CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- After losing seven of their last nine regular-season games, the Corpus Christi Hooks went 6-1 in the playoffs to win their first Texas League championship since joining the league in 2005.
The Hooks were 4-0 at home and swept the defending champion Midland RockHounds in three games, just a week after they were swept in Midland. Corpus Christi then dispatched the hard-hitting Wichita Wranglers in four games.
The Hooks' lone playoff loss came in Wichita, where the Wranglers scored in the bottom of the ninth inning for a 2-1 victory in Game 2.
That's not a bad finish for a team that played .500 baseball in the second half.
"To be frank, yes, I expected to be here," Hooks manager Dave Clark said. "I thought we'd be able to get it going, mainly because a lot of those games (that we lost), we beat ourselves. The other team scored more runs, of course, but we lost some of those games with our own mistakes. I'm not saying we were sitting back and just waiting for the playoffs to start, but we flipped a switch (once we got to the playoffs)."
Outfielder Hunter Pence agreed that the playoffs added a new dimension to Corpus Christi's play.
"I hate to say it, but it's just a different intensity level," he said. "You always try to play the game as hard as you can, but we just got in a little bit of a rut. It's just a whole different feeling and atmosphere in the dugout when it matters again. Me, personally, I'm a big-time emotional player and it sparked me up when the games started counting again."
EIGHT IS ENOUGH: From top to bottom, the Wranglers lineup was loaded with talent. Wichita boasted a league-high eight first-round draft picks, including Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year, Alex Gordon, and Luke Hochevar, the top overall pick this year.
Hochevar took a no-hitter into the sixth inning in his Texas League debut, a series-clinching win against Tulsa in the first round of the playoffs.
"When you have No. 1 picks that come in a pitch like that, it makes you feel good as an organization that everything's going the right way," White said. "When you put that together with Alex and some of the other No. 1 draft choices we have on our ballclub, it makes our system look that much stronger and more promising for the future."
The Wranglers' other first-rounders are Zack Greinke, Billy Butler, Chris Lubanski, Mitch Maier, Tyler Lumsden and Dee Brown. The Wichita Eagle reported that the signing bonuses of those eight first-round picks totaled $16.5 million.
"The Royals are lucky (to have us)," said Greinke, the sixth overall selection in 2002. "It's good (from a pitcher's perspective) because we've been scoring a lot of runs all year. We know as a pitching staff that if you give up three in the first or four in the first, that doesn't necessarily mean the game is over, because our team averages more than that. You know we can always come back.
"Not only the first-rounders, but our whole entire lineup is pretty impressive."
The Hooks had just one former first-rounder play for them this season, and that was Roger Clemens, who was selected by the Boston Red Sox in 1983. "The Rocket" pitched in one game with Corpus Christi to prepare for his return to the Major Leagues.
NEW CHAPTER: For the first time in the 118-year history of the Texas League, two African-American managers faced each other in the Championship Series.
Clark and Wichita's Frank White were the third and fourth African-American managers to reach the Finals and the first pair to do so in the same season.
"It's not important to me at all. I don't look at it that way at all," said Clark, who knows White from their days playing against each other in the American League in the late 1980s. "But if I was going to manage against a guy, I'm glad to see that it's a guy of Frank White's caliber. He's a class act and a guy who played for a long time in the big leagues and a guy who really should get his recognition in the Hall of Fame someday.
"I've known Frank a long time. He just happens to be a black man, like myself. And I really don't even look at it that way. He's just another manager."
Of course, the odds of two African-American managers facing each other in the Finals were pretty good, considering that four teams in the eight-team circuit have black managers; Arkansas' Tyrone Boykin and Tulsa's Stu Cole are the others two.
"I like to see it. It's good for Minor League Baseball and the different organizations to give us opportunities to do this. That's good to see," White said. "But I try not to make that big a deal out of it. I think baseball is baseball. No matter what color you are, if you bring a professional attitude to your ballclub, and you tell guys the right things, carry yourself the right way, then I think you'll do a good job."
Bobby Tolan was the first black manager in the Texas League Finals when he led the Beaumont Golden Gators there in 1984. Bill Robinson made it with the Shreveport Captains in 1992. Neither Tolan nor Robinson won the championship, making Clark the first black manager with a Texas League championship ring.
"Pigmentation shouldn't even be a factor," said Clark, also this year's Texas League Manager of the Year. "(Frank and I were) in this thing for the same reason -- to try to win it."