming in here and playing them tough."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.