The Charleston RiverDogs continued to pave forward into a new era of success in 2017, making their second consecutive postseason appearance and taking advantage of a talented farm system in their 12th season as a Yankees affiliate. Under first-year skipper Patrick Osborn, the RiverDogs notched their second straight 77-win campaign between the regular season and postseason, broke the 300,000 mark for attendance in a year that ended in a first-round playoff exit to the Greenville Drive in the South Atlantic League Division Series.
Although the RiverDogs were bounced in the semifinal round of the postseason for the second straight year, they once again rebounded from an early setback, surging to a Game Two victory to keep their season alive. It marked just the second ever playoff win under the RiverDogs namesake, and just the second postseason win for the franchise since the Rainbows appeared in the League Finals in 1988.
Despite falling short of a Championship Series appearance, the RiverDogs consistently looked like the best team in the South Atlantic League, especially in the second-half when they led the circuit with a 42-27 mark and held at least a share for first-place in the division every day following the All-Star break. Charleston outscored their opponents 610-483 (+127) overall, the best run differential in franchise history with a dominant pitching staff that led the SAL in ERA (3.07) and an offense that ranked second in team batting average (.261) and fourth in runs scored (410).
The RiverDogs got out to a hot start to the season with a 7-3 mark in their first ten games that included two walk-off wins that saw them in a share for the division lead, but finished with a pedestrian 34-36 record, never looking down from the top of the standings again until the second-half. The core of the RiverDogs team stuck around until the deadline depleted many of Charleston's key contributors in early August..
In another dominant season for Charleston pitching, the RiverDogs staff set the franchise-record for strikeouts for the second straight year under pitching coach Justin Pope; the Charleston staff fanned 1,252 batters, surpassing the previous record of 1,248 set in 2016. Along with ranking second in the league in strikeouts, Charleston arms posted a SAL-best 3.07 ERA, the second-lowest in RiverDogs history and the third all-time in franchise history, bested only by the 2016 RiverDogs and 1988 Rainbows. The club's 1.174 WHIP was the best in club history, also surpassing the 2016 staff.
The RiverDogs' dominant bullpen was the most consistent part of the team all season long, logging a 1.98 ERA and accruing nearly half the team's strikeouts (581) in 509 1/3 innings.
The New York Yankees' deep system was once again evident, and the RiverDogs took advantage with a slew of talent passing through the Lowcountry.
Charleston's biggest blue-chip prospect was undoubtedly outfielder Estevan Florial who flashed five-tool talent in his four-month stint in in the Lowcountry. The 19-year-old Dominican was named the League's Most Outstanding Prospect, showcasing an exciting combination of speed, power, and defense. Florial batted .297 with 11 home runs, 43 RBI while swiping 17 bases in 91 games before his promotion to Tampa on August 1. The Haitian-born outfielder signed by the Yankees out of the Dominican Republic in 2015 burst onto the prospect map when he appeared in the All-Star Futures Game at Marlins Park on July 9, competing against some of the biggest rising stars in baseball as one of just seven Class-A players featured at the showcase during All-Star weekend. He finished the year as the Yankees' No. 4 prospect as rated by the MLB Pipeline, and No. 84 in all of baseball.
Charleston's staff was led by dominant starter Freicer Perez who led the team in strikeouts (117) and wins (10) while accruing a 2.84 ERA that ranked sixth in the league and an opposing batting average of just .213 that ranked fourth among all qualifying arms. The 6'8" Dominican righty finished the year as the Yankees No. 11 prospect. Perez shined under the bright lights of the postseason, turning in a gem in Game One at The Joe on September 6 when matched a career-high with nine strikeouts across six innings in an eventual 1-4 loss to the Drive.
Isiah Gilliam and Brandon Wagner each made their presence known in the Yankees system with breakout years in a potent Charleston lineup, spending the entirety of the season in the Lowcountry. Gilliam was named the "Top Dog" of the 2017 season by the RiverDogs fanbase and three times garnered SAL Player of the Week honors, the only player in the league to haul in multiple weekly accolades. After hitting just .183 over the first month of the season, the Atlanta, Ga. native went on to lead the club with 15 homers and 85 RBI while batting .275 and slugging an impressive .468 on the season. He ranked in the top-five in the league in runs scored (80, 2nd), doubles (33, 3rd), slugging (4th), extra-base hits (52, 4th), and total bases (258, 5th) by season's end. Wagner enjoyed an impressive second-half and turned into one of the RiverDogs' star players, finishing the year hitting .277 with a .380 on-base percentage that was second in the league among qualifying batters while smacking seven homers and driving in 51 runs.
RiverDogs Bats Sizzle
While Florial was Charleston's lone postseason All-Star selection, the RiverDogs had seven representatives at the league's mid-summer classic in Columbia including four position players who would all depart the club via either call-ups or a trade by the end of the year. Infielders Angel Aguilar and Hoy Jun Park along with catcher Donny Sands and outfielder Blake Rutherford all made the trip to Columbia for the league's 58th annual All-Star Game at Spirit Communications Park.
Aguilar enjoyed his best season as a RiverDog at the plate while continuing to flash excellent defense at the hot corner; the Barinas, Venezuela native hit .265 while ripping three home runs in 66 games between two stints interrupted by a call up to Tampa in late-June. The fan-favorite Park opened the season for the second year in the Holy City, and responded with a solid second year, hitting .262 and reaching base at .358 clip while leading the Dogs with 18 stolen bases and launching a career-high six homers before being called up to Tampa on August 1. Another All-Star for the RiverDogs promoted in August, Sands was one of the most improved players in the second-half, taking off in his position change to catcher while hitting .269 with two homers and 45 RBI. The Yankee's first-round pick in 2016 (18th overall), Rutherford produced a solid season with Charleston (.281-2-30) before being traded to the White Sox at the deadline and finishing the year with the Kannapolis Intimidators.
The RiverDogs saw little drop off in their lineup after losing their All-Stars in early August, as call-ups of sluggers Dermis Garcia and Steven Sensley added incredible power the RiverDogs hadn't had in their lineup for the first four months of the season. After each led the Appalachian League with nine homers to start the season in Pulaski, the dynamic duo combined to launch 12 after joining the club at the beginning of August, including Garcia's 8 in August that was tied for the league lead during the month.
Pitching with Success
Charleston's dominant bullpen was led by several key contributors throughout the year with four of the RiverDogs' top relief arms ending the season in either High-A or Double-A. Flame-throwing righty Anyelo Gomez returned to Charleston in force for his second year, quickly getting a call up and ending the season in Double-A after striking out 23 in 14.0 innings with a 1.93 ERA to start the year in the Lowcountry and committing full-time to the bullpen for the first time in his career. Lefty Trevor Lane put himself on the prospect radar by flashing mid-90s velocity with his fastball to go along with a tough curveball; the Washington state native gave up just four earned runs and struck out 49 in 45+ innings, good for a 0.79 ERA. Former Georgia hurler David Sosebee would end the season with Trenton after striking out 76 in 65 1/3 with a 2.20 ERA and 13 saves with Charleston. Matt Frawley and Hobie Harris would each take their talents to Tampa in a strong year for relief pitching.
Lefty Phillip Diehl was a bullpen mainstay, leading all relievers in innings (85.1), strikeouts (101), and wins (9) in a swing man role.
Right-hander Nick Green got the nod as Charleston's Opening Night starter and made 26 starts during the course of the regular season before retiring the first 13 men in a row in Game Three of the postseason in an eventual loss to Greenville.
Brian Keller was a Mid-Season All-Star pick after going 6-5 wit ha 3.29 ERA in the rotation before being promoted in July.
Young Dominican arms Rony Garcia (2-3, 2.24) and Alexander Vargas (2-3, 3.17) were more than capable replacements in the rotation, finishing the year in Charleston after both getting a chance at full season rosters at the age of 19.
Top Moments of the 2017 Season:
- After an Opening Night defeat, the RiverDogs rattle off four straight wins highlighted by come-from behind walk-offs on April 7 vs Lexington and April 10 vs Augusta:
- Albert Abreu strikes out 11 Augusta batters, a season-high for a Charleston hurler, and Adonis Rosa K's seven more in a dominating three-hit shutout of the GreenJackets on April 12 at The Joe:
- As part of their first road trip, Charleston comes back from an 8-3 deficit after three innings to blowout the Rome Braves 14-8 at State Mutual Stadium on April 13
- Yankees first-rounder Blake Rutherford makes a Sportscenter "Top Ten" Play with a stumbling catch into Shoeless Joe's Hill on April 21 vs Asheville at The Joe:
- Isiah Gilliam breaks out of his first month struggles with a 12-game hitting streak from May 8-14, en route to being named the league's Player of the Week for May 8-14
- The RiverDogs hang an 18-spot, the most runs scored by Charleston at The Joe since at least the turn of the century in a 18-4 shellacking of Augusta at Riley Park on May 20. Charleston pounds out 20 hits in the win and no Charleston batter records a strikeout despite coming to bat 46 times in the game.
- The RiverDogs walk it off in the bottom of the 13th to take it 2-1 over Greenville on an Eduardo Navas RBI single:
- Former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow travels to Charleston for the first time and the RiverDogs play in front of two crowds of 7,200+ on three straight sellouts against Columbia from June 16-18
- The RiverDogs knock off the Northern Division-leading Hagerstown Suns for their first series sweep from July 12-14 on the road at Municipal Stadium
- In what would be the fan-favorites final game as a RiverDogs, Korean shortstop Hoy Jun Park rips a go-ahead homer in the sixth inning and scores the winning run in a walk-off victory over Columbia on July 31 at The Joe:
- After no RiverDogs hitter recorded a multi-homer through the first 116 games of the season, Steven Sensley and then Dermis Garcia accomplish the feat once each in a span of three days on August 11 and 13 at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington
- Trailing 2-1 to Greenville in the bottom of the eighth at The Joe, newcomer Steven Sensley launches a go-ahead grand slam to lift the Dogs to a 5-2 win:
- Charleston eclipses the 300,000 mark in attendance for the first-time in franchise history in their penultimate home game of the year on August 30 vs Hickory
- Dermis Garcia launches a go-ahead three-run homer that sparks a seven-run eighth as the RiverDogs come from behind to clinch the Southern division second-half title on their final home game of the season on August 31 at Hickory:
- Charleston pitching eclipses their franchise record for strikeouts for the second straight year in a 2-8 defeat to Augusta on September 4 in the final game ever at Lake Olmstead Stadium to end the regular season:
- Diego Castillo breaks a scoreless tie with a one-out RBI single into right field as the RiverDogs hang on in a nail-biting 2-1 win at Fluor Field to keep their season alive and force a decisive game three against the Drive in the SAL semifinals:
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.